Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What's the Use?



God’s given us some pretty strange stuff.  He gave us poison ivy, chiggers, mosquitoes, poison and water hemlock and ticks to name just a few.  I’d like to address a couple of those gifts: common ragweed and giant ragweed.  When I say common and giant ragweed, I don’t mean goldenrod or thistles or curly dock or nettles or…  Scientific names are quite important for proper identification of plants and animals.  Those’ll come in a little bit.

My first discovered use for ragweed, though I had no clue what the plant was, happened back in what is historically known as “The Good Old Days” or the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.  My friends and I wandered/explored/deliberately sought, any undeveloped territories in our suburban Minneapolis wilderness.  We were predators.

My friends and I hunted and fished for a living (play is a kid’s living).  Other kids claimed their work was to move round things from point A to point B or to hit them with sticks.  We used sticks and round or nearly round things in our job, but in different ways.  We used sticks with which to make slingshots, our suburban predator weapon of choice.  It’d sure be easy to go off on the suburban predator tangent, but, not here.  Some conditions forced our prey into shelter.  We weren’t so bright and stayed out, getting all hot and sweaty and ultimately bored.  We didn’t stay bored long, as we soon became prey to one another.

When we hunted each other, we didn’t use slingshots because we were very safety conscious.  We used spears.  While out hunting one day, we happened upon a massive forest of long, straight, stiff dead weeds.  It didn’t take us long to find out they were beautifully built for throwing, once the side branches were stripped.  The forest became known as “The Spear Place”.  We were very creative with our names.

That ragweed patch taught us basic missile physics.  We learned about trajectories, MIRVs and more.   For the longest time, I thought the only purposes for ragweed were for spears, for muttering at for growing in gardens and for aggravating allergies in allergy sufferers.  Not long ago, I finally decided to figure out what “that” weed was that smelled so good when I mowed through it.  I asked Dr. Google about it and I learned what I thought was ragweed was only one of many members of the ragweed or Ambrosia family.  My spicy-green smelling ragweed turned out to be common ragweed or Ambrosia artemisiifolia and my spear ragweed is giant ragweed or Ambrosia trifida.  As plentiful as ragweed is, I figured there had to be some sort of use for it other than the not-really-practical ones I knew of.

Books!  I’ve always been a book person –even work at a library now.  I learned, way back when I was a little guy, that books were packed with all kinds of neat information about my world outdoors.  Francois Couplan, in his Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America, says ragweed has a semi-drying oil (astringent?) and has had edibility suggested.  Some species are used as flavorings, but ragweed’s best-known use is as a hay fever instigator.  Couplan also lists A. psilostachya as a third hay fever culprit in North America.  Kelly Kindscher lists edible and medicinal uses for ragweed in her Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie.  Seeds were found stockpiled along with other well-known cultivars, which implied it, too, was cultivated.  The seeds are edible, and an Indian name even alludes to the loud sound that’s made when chewing.  Tea made from the plant is used as a wound/bite/dressing.

I tried some bruised giant ragweed leaves on a chigger bite.  It did provide some relief, if nothing else, the abrasiveness of the leaf scratched that itch quite nicely.

I browsed my other wild edibles books, anthropologically-related plant books and survival stuff and found no other references to the Ambrosia family, other than in Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants.  She lists ragweed as only a pollen/allergy source.  Allergies help keep people in work.  Yeah, I’m reaching for something positive to say about ragweed.  Pharmaceutical companies have a great use for ragweed.  They can make and sell medications in an attempt to relieve some of the symptoms of that hay fever allergy.  One of the librarians in the library system for which I work says one of her neighbors cultivates ragweed for such a drug company.

I plan to explore the astringent possibility and maybe try some tea –since A. artemisiifolia smells so good.  But I uncovered another use for ragweed.  I mentioned this article at my Facebook group, “Wild Edibles of Missouri”.  I got usual responses –that I’d already read about, but one lady mentioned as kids, they used to split the stems to extract worms for fishing.  I looked up ragweed stem worms.

I was quite pleased when I discovered a dull gray longhorn beetle likes to live its childhood in ragweed stems.  I know longhorn beetle grubs to be quite nicely edible.  So I cut open several stalks.  I didn’t find any decent size worms, but found a different kind that turned out to be a lesser or common stalk borer grub (Papaipema nebris).  It’s the larva of a LBM (little brown moth) so common in lawns and all over the place.  They also like to parasitize corn stalks, lamb’s quarter, and other highly-edible ‘weeds’,    I also know LBB (birds) like to eat LBMs, which could imply their edibility. 

I applied some of my informal edibility checks.  The caterpillars live their lives under cover, or under protection.  That’s an indication they might be good to eat.  Corn earworms are highly edible, so why not stalk worms?  The adult moths are brown and like to hide.  Drab and reclusive are also hints of edibility.  They’re not guarantees, but it’s evidence of edibility.  For everything we believe, we either accept or reject evidence and draw conclusions.  I concluded the stalk borers are edible.  After rinsing, I boiled the worms for a bit over 10 minutes.  I then dehydrated them. 

They’re ready for an insect program I’m giving in a couple days.  I tried some before deciding to serve them.  Crispy and slightly sweet describes their flavor and texture. 

I’ve got a new use for ragweed.  My father-in-law will benefit in my pulling ragweed, as he’s one of the allergic ones.  My wife will be happy because I’m pulling weeds.  I’ll be happy being able to add new critters to my wild edibles programs. So, what’s the use?  I think ragweed’s potential is highly unrecognized, but I’ll exploit it in my way.

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