Thursday, January 8, 2015

Weedy plant domestication

Most of our garden vegetables and crop plants started out as weedy plants.   Part of the evolutionary syndrome of being a 'weedy' species is being r-selected ("r" for reproduction), meaning the species invests in producing as many offspring as possible instead of defending any one life that much. The opposite reproductive strategy is referred to as K-selected ("K" for… well, I have no idea), meaning a species invests a great deal in each offspring to help ensure they have a high chance of survival.

In the context of plants, this means that weedy plants tend to not be spiny, tough, or poisonous... In short, weedy plants tend to be more edible for a non-specialist vegetarian like us humans.

Since I was a child, I've liked the idea of domesticating weedy plants. I have several projects in mind, but have only taken the earliest steps of gathering seeds for some plants I find interesting (Arctium lappa, Carduus nutans, Lepdium virginicum, Leucanthemum vulgar, Malvaviscus drummondii, Oenothera biennis, Thlaspi arvense).

The internet is a wonderful thing in that it lets one find others who have similar interests, no matter how esoteric.

The left half of the image is a botanical plate for Plantago major. It is a common yard side weed native to Europe and Asia. It is easily confused with the related native species Plantago rugelii, which is equally weedy and much more common.

The right half of the image is the result of a project by a plant breeder over at Arrowhead Alpines.   The variety is named "Purple Perversion".   If you order the plant, it will probably spread its genes widely - contaminating the Plantago population already growing in your yard with genetics for interesting colors and textures. (Some other varieties can be found at Plant World Seeds.)

Plantago species have edible leaves that are rich in B vitamins, which gives them a savory taste reminiscent of mushrooms. Some further selection, perhaps with mutation breeding, could transition this plant from a yard weed to a prime garden vegetable. As a domestication project, this plant is already partly done, so I could imagine making significant progress with it.