The Polygonaceae Family

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 3:56 PM | Anonymous

The Polygonaceae family ~ Knotweed, Buckwheat, or Smartweed family
by Susun S. Weed

Bitter Dock (R. obtusifolius)

Herbs that we can eat and use for medicine grow all over our planet. It's fun to travel and meet new herbs, or to read about, and then buy, the latest greatest green from someplace exotic.But I'm a great champion of using the plants that grow nearest to us: the weeds. Weeds pack a powerhouse punch of vitamins and minerals, reawaken our "wild woman" selves, and form the basis of most of my self-help medicines. I'm about to introduce you to a whole family of troublesome weeds. Despite their naughty ways, I'm sure you'll like them.


If you have a garden, or access to a vacant lot or a farm, you'll surely find one or more members of the fascinating "many knees" family. The Polygonaceae (poly is "many," gona is "knee," as in genuflect) family is also known as the knotweed, buckwheat, or smartweed family. When I asked a couple of local farmers about smartweeds, one told me: "You got to be smart to know which ones to eat." His friend did not agree: "If you eat the wrong one, your tongue will smart!" he grinned.


Whether your tongue is smart or smarting, no need to worry. There are no poisonous members of the "many knees" family, at least above ground. All the knotweeds produce edible (though not always delicious) greens and seeds. Below ground is a different story. Some dock roots are such violent cathartic laxatives that they are the next best thing to poisonous. "Many knees" refers to their swollen joints, or knots, which are usually found most easily by looking at the flowering stalk, right where the leaf meets the stalk. The knee is often covered by a conspicuous papery sheath, perhaps the plant equivalent of a silk stocking?


One of the most stately ladies in this family -- and one who is always wearing her silk stockings -- is Miz Ruby Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum). She's also known as Chinese rhubarb, or turkey rhubarb, or one powerful way to blow out your colon. When men (and a few women) went to sea to kill whales, they subsisted on a diet of dried salted meat, dried beans, hardtack, and beer or rum. Not the kind of diet the doctor -- or the wise woman -- would recommend for regularity. Ruby provided that; she is one of the most regular women I know. The ships took on thousands of pounds of her, and the ships' hands--from the captain to the youngest boy--got a weekly dose of rhubarb root boiled in water. Watch out below!


A more common, but just as beautiful, member of the "many knees" family is yellow dock (Rumex crispus). She has a heart of gold, but a will of iron. Women everywhere use her as an iron tonic, especially during pregnancy. (There's a recipe in Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year.) Her ability to improve digestive functioning -- by nourishing and tonifying the liver, stomach, spleen, and gall bladder -- as well as her tendency to get things moving makes her ideal for the latter months of parturition. She also has quite the reputation for giving cancer an eviction notice.


"Dock" refers to any plant with big leaves. So the plant with big leaves and burrs is "burdock." And the big-leaved one where fairies play is called "elfdock" (another name for elecampane). An old name for comfrey is "heal-dock" since its big leaves heal everything. Yellow dock has big leaves too, and a yellow root. (And of course there's Bugs Bunny's favorite plant: "What's up doc?")

Sheep Sorrel (R. acetosella)


There are many related many-knee yellow docks including Rumex crispus (curly dock), R. acetosa (sour dock), R. acetosella (sheep sorrel), R. alpinus (Monk's rhubarb), R. aquatica (red dock), R. aquaticus (water dock), R. hymenosepalus (wild pie plant), R. mexicanus (Mexican dock), R. obtusifolius ( bitter dock), patientia (patience dock), R. scutatus (French sorrel), and R. verticillatus (swamp dock). No matter where you live, you ought to be able to make the acquaintance of my friend Mama Dock.


Her towering hennaed hair-do is one of the easiest ways to pick her out of the crowd. (To the botanist it's a seed head, not a hair-do.) Her strap-like leaves are not that difficult to identify either.They are tasty cooked by themselves or with other spring greens. They are the star of a Russian soup I know as Shav.


By mid-summer there's hardly a yellow dock leaf to be seen, but the flowering stalks are rising, rising, some up to 4 feet. Her flowers are green, not flashy, but en masse (especially if you find a field of sheep sorrel blooming) they have a faint reddish hue which hovers like a haze around them. The flowers mature into russety reddish-brown seeds which stay on the stalk for months, providing important nutrition to birds when snow covers the ground.


Those seeds are not just related to buckwheat, they are wild buckwheat. I harvest them when they are mature and dark brown. If I wait too long they get too wet or too buggy. I harvest on a sunny day and lay the seedheads on shallow paper-lined trays to dry.


To prepare the seeds, I strip them off the stalks and rub them briskly between my palms. While not sharp, the seeds and stalks are abrasive, so you may want to wear gloves if you are going to process a lot. It is nicest to do this outside in a light breeze. With a little practice, you can get the wind to take the husks away for you. Inside, you will need to use a sieve with holes too small to allow the seeds through, but big enough to pass the husks. Don't worry if some husk is still in with the seeds. They won't hurt you; they're just bitter.


Seeds can be stored in glass jars until ready to use. They last about 20 years. Just before cooking, I lightly toast the yellow dock seeds in a cast iron skillet. This improves both the flavor and digestibility. Ordinary buckwheat seeds are white when harvested but brown when we buy them because they've been toasted. I usually grind my toasted wild buckwheat and combine it with wheat flour in pancakes (yum), muffins, and breads.

Buckwheat greens -- in fact, all the edible leaves in this family including those from curly dock, french sorrel, and sheep sorrel -- are an excellent source of bioflavonoids, sometimes called vitamin P. Bioflavonoids support collagen production, helping our skin feel good and look good. Bioflavonoids increase capillary strength, which reduces bruising. They keep blood flowing freely, which helps prevent strokes. And they help our immune system build a protective barrier against infections, which makes us feel better in so many ways.


I'm out of space and time already? There are so many more "many knees" to meet. and I didn't tell you why it is they are so naughty. Perhaps next time. For now, I urge you to grab a field guide, go outside and introduce yourself to the local knotweeds. I guarantee you'll be glad you did. Until we're together again, reweaving the healing cloak of the Ancients, I send you green blessings.

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