Staring at Goats VII: Feral and Very Urban

[Canadian Thistle, Cirsium arvense, up close (above) and in its urban habitat (below).  Along with Bull Thistle, this plant likely made its accidental introduction to North America from Eurasia and North Africa through contaminated seeds or hay.  Extremely difficult to eradicate, Canadian Thistle was one of the first plants listed on the U.S. Government’s noxious weed list.  Yet it has also long been used in Europe as a tonic, diuretic and astringent for skin sores and rashes and the plant’s young stems are edible when peeled and boiled.]

Just before a herd of goats returned to this urban meadow to forage upon it,  we took a more detailed look at the ruderal vegetation growing on these two acres in Portland.  Assisted by several guides to feral city plants (such as this and this), we’ve been documenting what spontaneously lives here at various times of the year with the hope of getting more closely acquainted with our local untamed urban plant ensembles.  In turn we hope to apply these observations through how we engage with them.  The embodied act of going about this activity also offers its own interesting way of experiencing and seeing the urban landscape.

[Red Clover, Trifolium pretense. Originally from Eurasia, this legume has the ability to fix nitrogen with rhizobium bacteria, thus giving it the ability to fertilize itself on poor soils. It also attracts bees and other pollinators and has proven to be favored browsing fodder for the goats in contrast to the currently dried out Downy Brome (seen in the image above this one) which the goats ignore.]

Field Guides of NW native plants proved largely useless for this endeavor; totally out of scope. Other than a couple of yarrow plants, just about everything growing on its own volition in the field is a cosmopolitan ex-patriot from some other continent.  What we found particularly interesting and unexpected in identifying these plants was in uncovering their historical and current ethno-botanical uses.  Some links on Wikipedia and Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast,  particularly useful in this regard.  Tredici’s guide devotes equal attention to the unseen services and uses these plants provide, as well as the novel problematics generated by some of their introductions (obviously his field guide is for the other half of the continent but it comes as little surprise that many of the ruderals it identifies for east coast urban areas are the same cast of disturbance regime colonizers we have here).

I was surprised at how much of what was growing on this lot is edible not just for goats but also for people, and how many of them have other anthropogenic applications. Queen Anne’s Lace (or wild carrot), which came from Eurasia and North Africa, has an edible root and its seeds have been used for centuries as a contraceptive. St. John’s Wort is currently used as a natural antidepressant and a sedative. Black Mustard seed has been used for centuries to make curries, Prickly Lettuce, found just about everywhere around here, has recently found a contemporary use in phytoremediation as it is able to uptake and remove heavy metal contaminants from soil.  The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale exemplifies the oxymoron of a “beneficial weed”: its yellow flowers attract pollinating insects and can be used to make dandelion wine; its leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals and can be eaten cooked or raw in various forms, such as in soup or salad, and it will grow right outside your door and everywhere else without you even thinking of planting it.

[next time you’re in the grocery store paying for that remarkably expensive bag of mixed greens, you might consider your locally abundant and oddly maligned dandelion, which probably offers more vitamins and nutritional value than what is inside that 5 day old hermetically sealed plastic bag, and which conveniently grows all around you without you even thinking about planting it, none the less nurturing it.]

We are still in the process of completing our on-site survey, and probably will be for some time.   There are a wide variety of grasses and a few odd things that we have yet to figure out what they are.  Our original intent in roaming through these taxonomies was to record what plants domesticated goats choose to forage upon and at what times of year, which might tell us the optimal times to bring them here (we’ve disproved the myth that goats are indiscriminate in what they eat.  They can eat an amazing diversity of things, but they are quite selective of what they choose to eat if given such a choice).  Some of our anthro-botanical findings here led us down unexpected paths, which may lead to additional forms of engagement through foraging.


  1. Pamela Zwehl-Burke · ·

    Dear Brett! I’am awake to urban vegetative volunteers here in Karlsruhe, Germany, thanks to your great stroll through the goat yard. Thank you! LOVE

  2. Is anyone interested in joining me in cleaning up the trash that surrounds the goats and is throughout the lot where they are housed? I could show up this evening or thursday evening or any day this week over a lunch hour. I guess we would need someone to open up the gates, but that’s about it. BYO Garbage Bag?

  3. Thanks David. This past Monday (just prior to your comment) we were able to remove some of the plastic and debris mounds within the field, which you can see in process here.

  4. Great! If you need any help cleaning up in the future, I would be happy to help.

  5. “Answer for Invasive Species: Put It on a Plate and Eat It” (New York Times):

  6. I thought you might be interested in this story about an caprine maintenance crew.

  7. Thanks for this. I love that site. I came across city grazing *(also worth a look) through the shelter ReBar designed for them.

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