When we think of food gardens, we often envision neat rows of tomato and cucumber plants waiting to be harvested. While those plants are definitely rightful citizens of kitchen gardens, growing food plants in isolation from other natural inhabitants is inefficient. When we plant a single kind of crop over large areas (called monoculture), we make the plants and soil vulnerable to pest invasions, drought and depletion. Instead, the goal is to create eco-systems in which each plant fulfils multiple functions and supports the other plants. These functions include attracting beneficial insects, deterring pests, enriching the soils and keeping moisture in.
Many of the plants below are found in the wild and are even considered to be “weeds”! Actually, weeds are really just plants that are “unwanted” in a particular area, rather than placed there by design. The key is to learn the different functions of plants and to create synergistic relationships between them. Whatever needs are fulfilled by the plants themselves, that’s the work that the gardener does not have to do.
Below is a gorgeous gallery of 15 multifunctional and beneficial plants that are usually found in forest meadows, but are missing from conventional gardens. Each of them has multiple functions in the garden as well as being beneficial to humans. Many provide edible parts or can be used for medicinal purposes (this is for informational purposes only and not to be taken as medical advice).
Not all of these plants may be appropriate for your particular garden, but it offers ideas on how we can combine usual and unusual plant to create more resilient and productive gardens. Also, please note that some of these plants may be considered “noxious weeds” in your area and may not be allowed to be grown (it was a surprise for me to discover such regulations, but here we are…). In this case, you can find a substitute plant with similar properties to fulfil the same function.
1. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Comfrey has a very special place in my heart, as well as being mega useful in a garden. Bees adore it for its colourful blossoms and potent nectar. Humans benefit from a substance manufactured by the plant called alantoin, which promotes wound healing and moisturises the skin. Comfrey is a powerful soil nutrient accumulator, and its leaves can be slashed down a few times a year to be used as green mulch. Just lay the leaves around your food plants to lock in soil moisture and add organic matter as the leaves are braking down. A winner all around.
2. Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus)
Nasturtiums are gorgeous to look at and they bring a brilliant splash of orange and red into the garden. They produce sweet edible flowers that can lighten up your salads as well. Nasturtiums are hardy and low maintenance. They work as ground cover protecting the soil from evaporation. Additionally, Nasturtiums are respectable members of any Permaculture garden for their anti-pest properties. They seem to deter whitefly, although the results are a bit ambiguous. Just try and be sure to let us know of your results!
3. Marigolds (Tagetes spp.)
Marigolds are another kind of sweet edible flower, perfect for salads. Like Nasturtiums, Marigolds are know for their pest deterring properties. Their strong smell confuses and repels certain types of pests, while their roots secrete compounds that repel soil nematodes. As a rule of thumb, look for least cultivated varieties to have the strongest effect.
4. Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Chicory attracts beneficial insects to your garden and adds visual interest with tall light-blue flowers. It also works as nutrient accumulator in the soil by absorbing Potassium and Calcium. It fixes Nitrogen and it has deep strong roots (called spike roots) that break up and aerate compacted soils. As for direct human benefit, dried chicory root is used to replace coffee and create a delicious caffeine-free drink.
5. Bamboo (Poaceae family)
Bamboo is a beautiful and restful plant, which brings serenity to its space. Believe it or not, it is considered to be a type of grass (Poaceae). This truly multifunctional plant has been used by humans for centuries. It provides humans with building material for shelter and crafts, creates privacy hedges that are deerproof; young bamboo shoots are edible; we even make soft luxurious fabrics from Bamboo pulp. Bamboo can be used as windbreak barrier and it is a vigourous grower that can be harvested intensively. The reason why it’s not grown more commonly is because of its tendency to spread and having Bamboo in the garden needs to be planned for. In order to prevent Bamboo from taking over your space, plant it beside a paved path impenetrable to the shoots, use a bamboo barrier (can be bought), or choose non-spreading varieties, such as sympodial types.
6. Dandelion (Taraxacum vulgare)
Everyone is probably familiar with this plant. As kids, we used to make Dandelion wreaths, and Dandelion seeds blowing in the wind are considered a symbol of hope. Dandelions grow and spread readily (especially in poor soils), and hence they are often classified as weeds. In fact, like Chicory, Dandelion plant had a strong deep root that loosens the soil and makes it more usable for other plants. Instead of the gardener having to till the soil, Dandelion can do that for you. Young Dandelion leaves make a gorgeous salad when tossed with olive oil and mixed with walnuts.
7. Clover (Trifolium spp.)
Have you ever had Clover honey? It’s delightful! Clover is best known for its Nitrogen-fixing properties and medicinal uses. Flowers of Red Clover can be made into a tea, which is very tasteful and helps to balance female hormones. It can be used to normalise menstruation cycles and to alleviate menopause symptoms. In Permaculture, Clover is used as ground cover to retain soil moisture, attract beneficial insects, and as part of wild-flower mix for meadows.
8. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is a type of insectary plant, which means it attracts pollinator insects and predator insects that munch on the pests. It’s an effective soil nutrient accumulator (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium and Copper) with many medicinal uses. Brew of Yarrow plant can be used as antiseptic and antibacterial remedies and to reduce inflammation. Yarrow is drought tolerant and has many beautiful white, yellow and pink flowers that look great along a path, or in combination with other flowers.
9. Lupin (Lupinus spp.)
This tall flowers is often found growing freely in the mountainous regions. Lupins belong to the same family as peas and beans (Legumes), so they are superb Nitrogen fixers. Lupins are very decorative and easily grown, while attracting bees and other pollinating insects.
10. Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora)
Guomi is a hardy plant that is a non-opportunistic relative of Russian Olive. Guomi yields red berries, which are very high in Vitamin C and can be made into jams and pies. They are also an important food source for the birds that are beneficial to your garden. It’s very drought tolerant and thrives on neglect. It fixes Nitrogen in the soil. Goumi is the star of Permaculture design principles.
11. Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum)
Mashua plant has beneficial parts both above and below ground. Its leaves are edible to humans and have interesting shapes. The roots are also edible, called tubers, which can be baked or roasted, similarly to potatoes. Mashua makes a great companion to other plants because it contains compounds that repel nematodes and fungal diseases.
12. Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii)
This is perennial sunflower, so it comes back to life every year without you having to re-plant it. That’s a great benefit! On top of that Maximilian’s stems are covered with tiny coarse hairs, which makes them unpalatable to deer and similar uninvited visitors. The flowers are easy to grow, drought tolerant and they bloom in late Autumn, when a bright flush of colour is most welcomed.
13. Stinging Nettles (Urtica urens)
Another treasure from childhood memories. If you ever visited a site of an abandoned building, you have likely seen Stinging Nettles (along with Mugwort, perhaps). These bright green plants may look fuzzy and inviting, but touch them…and you are in for a surprise. They are called “stinging” for a reason. Although not particularly harmful, the rash that you get from Stinging Nettles can be quite uncomfortable. So wear gloves when handling the plants. Stinging Nettles are excellent soil nutrient accumulators (Nitrogen, Potassium, Calcium, Sulphur, Iron, Copper), and as a result produce highly nutritious teas and baths.
14. Thistles (Asteraceae family)
Prickly and even hostile-looking, Thistles are actually very friendly to humans and our spaces. Young leaves and flowers are edible. Since Thistles are often called “weeds”, it means that they are pioneer-kind of plants, coming in and preparing the soil for more refined plants. Thistle leaves can be used as medicinal teas for treatment of colds and flu. According to Dan Jason, chewing Thistle seeds can even help cure certain types of cancer.
15. Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota)
Also called “Wild Carrot” and “Bishop’s Lace”, this attractive white flower is an excellent insect attractor. It’s pollen and nectar-producing flowers are irresistible to bees and the lot. Queen Anne’s Lace belongs to a carrot family, and hence can be substituted with fennel, dill, or coriander to fulfil the same function. What a poetic name though…
All of the above images are published under Creative Commons license. Spread the love!
- “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture” by Toby Hemenway, 2009
- Dan Jason in “Gardens of Destiny” documentary
10 replies on “The Missing Link: 15 Multifunctional Plants Missing From Conventional Gardens”
[…] The Missing Link: 15 Multifunctional Plants Missing From Conventional Gardens […]
[…] Fixes nitrogen in the soil Attracts beneficial insects Great ground cover/green manure in cooler months (dies down in summer) Try clover tea for multiple health benefits including being anticarcinogenic and relieving PMS Self-seeds […]
Wow, that is fantastic!
Was gifted a Maximilian sunflower a few weeks ago by a volunteer from our native plant society. Buried the pot in soil for the winter until I pick a space for it. Have 28 comfrey around my yard (and planted in the city blvd next to my sidewalk too).
With currently a foot of snow on the yard, I look forward to year 2 of my food forest. Currently 12 fruit trees ad 30 shrubs in front yard. At least 2 more plum trees going in and then I start on backyard
Thanks Hughbert. I don’t know where to get seeds in Australia either…I just checked Diggers, and they only have regular Sunflowers. Maximilian Sunflower can be propagated from root, so maybe you could find someone who’s started one? Please do let us know if you find seeds/roots!!
Great post. Already growing a lot of these but came across this while looking for info on Maximilian Sunflower. Seems hard to find seeds in Australia, anyone know where, or have some to swap?
Glad you like it. Plants are gorgeous creatures!
Very nice! Loved the post. Saving this page for future reference. 🙂
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Great job in compiling the photography for this. Very inspiring.