On Weeds

Rebecca May Johnson

Weeding in the garden of my ex-council bungalow this summer, I came across a young dandelion. It poked up next to the arthritic rose planted by the previous tenant, a Greek Cypriot woman who lived here for 16 years until her death. Her son visited us when we moved in and told us about the barbecues they had in the garden and the dolmades his mother made from the vine she grew here. After she died, he cut it back, but stopped short of digging it out, unsure whether the strangers moving in would want it. We did. In early spring, shiny burgundy-green lines shot out from the unpromising brown stub, and I guided them upwards with some wire. Its vigour is astonishing. There were also several varieties of mint in abundance. I removed most of it to make room for beans, courgettes and parsley, but the few stems I left quickly spread. It’s an ingredient in Cypriot stuffed vine leaves, which are called koupepia, not dolmades.

Weeding is a luxury for me: I pay more rent so that I can have a garden to weed. Weeds are ‘matter out of place’, as Mary Douglas said of dirt: uncultivated, wild, unintended, unaccounted for, anarchic. The previous ex-council flat I rented had no garden. The landlord sold it soon after we moved in and we had to leave, before we had time to set down roots. We were weeded out. I held back with the dandelion. I was reading Fasting and Feasting, Adam Federman’s biography of the food writer Patience Gray. Reading about Gray’s enthusiasm for dandelion greens left me wavering as to the their status in my garden. Weeds sustained Gray through the winter on the island of Naxos, where she lived with her lover, the sculptor Norman Mommens. In Gray’s book Honey from a Weed (reviewed in the LRB by Angela Carter), she says that ‘weeds promote energy,’ and gives a recipe for Macedonian dandelion, chopped and braised with olive oil, water and salt, then rice and pine nuts are added and it’s cooked until all liquid is absorbed.

Not long after noticing the dandelion, I went to Crete. Every restaurant had ‘horta’ (χόρτα) on the menu, for around €4.50 a plate. It refers to dozens of varieties of uncultivated edible greens, including dandelion. I ate them every day, boiled and served with lemon juice and olive oil, or cooked with chickpeas and tomatoes. Some restaurants translated χόρτα as ‘wild mountain greens’. In the mornings I saw people walking along the road with plastic bags full of greens, and then sitting around tables in shaded side streets, sorting through them and chatting: making a living from weeds. Home again, I wondered if the woman who lived here before me ate the dandelions: had she intended them to be there? I decided to let them grow, and cook them.

In Rotterdam earlier in the year, I saw a woman picking dandelions from the verge next to a closed-off road, like a ghost of Gray picking weeds on Naxos. But unlike in Greece, a woman picking weeds is an unusual sight in Rotterdam’s modern, manicured centre. Among the city’s cycle paths, waterways and public sculpture, there are few gaps where weeds can grow. But it would be foolish to idealise eating habits forged by poverty as a path to ‘authentic’ living, as Carter sharply suggests:

Even if Mrs Gray and her companion live in exactly the same circumstances as their neighbours in the Greek islands or Southern Italy, and have just as little ready money, their relation to their circumstances is the result of the greatest of all luxuries, aesthetic choice.

The solitary woman foraging from the verge in Rotterdam did not seem to be doing so out of aesthetic choice. I wondered whether she was a person legally ‘out of place’, one of the millions forced from home to live in places where they are outside the parameters of citizenship, denied a right to remain, fearful of being weeded out by governments. I wished her good eating.


  • 22 September 2017 at 8:41am
    IPFreely says:
    Watch out for the Fox band worm!

  • 26 September 2017 at 11:50am
    martyn94 says:
    Dandelions make excellent salad (no need to boil them) if you exclude the light for a few weeks - ie cover them with a flower pot with something to cover the hole.