Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Six Arrows Farm Update
Hands and weeds…words on my mind fairly often lately…truly ever since the garden burst into full-blown growth of summer with the rest of the countryside. Our hands are slowly gaining the stiff, leathery feel that weeding yields, while my right index finger sports this year’s callous and every crevice harbors a minuscule deposit of dirt and weed-juice. I could scrub those useful extremities raw this very minute and the stains of labor would cling tenaciously to them yet. Then there are the weeds. Cramped and ugly things that crawl all over the garden and make it look like panorama jungle to scale.
I wrote that word, “weeds”, and then realized that I honestly wasn’t sure what I mean by it. So I went and looked it up. Now pardon me while I explain the need to investigate such a common English word.
Words have always been a favorite topic of mine, so etymology was a hobby I cultivated easily. Since some have noted that I “must like to write,” it may come as a surprise to find that I went through a long season where I could not enjoy grammar and spelling, no matter how hard I tried. The rules of the English language were like cobwebs to me and I believed they got in the way of what I really wanted to do…write. (Yes…go ahead and chuckle.)
My ever-tactful mother was unrelenting in this respect, and having a very practical and mathematical mind, established a foundation of grammar under all my whimsies of composition. In the morning of my education, I misspelled so many words in my headlong rush for creativity she told me to find them in my own work rather than marking them in red herself. (A wise mother makes her child his own drill-sergeant…and saves red ink.)
Unfortunately, I rebelled at first and brought the same misspellings back day after day for inspection. Rather than slapping an F on the paper (I never got an F because Mama refused to accept badly done work) she sent me away with my (current) good friend Noah Webster to look up every word in my composition…in order. “The…long…white…house…was…” you get the idea. After a few trials of this kind, I discovered two things. The first was that it saves time to be more selective with your letters. The second I found while resting my cramped brain on a page-full of those introductory remarks at the beginning of Webster’s dictionary we never read, trying to muster the resolve to look up “the”. I realized I was staring at a paper on etymology. I was swallowing the last line before I knew I had sipped the first and the world of language spread out before me like a sublime view from a mountain top. End of rant.
So…in every-day terms, “weed” gets its origin from Old English words like “uueod” or “weod” meaning “grass” or “herb”. By the way, don’t you love the fact that the letter “W” was originally a double “U”?
Weed has only more recently (in the last few hundred years) become a generic term associated in one sense with noxious and nuisance plants. For example, the King James Bible (from 1611) translates a Hebrew word in the book of Job meaning “stinking plant or noxious weed” as “cockle”. Apparently cockles were obnoxious in seventeenth century England. I cultivated their modern counterpart as a cut flower in my garden last year. Weed, then, in its modern sense, is a relative term…since it is applied to plants that are simply more resilient and fast-growing than those we cultivate for food and fiber, etc. (Hence the phrase “growing like a weed”.) This being the case…I would like to introduce you to some plant-acquaintances of mine. Namely: those I term “weeds.”
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is cultivated in many regions for culinary use. It is used in salads, stir-fry and even soup. It is my personal weeding nemesis, since it is nearly impossible to pull up by the roots, leaves sticky juice all over your hands, and has malevolent tentacle branches that spread over everything. It is just beginning to come up now and will flourish through July and August.
Pigweed (Red root - Amaranthus retroflexus) is also cultivated for culinary purposes. They make a dish called “thoran” with it in India. It is my personal favorite in the weed category because it pulls easily and doesn’t make a fuss about dying. It is one of the first things up and one of the last things to die in the fall. Incidentally, Purslane, Pigweed and Lambs-quarters/Goosefoot are all “related” and are often referred to interchangeably as “pigweed” because they were at one time or another used as pig-fodder.
Lambs-quarters or Goosefoot (Chenopodium album) is also…that’s right…cultivated for food in India. Very hard to pull, will grow four feet tall, has a hard stem that hurts your fingers and contributes to pollen related allergies.
Scotch Thistle (Onopordum acanthium) is believed to have originated in North America as an ornamental plant! I suppose they tolerated the spines in their landscaping to enjoy the biannual violet flowers. It is versatile in nature…apparently used for medicinal and household purposes. Believe it or not, some used to eat the receptacle of the flower the way we eat artichokes. And of course many of you may recognize it as the national emblem of Scotland (hence the name).
Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis) is a native meadow grass that many of you know as lawn grass. It gets the name from its blue flowers which appear if you don’t mow it regularly…or pull it up. Along with Crabgrass (which has seeds that can be toasted and ground for flour) the species can populate an area very quickly. In the fall our garden ends up looking like a prairie thanks to these grasses.
Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) – Well, I won’t burden you with the nearly endless list of common ailments this plant addresses…everything from kidneys to sore throats. It is more than one state’s state flower. More interesting yet is the fact that Thomas Edison found a way to extract rubber from the leaves and had tires of goldenrod rubber on the Model T his friend Henry Ford gave him! It pulls up very easily and looks like a little Christmas tree when it is young.
Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) while a main source of food for Monarch butterfly larva, is toxic to grazing animals. It is used medicinally and recently cultivated for filling pillows. It leaves a sticky “milk” on your hands when you pull it, and is not nearly as invasive as other weeds.
Pinkweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum) , named for its flower, is a native species and was as used for medicinal purposes as well. It is almost identical to its European counterpart, Lady’s Thumb. It is also far less invasive than most weeds.
There are more I could have mentioned...but I thought better of it. To many, weeds can get...obnoxious. I would love to hear about the weeds I am sure some of you deal with every day! In the midst of all this fuss over the garden, the pigs are growing apace and the chickens are on their last few weeks of happy chicken-ness on the pasture. The regal iris is past its prime and gives way to the flamboyant blooms of high summer.
Signing off with a (literally) green thumb!
Craig, Karen and The Six Arrows
P.S. We are cleaning up in wake of incredible storms that came through the south east corner of Minnesota last Thursday night. After the deluge, Daddy was out until 4 am with the boys closing roads because of flooding over bridges in the Cannon Falls area. They said the sight of giant 100 foot trees hitting bridges like a battering ram and then disappearing into the raging river was spectacular and sounded like thunder! The Farm had a few casualties: strawberries have hail damage, sugar snap peas have white spots from hail, and the hen pen shifted in the wind and hurt a hen. Everything else pulled through surprisingly well. We are thankful!