The difference between a weed and a flower is judgment. Or maybe just attention. Who – other than the gardeners who spend hours uprooting them – really thinks about weeds? Weeds are tenacious growers, always looking for new ways to survive where they’re not wanted. Although most are unassuming, they always carry rich histories and often have potent properties. Learning about these overlooked plants can teach us about spontaneity, endurance, and healing. Every two weeks, I’ll find out everything I can about a local (to wherever I am at the time) weed that’s in season so that we can become acquainted with one of our quietly fierce neighbors.
Context is everything. In Colombia, guascas are an essential ingredient in a chicken and potato stew called ajiaco. In the U.S., gallant soldiers are organic gardeners’ worst nightmare. No matter what you call them, Galinsoga parviflora are probably the cutest members of the daisy family.
Despite being “gallant,” these little guys look like they came out on the losing side of a battle. Galinsoga parviflora grows about 30 inches tall on branched steps. The opposite leaves are toothed at the margins and about 2 inches long. ¼” composite flowerheads have yellow disk flowers and white ray flowers. If you rub the yellow centers between your fingers, 25 or so small, black seeds will have already formed. The 5 toothed ray flowers are usually evenly spaced with nice, big holes between them. Unlike some members of the aster family, gallant soldier’s ray flowers are pistillate. The seeds from disk flowers use a pappus to travel while ray flower seeds spread with a winged structure.
Gallant soldier’s more hirsute brother, shaggy soldier (Galinsoga quadriradiata), looks similar but has hairy leaves. Be careful not to confuse the two edible species of galinsoga with the poisonous tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens). Although the flowers are nearly identical, tridax daisies hug the ground, with only the stem and flower growing straight up. Tridax daisy leaves are diamond-shaped, while gallant soldier leaves are more oval.
Gallant soldier is native to South America. Specimens were brought to Kew Gardens in the 18th century and quickly took the heck over Great Britain with a new name: kew weed. The plant was virtually unstoppable; seeds seemed to form as soon as the distinctive flowers blossomed. By the time anyone realized gallant soldier was in their garden, it had already produced another generation of tiny soldiers.
One released from their Andean home, the army of gallant soldiers kept multiplying; it’s now naturalized on every continent except Antarctica. One of my favorite names for this common weed comes from Malawi, where it’s called Mwamuna aligone or “my husband is sleeping.” And while the botanical name, Galinsoga, isn’t the most unique — its named after Ignacio Mariano Martinez de Galinsoga, a Spanish doctor and botalist — Dr. Galinsoga was pretty forward-thinking. In 1784, he published Demostración mecánica de las enfermedades que produce el uso de las cotillas, a book about the health hazards of wearing corsets.
Speaking of your health — gallant soldier contains compounds which researchers have found can be beneficial to people with diabetes and high blood pressure, and is comparable to spinach in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. You can eat young stems and leaves as a salad green or cook yourself a pot of ajiaco. Gallant soldier is as good for your skin as your belly; you can rub it on nettle stings to stop the burning or on small cuts to help coagulate the blood. If all else fails, you can leave it in your garden to distract bugs from eating your vegetables. Whatever you do, though, don’t put it in your compost bin — the seeds can live for up to twenty years and if they germinate, you’ll have a new war to wage.