A weekly nature series produced by Utah Public Radio in cooperation with Stokes Nature Center, Bridgerland Audubon Society, Utah Master Naturalists Program and the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.
Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivores Dilemma”, called lambs quarters and purslane “two of the most nutritious plants in the world.” Weeding them would be a waste, both taste and health-wise!
Also called pigweed, goosefoot and wild spinach, lambs quarters is a common garden weed and is found with easy access in most urban settings. Sporting broad, green leaves and a powdery-white middle, lambs quarters can substitute as spinach in any dish, and is packed with nutrients too!
While most edible weeds are best harvested in spring, lambs quarters thrive throughout the entirety of summer. While young, the plant can be collected whole, but as it ages and becomes tougher, only the tender tops are recommended. Try it raw in salads or green smoothies. Seeds can be collected as an excellent source of protein.
Nutritionally, lambs quarters is a close competitor with spinach. 1 cup of boiled and lightly salted lambs quarters has a whopping 6g of protein, more than double your daily value of Vitamin A, 66 mg Vitamin C and 120 mg Iron.
Another common weed found growing between sidewalk cracks or in our gardens is purslane. Purslane is a succulent originally from India, but is now found as a wild weed in all 50 U.S. states. This plant grows low to the ground, contains slightly reddish stems and sports tangy succulent green leaves with a similar quality as okra.
The leaves, stems, and flowers of purslane can all be eaten either fresh or cooked. The health benefits rival many other green vegetables you work hard to plant and maintain in your garden, yet it grows effortlessly!
The fresh succulent leaves of this wonder weed contain more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant, and has five times the concentration than can be found in spinach! It also contains more omega-3’s than many fish oils in the grocery store. In a 100 gram serving of raw Purslane, you can get more than 1320 international units of Vitamin A, 21 mg Vitamin C, and a dense array of B-complex vitamins!
As Ralph Waldo Emerson rhetorically asked, “what is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
For Utah State University Extension Sustainability, this is Roslynn Brain.
Penstemaniacs, the name affectionately given to members of the American Penstemon Society, will be gathering from all parts of the world to meet in Vernal, Utah, this June.
While here, they’ll be searching the Uinta Mountains for penstemons native to that area.
If you’ve ever hiked in the rugged, dry areas of Utah and come upon a vibrant flower with hues of red, purple, or blue, and wondered how such a beautiful plant could survive in such a desolate place – you may have found one of Utah’s native penstemons.
Over 100 full species or sub-species of the plant are native to the beehive state. They thrive in hot conditions and require very little water.
According to Robert Fitts, Botany Researcher for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, “Penstemons have adapted to very harsh places. Where other plants [couldn’t] grow they have grown.”
The common name for penstemon is beardtongue, due to the staminode that grows out of the center of the flower and looks like a hairy tongue.
In the spring, hikers can see beardtongue growing on mountain ledges, budding on desert floors, and rising from oil shale formations. Even people stuck in the city can see these native flowers blossom along urban roads since Utah Division of Transportation includes penstemon seeds in the mixtures used to restore vegetation along new and reconstructed roads.
Dr. Noel Homgren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the New York Botanical Garden explains, “Although penstemon distribution [stretches from] southern Alaska to northern Guatemala; Utah is the Center of Diversity for penstemon. There are more species of penstemon in Utah than any other state in the Union.”
To identify penstemon or beardtongue, ask these three questions while examining the plant: First, does the plant have opposite leaves growing out of the stem; second, is the flower a tubular shape, and finally, inside the flower are there four filaments surrounding one furry filament? If the answer is yes to all three of these questions, you have found and identified a penstemon.
With the increasing popularity of water-wise landscapes, many native penstemons can now be purchased in flower shops. You can have a little bit of native Utah growing right in your own back yard.
Firecracker and Wasatch are two popular penstemon choices. Both thrive in dry landscapes and require no fertilizer. Fertilizer actually shortens the life of penstemons.
The Firecracker blooms in mid spring and is cold hardy, it has a bright red tubular flower which hangs slightly downward – both these characteristics attract hummingbirds which can add entertainment to any backyard.
“If you’ve ever seen a hummingbird war where two or more hummingbirds fight over a plant it’s fascinating sight.”
The Wasatch Beardtongue has rich colored flowers with hues of purple, blue and lavender that bloom upward. It’s a favorite for the bumblebee. If you come close to these flowering plants you can hear the low humming of the bees hard at work.
Some native penstemons are quite rare and found in very limited areas. Two of these are the Graham and White River penstemons, found only in the oil shale outcrops of the Uintah Mountains.
To help preserve these rare flowering plants, Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, through the Division of Wildlife Resources, partnered with USU to use modeling as an aid to determine where the rare flowers grow.
By using survey data from the Utah Heritage Program, which tells where the rare plants have been found, the data is entered into the model and fined tuned so it can more accurately tell the researchers other locations where the rare plants may be.
Mindy Wheeler, the Rare Plant Conservation Coordinator from UDWR explains, “it’s as if we become detectives.” We gather the clues for the model, then go out into the areas where the model tells us the plants may be found.
Often when I come upon a rare pentsemon, I’m so relieved and happy that I drop to my knees and with my hands in the dirt examine it closely.
