Uses for Weeds in Everyday Life

Velcro, Life Vests and a Coffee Substitute

picture of burs
Inspirational hitchhiker? Burs inspired the creator of Velcro. David Beaulieu

The information on the following uses for weeds in everyday life comes courtesy of Peter Del Tredici, in the book, Wild Urban Plants Of The Northeast.

Did you know that the burs (picture) of common burdock (Arctium minus), a biennial native to Eurasia, were the inspiration for Velcro? Don't know what common burdock looks like? Many of you have most likely encountered the burs, anyhow. Objects a bit bigger than a typical marble (or "aggie"), the burs are brown when dry and covered with spikes.

These spikes give the burs the ability to cling fast to your clothing or hair, or to a pet's fur. After the fact, the connection with Velcro is sort of obvious, but it took a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral to make the product a reality.

Even more of you are probably familiar with common milkweed (a perennial from North America), or at least with the masses of white fluff to which its seeds are attached, often seen blowing in the wind. According to Del Tredici, this white fluff was "used as a substitute for kapok to fill 'Mae West' life vests" during World War II.

Are you a coffee lover? Then you may be interested in learning more about the weed, chicory (Cichorium intybus), a perennial from Eurasia. Del Tredici points out that chicory root "has long been used as a coffee additive or substitute, especially during times of scarcity." Yikes! I hope times never get that tough where I live.

I need my cup o' joe in the morning, and I'm not sure that chicory would cut the mustard for me!

Of course, these three examples from Del Tredici's book merely scratch the surface on the topic of everyday uses for weeds. Many weeds are edible plants and/or have medicinal properties, for example. You probably know about dandelion greens and other popular choices.

But some weeds that end up on the dinner table may surprise you. Even the dreaded Japanese knotweed is edible. My wife and I dined at a restaurant recently where nettle soup was on the menu. Her derision notwithstanding, I ordered it -- and like it. Never fear: cooking takes the sting out of those vicious barbs.

Uncooked nettle is another matter. I've been stung by it more times than I care to remember. But that's where another beneficial weed comes into play: yellow dock. Just mash up a leaf of the latter in your hands when you feel nettles' sting and rub the resulting pulp on the affected area for relief. Both are common garden weeds and -- lucky for us -- often grow side-by-side. There's a similar relationship between poison ivy and jewelweed, the latter acting as a salve to treat the former.

Weeds can even be used as substitutes in some cases for landscaping plants that perform a particular function. Perhaps you'd like to grow a flowering ground cover on a hillside to prevent erosion, but you lack the funds just now to shell out the necessary cash for creeping phlox, say. Well, if some creeping charlie is currently growing on the hillside in question, I wouldn't yank it out just yet.

Chances are that this weed is performing the same function as the creeping phlox would -- but for free! And having discussed the matter with other plant lovers on multiple occasions, I now know that I'm not the only oddball who actually likes creeping charlie. Not only does it bear interesting leaves and attractive flowers, but it's also one of the plants with aromatic foliage. Not bad for a lowly "weed."

For more information please see: Types of Weeds

Photo ©2011 David Beaulieu (licensed to About, Inc.)