Are You Overlooking a Free, Nutritious, Organic Food Source in Your Own Yard?
For many years I was unaware that the weeds I was working so hard to pull were not only edible, but also tasty and nutritious. On our almost fourteen-acre rural property, weed abatement is a major yearly problem. It was years before I discovered that I could have been enjoying many of those weeds in salads, stir fry dishes, and soups or cooking them like any other greens. Instead we had been either having them sprayed to get rid of them or we had tossed them on the compost pile. I am going to show you some of the weeds I have now been learning to cook with, and that I have eaten and enjoyed. The photo shows some I added to a crock pot of soup last weed, just before I stirred the soup and put the lid on to cook it.
The Weeds I Have Eaten So Far
I am only suggesting wilds foods here that I have personally tried and found safe. I have done my best to show you what they look like. If you are in any doubt about the identification of a plant, don’t eat it unless it has no dangerous look-alikes. Edible weeds can grow right next to deadly ones. Mallow and other edible plants can grow right along side poison hemlock, which looks very different from it but could carelessly be plucked accidentally while you are harvesting mallow or other edible weeds. Be very careful.
In the photo above you will see henbit, with the small purple flowers, in the front. Behind it to the right is a small mallow plant with the scallop shaped leaves. You probably recognize the dandelion (or maybe it’s sow thistle) behind that on the right, in front of the rock. To the left of it, also in front of the rock, is a small plant with lacy-looking leaves. That is deadly poison hemlock.
Also, be sure that the area you are picking from has not been sprayed with chemicals. Try not to harvest too close to a busy road or beside your driveway where plants may pick up lead from gasoline.
Originally from India, purslane can be found almost all over the world, and it’s been known in North America since Colonial times. Sometimes it is called pursley. It’s a succulent plant and contains more omega-3 fatty acids than some fish oils. It is a rich source of Vitamins A, C, some of the B-complex vitamins, and is also full of fiber, minerals, and anti-oxidants.
If you have one purslane plant, it will multiply because one plant can produce over 50,000 little black seeds from those tiny yellow flowers. The seeds can even be ground and used instead of buckwheat flour. I have often used purslane as a ground cover to mulch my tomatoes.
The plant appears in summer on the California Central Coast where I live. It is easy to recognize by its paddle-shaped leaves and thick red stems. I have used it in salads and in stir fry dishes. Some people even pickle it, but I haven’t tried that because I don’t like pickles. You can find recipes for it Edible Useful Plants of California by Charlotte Clark. Braford Angier shares a pickle recipe in Feasting Free on Wild Edibles. I own both these books, but I’ve just discovered another one I’m going to get to complete my reference section : Foraging California: Finding, Identifying, And Preparing Edible Wild Foods In California (Foraging Series)
The Dandelion and its Cousins, Sow Thistle and Prickly Lettuce
To be honest, I have trouble telling these apart sometimes. In your lawn it’s easy to spot the dandelions, but when growing in flower beds or fields where they get taller, they can be confused. I’m not going to attempt to describe the differences, because they don’t matter too much. There are no poisonous look-alikes, and the leaves are cooked pretty much the same way. If they are young and tender, they are tasty in salads. Once the flowers start to appear the leaves get more bitter and you might want to boil them for a while.
You can find descriptions and instructions for cooking all of them in the books mentioned above. They all have yellow flowers that somewhat resemble dandelion flowers. Dandelions leaves aren’t prickly like those of its cousins. Dandelions grow in a rosette pattern with the flower coming from the center and the leaves radiating around it. Sow thistle has clusters of small yellow flowers at the top, with many on one stem. Prickly lettuce looks pretty much the same to my untrained eye, but after more research, it appears that prickly lettuce has prickly spines all around its leaves as well as on the back vein. It is better to leave prickly lettuce alone once it flowers.
Dandelion greens are very rich in Vitamin K and A. They are also good sources of Vitamin C, B6, calcium, iron, potassium, and fiber and contain many other essential minerals.
Mallow was one of the first weeds I ever tried eating. You can use it like spinach. You can also dry it and grind it into a powder you can use to thicken soups and stews. I have used it in soups, salads, and stir fry dishes. It is a good source of Vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and phosphorus.
Henbit has become one of my favorite wild foods. It grows all over my yard at after the winter rains, and I tried it for the first time last month. It has a mild, parsley-like flavor. I have used it in stir fry dishes and soups. I’m hoping to try it in salad tomorrow. It is a good source of iron, vitamins and fiber.
How I Prepare My Weeds to Eat Them
So far I have eaten them three ways. I thrown them into salads when they are young and tender. I have used dandelions, mallow, and purslane this way so far. I even throw in the dandelion flowers. For added color I toss in the petals of calendula flowers. I always seem to have some in bloom, and they are also edible. The weeds I used for my last batch mainly came from this pot on my patio. There used to be basil in it, but this is what grew after the rain this year. The henbit has the purple flowers. The other plant is either dandelion or sow thistle.
I still have trouble telling the difference between dandelions and sow thistles before they flower. The photo below shows a comparison of the two plants as they appear very close together in my own lawn. It’s a good thing that the look-alikes can be used in recipes interchangeably without risk.
After I brought my wild greens into the house, I cut off any roots and washed the plants thoroughly. The henbit flowers and stems are edible, as well as the leaves.
When everything is clean I pull the henbit into small pieces and taste the cut ends of the plants in the dandelion family to check for any bitterness. If I detect bitterness, I cut the sides away from the center of the leaf as shown.
I also have been adding them to soups. In the first photo I shared above, I wanted you to see them all piled on top. I used some mallow, some dandelions (and probably sow thistle, as well) and lots of henbit. This is the same soup after it was cooked and ready to serve.
I don’t use a specific recipe for the soups. This soup had a chicken broth base of about 1.5 liters, a small bit of browned ground beef, an onion and six cloves of garlic, two cans diced tomatoes, some chopped mushrooms, some chopped kale, the weeds, and lots of oregano and thyme. I normally cook the chopped onions, kale, if I’m using it, and garlic in a skillet with some olive oil before adding them to the soup. When the onions are translucent, I add the oregano and thyme and stir about a minute longer. I then add everything to the crock pot and turn it on high for two hours and then down to low so it will simmer for a long time.
I have also made a stir fry dish with my weeds, and it was very good. The stalks of plants that seem tough or leaves that seem prickly I use only in cooked dishes, and I like stir frying better than boiling. Some people boil greens they consider bitter. More mature henbit stalks can be too tough and stringy to enjoy raw.
Why Throw Away Free Food?
Just because many people discard the idea of eating weeds they find in their gardens doesn’t mean you have to. Something is not undesirable just because it’s free and widely available and some others don’t recognize its value. I often wonder how many people who are too poor to buy organic vegetables are ignoring or throwing way the free ones right under their noses just because they don’t know what they are or how to use them. Go ahead. Be brave and adventurous. Eat your weeds.