I was at Uluru recently, awestruck by its presence and silvery sheen as rain slicked its surface, thrilled by the hot metal smell as water hit that thin iron skin and just plain bemused to see at my feet – purslane. The same weed that irrepressibly clings to life in the cracks in my driveway has found its way to the heart of Central Australia.
In honour of the opportunism of weeds, and in the absence again this week of enough pages in Spectrum to support my garden column, here is a story I wrote for Your Garden magazine, about forager and artist Diego Bonetto who thinks that weeds are under-utilised opportunities.
When you look at a weedy wasteland around a railway station, what do you see? Most of us see just that – a weedy wasteland – but Diego Bonetto sees a pantry of food items and a bathroom cabinet of herbal remedies.
Diego is an artist whose mission is to re-engage us with our natural environment, one weed at a time. We meet at the weedy railway station and he helps me out immediately. Among the fast food detritus, soggy tissues, and unnameable refuse, Diego identifies dandelion (the young leaves are eaten in salads, the flowers in frittatas and the roots as parsnip alternatives); sow thistle, Sonchus sp. (in Greece the young leaves are blanched and doused in olive oil and salt; Pacific Islanders use its bitter edge to cut the sweet richness of their pork stews); green amaranth, Amaranthus viridis (cultivated as a grain for 8,000 years, and also used as a spinach, particularly in India); mallow, (a personal dinner favourite of Diego’s, used in salads and in soups); and a brassica.
We don’t pick dinner just yet as railway weeds are sprayed with glyphosate. For snacking and harvesting we take a wander along the Cook’s River in Tempe, Sydney, where Diego leads regular foraging tours, a career direction that began with a dandelion.
Diego’s family were farmers in rural northern Italy and part of his childhood responsibility was collecting food – mushrooms in season, and greens all year. The greens collected were the kinds of plants we know as weeds. His knowledge of these plants, and where and when they grew, became deeply ingrained. When he migrated to Australia, 20 years ago, dandelions waved to him from among the unknown plants and welcomed him home.
Foraging had connected him to the land in Italy and now it connected him to his new country. He became a wild provedore, providing chefs with dandelions and other novel foods, which he laughs, weren’t novel at all, but the oldest foods known to humankind – the weeds. In between foraging, and bringing up his two daughters, he studied art, and thought about weeds.
“Academics now talk about nature blindness: people can’t see what they can’t name,” he says. Through his work and his tours Diego aims to cure nature blindness by giving people the names and stories that enable a new vision of the landscape: not just weeds by the railway station, but a biodiverse community of plants with a long history of interaction with humans.
Further along the river we snack on what is my favourite discovery of the day, rambling dock, Acetosa sagittata, which has a crisp lemony flavour so delicious I pick a bunch for dinner. Diego doesn’t recommend side-of the-road foraging in general, but he knows that the local council don’t spray here and the rain we’re walking through has washed off dirt and dust.
“The safest place to forage,” he advises, “is your own garden.” He believes we can all grow something to eat and assures even non-gardeners that they will be able to find some edible plant to suit their gardening style.
Diego’s own gardening style is Minimal Intervention. He has an agreement with his landlord to manage a 3m square plot of weeds and is foster-gardener to several other weedy plots. The most useful weed for gardeners to nurture, he says is “Whatever is in your garden.” As gardeners know, weeds seek out the spot that suits them best, with no encouragement at all from the gardener. Diego challenges us to look at them with new eyes – as individual plants that tell a story of a long association with humans, not simply irritations in the general category Weed.
In Diego’s garden:
Self-sown mulberry, Morus sp.
“I love mulberries, I make jam with the fruit, and the plant reminds me of Italy, where mulberry trees in the corners of the fields provide shade for summer working-day lunches.”
Cobbler’s pegs, Bidens pilosa
“If it goes to seed it makes a burr which gets into your socks in the bush, but if never gets to seed in my garden I eat so much of it.”
Mallow, Malva silvestri
“I have a few plants of this I like it so much. The young leaves are good in a salad, the older leaves thicken a soup and the seeds have a good, nutty flavour.”
Scurvy weed, Commelina cyanea
“This Australian native was used by non-indigenous colonists to ward off scurvy. It has a mild flavour, best cooked, otherwise it’s a bit hairy and gets stuck in your throat.”
Madeira vine, Anredera cordifolia
“This isn’t really happy in my garden. It might be too shady under the mulberry.” The leaves are sold in Malaysia and when cooked are a bit slimy, like kankong.