A primer on wild plants we call weeds | Feral Citizen | Chicago Reader

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A primer on wild plants we call weeds

As our world greens up this spring, an examination of what lies beneath.

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Stinging Nettle - SVKLIMKIN
  • SVKLIMKIN
  • Stinging Nettle

Energy has seemed to be in stasis, the last throes of winter killing or wiping clean what no longer needs to exist. For us Northern Hemispherians, the change began in early February, the midway point between solstice and equinox, a time long recognized as the start of the agricultural calendar supported by old Western traditions and the Lunar New Year.

In February, sap began moving upward from trees' roots into their branches, slowing swelling and soon bursting the leaf buds set last fall, making it possible for us to carefully collect the sugar of beeches, maples, and sycamores and boil it down into syrup on our stovetops. It's also the natural start of the birthing of lambs and kids releasing the flow of ewe and nanny milk. The vernal equinox officially makes its appearance on March 20, next week. Time to celebrate the thaw and the flows that are coming with it.

Detritivores—the myriad species hidden in the leaf litter—become active and wake up the food chain—first the bacteria, followed by springtails, worms, millipedes, and countless crawling and swimming others along with the molds, yeast, and other members of the fungal queendom. The soil's frost line breaks, soil testing begins, perennial plants burst from their crowns, seeds of everything imaginable germinate. Our world greens up.

And in spite of our best gardening efforts, most of the plant diversity in the city is found in areas less humanly attended—the railways and industrial corridors, the shorelines of our river and industrial canals, the margins of our parks and backyards, and our urban vacant lots.

Filled with life and human stories of human use, "vacant" lots—called such due to what's not there—have a lot there. Buildings, along with their social dynamics and histories, have stood on these grounds—iterations of construction forgotten can be rediscovered with a quick investigation of property records and a chat with a neighborhood elder; taking a look around at the wild plants on the site should get you started on a particular lot's story.

Among our wild plants, we have plants that we term "weeds," which isn't so much an official designation as it is a reflection of our attitudes towards plants we don't appreciate in our gardens and landscapes. And still, weeds are the frontier workers, the border crossers, the explorers, the colonizers after the plague. They cultivate soil, provide habitat and a food source for pollinators and other insects, small mammals, amphibians, lizards, and birds. They make what would be a truly vacant city lot after a teardown a living habitat moving toward healing and ecological complexity. Weeds are the healers that connect with the disturbed, compacted, depleted, and contaminated soils, settle in and make use of what little they can find with their agile plant skills and get to work making it and the air we breathe better.

Weeds produce seed prodigiously and house several methods of distribution over a wide area. Perennial dandelion goes from flower to seed in ten days, launching 150 to 200 seeds from each of the average ten flowers per plant each season. Annual horseweed sends approximately 200,000 seeds into the wind during its single season. These plants' seeds are carried by wind, fur, paw, feather, foot, clothing, water-ship ballast, or digestive tract. Many annual weeds, once ripe, self-propel their seeds impressive distances. Seeds packaged in a fleshy covering or "fruit" are distributed from the backside of animals and birds to the soil surface complete with a coating of fertilizer or nutrient to ensure a good beginning/launch/debut as a seedling.

I want to give you a handful of some of the most common and earliest weeds (and a fungi) to emerge in our landscape:

Chickweed (Stellaria media): A watery, tender, somewhat oily plant (omega-3!) that is a nice raw nibble and often alive and well all winter under snow drifts.


Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): A ubiquitous, cheery heavy lifter of iron, magnesium, calcium, and potassium. Eaten raw or cooked, drank as a tea or wine, supports the waterworks and the waste treatment organs of the body—kidney and liver.


Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata): Found in shady areas, and able to pass through four life cycles in one season, making it a top-hated weed. Adds a peppery taste to eggs and potatoes.


Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta): Use as a peppery bitter salad or salad green.


Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): A marker of nutrient-rich soils as well as a protein and iron powerhouse. Serve up in soups or pasta, lightly sautee or drink as a tea.

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor): Shelf polypore mushrooms that are mild tasting, but are usually prepared as and taken in tincture form to bolster animal immunity.


Wild Onion (Allium spp.): Also often alive through the winter if protected under a layer of duff or snow—cut tops and use as a sharp chive.


Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus): Tangy, just-emerging leaves that can be enjoyed raw or lend interest to curry. Soon thereafter they are too bitter for eating but make a powerful liver medicine.

Note: You can identify and study these plants without eating them—then carefully sample them elsewhere where rest assured the soil they are growing in is not contaminated.

What stood there, what stands there, what happened there, what is happening there, what grows and thrives in these areas that are recovering, outside of proscribed use, are all available to our imaginations, eyes, and hands. On this vernal equinox, this Full Sap Moon, visit one of the 32,000 outdoor classrooms in the city, your most local "vacant" lot, and commune with what emerges and thrives there. v

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