Delight in Weeds You Can Eat
Love it or hate it, weeding is a ubiquitous task among gardeners. Even for those who enjoy it, weeding can get a bit tedious when the bed you cleared two days ago is suddenly overflowing with uninvited flora. It may come as a surprise (or a delight) to know that many of the weeds you pull out of your garden are edible.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is nourishing, immune-boosting, and delicious. Harvest the young leaves and tops carefully or wear gloves to avoid the tiny stinging hairs, and cook like spinach. It can be lightly steamed, lightly sauteed, or included in a puree. Steeping in a tea for a long time allows for full uptake of nutrients.
Stinging nettle is full of vitamins and minerals and is one of the best herbs for boosting health and vitality overall. Studies have shown nettle to be antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiulcer, and analgesic.
When most people think of a weed, a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is the image that comes to mind. Dandelion greens can be chopped and used in cooking whenever bitter greens are required (they're tasty with meat or bean dishes) or salads; the flowers can be added to salads, as a garnish to cooked dishes, or infused in vinegars or beverages; and the roots can be cooked like carrots.
Dandelion is a nutritional powerhouse. It can help prevent cancer, help improve blood sugar, and it shows promise for getting control of cholesterol.
Lamb's quarter (Chenopodium album) is about as close to an ordinary grocery store green as you can get, plus some extra vitamins and minerals. Its cultivated relatives are quinoa, spinach, beets, and Swiss chard. It has a light, mild flavor, grows in abundance, and is excellent cooked like kale or spinach.
Lamb's quarter is filled with calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, K, and C.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a succulent often found growing in the cracks of sidewalks (and other, more appetizing, places as well). The leaves and stems are ever-so-slightly sour and have a crunchy, meaty texture. They are delicious raw on their own and in salads and sandwiches (use them like sprouts) or cooked lightly.
Purslane is rich in omega-3s and carries an abundance of magnesium, calcium, and alpha-linolenic acid.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is one of the most nourishing and health-supporting herbs around. Harvest the root in the fall of its first year of growth (when the leaves still form a basal rosette, before the stalk emerges) or the spring of its second year for optimum nutritional content.
Grate and use in saurkraut or coleslaw, include in an Asian-style stir-fry, add to a hearty soup or bean dish, roast with squash and other roots, or make an herbal infusion with it. Burdock root is one of nature's liver tonics; it is nourishing to the blood; and it contains inulin, a prebiotic substance that supports healthy digestion.
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) sometimes covers entire fields in little purple fireworks. The healthy blossoms can be picked and added to an herbal vinegar or beverage, chopped or pulled and sprinkled on salads (they can be tough whole), or dried and made into a nourishing herbal infusion. The leaves, though small and slightly bitter, can be chopped and included in a salad.
Red clover has also been used to protect against cancer, support cardiovascular health, reduce unwanted symptoms of menopause, reduce risk of osteoporosis, and act as a skin and cough remedy.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive plant, and has a tendency to take over wherever it goes. If this plant is in your garden, pull it out--but don't let its delicious, garlic-y leaves go to waste. If harvested before flowering, especially when the plants are young, the leaves make fantastic pesto or can be included in salads or cooked like any other mustard green.
Garlic mustard is rich in vitamins and minerals and is supportive to the immune system.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is one of the tastiest weeds around. It is pleasantly sour, and makes a great garnish for a variety of dishes and is a fantastic addition to a salad. Wood sorrel is filled with vitamin C, which led to its use treating scurvy. As a medicinal herb, it is usually taken as an infusion or a juice. It is considered a cooling herb and has been widely used to reduce fevers, vomiting, and the effects of urinary disorders.
There is perhaps no other weed so delicate and beautiful as the wood violet (Viola sp.). If violets appear in your garden, in your yard, or by your doorstep, take some time to appreciate their beauty. Also, slip a blossom into your mouth and savor its sweet taste. Violet's leaves are also edible and can be cooked or used in salads. The blossoms look beautiful in salads and as a garnish, or can be added to beverages or infused in honey.
Violets are filled with vitamins A and C, and they are considered a gentle but supportive blood purifier. They also help eliminate toxins and infections from the body. There are studies that suggest violet might prevent liver damage.
Wild Parsnip Root
Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is an invasive plant, and it's worth knowing about it before you attempt to harvest it. The juices of the stalk and leaves can cause a nasty (but not deadly) chemical burn when combined with skin and sunlight. Harvesting the root requires caution.
Wild parsnip root is a wild version of the parsnips you see at the grocery store. They can be cooked any way you would a carrot, though roasting with some onions and other veggies is absolutely sublime. Harvest the first-year plants with a basal rosette of leaves and no stalk; usually found next to tall, second-year plants.
Curly dock (Rumex crispus) is a large, slightly sour leaf. A good leaf can rival Swiss chard. It was eaten during the great depression, probably because of its large size and high nutrient quality. Use it the same way you'd use swiss chard, as a potherb, sauteed, steamed, or in soups.
While the root has medicinal qualities, the leaves are relatively innocuous, though they are high in antioxidants.
Also known as "Queen Anne's Lace," wild carrot (Daucus carota) resembles grocery store carrots in taste, but is smaller and less colorful. Harvest the root in its first year of growth, before the plant forms a stalk, and eat it raw or cook it like a carrot. Its texture is slightly tough, so smaller pieces are easier to chew.
Be sure not to confuse this plant with poison hemlock, which can be deadly; take a proper plant identification guide with you, and don't eat it unless you are sure you have positively identified it.
