Don’t just weed and compost—weed and feed, as in feed yourself !
Why not make good use of those weedy plants which are so chock-full of vitamins?
You can prepare, serve and dine on many varieties of weeds! The plants I’ll discuss have found their way to my table on a regular basis, and offer many nutritional gifts to those willing to forage. Easter dinner was the perfect time for me to include a side dish of wild stinging nettle which I had harvested for the occasion. My guests were enchanted by the flavor–somewhere between spinach and cucumber–and came back for seconds!
Many plants which we now consider invasive, like the dandelion, started their careers early in our culture as kitchen garden varieties before being relegated to the other side of the fence. Unfortunately, taste in food gradually came to reflect the limited varieties of veggies that could survive shipping from agricultural centers, retain their appearance, tolerate long shelf life, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and other issues related to large-scale commercial cultivation.
Some plants, such as ramp/ramps (technically wild leeks), have found their way into the gourmet culinary arts and grocery boutiques on a seasonal basis. [Ed: Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), also known as ramps are a native plant, but are often counted as weeds.]
And yes, even the dandelion is making a comeback, so there’s no reason why the free and nutritious varieties I discuss in part 2 should not be on your table when in season.
If you decide to join the ranks of foragers, be armed with a good plant reference text and have an eye for identifying characteristics of your target plant, be it chickweed, dandelion, purslane, dock, lambsquarter or stinging nettle. Be absolutely sure that the plants you pick are indeed edible, and are harvested only from areas free of pollutants, chemicals or poisons. Wash them well. Keep in mind that, as with all new additions to your diet, portions should start small in respect of their nutritional and fiber content and the possibility of allergies.
I previewed foraged plants as nutritious alternatives to the pesticide-perfect, processed hybrid veggies from distant places which we have become accustomed to eating. A few of the edible invasives that appear here in eastern Pennsylvania are chickweed, dandelion, purslane, dock, lambsquarter, and stinging nettle. In this segment I’ll expand on the virtues of three of these commonly found invasive plants which I enjoy adding to my meals.
Broadleaf dock / Curly dock, (Rumex obtusifolia / R. crispus), are alien species from Europe, also known by many other common names. Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is similar to wild dock, but smaller. They’re in the buckwheat family, all the varieties of dock are edible, and its habitat includes fields, ditches, riverbanks; any disturbed soil, wet or dry. The leaves are high in vitamin A and C, minerals, protein, and the roots are high in iron. Dock and sorrel contain oxalic acid, which in large amounts can inhibit the absorption of other minerals and cause intestinal irritation to some, but it is doubtful you would eat enough of this green to suffer these results. Visit http://oxalicacidinfo.com/ for details. This veggie is best gathered in the spring, washed well and eaten either raw or cooked by plunging into lightly boiling water and simmering uncovered until tender, which neutralizes much of the oxalic acid and the strong taste. Cook them with sliced or chopped sweet onion to mediate any bitterness. The leaves become inedibly bitter by mid-spring, which is when the flower stalk can be collected. Peel off the tough outer layer and either eat it raw or steam to soften, after which it can then be eaten ‘as is’, or sautéed with garlic in a little olive oil. Read more about dock at https://eatingmymoccasinsnow.blogspot.com/2009/04/dock-rumex-crispus.html.
Lambsquarters, in the Chenopodium genus and also known by a bevy of common names, is an annual herbaceous plant in the goosefoot family. It’s coming up as a volunteer in my container garden and finding its way to my salad plate as we speak! This species was once a fully domesticated crop in prehistoric North America and is still cultivated in parts of Mexico. There are some interesting recipes for lambsquarters at https://phoenixfarms.blogspot.com/2010/05/lambs-quarter-recipes.html. The young tender leaves are good in salads, the older, larger ones are best plunged into a small amount of boiling water and simmered uncovered until tender. The water bath is served with the greens. For a treat, add fresh garlic cloves to the cooking greens and, when tender, serve with the bath, with a drizzle of olive oil. A half-cup of the greens contains calcium, Vitamin A, B, especially riboflavin and folic acid, plus 4% protein. Keep in mind that all edible plants in this family–including spinach, beets and chard—concentrate oxalic acid in the leaves. Not to worry, learn more by going to http://oxalicacidinfo.com/. Top the plants if you don’t want them to flower, and from those that do, harvest the flowering shoots as a broccoli-like edible green, then harvest the seeds from those plants that finally go to seed. Use them as you do Quinoa, cook them with grains, in soups, sauces, breads, pancakes. Read more about lambsquarters at http://www.susunweed.com/herbal_ezine/September09/healingwise.htm.
Gracie is a landscape designer and master gardener with nearly eight years professional experience.