Get ready! Even as the cold winds still surround us here in the Midwest, sheltered locations may soon have some harvestable weeds for your house rabbits or other herbivores. Currently, yarrow in sheltered locations are beginning to send up tender shoots free for the picking and full of phytonutrients for your house rabbits (and you, of course!).
Weeds are typically higher in phytonutrients than cultivated crops (phytonutrients are plant compounds associated with positive health effects). Cultivated plant foods typically have had at least some 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. These wild foods are usually fresher, as most people harvest wild greens just before eating them or feeding them to their pet.
Wild foods are oftentimes valuable adjunct therapies for a poorly bunny, guinea pig or other pet. They are not a substitute for proper veterinary care, but when used correctly they can provide additional support for other therapies that have been prescribed.
Pick weeds in areas that you are sure haven’t been treated with pesticides or herbicides, and avoid foraging from the roadside - 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). As 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.
Common blue violets and yarrow are typically among the first weeds to appear in the spring, and are generally easily identifiable:
Common blue violets can be found in most lawns; violets are types of small wild pansies with broad, heart-shaped leaves which arise on separate stems. Violet leaves provide plenty of vitamin A; leaves and flowers provide substantial amounts of vitamin C. Violets also contain rutin, a phytonutrient with anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which can help neutralize damaging free radicals which contribute to chronic disease and cancers.
Add only a teaspoon or so of violet leaves to your rabbit’s daily diet as larger amounts may have a gentle laxative effect. The flowers are greatly enjoyed by small pets, although pets and humans should NEVER eat the root nor seeds of the violet, as these are poisonous. African violets are not in fact true violets, and are also not edible.
Yarrow is a perennial herb and often the first wild green that appears in the spring; sometimes as early as late Feb in protected areas. Commonly found in old fields, pastures, and meadows, yarrow can grow to 20 inches high and is very feathery and fern-like. Both leaves and flowers of yarrow are edible and highly nutritious. Yarrow contains plant pigments which have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-tumor and antioxidant properties; in fact, yarrow contains over 120 compounds with medicinal properties!
Yarrow is quite valuable in alternative medicine, and is useful for bunnies (and other pets, and humans) with respiratory ailments, kidney and other urinary disorders, nausea, skin irritations and as a general tonic. Yarrow contains a volatile oil which acts as an anti-inflammatory to the digestive system; yarrow is helpful in cases of indigestion and loss of appetite.
Crushed yarrow leaves applied topically promote blood clotting and soothe irritations and are a safe topical treatment for bunny’s skin conditions.
While yarrow is healthful and safe for bunnies to eat, it is an herb that needs to be fed in some moderation. Huge amounts of yarrow may have a somewhat intoxicating effect on small pets, and with over 120 medicinal compounds, adding just one or two long strands to your small pet’s salad is prudent. Another option is to brew yarrow tea, and offer a tablespoon of cooled tea to your small pet. Add 1 teaspoon of dried yarrow to 1 cup boiling water, let steep for 10 minutes and let cool.
Yarrow is a great plant to have in your garden: it is easy to grow, thrives on neglect and tolerates poor soil, although it does prefer well-drained soil in a sunny spot. Yarrow will very slowly spread in your garden but will not take over and shove out your other plants.
Keep on the lookout for these early spring edibles as we head into April! Your bunnies and other small pets will appreciate their variety, nutrition and freshness.
To receive email notifications when my new articles post to the Dayton Small Pets Examiner page, please use the "Subscribe to Email" link (under the headline, above), or follow me on Twitter to receive notification of all of my articles.