There are many types of wild mints (Mentha sp.), each with its own unique flavor and scent. Despite their many variations, however, mints are easily recognized by their square stems, alternating leaf patterns, and strong aroma of menthol. Best used as a garnish or a tea, mints have a cooling effect.
Mints are also high in antioxidants and have been used to help with stomach and digestive issues. Mint is a mildly stimulating herb, so is best used sparingly.
Amaranth (Amaranthus sp.) was a staple of pre-Colombian Aztecs, and for good reason. It's high in protein, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins A, C and E, and contains essential amino acids. Harvest amaranth seeds by cutting off the seed heads and placing them in a paper bag, then shaking the seeds off when dry.
The seeds won't be of any great volume, but try adding some of them into bread, sprinkling them on oatmeal, or mixing them in with other grains. Alternately, you can harvest the young leaves and use them as you would most other leafy greens.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is an all-around nourishing wild food, and is commonly known for its beautiful blue flowers and its use as a coffee substitute. Indeed, the root can be dried and roasted and made into a worthy tea, or cooked and eaten like most other root crops. The leaves are also edible (and can be used much like spinach), as are the flowers, which make a wonderful addition to salads, or can be infused in vinegar or honey.
Chicory root contains inulin, a prebiotic substance that supports the digestive system. Scientists say that chicory may also be anti-diabetic.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a popular edible weed; there are plenty of watercress recipes available. It has a spicy taste and is used like any mustard green. It makes a great pesto or addition to a sandwich or burrito. Watercress is high in antioxidants and beta-carotenes, and provides a hearty dose of calcium.
Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) makes an excellent salad green. Its mild tasting, crunchy leaves are large and easy to gather, and it has an excellent texture for salads. Miner's lettuce is also one of few edible weeds that is indigenous to North America.
In fact, miner's lettuce was considered such a fantastic food by the British that long ago, they transported it back to England. It contains a high concentration of vitamins (especially vitamin C) and omega-3 fatty acids, and is considered to be beneficial to the liver and lymph system.
Despite its spiky appearance, milk thistle (Silybum marianum) can be a delicious addition to your diet. Practically all of the thistle plant is edible, from the de-spined leaves to the root to the stems. The leaves can be cooked with some butter, the roots treated much like a carrot, and the stems peeled and treated like asparagus. Milk thistle is especially beneficial for the liver.
Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit
For those who live in the Southwest, prickly pear cactus fruit (Opuntia sp.) can be an exciting and intimidating addition to your diet. Harvest carefully, using a knife and implement to hold the fruit, and drop it into a bag. Back home, either scrape off the spines with a knife under water or use a small torch to burn them off. The inside of the fruit can be eaten fresh or turned into a jam or jelly.
Wild grapes (Vitis sp.) are a delightful treat found on hiking trails, on the edges of woods, on riverbanks, fencerows, or deserted barnyards. The grapes are small and taste best after the first frost. The leaves can also be eaten, and are stuffed and used as wraps in Middle Eastern cuisine. Be sure to positively identify wild grapes, as a poisonous plant, Menispermum canadense (common moonseed), is similar in appearance.
Wild grapes are full of healing nutrition, including vitamins A, C, and B and the minerals phosphorus, iron, and pottasium. Wild grapes are said to be beneficial to the urinary system and for clearing toxins.
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a gorgeous flower, but its most delectable part lies underground. The root ball (corm) is much like a tiny, flavorful potato, and is utterly delicious fried in butter. Spring beauty, true to its name, flowers and is most easily identified in the early spring. Because it is a delicate spring ephemeral, it should be harvested in moderation and only when they are in plentiful supply.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a common herb that often grows in abundance in cool, shaded areas. Its tender green leaves and stems are perfect for salads. Go out with a knife or a pair of scissors and lop off as much as you need, then dress it lightly or mix it with other greens for a perfect salad.
Chickweed has vitamins C and A, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, iron, phosphorus, and potassium. A chickweed poultice is used for cooling fevers, leaching out infections, and treating cysts and boils. Chikweed was traditionally used in India to treat skin infections.
This is one weed you won't be pulling out of your garden (unless your garden is a forest), but it's worth going out into the woods to get. It's a mushroom that grows on birch trees, called "The Diamond of the Forest" by the Japanese. It is consumed almost exclusively as a tea, and is famous for its tremendous antioxidant quality. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is also packed with nutrients, including B vitamins, flavonoids, phenols, and minerals.
Mallow (Malva sp.) is related to okra and has a similar mucilaginous consistency. Don't let that scare you off, though, as it's a fantastic food. The entire plant is edible, though the leaves are usually the easiest to harvest and prepare. Use mallow the way you would use any other leafy green, including steaming or sauteing them, adding them to soups or salads, or mixing them in a bean or grain based dish.
Mallow has also had scientifically documented use as a folk remedy for treating respiratory issues, cancer, bowel problems, skin problems, and liver and kidney diseases, among other things.
Plantain (Plantago major) comes in many shapes and sizes, but all share the same healing and nourishing properties. The leaves (harvested before the seeds appear) work well cooked or in salads. Just be certain to chop it into small pieces as it can be exceptionally tough. Plantain can also be used in place of grape leaves to make dolmas.
As a medicinal herb, plantain is most commonly used to heal wounds. It also has anti-inflammatory and weak antibiotic properties, among others.
Enjoy Edible Weeds
Adding edible weeds into your diet is simple, and can be done one plant at a time. Just like any other new ingredients, it takes time to learn how to prepare them properly and to learn how you like them best. Always remember to make sure you have positively identified a plant before eating it.
After becoming familiar with your garden weeds, you might want to try foraging for wild berries. Once you learn about the plants, they become more than just a snack--they are a steady, benevolent presence, like old friends. Happy eating!