The art of using what’s around us

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If you’ve ever run into a patch of Teasel plants, you won’t soon forget it. Teasel is a wicked looking plant which is green and covered in spines all summer long. When autumn comes, their spines and flower heads dry out and resemble a medieval mace – not exactly something you’d want to get too close to, but looks can be deceiving. Teasel flower heads can be used to de-pill your sweater (gloves recommended!) and card wool (the process of combing out hanks of wool into portions that are easy to spin on a spinning wheel) if you’re a fiber enthusiast like me. What other everyday plants have unusual uses that you could be missing out on?

Photo courtesy of Patty Catalano

In the 17th century, early colonists brought the humble dandelion from their homeland. Dandelions seem out of place no matter what. We pay the kids to remove them from the lawn. We sneeze as millions of their seed-heads explode in early summer. We don’t want them, but the leaves of this delicious weed (harvest in spring and autumn and only from yards that aren’t sprayed with chemicals), when sautéed in oil, butter or a little bacon, are very nutritious and add important vitamins and minerals to your diet.

Jerusalem artichokes look like a tall, aggressive weed when you see them in patches with their bright yellow daisy-like flowers. But under the ground where these towering six foot and taller plants grow are delicious tubers that taste like artichokes and have a creamy, potato-like consistency. The tuber of this North American native is also valued by diabetics for its low glycemic index and can be eaten raw, boiled, fried or baked. As a bonus, they typically grow very shallowly and are easy to harvest.

One of my favorite stories about our farm is how during the first couple of years, we battled a non-native weed called lambs quarters or wild spinach. It popped up everywhere in the spring and had us pulling our hair out trying to get rid of it. We knew it was edible, but we were so familiar with our angst and trying to fight it that we didn’t think of our other options. One year I started sautéing it up with other fresh veggies. It was a lot less delicate than spinach and had a similar but richer green flavor. I experimented more and found that we liked it better than regular spinach. We have since stopped growing regular spinach, stopped viewing lambs quarters as an enemy and started eating it regularly and even canning it when there’s enough, which is most years.

Plants are also used for dyes (goldenrod gives a beautiful yellow) and medicine (aspirin came from willow plants) as well as the aforementioned foods. Challenge yourself to think differently about those things which surround you and you never know where it might lead! Remember: whenever considering edible plants, always get a positive ID from a professional. In Madison County, NY, you can contact Patty Catalano at 607.384.3001 ext. 108 for any plant ID questions.


Columbia University’s Introduced Species Summary Project (Taraxacum officinale):

The aspirin story – from willow to wonder drug by Desborough and Keeling:

For more information about gardening in Madison County, visit

by Patty Catalano, CCE Madison County

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