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Cultural Landscape: The Truth About "Weeds"

When most people in the U.S. think of weeds, they most likely think of dandelions and thistles, or that unfamiliar thing growing in your garden. Weeds are the plants seen to have no use, or growing where they are undesired. In many places around the world, however, the idea of a weed does not exist. In Maya languages, for example, there is no word which translates as “weed,” because the uses of all plants have historically been known.  Similarly, around California, if we look beyond the idea of “weeds,” we can see that many plants growing around us have value.


One person’s weed is another’s salad. Read on to learn about some of the “weeds” around Isla Vista.


WARNING:  Because weeds are considered undesired, they may be sprayed with toxic chemicals.  Make sure you forage in non-sprayed areas and always wash what you pick!  


Latin Name: Caryophyllaceae Stellaria media

Season: All year

Parts to Eat: All

How to Eat: Raw or cooked

Nutrition: Vitamins A, D, B, C, rutin, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, sodium, copper, iron, silica

Other Uses: Medicines

WARNING: Chickweed has a toxic Euphorbia lookalike which exudes a milky toxic latex.

Learn More:


Common Sowthistle

Latin Name: Asteraceae Sonchus oleraceus

Season: Winter-Summer

Parts to Eat: All

How to Eat: Raw; cook or boil to ease digestion

Nutrition: Vitamins A, B, C, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, zinc, antioxidants

Other Names: Hare’s colwort, hare’s thistle, milk thistle

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Curly Dock

Latin Name: Rumex Crispus

Season: Curly dock can flower twice a year

Parts to Eat: Leaves and seeds

How to Eat: Raw, sauté, or boil

Nutrition: Leaves are high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and zinc. Seeds are rich in calcium and fiber.

Cool Fact: Curly Dock is one of the most widely distributed seed in the world and can remain dormant in the soil for 80 years. Curly Dock was also an important food source during the Great Depression.

Learn More:

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Latin Name: Asteraceae Taraxacum officinale

Season: Spring-Autumn

Parts to Eat: All (root, stem, leaves, flower)

How to Eat: Raw, boiled, as tea, and in many other forms

Nutrition: Vitamins A, C, K, E, B, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium. The roots also promote healthy intestinal bacteria and are a good source of antioxidants.

Other Uses: Medicines

Other names: Blowball, Cankerwort, Priest’s Crown, Lion’s Tooth, Shepherd’s Clock, Fairy Clock

Cool Fact: Dandelion flowers open an hour after sunrise and closes at dusk, leading to the name “Shepherd’s Clock” or “Fairy Clock.”

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Latin Name: Apiaceae Foeniculum vulgare

Season: All year

Parts to Eat: All

How to Eat: Raw or cooked

Nutrition: fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin C and B

Cool Fact: In medieval Europe, fennel seeds would be inserted into keyholes on Midsummer’s Eve to protect the home from ghosts. The fennel was hung over doorways to ward off malicious spirits. A thirteenth century physician noted, “he who sees fennel and gathers it not, is not a man but a devil.”

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Latin Name: Malvaceae Malva neglecta

Season: All year

Parts to Eat: Leaves, Stalk, Seeds

How to Eat: Raw, Boiled

Nutrition: Leaves- Vitamins A, B, C, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium; Seeds- 21% protein, 15% fat

Other Names: Cheeseweed

Learn More:

Duke JA. CRC Handbook of Proximate Analysis Tables of Higher Plants. Boca Raton, Fl. CRC Press, 1986. 389 p.



Latin Name: Asteraceae Artemisia douglasiana

Season: Spring-Autumn

Parts to Eat: Leaves

How to Eat: Cooked or as a tea

Other Uses: Medicine, spiritual

Other Names: Dream Plant

Cool Fact: The Romans planted mugwort by roadsides for travelers to use for aching feet and it also flavored beer before hops were used.  Many people place mugwort under their pillows to enhance dreams.  It often grows near poison oak and can be applied crushed to the skin to prevent a rash. 

Learn More:

UC Irvine: Local natural history & ethnobotany ofArtemisia douglasiana (California Mugwort)


New Zealand Spinach

Latin Name: Aizoaceae Tetragonia tetragonioides

Season: All year

Parts to Eat: Leaves

How to Eat: Raw, Cooked, Boiled

Nutrition: High in antioxidants and fiber

Other Names: Warrigal Green

Cool Fact: James Cook took this plant on voyages to prevent scurvy

Learn More:

New Zealand Spinach.jpg

Stinging Nettle

Latin Name: Urticaceae urtica dioica

Season: Spring

Parts to Eat: Leaves, Roots

How to Eat: Soak in hot water, cook briefly. Can boil for tea, add to soup, quiche, or pasta.

Nutrition: High in Vitamin K, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, Manganese. In peak season, nettle can contain up to 25% protein

Other Uses: Medicines, Textiles

Cool Fact: Nettle is one of nine plants listed in the 10th Century pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm.  Burial Shrouds made of nettle have been found in Denmark dating back at least

5000 years where the stem fibers would be spun like flax.  Nettle also produces a green dye which was historically used for war camouflage in Europe.

WARNING: Stinging nettles sting. Do not attempt to eat without cooking first.

Learn More:

Gregory L. Tilford, Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West Hughes, R. Elwyn; Ellery, Peter; Harry, Tim; Jenkins, Vivian; Jones, Eleri (1980). "The dietary potential of the common nettle". Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 31 (12): 1279–86. doi:10.1002/jsfa.2740311210

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Latin Name: Oxalidaceae Oxalis pes-caprae

Season: Winter-Spring (in Santa Barbara)

Parts to Eat: All

How to Eat: Raw, Cooked, or Boiled

Nutrition: Oxalic Acid, Vitamin C

Other Uses: Medicine

Other Names: Bermuda buttercup, goat’s foot

Cool Fact: The roots of Sour Grass have been used to treat tapeworms.

WARNING: Oxalic Acid can upset your stomach in large quantities.

Learn More:

Duke, James (2000) The Handbook of Edible Weeds. CRC Press


Wild Mustard

Latin Name: Brassicaceae Sinapis arvensis

Season: Spring-Summer

Parts to Eat: Leaves and flowers

How to Eat: Raw or Cooked

Nutrition: Vitamins K, A, C, B, E, copper, manganes, calcium, fiber, iron

Other Uses: medicine

Other names: charlock, field mustard

Cool Fact: Legend has it that Spanish priests spread mustard seeds along the California coast as they travelled north building missions, so that they could follow the golden path home to Spain upon their return.

Learn More:

wild mustard.jpg

Wild Radish 

Latin Name: Raphanus raphanistrum var. sativus

Season: Annual or Perennial

Parts to Eat: flowers, leaves, roots

How to Eat: Raw. Boil to avoid upset stomach

Nutrition: Vitamins B, C, rutin, and minerals

Cool Fact: Radishes were domesticated in China, entered Europe in the 1500s, and reached the Americas by 1629.

Learn More:

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