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The world of wonderful weeds

Standing before a field of wild echinacea and black-eyed Susans, Kathy Belt is passionate about the hidden gems many call "weeds."1 / 8
Red clover is a blood purifier, says Belt, clearing out the last of germs. She steeps the buds to make a tea.2 / 8
Pineapple-weed is a ubiquitous plant that grows along sidewalks, roads and gardens. Its edible flowers and leaves smell strongly of pineapple when crushed. A close relative of wild chamomile, it also makes a delicious tea.3 / 8
Plantain is loaded with iron and other important vitamins and minerals. Its leaves make a powerful healing poultice for wounds and broken bones. 4 / 8
Echinacea is a popular plant for herbal remedies.5 / 8
Cursed by some gardeners as a weed, purslane is packed with Omega 3. Native to India and Persia, purslane has spread throughout the world as an edible plant.6 / 8
Have a splinter? Chickweed is a natural drawing salve. Its leaves can also be tossed raw into salads, sandwiches, soups and stews.7 / 8
The silvery green, fuzzy leaves and bright yellow flowers of mullein have been utilized for thousands of years in traditional medicine to soothe the upper respiratory tract.8 / 8

Weeds are overlooked or disdained, yet these "despicable" plants provide medicine, food or dyes.

They also are nectar sources for several native species of bees and butterflies.

Just ask Kathy Belt, a self-taught herbalist and "weed explorer."

"I don't have the traditional herbs. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme — they're Mediterranean, so they don't grow in this part of the world. I've been finding what grows up here and how they would've been used," she said. "I'm still learning."

While red clover tea steeps on the stove, Belt advises, "There's a small amount of protein in the root, so if you are starving to death eat clover."

Common mullein is another wonderful weed to let flower in your backyard or garden. It's a biennial, meaning it takes two years to reach maturity.

"The flowers, if you soak them in oil, you can use the oil for earaches," said Belt. "The leaves, when you dry them, you can use them for anything upper respiratory — cough, cold, tickle, sinus, anything like that. Just make it into tea and drink a cup of a tea a day."

According to Stan Tekiela's "Wildflowers of Minnesota Field Guide," early settlers and Native Americans placed soft, woolly mullein leaves in their footwear for warmth and comfort.

"If you are out lost in the woods, you cannot starve to death if you know what you're looking for. You can go hungry. You can have vitamin deficiencies, but you will not starve," she said.

Wild raspberries, for instance, grow at the edge of the Belts' 40-acre property.

"Not only is the fruit good, the leaves are good if you're having menstrual cramps. In fact, in the old days, they used to do concentrations of it to help with childbirth. If you've got rabbits or any animal that you're breeding for milk or meat or the next generation, give them a handful of raspberry leaves."

Chickweed is an annual, edible weed. It can also be used as a "drawing salve" for splinters.

Broad-leaf plantain — no relation to the Caribbean banana-like plantain — is another hardy, healthy and omnipresent plant in Minnesota.

"If you ever get bit or stung by a bee, you take a leaf and you chew it," says Belt, demonstrating, "and you apply it as a poultice and that bee sting will go away in less than five minutes."

At a Kinship event, Belt put plantain into action when a child stepped on a bee. Belt grabbed a leaf, had the child chew it and put the compress on the sting. Within minutes, he returned to playing with the other kids.

Pound the root of comfrey to use as a poultice for gaping wounds, like cuts, boils or abscesses. Comfrey helps heal sprains, swellings or bruises as well. Have a broken bone? After setting the bone, use comfrey to bind the break.

"It's also known as boneset. The root puts out a mucilaginous gel that kind of holds things together," she said, adding, "It puts out big, beautiful pink flowers and bees loooove it."

Pots of rosemary and sage are set by her front door keep mosquitoes at bay.

Hyssop grows voluntarily by her home. It's a natural cold remedy.

"The flowers take like anise," she said. "I have a recipe for chocolate-hyssop cookie that is just phenomenal."

Even poisonous plants can have medicinal or favorable purposes, if used in tiny concentrations, according to Belt.

The list goes on and on: flax, echinacea, St. John's wort, even stinging nettles.

An avid gardener, Belt happily allows these beneficial "weeds" and others like them to sprout throughout her yard, forest trails and garden.

Books and other experts have been Belt's best resources.

"I'm a voracious reader," she said. "It's learning what's out there. It's a constant study process."

There are three or four other botanists living in the Northwoods that she turns to for advice as well.

Her knowledge and affinity for "weeds" considerably reduces her time spent weeding to twice per year.