Free food abounds at your feet, offering itself to the hands of the savvy. I’m not talking about rough fare that you’d eat only in an emergency, nor a sacrifice that you’d make to help your family’s budget. These are greens as scrumptious as anything you can buy or grow, and they’re exceedingly high in vitamins and minerals when compared with cultivated garden plants.
I’m sure you’ve heard of collecting wild edibles for food, but you may still have questions about this seemingly intimidating proposition. How will you know what to pick? Are there poisonous look-alikes? How should you handle these plants after you’ve harvested them? These are all good questions, but don’t let the unknown scare you. You have the ability to do this without any trouble and with the same confidence you’d have picking wild blackberries or blueberries.
Hundreds of wild plants with edible leafy greens grow across North America, but many are regionally specific. No matter where you call home, whether a big city or a remote homestead, at least one of the five plants featured here is likely in your yard
If you have a garden, you’ve likely already seen many of these edibles disguised as “weeds.” Before eating them, carefully check that you have the right plant, matching every detail with the illustrations and descriptions given here. You should collect each of these at the correct time and in prime condition — just as you’d cut asparagus only in its spear stage of growth before the branches have spread open. Harvest them in the right way, and these plants will please your palate. If you want to serve these gourmet greens at your table, your only expense will be the knowledge of identifying them, for picking and cooking are a gardener’s labors of love.
In the kitchen. Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) can be eaten raw, but it’s much better cooked and is almost always prepared that way. The stems soften when heated. Amaranth greens are high in calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. My family enjoys amaranth shoots chopped into short sections, tossed into a vegetable stir-fry with onions and peppers, and served over a bed of seasoned rice or couscous. We like amaranth so much that we let several plants go to seed every year. Then, we scatter the seed around the garden in fall to ensure we have a good crop growing the following June.
Field identification. Many similar species of amaranth (often called “pigweed,”) grow throughout North America, terrorizing gardeners and farmers in every corner of the land. One of the most common varieties, redroot amaranth (A. retroflexus), is characterized by its beet-red root. Amaranths love full sun, but they are otherwise generalists — sometimes even considered “noxious” — popping up in every kind of disturbed, well-drained soil. These plants have alternate leaves that are an elongated diamond shape with smooth edges. The branches terminate in spiky clusters of tiny, drab, greenish flowers that will develop into thousands of brown seeds.
How to harvest. Amaranth is grown commercially for its seeds, which are used as a grain, but a forager wants the tender stems and young leaves. A hot-weather annual, amaranth often waits to germinate until late spring through summer. Look for the tender tops where flower clusters have not yet begun to appear and cut or break them off as far down as the stems are flexible.
In the kitchen. Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is a mild green perfectly suited for salads, and that’s how we use it in our kitchen. The flavor is slightly sweet and reminds me of corn silk. You can cook chickweed, but it’s so delicate that it almost dissolves with heat. On a nutritional note, chickweed is quite high in iron — higher even than spinach.
Field identification. Common chickweed is a hardy plant that grows best in the cool weather of early spring and late fall. It remains harvestable even after nights become frosty. You’ll find chickweed where moisture is high, from full sun to shade. It doesn’t often show up in recently tilled soil, preferring places that have been left alone for at least a year, such as in old compost piles, under fences and in unused flower boxes. This petite trailing plant has paired leaves with smooth edges. The stems usually creep along the ground but will stand upright when crowded. Tiny flowers appear in small clusters at the top of the plant. They are symmetrical with five white petals, but because each petal is split nearly to the base, the flowers appear to have 10 petals. A defining feature of common chickweed is a narrow row of fine hairs found on only one side of the stem. The row often switches sides between the sets of leaves. Several other species of chickweed share the same general form of flower, leaf and stem, and all are edible.
How to harvest. When picking, look for lush, large, clean plants upon which flowers are just beginning to bloom, preferably with stems that are erect and crowded. Use a pair of scissors to shear off the top several inches of stem and attached leaves. Before you fill a salad bowl, nibble a few of the stems to figure out where they become tough. The key to harvesting good chickweed is to never snip too low.
