The Philosopher’s Salad

The Philosopher’s Salad
(Soundbite: A Weed by/Philosopher's Salad)
The selection of foraged leaves before you has been curated to nourish both body and mind. Most are considered weeds; a line-up of everything from the usual suspects to the country’s most wanted. Those that aren’t weeds hold their own importance, adding to this story with their unique tale.
These leaves are foraged from Hackney Marshes, one of the largest common lands left in London. Despite a history of intervention, the marshes have never been inhabited; a relic of pre-London London, witness to the city’s multi-millennia megalopolisation. Imbued with this history, this salad reconciles the divide we have placed between nature and culture. These plants have grown on borderlands; their roots tapping both the urban and the natural, reconnecting our dualistic understanding of the world.
In the rural, many of these plants find their homes in hedgerows; diverse borderland sanctuaries starkly contrasted to the monocrops they abut. In witchcraft, hedges cross across worlds, states of being, and ways of thinking;(1) liminal spaces of mystery where nothing is certain. Plants there become tools of transition and transversing.
In the urban, the hedge finds equivalent in the liminal spaces lining our sprawl: cracking our pavements, skirting our buildings, cloaking our refuse. These plants are conduits, not pests, facilitating our reconnection to a nature we’ve forgotten. Their roots permeate our borders with their expressive diversity, knitting together our world and theirs.
Tossed with a little folklore, sprinkled with philosophy, and paired with a healthy dose of interpretation, the salad before you tells a tale of diversity, resistance, and non-normativity. In finding the wisdoms within I spoke with witches, consulted herbalists, and explored my own understanding. This salad is thus imbued with the thoughts, feelings, folklore and philosophies of myriad thinkers. So let’s come together, take a forkful, and dive into a thicket thick with folkloric and philosophic wisdom, to nourish our minds with a salad of their leaves.
First we have ‘field mustard’ [Rhamphospermum arvense], looking much like slender sprouting broccoli with yellow blooms. Field mustard is an unsung hero of the human diet, its diverse genetic material having given us everything from cauli to kohlrabi. Filled as it is with such possibility, a single fiery bite might ignite within us its endless potential for reincarnation. In the Christian tradition, Jesus said had they as much faith as a mustard seed they could move mountains:(2) i.e. even the smallest grain of faith can make monumental change. Two millennia hence, this isn’t so far from the truth, for the extractivism this faith dictates sees us change landscapes. Abandoning this dominant outlook, I instead place my faith in field mustard, a wild plant whose ability to shift species speaks more to me than the conversion of water to wine.
With elderflower [Sambucus nigra] thinking is conflicted, which perhaps only testifies to the widespread appreciation of its powers. “You should bow to [it] before you pick it” says the witch I consulted, “and ask permission cos it's the elders, show some respect.”(3) Burn an elder and the devil will come, though a tree near the house will keep them at bay. This is perhaps because Judas hanged himself from its boughs. Anyone who’s encountered an elder, however, will tell you that lest Judas were severely underweight, its brittle branches would not a gallows make. Despite supposedly abetting in Judas’ death by suicide, the plant is perhaps most known for its life-giving attributes, rich in vitamins and antiviral properties.
Next, we have honesty [Lunaria annua], a cousin of mustard. The name ‘honesty’ originates in the 16th century, referring to the seed pod’s translucent inner-layers, through which the seeds reveal themselves truthfully. Curious, then, that its Danish and Dutch monikers, judaspenge and judaspenning respectively, mean ‘coins of Judas’ alluding to his betrayal of Jesus. In this, honesty and elder see eye to eye, for both plants have had their integrity questioned by the same religious ramblings.
Unrelated to elder but nonetheless connected, ground elder [Aegopodium podagraria]. Also called gout wort, this name’s suffix, from the Old English wyrt meaning ‘root’, indicates its ancient use as a medicinal herb to treat, as the prefix suggests, gout. This medicinal use seemed to be corroborated by European monks, for they carried it with them to many of their monasteries. The famed herbalist Hildegard von Bingen was also a fan, mentioning its use in her Physica (1158 CE). However, even the mother of natural history can’t sway some. According to our witch, “if one inch of the stinking bastard gets in your garden you turn your back and it’s taken over.”(4)
Garlic mustard [Alliaria petiolata] “scares the shit” out of our witch, who can’t have it in the house. “A [sic] old friend went peculiar once when he saw somebody picking it [...] and now I've got that fear!”(5) In spite of her fear, most folklore overlooks this plant, perhaps because its conspicuity earned it a familiarity with which no symbolism need be associated. Its history of disinterest includes its Latinate name, Alliaria petiolata meaning ‘resembling an Allium with a leaf stalk.’ At any rate, it’s a salad stalwart and a welcome snack, though I’d avoid leaves past two thumb’s width for their astringency; perhaps a bitterness at its social disregard.