“Every piece of data we gather goes back into the model to refine it.”
Dr. Tom Edwards, Research Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, professor in the Department of Wildland Resources, and Principal investigator on the project, said – once we have the models and understand where the rare plants are, it allows management agencies to work with their stakeholders (who include tribal nations, energy groups and ranchers) to decrease the impacts they have on these rare plants.
Wheeler adds, “It’s been helpful to find…rare penstemons which are a conservation priority because it either helps with conservation actions or in a best case scenario finds enough plants so they no longer need as much protection.”
Utah residents who would like to add penstamon to their yards, can go to the Utah Native Plant Society’s website, to find the closest supplier in their area.
Edwards adds, “Penstemons bloom at different times of the year so if you plan carefully you can have vibrant rotating color in your gardens all summer long.”
To become a Penstemaniac simply go to The American Penstemon Society website and join.
This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Dr Robert Fitts
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University
One thing I love about being a horticulturist is paying close attention and working with seasonal cycles, especially this time of year when it finally feel OK to slow down. This is the time of year when plants put all their energy into reserve for the winter and I think this is really cool. If you’ve never thought about it, or even if you have… imagine how vibrant the fresh, new, green leaves are in the spring, busting from the dormant branches of trees. Those first leaves get their start using some of the stored energy or sugary plant food from last year. Have you ever heard the phrase “when the sap starts flowing?” Plants are really smart. With the right ingredients, light, warmth, water, & and carbon dioxide, the cellular machinery makes the sugars and plant food necessary to grow. Then, at the end of the year after the plant gets done making a fruit or nut or seed, all the extra plant food in the leaves and stems migrates to the roots where it can stay viable all winter.
That stored plant food is also nutritious for humans. My good friend the ethnobotanist, Guy Banner, has been enticing me with knowledge about edible plants that are native in Utah. I always remember “Biscuit root” because it sounds, delicious. You can find biscuit root growing in almost any native plant communities and even in dry open rocky areas. There are several species that are edible. Biscuit roots are short leafy plants with yellow flowers arranged in an umbrella shape and a large tap root. The roots can be eaten raw or cooked, or dried and ground into a flour. Native Americans throughout the west also used biscuit root medicinally for a range of ailments.
Utah also has several species of wild onions that can be harvested and eaten. Wild onions have grassy leaves that die down and leave a small round ball of purplish flowers on top of a skinny stem. You’ll find them in dry gravelly sites. Two other plants with edible roots, which you may have heard of before, are the sego lily and cattails. The sego lily is our state flower and cattails are a very common sight in riparian areas. The bulb of sego lilies can be eaten, and the roots of cattails are so large, they come close to providing as much food as a potato. This might not sound supremely appetizing, but knowing how much food there can be in the wild may offer some comfort when you’re miles from the city on your next outdoor adventure.
For Wild About Utah this is Brittany Hunter.
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Brittany Hunter, Horticulturist, USU
Shrubby-Reed Mustard Blossoms Hesperidanthus suffrutescens Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis
Shrubby-Reed Mustard Blossoms Hesperidanthus suffrutescens Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis
Tucked into isolated pockets of the Uintah Basin’s arid wildlands is the best little plant you’ve never heard of. Known to exist only in Duchesne and Uintah Counties, Shrubby-reed Mustard seems to occupy only the semi-barren “islands” of white shale in areas of the Green River Formation’s Evacuation Creek region. The endangered plant features thick, almost succulent, blue-green leaves and small yellow flowers.
“The habitat of Shrubby-reed Mustard is visually striking,” says USU alum Matt Lewis, a botanist with the Bureau of Land Management in Vernal, Utah. “It grows in very shallow, fine-textured soils and shale fragments that form narrow bands in the desert shrub community.”
Among the first plants to flower in spring, the perennial herb is visited by large number of insects, including many native bee species that forage for pollen. Scientists believe these bees may be critical in the plant’s reproduction and survival.
Lewis says the plant, also known as Toad-Flax Cress and Uintah Basin Waxfruit, offers an understated beauty to the stark landscape. With a shrub-like form and multiple stems, Shrubby-reed Mustard grows to about 20 centimeters in height. Its leaves, which feel almost like leather, change to a bright purple in the fall.
The plant is also enticingly fragrant, Lewis says. “Its scent reminds me of roses mixed with apples and pears.”
Despite its fragile status, Shrubby-reed Mustard is a long-lived plant. USU ecologist Geno Schupp says some individual plants may be one hundred years old.
The elusive species has outlived scientists’ attempts to classify it and has undergone several taxonomic changes. It currently boasts the scientific name Hesperidanthus suffrutescens, placing it solidly in the mustard family.
Lewis knows of no history of Shrubby-reed Mustard as a culinary or medicinal herb, though documented reports of such uses for mustard plants date back to ancient times. The plant appears to provide welcome forage for some four-legged creatures, he says, as he recently witnessed plants that had been grazed completely and ripped from the ground.
“Whether that was due to livestock or native ungulates, I’m not sure.”
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis
Text: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University College of Natural Resources
Matt Lewis, botanist, Bureau of Land Management, Vernal, Utah.
Eugene “Geno” Schupp, professor, USU Department of Wildland Resources.