A more common practice in rural areas, food provided by nature meant survival. However, today we consider many of the plants prized by our ancestors to be nothing more than undesirable weeds. But is that really all they are? Let's eat some weeds!
Also known as wild spinach and potherbs, spring greens should be gathered when young and tender. As they mature and flower, they become extremely tough and bitter. There are numerous edible greens you can forage in the spring and also cultivate in your own garden.
Avoid roadside harvesting
You may be tempted to hop out of the car and pick the wild greens growing beside the road. Resist that temptation. They may have absorbed chemicals from car exhaust or been sprayed.
Always be sure you have correctly identified any weeds you collect.
Stinging nettle (Utica dioica, or U. chamaedryoides)
Gloves are a must when gathering nettles. Look for them in damp, fertile locations.
Full of minerals and high in vitamin C, A, and protein, this plant should be harvested when shoots are young and stems about 6 inches high.
Stinging nettle is a perennial. If you are able to establish a clump, don’t harvest your plants by pulling up the roots. Prune them near the ground so they will return each year. Nettles propagate by root runners.
Dry them for tea or cook as you do spinach. Once they are dried or cooked, the sting disappears. Never eat raw nettle.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
In early spring, dandelion leaves are tender with only a hint of bitterness. Once they bloom, leaves become tougher and more bitter. Rabbits love them any time of year.
Dandelion has long been used as a liver tonic and immune system booster. Rich in iron, potassium and vitamin C, the leaves, flowers, buds, and roots can all be harvested at the appropriate times.
In autumn, gather the roots. After an entire summer of growth, they're chock full of nutritional value that supports liver function and helps detoxify the body. Wash them well, split, chop, and dry.
Dock (Rumex crispa)
Dock is a wild broadleaf green growing 12-18 inches high. Leaves are 6-8 inches long with slightly ruffled edges. Following flowering, seeds appear and eventually turn dark brown. There are several species of dock, and all are edible when young. The plant abounds in vitamins A and C.
To make the most of their flavor, boil or sauté the leaves. Serve as a side dish or mix with other greens. Punch up the flavor by adding a little butter and some roasted garlic or caramelized onions.
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
Sheep sorrel, or sour dock, is a wild green with smooth leaves. It sends up a slender flower stock that bears numerous tiny red flowers. Spreading by creeping roots, it is one of the easiest wild weeds to eat.
The leaves are arrow-shaped with reddish stems. They have a lemony flavor and add a sour bite when mixed in a salad or added to other cooked greens. Raw leaves are best when young or cooked like spinach. They can be chopped with green onions to season mashed potatoes.
To cook dock, boil the leaves, discard the water, and rinse under cold running water. Punch up the flavor by adding a little fat and some caramelized onions or roasted garlic.
Pigweed (Amaranthus hybridus)
It’s easy to confuse the red form of pigweed with lamb's quarters or strawberry blight. Pigweed is in the Amaranth family, along with lamb's quarters and quinoa. This annual grows 1-8 feet tall. Slender pigweed has a mild flavor. The leaves can be cooked like spinach or added to a salad.
Gather the seeds, dry, and prepare like quinoa or rice. Rinse well before cooking. Unrinsed seeds have a soapy, bitter taste.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Common chickweed is one of the most ubiquitous weedy plants in North America. It's an evergreen that can often be found growing under snow. This creeping annual grows 8 inches high. The entire plant is edible before flowering.
Of course, chickens and ducks love it. Hence, the common name. Chickweed is a good source of vitamin C and can be used fresh and as a potherb. It's frequently dried for tea. As an herbal remedy, it's used to ease arthritis pain and treat cuts, wounds, and skin irritations.
Lambs quarters (Chenopodium album)
Related to amaranth and quinoa, lamb's quarters grows in rich garden soil and fertilized pastures. Its spring leaves are scalloped and frosted. A wild green similar to spinach in texture and taste, it’s rich in iron and potassium. The whole plant can be used if it’s under 6 inches high. Cook lamb's quarters like you would spinach, or use the young leaves raw in salads.
If you’re growing quinoa or one of the flowering amaranths and plan to save the seed, don’t allow lamb's quarters to go to seed. It will cross-pollinate with quinoa and other varieties of amaranth.
Another quinoa relative, strawberry spinach or strawberry blight, was grown in monastery gardens in Europe. It resembles lamb's quarters when young, but leaves are reddish underneath.
Harvest the leaves of strawberry spinach when young and tender. When the plant matures, the bland fruit can be harvested to add to salads. Seeds are sometimes available in seed catalogs.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
A common weed found in gardens and cultivated fields, purslane grows flat on the ground. The entire plant is edible before flowering. Rich in vitamin C, add young shoots to soups and casseroles.
Plantain (Plantago major)
Broadleaf plantain and narrow leaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) are easily recognizable edible wild plants that grow in moist soil.
The leaves are rich in calcium, vitamins A and C. To use as a potherb, harvest the leaves before flowering. Older raw leaves are very stringy. Parboil for 15 minutes to lessen that stringiness, drain, and rinse.
Other wild greens
There are many other edible weeds. Depending on your location, you will have different choices. If you're new to gathering wild weeds, always identify them first using a good field guide. Some wild plants are extremely poisonous even to the touch and can cause death. The importance of a reliable guide when foraging cannot be overstated.
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