Plantain and dandelions are weeds that gardeners love to hate, but are they more than that?
Dr. Rafael Otfinowski, Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at University of Winnipeg, and his students are aiming to find out.
Otfinowski’s research project involves testing some 300 exotic or non-native plants to Canada for antibacterial properties and perhaps for analgesic properties as well.
At a recent lecture as part of the noon hour series at Millennium Library, his enthusiasm was contagious.
“U of Winnipeg is an urban campus surrounded by both a large Indigenous population and many new Canadians, they may be using plants in ways we haven’t come up with. We can learn from them,” said Otfinowski.
Community-campus engagement recognizes learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that universities have a responsibility to the communities in which they’re located. What a great idea, and how neat that a university professor is sharing in and fostering community participation.
Otfinowski’s students have been out collecting plants at community gardens maintained by the Spence Neighbourhood Association. There are quite a few gardens in the neighbourhood around the university and growers are not allowed to use herbicides which is important,
Presently, as it’s a university project, they are reviewing loads of literature and compiling a compendium of known indigenous uses of the exotic plants and their purported properties.
According to their references the much maligned dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was used in Canadian Indigenous cultures for more than 20 ailments.
It was also widely used as an emetic, a laxative and a poultice. The whole plant was consumed; the leaves as a vegetable, the taproot as a medicine especially beneficial for diabetics and the flowers were sometimes made into wine or eaten.
Collaborating on this project are Amanda Karst, ethnobotanist and Community Outreach Co-ordinator of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and Nancy Turner, respected ethnobotanist at University Of Victoria and a recipient of the Order of British Columbia. Both women have worked extensively with Indigenous elders, documenting their plant lore.
The students will soon be out again in full force at a community garden near you collecting plants including common weeds.
The collected plants will be tested in the lab for their properties. The assay, or investigative process, will involve collecting a few kilos of each species and after grinding up the dried plant, distilling out the essential chemicals using an alcohol solution.
The end result will be 5 to 10 grams of the essential chemical makeup of the plant which will be dropped onto slides contaminated with various bacteria to test for antimicrobial properties.
For plants with promising results, Dr. Athar Ata in the U of Winnipeg Chemistry Department will do further testing to pinpoint the active chemicals.
Plantain (Plantago major) was originally native to Europe and North and Central Asia. It was known to Indigenous people here as ‘white man’s footprint’. The leaves which are high in calcium and vitamins A, C, and K, are eaten both in salads and as a potherb by Europeans and by our Indigenous populations.
The leaves are commonly used externally on sunburn, wounds, insect bites and more. Indeed, in Sweden it is called Groblad, meaning “healing leaves”. So if you’re stung by a wasp why not try crushing some leaves and rubbing them on the sting. Without traditional plant knowledge this wouldn’t occur to us.
It’s not only survivalist types or “Little House on the Prairie” traditionalists who consume these and other “delicacies”, so do our neighbours from other cultures. Plants such as Common Burdock (Arctium minus) and unbelievably Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense), are just two examples. Without a forum to share plant knowledge, how would we know?
Many new Canadians have settled in the downtown core around the university and their input will be extremely valuable to this research work.
Community based research and community-campus engagement always includes a way of sharing information and benefiting the neighbourhood. Perhaps, at the end of this project, there will be a big community dinner with dandelions, lambs quarters and plantain being served along with lots of unfamiliar foods (at least to us).
It’s possible we’ll never look at weeds in the same way again.