In the kitchen. A relative of spinach, lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album) can be used similarly. Few wild greens have been analyzed for their nutritional content, but lamb’s-quarters is so commonly eaten that it’s listed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database. One of the most nutritious vegetables ever tested, it’s exceptionally high in calcium and in vitamins A and C.
Field identification. You can find lamb’s-quarters in any sunny spot where the soil has been disturbed. It has alternate diamond-shaped leaves that may have smooth edges or a few scattered, shallow teeth, and its stems are ridged. Toward the top of the plant, white, waxy granules coat the stems and leaf undersides. The plant has tiny, drab flowers attached directly to the upper stalk, and these ripen into lumpy clusters of homely little red and green fruits, each containing a single dark seed. The seed resembles that of its cultivated cousin, C. quinoa, in both appearance and flavor.
How to harvest. Lamb’s-quarters is an annual that is at its best in spring and early summer, although you can harvest it even in summer heat. Sometimes, a new crop will germinate in fall. Young shoots are tender and easy to harvest in quantity, but many older plants still have tender tips, and you can pick the leaves individually.
In the kitchen. I rank shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) as one of the most delicious vegetables on Earth. The leaves are the mildest mustard green you can get, with only the faintest hint of a pleasant pungency, and they’re loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, iron and vitamin A. My family likes to mix these in salads with other cool-weather greens, such as chickweed. We also enjoy them stir-fried with dandelion greens, dock leaves and chives. Shepherd’s purse is cultivated in China for its greens and stems, which are considered a delicacy. The stems taste much like a broccoli stalk without the tough skin. They are marvelous in soups or steamed and served with butter and salt.
Field identification. Shepherd’s purse is much despised — it infests almost every garden and crop field, and it sprouts up in vacant lots and sidewalk cracks. The leaves look a lot like those of dandelion, but they’re more deeply lobed and don’t have the milky sap. One or more stems will grow out of the cluster of leaves at the plant’s base. When mature, these stems can reach up to 2 feet tall, with few leaves. Each branch ends in an elongated cluster of tiny, white, four-petaled flowers, which are followed by little heart-shaped pods.
How to harvest. If you pick the tough, dirty, ground-hugging leaves from the base of a July plant, you’ll be disappointed. But if you find erect, lush leaves in the cool, moist soil of early spring, you’ll wonder why shepherd’s purse isn’t offered on the seed rack at the garden center. Harvest stems when they’re still short, tender and flexible, before seedpods have formed.
In the kitchen. The tender leaves of common sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus) have a slight bitterness that’s similar to leaf lettuce but have a delightful flavor unique to this plant. These greens can be eaten raw in salads, but our favorite way to prepare them is sautéed with bacon, drizzled with vinegar, and then served over polenta, cornbread or potatoes. Sowthistle is an excellent source of manganese.
Field identification. Found throughout North America, this annual loves backyards, roadsides, vacant lots and gardens, and it favors disturbed soil. Common sowthistle leaves look much like dandelion leaves and also have milky latex. Unlike dandelion, sowthistle grows tall, leafy flowering stalks, and the midvein of the leaf has a triangular ridge underneath. Common sowthistle’s yellow flowers appear in clusters at the top of the plant and resemble miniature dandelion blooms. The plant most likely to be confused with common sowthistle is prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola), which is also edible but more bitter. Prickly lettuce can be easily distinguished by the row of spines on the midvein ridge of its leaves. Despite its name, common sowthistle is not really a thistle and doesn’t have spines.
How to harvest. Collect leaves from spring to early summer when they’re still young, or cut the whole stalk before the plant begins to flower. The slightly stiff teeth along the edges of its leaves are completely innocuous. There are two other widespread species of sowthistle, both of which are edible. Field sowthistle (S. arvensis), a perennial, lives in meadows and grassy places. It looks similar to common sowthistle and has equally harmless leaves, but the flower heads are fewer and larger. Spiny sowthistle (S. asper) leaves have prickles stiff enough to hurt a bare hand, so only collect the younger leaves. Cook both of these relatives as you would common sowthistle.
Sam Thayer has foraged for wild food since childhood. Since 2000, he has been teaching and giving workshops on edible wild plants across the United States. His in-depth books, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, are available from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store.