Are you feeding your house rabbits weeds? Weeds offer great nutrition and health benefits, are economical, provide variety in the diet and are fun to forage.
Readers of this column are well aware that house rabbits need a couple of cups of dark green leafy greens daily. These readers also know what greens cost at the local grocer. As you plan your garden this year, keep in mind that weeds are easily grown (duh – ‘weeds’) in the garden bed or any old flowerpot, they are mostly perennials (‘weeds’), you can get them from untreated lawns and vacant lots for free (‘weeds’) and your rabbits will love them. Weeds thrive on neglect and grow in any sort of horrible soil – in fact they prefer horrible soil – don’t try to compost them or add organic fertilizer. Just water them once in a while and leave them alone and they’ll be around until the first hard freeze. As perennials, weeds are the first greens up in the springtime, and by the second week of April, residents of the Miami Valley should have harvestable crops of dandelions, wild strawberry leaves, violets and yarrow.
Strictly speaking, yarrow is not a weed, but weeds are in the eye of the beholder. A weed is any plant that is growing where it is not wanted. Most people find grass in the lawn is fine, but grass in the vegetable garden is a weed. If a plant is a welcome surprise (a nice tomato plant on the side of the compost heap) it is a ‘volunteer’ instead of a ‘weed’. You can easily grow edible weeds organically in your own garden or they can be grown in large flower pots if you are concerned about weeds spreading to where they are not wanted (which would then make them double weeds).
Weeds are generally higher in phyto-nutrients than cultivated crops. Phyto-nutrients are bioactive plant-derived compounds associated with positive health effects. Wild edible plants are usually much more nutrient dense than cultivated plant foods, most of which have had some or most of the nutrients bred out of them in favor of higher yields, increased cold tolerance, etc. Weeds have a higher content of vitamins, minerals, important antioxidants, antimicrobials and anti-inflammatories.
· spinach (a cultivated crop) contains 1800 UI of provitamin A per 100 g
· violets (a wild edible plant) contains 20,000 UI of provitamin A per 100 g
Nutrients aside, edible wild foods will add variety to your bunny’s diet. Most bunnies get arugula, spinach, and maybe some Romaine. Think how pleased your bunny will be with some violet leaves, dandelions or thistle!
Wild foods are generally fresher, as most people forage for wild greens just before feeding them to their bunny. Store bought produce is frequently genetically modified or chemically treated in order to maintain a fresh appearance for as long as possible. Wild foods may wilt quickly or not be as beautiful as some cultivated greens, but their freshness and nutritional value are unsurpassed. Wild foods are oftentimes valuable adjunct therapies for a poorly bunny. They are no substitute for proper veterinary care, but used correctly, they can provide additional support for whatever therapies or medications have been prescribed for your house rabbit.
Wild greens are free! Buying fresh greens for your house rabbits quickly adds up, especially when you include your time and the cost of gasoline for two or more trips to the grocery each week. What’s more, wild edible plants are picked outdoors, so you get some exposure to sunlight and a boost to your vitamin D, and a pleasant walk in a grassy field with fresh air and birds singing in the background.
When foraging, pick weeds in an area that you are sure has not been treated with pesticides or herbicides. Avoid foraging from the roadside as plants growing here may be contaminated by exhaust fumes. Avoid foraging in very brushy areas frequented by wildlife (weeds may have been contaminated with wildlife excrement). With any greens, always provide very fresh plants, as wilting or fermented plants can cause potentially life-threatening GI distress. Introduce any new foods to your pet’s diet in small amounts at first.
Weeds can also be successfully dried for use in the winter, although it is not terribly practical to dry Queen Anne’s Lace, lamb’s quarters, or purslane. Most bunnies actually seem to prefer wild greens in their dried state (possibly the natural flavors are concentrated by drying) and sometimes a few dried leaves of plantain or bull thistle is just the thing to tempt a poorly bunny into eating again. Wild greens can be spread upon paper toweling to dry or hung in bunches in the kitchen, although you may wish to invest in an inexpensive food dehydrator (garage sale) if you plan to do much drying.
Dandelions are possibly the most easily identified weed. The leaves of this perennial are tastiest in early spring, before the yellow flowers show up, and again in late fall after the first frost when their bitterness disappears (house rabbits will eat them at any time of year!). Dandelion leaves are highly nutritious, containing more beta-carotene than carrots, more iron and calcium than spinach, as well as vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, and D, Dandelions also contain biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc.
Dandelions are high in protein, low in fiber, highly digestible and have a positive effect on the digestive glands and organs (dandelions naturally stimulate the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, promoting digestion). Dandelions will regulate the gut, alleviating both diarrhea and constipation. Dandelions promote good respiratory health and are a good adjunct therapy for pneumonia, bronchitis and upper respiratory infections.
Dandelion leaves act as a gentle diuretic; unlike pharmaceuticals such as lasix, dandelion does not ‘wash out’ the body’s potassium. Dandelions are a natural body tonic, beneficial to every system in the body, owing to their many vitamins and phytonutrients. Dandelions are also recommended for reducing stress, preventing osteoporosis, and stimulating milk production in (rescued) does.
More good news: there are no poisonous look-alikes for dandelions: pretty much anything that you find with serrated leaves growing in a rosette pattern will be edible. You may pull up chicory or thistle or plantain, but these are all edible.
Wild chicory is often found in vacant lots and fields, and has pretty purplish blue flowers. The dried, ground roots of chicory are an ingredient of certain coffee blends, most notably Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee and Café du Monde. You may know of radicchio and endive, which are the cultivated varieties of chicory and are found in most grocery stores!
Wild chicory is a perennial plant which is in grown in some areas as a forage crop for livestock. Other names for chicory include blue sailors, coffeeweed, and cornflower (although it is not true cornflower). Chicory has a tough, somewhat fuzzy stem and serrated edges to its leaves, not unlike the leaves of dandelions, and it, too, grows in a rosette pattern. Wild chicory has an exceedingly long taproot, so you are better off collecting or ordering seeds to plant, rather than trying to transplant a chicory plant.
Chicory extract is used in homeopathic and in herbal remedies. Chicory aids digestion, is said to ease the discomfort of rheumatism and gout due to its mild diuretic properties. Chicory acts as a general tonic, having especially positive benefits to the kidney and liver, and chicory leaves contain anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Externally, the leaves can be mashed and made into a poultice and applied to skin inflammations and lacerations (and it is OK for your pet to lick off); a compress of chicory leaves can be used to soothe eye inflammations.
In the Midwest, the chicory should be in bloom through October or until the first hard frost. Look for the pretty purplish-blue flowers in an area NOT treated with pesticides or contaminated with exhaust fumes, and offer your pet some chicory leaves in their salad.
Coming soon: more weeds for the house rabbits
Note: the 20th annual dandelion festival is May 3 & 4, 2013 at Breidenbach Winery in Dover, Ohio. This author will be participating in the dandelion cook-off on Saturday afternoon.
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Chicory is highly nutritious and contains anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It can also be mashed and applied externally to skin irritations.
Dandelions are a general tonic, containing more beta-carotene than carrots, more iron and calcium than spinach, as well as vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, and D, Dandelions also contain biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc.
Weeds or edible greens? ‘Weeds’ are highly nutritious, easily grown, perennials, low maintenance, and have a variety of medicinal uses.