Country Matters Mar 22: Weeds – Edible to Dangerous

A lonely swan.

February has been wet and dismal.  Not only has the bird flu been a major problem for poultry farmers, particularly in the Eastern counties, but the pen of the pair of Swans in the Abbey Grounds has left the cob on his own, which means we won’t see cygnets this year. There are theories that she flew to a more suitable location, having been attacked by uncontrolled dogs, and there is also the suggestion that nesting and laying near the lake would be unsafe due to the arrival of otters in the grounds. 

March seems unlikely to come in like a lion.  Unless it’s a sea-lion.  The first week or so looks as if it will be extremely wet, and unsuitable for clearing weeds ready for planting. Unless we plant rice paddies.


Weeds, it’s said, are just plants in the wrong place. We are now beginning to re-evaluate weeds, as we adopt ‘re-wilding’ to re-establish the right balance in the ecosystem, promoting wildlife and insects. Weeds arrived in the ‘wrong’ place by spreading with the assistance of animals, birds and the wind.  And because we like to plant exotic things, human beings are guilty of introducing invasive weeds.  Japanese knotweed, for example, is just one of many introduced plants which can prove very destructive and difficult to eliminate.  The methods we’ve used to kill weeds have often been dangerous for both animals and humans. Since the 1960s Paraquat has been a widely used herbicide, and although it’s highly poisonous it’s still used under controlled circumstances in many countries.  More recently Glyphosates have become popular – particularly for gardeners and smallholders – but although they are supposed to become harmless after exposure to the earth and the atmosphere, glyphosates are believed to cause cancer.

Fat Hen

Of course, some weeds are themselves dangerous. The Weeds Act of 1959 made it a legal duty for landowners to remove Ragwort from land where it may be eaten by animals. Ragwort can cause the death of cattle, sheep and horses. If handled excessively by humans, it can cause skin irritation.  Ragwort is a native plant, but in the nineteenth century, Giant Hogweed was imported to Britain as an ornamental plant. Because it can cause extreme skin irritation it was outlawed in the UK by the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981, and it’s an offence to plant it or cause it to grow in the wild. 

When I was a child, I was shown some wild plants which could be eaten and warned about many others which were poisonous.  Nonetheless there is a growing interest in foraging for food amongst wild plants, and weeds such as Fat Hen (Chenopodium Album) can prove extremely nutritious and a fine example of ‘food for free’.  Fat Hen tastes a bit like chard and has been eaten in the Cotswolds since prehistory.  The Romans cultivated it, and a close relative of Fat Hen yields the fashionable seeds named Quinoa!  I would recommend that readers learn about foraging before trying it; mistaking the similar Black Nightshade plant for Fat Hen would cause poisoning.

In 1969 Audrey Wynne Hatfield’s book “How to Enjoy Your Weeds” was published.  In 1972, Richard Mabey’s “Food For Free” popularised foraging amongst the ‘hippies’, and now we have a new wave of ‘survivalists’  encouraged by people like Ray Mears (Wild Food, 2008) and Bear Grylls.  Whether you decide to explore your weeds just to discover some tasty additions to your diet or are wondering if they might be a way to cope with the much trumpeted rise in the cost of living, just make sure you eat the right ones! 

Next month begins with foolishness and pranks…

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