Mercury Food and Wine articles No.4

My December 2010 article.

Another side to weeds

As I sit at my computer this evening the  mist lies thick over the farm. It has virtually been a whole week without any sun. The soil is now the consistency of wet clay. The work today has all been about weeding, very wet and muddy weeding. The high humidity, still air, and low light levels have slowed the crop growth down, but the weeds, especially Quickweed, Pigweed and Purslane are in their element. As I was pulling them out, desperately trying to save the struggling lettuce, I wished I could rather be cultivating and marketing these vigorous plants.

What most of us don’t know is that these weeds are probably more nutritious than our conventional vegetables.

Quickweed (Galinsoga parviflora) is a herb belonging to the daisy family. It has tiny white and yellow daisy like flowers. It is originally from South America and is known in Columbia as Guasca. It is used there as a spice herb and is a key ingredient in Ajiaco, a thick chicken and potato soup. The leaves can also be used in salads and as cooked greens. It has a high mineral content and is extremely high in vitamin A.

Pigweed is of the Amaranthus familiy and is the main ingredient in the traditional african spinach, imifino or marog. It is also used in Indian and Greek cuisine. The leaf has a high vitamin and mineral content. Vitamins include vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin B6, vitamin C, riboflavin, and folate. Minerals include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese. It is also high in amino acids. However like spinach, it contains oxalic acid.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an annual succulent with small fleshy leaves and small yellow flowers. It tends to be more drought resistant than the previous plants but still does well in the current conditions. This is an amazing plant when it comes to human health and nutrition.
The stems, leaves and flowers are all edible. It can be used in salad, stir fries, soup, stews and cooked as spinach. It has a salty slightly sour taste.
It has been used in the cuisines of Europe, Asia and Mexico and was a part of traditional Cape cuisine.
The nutritional content of this plant is stunning. Like the other two plants it is well endowed with vitamins and minerals especially vitamin C. However it also has the highest levels of Omega 3 fatty acids of any leafy terrestrial plant. It also has two types of betalan pigments which are highly potent anti-oxidants.

Interestingly these plants can be used as beneficial companion plants. They can actually improve soil and harbour beneficial insects. Weeds can also be used as indicators of soil health. For instance Amaranthus grows best on fertile, high nitrogen soils with poor structure. Purslane can indicate soil that is too compacted.

In the world of food and farming it is useful to step outside of the paradigm of familiarity  and culture and see things in a new light. Yes, I have to fight back these so called weeds to put lettuce on the shelves, but it seems we are missing something very valuable here.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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