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Real Food

Savor the flavors of everyday real food, fresh from the garden or stored on your pantry shelves.

Edible Weeds: Weed Them and Eat!

A few years ago, during our daughter Addie’s senior year at the University of Chicago (yes, the Green Barbarian Lifestyle does produce fantastically brilliant and beautiful children, both of whom graduated from the University of Chicago, and thank you for noticing!), she managed to acquire one of the very scarce community garden plots available near the University. By the time she took possession, most of the other plots had already been planted, and hers was knee deep in weeds, many of which she harvested and brought home, much to the amazement of her roommates, who had never heard of, much less eaten, lambs-quarters, (Chenopodium album) which is one of our family’s favorite greens.   

Lambs Quarters Plant 

Ever since my husband and I first started harvesting and eating lambs-quarters (pictured above) about 30 years ago, we have not bothered planting spinach, because not only are lambs-quarters cheap, easy, and abundant in the garden, like many wild relatives of cultivated vegetables, they are also more nutritious than their domesticated kin. And, since they contain far less oxalic acid, I find lambs-quarters much tastier than spinach.  

But I digress. Addie and her roommates were mutually astonished. Up until that moment, she hadn’t realized that most Americans do not eat weeds, and perhaps, because of our family’s attitude towards the edible volunteers that come up in our garden, she hadn’t really thought of lambs-quarters as a weed: It was simply our favorite spring green, which we steamed and ate with mayonnaise; sautéed in olive oil with garlic and onions; cooked in an omelet; or added to soups. (Every spring, when I do the first major weeding — which is mostly done with an eye towards stocking the freezer — I pull the lambs-quarters out by the roots, snip the root ends off with a scissors, and put the stalks in a colander. Once indoors, I pluck the most tender, healthiest leaves off the stems, and freeze the leaves in freezer bags so that all winter long I can add lambs-quarters to my soups.) 

Two of my very favorite wild greens come up a bit later than lambs-quarters: stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), a perennial plant that I brought with me when we moved, and purslane (Portulaca oleracea), which grows like a weed everywhere that there is rich soil. 

Stinging Nettle Weed 

Anyone who has ever come into close personal contact with a nettle plant may, at this point, be wondering politely why anyone would purposefully plant nettles in their garden, or perhaps wondering somewhat less politely whether I have lost my mind. The truth of the matter is that nettles (pictured directly above) lose their sting when they are either cooked or dried, and are so incredibly tasty and nutritious, either as tea or in soup, that our nettle patch never manages to produce enough to keep up with us. Every year I don gloves and cut stalks in the spring, put the nettles loosely in paper bags, and put the bagged nettles in our warm study to dry. Once the leaves are completely dry, I crumble them into jars and label them. I harvest several times during the spring and summer, and make sure to cut off the seed heads and dry them along with the greens, partly because the seeds are quite nutritious, and partly because, though I love nettles, I like to keep them from migrating to other spots in the yard where they might ambush my bare legs.


Purslane (pictured directly above) is a ground-hugger that is so succulent and delicious that when I see it I want to hug the ground that produced it. Purslane is also perhaps the best vegetable source of the much-coveted omega 3 fatty acids that are also found in fatty fish such as salmon. Researchers at the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC, analyzed the nutritional composition of purslane, and compared it to spinach: Purslane is a nutritional powerhouse, and won the nutrition contest hands down, with more omega 3s, more vitamin E and more vitamin C. The purslane and salmon salad that I make can give you a huge nutritional jolt:  

Salmon and Purslane Salad Recipe 

1 can salmon 
1 cup mature purslane leaves, stripped off the stems (immature leaves contain more oxalic acid, and are thus less nutritious) 
1 very small onion, sliced thin 
Chopped fresh herbs to taste (I like thyme and oregano, but Walt prefers dill) 
Vinaigrette salad dressing 

Drain the salmon and put it in a mixing bowl. Add the onion slices, the purslane leaves and the fresh herbs. Mix in vinaigrette salad dressing to taste. Serve. 

Top photo by Flickr/frankenstoen; middle photo by Fotolia/termis1983; bottom photo by Ellen Sandbeck

5/3/2016 4:57:26 PM

I hate to sound stupid, but how do I tell a mature purslane leaf from an immature one?

5/16/2013 1:05:47 AM

Thank you for this article.  In New Mexico, the locals call Lamb's Quarters "Kelita's".  It's amazing warmed up with a little lemon on it.


5/16/2013 1:04:11 AM

Thank you for this article.  In New Mexico, the locals call Lamb's Quarters "Kelita's".  It's amazing warmed up with a little lemon on it.


ellen sandbeck
10/26/2012 1:39:17 PM

Dear Melinda, I just realized that you wrote "lamb's ear," not "lambsquarters." These are two very different plants. Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) are the edible annual weed and are in the spinach family, they have quite insignificant flowers, which frankly, I never notice at all. "Lamb's ear " (Stachys byzantina) is a perennial plant in the mint family, which has quite obvious pink flowers in early summer, but is mostly grown for its very hairy leaves. Lamb's ear, as far as I know, is not edible, and even if it were, it is so hairy that I think it would be difficult to deal with. Please make sure you use a plant guide to identify your lambs quarters before you eat it!

ellen sandbeck
10/26/2012 1:32:31 PM

: )

ellen sandbeck
10/25/2012 7:10:02 PM


ellen sandbeck
10/25/2012 7:09:44 PM

That sounds delicious! Growing tips? We have had the most success with the purselane that volunteers in our Meyer Lemon pots! The soil is quite rich in the pots, and purselane is a weed that requires very rich soil.

ellen sandbeck
10/25/2012 7:08:00 PM

: )

ellen sandbeck
10/25/2012 7:07:43 PM

: )

glenda ponroy
9/24/2012 7:31:32 AM

Love Purslane. Always put it in salads, but I didn't know it could be cooked, too.

john denoon
9/22/2012 11:45:13 AM

I've been pulling this weed (purslane) for years i didn't know it's value. I hate fish oil now I can reap the benefit of omega 3 naturally.

pearl lufrano
9/21/2012 9:52:56 PM

i had a neighbor that would pick dandelion greens,wash and cook then fry in olive oil and garlic nice side dish for spaghetti

pearl lufrano sr.
9/21/2012 9:45:50 PM

i have been eating purslane since i was a child --my dad would pick the weeds where ever we went,he would wash them, cook them,then he would fry some ribs ,adding garlic,onions,salt then add the cooked weeds,little water and let them simmer til ribs were tender,he would make flour tortillas and our supper was ready!!!! for us this was poor mans food. now i want to grow my own,any tips??

melinda taylor
9/21/2012 1:53:15 PM

Dear Ms Sandbeck, great piece! Your writing style is eloquent, entertaining, informative, and food for the soul as well as the body. I'd been wondering about purslane and lamb's ear. I have purslane in my garden and am going to harvest some and give it a try now - thanks to you! I really appreciate how close up the photo is, so thank you for that. It leaves no doubt in the identification process for me. Congrats on raising such "green" kids as well!