For Japanese knotweed [Reynoutria japonica] see The ASBO Weed. In addendum to this, though: a tale of how we met. I found them online, through an illicit website(6) where different members of their species are listed, each with their geolocation. It felt wrong to meet up, but my desire overpowered my caution, and we found one another under the cover of rain and greenery on the edge of a park. Since then, I haven’t looked back, revisiting them often in their green retreat.
The bright blooms of red valerian [Centranthus ruber] are flowers I associate most readily with such liminal spaces as building sites, railway sidings, and gravel pits. Thoroughly at home on the peripheries of our existence, perhaps this species' most notable moment on centre stage is in its confusion with its distant relative true valerian [Valeriana officinalis]. Where the latter has been noted for its myriad medicinal properties since before Hippocrates’ time; the former’s main claim is that it makes a rather good salad addition. The name ‘valerien,’ thus belies this general bloom. Rooted in the Latin valere, ‘be strong,’ whence ‘valour’ comes; true valerian’s more understated cousin would be perhaps better named ‘red genialis’ for its gentler nature. At any rate, our witch rates it excellent for compost, as is oak, [honesty] and something else I can't remember. Ha ha.”(7)
Though it might be called ‘common’ comfrey [Symphytum officinale]; our witch testifies, there’s “[n]othing common about [it].” Going by both knitbone (“cos it knits bones together”) and boneset, its Latinate name also testifies to its healing properties; the suffix officinale indicating a wisedpread medicinal application. So potent are its abilities, in fact, that Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physitian (1652) suggests when boiling it with “disserved” (separate) pieces of flesh, it will join them back together.(8) Aside from these more spurious claims, comfrey has a long history of treating ailments, its use recorded as far back as 400BCE.(9) Comfrey, like valerian, oak and honesty, will benefit compost, and as a perennial will be sure to grace you annually.
We finish with oak [Quercuc robus]. Hardly a weed, I know; more nation’s sweetheart than a national pest. Oak is a relic of our once-wooded landscape, though as our witch laments, “we had to chop them down to build an armarda [sic].”(10) Notwithstanding this general statement, the witch isn’t wrong, and for several centuries this oak-loving nation stripped its land of trees. So valuable did oak become, that a 1691 Charter decreed all trees over 24 inches diameter to automatically belong to the crown. By 18th century a British gun ship required 4,000 oaks to build, without counting the wood burnt for smelting.(11)It is ironic, then, that this tree’s status as national symbol comes from when a particular oak unwittingly hid a king from his parliamentarian pursuers during the English Civil War. One can only assume this tree did not follow contemporary politics, for had it known all they sought was democracy, I’m sure it would have ousted the autocrat from betwixt its branches. Aside from royal politics, one source suggests witches once wore acorns to secretly identify one another;12 the queer handkerchief of the Middle Ages.
The astute reader might have noticed their salad laced with contrasting tales of folkloric perceptions and Christian prescriptions, often at odds. This is a reflection of the dualism which we examined upon our first bite. The Christain tradition holds that the Earth and its resources are ours for the taking, facilitated by a notional division between humans and the rest of nature—the ‘nature-culture’ divide. This dualistic thinking facilitates extractivism, and is of detriment to our world.
By positing these weeds as a conduit between these worlds, and by serving them to you both physically and notionally, I present them as our lifeline; reconnecting us to something we’ve forgotten. I know, it is ambitious to think that a bite of salad might change your perceptions. But perhaps in the profusion of diverse flavours and notions contained in the bowl before you, you might be inspired to think a little different, and see these species as connecting us to a nature we are a part of, not apart from.

(1) Notes from the Apothecary, Pagan Pages (01/05/20). []. Accessed 29/04/24.'
(2) Matthew 17:20
(3) Edwards, J., (aka Witch), (2024) Text conversation with Barney Pau, [25/04/24] (4) Edwards, J., (2024)
(5) Edwards, J., (2024)
(6) UK Japanese Knotweed Cases, Horticulture (n/d). []. Accessed 08/04/24.
(7) Edwards, J., (2024)
(8) Comfrey the Healer, Green Witch Farm (19/07/24). []. Accessed 29/04/24.
(9) Comfrey: Folklore, Healing & Magockal Uses, Dawn Black (05/01/24). []. Accessed 29/04/24.
(10) Edwards, J., (2024)
(11) The Impact of the Royal Navy on Deforestation, ATLASAIL (28/01/19) []. Accessed 29/04/24.
(12) Notes from the Apothecary: Oak, Pagan Pages (01/10/16). []. Accessed 29/04/24.