SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not as yet been discovered.”
This quote, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, hangs on the bathroom wall of Turtle Lake Refuge’s location on Third Avenue.
Ask any of the chefs chopping away in the locale’s airy kitchen what a weed is, and they are likely to say “lunch.”
So-called weeds are as prevalent on the menu at the twice-a-week eatery as their domesticated cousins. And diners happily munch away on plants some of their neighbors are toiling on hands and knees to eradicate.
Katrina Blair, the refuge’s founder, has made it her life’s mission to educate residents of Durango and beyond about the healthful qualities of weeds. She’s even writing a new book about them, tentatively titled Our Global Wealth of Wild Weeds, scheduled for publication by Chelsea Green in 2014. The book focuses on 13 weeds in particular.
“These 13 plants grow everywhere that people live, and we could survive on them if we had to,” she said in a recent interview on the refuge’s patio.
What’s so great about weeds? In a word, “phytonutrients.”
A book published this summer, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, by Jo Robinson, looks at the growing body of knowledge around these nutritional rock stars.
“Phytonutrients have become one of the hottest new areas of research,” Robinson writes, “More than 30,000 scientific papers have been published on the topic since the year 2000.”
What can phytonutrients do for you? Oh, just protect against “free radicals that can inflame our artery linings, turn normal cells cancerous, damage our eyesight, increase our risk of becoming obese and diabetic, and intensify the visible signs of aging,” the book says.
But for 10,000 years, human beings have been turning out food with progressively fewer and fewer phytonutrients.
The culprit is our appetites. Domestic plants were bred for productivity and tastiness, not nutritional content. Iceberg lettuce doesn’t have the bitterness of dandelion greens, but it also doesn’t have a fraction of the phytonutrients.
This difference is far from esoteric. Americans are suffering from a litany of chronic diseases that have caused life expectancies to stagnate despite medical advances. The Social Security Administration’s life expectancy calculator says I can expect to live to 85. My 7-year-old son can only expect to live to 83.
But I can tell you that getting him to eat weeds because they will help him live longer is no small feat. Serious parental ingenuity is required.
A successful tactic used by Blair and others is pairing weeds with palate-pleasing partners: lemon and honey for dandelion lemonade, nuts and garlic for weed pesto, tomatoes and dressing for a salad.
I’ve personally found that the more weeds I eat, the more I hanker for them. So much so that I recently went home for lunch and never even made it through the front door.