A Plant Out of Place

The days have been sunny and warm of late, and so the biggest clue that fall has arrived is simply that the moisture is back. A gentle dew darkens the toes of my shoes on the walk across my yard in the mornings; ribbons of mist lick at the trees between the highway and the Lochside Trail on the way up to Ravenhill Herb Farm; a veil of fog sits low in the valley at the foot of the farm and then burns off through the mornings. The summer was dry before this. These sun-filled days and the sudden lurking wetness have made this time look and feel more like a second spring, with reinvigorated blooms now pushing up from what were yellowed patches of grass just a few weeks ago.

Potting up some perennials at Ravenhill Herb Farm.

These shoulder seasons are funny: we’re meant to move into a slowing-down as winter draws closer, but for so many September brings instead a surge of commitments and the re-establishing of a workaday routine. I can feel the ebbs and flows of my own energy tied to the seasons, and they’re always thrown into sharper relief in these times of transition. And so it is with some curiosity that I check in with myself during this green revival. And I decide that I’ll try, consciously, to be a bit like a weed.

A blooming calendula (Calendula officinalis), with the composite of smaller disk flowers visible in the centre.

We’re on a plant walk around Ravenhill Herb Farm together with Lindsay, our Herbal Production and Processing instructor, with the aim of doing some fall pruning. But it’s the weeds, teeming and potent, jubilant, like a sprinter first out of the starting blocks, that turn out to be the real focus. Maybe I’ll back up – “weeds”? I almost hesitate to write the word, so freighted is it with disparagement. The writer Jim Thompson famously defined a weed a “a plant out of place”, but a permaculturalist might argue that in some cases a weed is actually in the perfect place, or at least in the right place – or, at the very least, that it has an important story to tell you.

Weeds are the most resilient and adaptable of plants, and they have a laundry-list of uses: as groundcover or living mulch, biomass for compost, food for pollinators and habitat for insects. Their spreading roots can bind loose soil, or their deep taproots can aerate it and increase nutrient availability. Also skilled at uptaking those nutrients from the soil, weeds therefore tend to be especially nutritive (though as they’re often pioneer species on blighted “waste” land and brownfield ecosystems, as Oliver Kelhammer discussed earlier in the year and Lindsay reminds us, it’s important to know the history of the land you’re on if harvesting weeds for food rather than engaging them for bioremediation).

A water lily blooms on the pond at Tiny Tree Herb Farm.

Walking along the west fenceline of the farm, we pass a mound of soil that had been scooped and then left in situ after our hedgerow planting with Jude Hobbs over the winter. Feeling like a detective, I look for weed indicators that suggest disturbed ground: geranium mole, creeping buttercup, spring gold, Myosotis discolor, wild mustard, geranium lucidum. The surrounding grass is thick with narrowleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata), which I remember here from our days with Jude. Introduced to North America from Europe, plantain is common on cultivated land – the broadleaf variety appeared so reliably in the area of early European settlements that it was called “white-man’s foot”.

It also has a long medicinal history: Lindsay tells us that in Traditional Chinese Medicine, plantain, called ch’e-ch’ien, is commonly used for bronchial and respiratory support. In the West, it has been a longstanding treatment for wounds: the Welsh name for the plant, sawdl Christ (Christ’s heel), as well as the Latin genus Plantago (the sole of the foot), allude to it having traditionally been placed inside shoes to relieve fatigue and blistering. Today, it remains in use for over-the-counter preparations – but it’s also valuable in the moments immediately after a burn or a sting, the leaf chewed up and applied as a fresh poultice.

A sunflower persists into fall at the University of Victoria Campus Community Garden; shoots sprouting from the top of a Little Free Library; the edible stalk of a Japanese coltsfoot (Petasites japonicus), also known as fuki.

Walking around the property, Lindsay talks about the medicinal benefits of other “weeds”: sheep sorrel, yellow dock, couch grass, cleavers, self heal, horsetail, nettles, mullein, chickweed. Some of these I’ve done research on for projects in other classes and so parts of the stories are familiar to me. Nearer the house, I spot one that I know well: dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). This is a powerhouse plant – but also a polarizing one. I remember flyers in the mailbox growing up that promised to eradicate dandelions from our yard; the city would apply pesticides in the parks to keep the yellow blooms at bay. The dandelion (from the French dent-de-lion, “lion’s tooth”, for the leaf shape), is thought to be native to Europe and Asia; there are references to the plant in ancient Roman texts, and discussions of its medicinal properties appear in the works of early physicians in the Middle East.

All parts of the plant have important culinary and medicinal applications. Its young leaves can be harvested in the spring for eating (bitterness increases as the plant gets older); the flowers are edible, too, and especially good cooked in fritters or used for making wine. Medicinally, the leaves are a strong diuretic, commonly used to treat edema, hypertension, and premenstrual water retention.

(L-R): Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) at Ravenhill Herb Farm; watering in some newly-planted perennials; daisies craning out the side of a raised bed at the University of Victoria Campus Community Garden.

But it’s the root that I’ve always enjoyed the most. It’s considered an excellent detoxifier and liver tonic, and it’s delicious when roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Now, in the fall, as the plant’s energy shifts below ground and the starchy, inulin-containing root gains its vitality, it’s time to harvest. And so it was that a few days earlier, spurred on by the nice weather and a looming project deadline, I grabbed a bag and my hori hori and went out looking for dandelions in the city. (My neighbour had reported that he had “maybe one or two” in his back yard, but I was after the big score.)

Separating freshly-washed dandelion root.

I walked about twenty minutes and scoured some of the more untrammelled corners of Beacon Hill Park, in the south end of town, but came up empty. Then the weather abruptly started to turn. Iron-coloured clouds stepped in front of the sun. I was dressed like an absentminded professor on a beach holiday, with a stretched-out sweater and bare ankles: the opposite of rain preparedness. But as I started to hurry back home, my bag swinging on my hip, I at last found the dandelion mecca I’d been looking for, packed in tall and tight along a quiet boulevard. With the wind now in full throat and rain drumming around me, I loosened up the soil around the plants and gently pulled up the taproots to take home to roast – like a weed, they turned up just where I needed them.

Dandelion root drying over the radiator, with the hori-hori used to harvest them.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.