Common Edible Weed Plants

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Wild lettuce (right) and mallow (far right); the leaves of both are pleasant potherbs when gathered while still young.

This spring, you can get more flower and nutrition from your diet, reduce your food budget, enjoy satisfying time in the outdoors, and clean up your fledgling garden in the process. 

The dinner party was going smoothly, warm with friendship and spiced by good conversation and (I thought) good food. Then my friend Nella paused, fork in midair.

“What’s this funny leaf in my salad?” she asked.

I’ll admit it. I have, at times, stooped to tricking my friends into sampling a number of wild edible weed plants, and I’ll admit, too, that those experiments have, more often than not, ended in failure.

Most people are, it seems, pretty well preconditioned against tasting vegetables that don’t have a regular place in the produce aisle of the neighborhood supermarket. For one thing, such individuals probably fear being poisoned by a misidentified plant. Most wild foods, though, are easy to recognize. After a little bit of research, you’d be as likely to misidentify, say, the delicious potherb lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album) as you would mistake spinach (a decidedly inferior steamed green!) for cabbage. (Of course, many parts of our common garden vegetables — including the leaves of potatoes and rhubarb — are quite toxic, yet the same people that fear wild edibles often trust themselves when harvesting their own gardens!)

Other folks, and my friend Nella falls into this category, have simply spent so much time ripping winter cress, purslane, lamb’s-quarters, and other such “weeds” from their vegetable plots that they have a hard time thinking of these wild edible weed plants as anything but “the enemy.”

It’s been my experience, though, that once a person gets beyond such preconceptions, he or she will often become an enthusiastic (I’m tempted to say messianic!) fan of foraging. After all, the hobby exposes you to exquisitely different flavors that can’t be had for the simple spending of money, opens the door to a wide variety of nutritious, and definitely organically grown, vegetables (which you can’t necessarily say about even the produce available in many natural foods stores!), and may develop into a family pastime that can be enjoyed on walks in the city or country, or — when your foraging eye gets sharp enough — even while driving along back roads. And a rural location is not a requirement for successful gathering. I live in Los Angeles and am able to harvest many wild foods from my small backyard!

When to Forage for Free Edible Weeds

The foraging “season” begins at different times in different parts of the country. Here in Southern California, for example, the first greens jewel the hillsides in January, following the start of the winter rains. Northeasterners, on the other hand, will have to wait until at least March to find winter cresses and dandelions springing up . . . often amid clumps of still-melting snow! (To balance out the equation, the greater rainfall in many parts of the East assures a steady crop of edible greens right up to the October frosts.) Later in the year, edible flowers and buds join greens on the forager’s table, and late fall offers wild grain to the patient and industrious gatherer.

Foraging Tips for Weeds

If you have even a hint of a yard, you’ll probably be able to locate a number of edible plants at your doorstep. Be careful, though, to avoid gathering within 50 feet of a well-traveled road, or at any spot where airborne lead or other pollutants may be present. It’s also best to use caution when collecting in cultivated areas, unless you know the gardener or farmer maintains a strictly organic operation. Finally, be aware that bacterial pollution may be present on the surfaces of some edibles — particularly watercress — that grow beside streams or ditches. If you’re at all unsure, simply soak your gatherings in a solution of 1/4 teaspoon chlorine bleach and two quarts of water for an hour, then rinse them well and prepare.

Of course, larger areas, such as overgrown portions of city parks or meadows and pastures that have been fallow for a few years, will provide a greater variety and quantity of food than will even a large yard. (Surprisingly enough, true wilderness areas tend to be less productive of wild edibles than those that have been disturbed by humans.) Over the course of your first season of foraging, you’ll probably locate and remember hoards of various edibles, and be able to plan your harvest schedule for the year to come with some accuracy. Do be certain, though, not to over-pick any one patch. Most conservation-oriented wild-foods enthusiasts limit themselves to collecting not more than a third of the plants in a given clump or cluster.

Identifying Your Edible Weed Finds

If you’re a gardener, chances are you’re all too familiar with many of the wild edibles in the accompanying chart. (Before eating any plant, be sure to check it out, using its botanical name, in a good field guide. Common names are often used to refer to different plants in different regions of the country.) I’ve attempted to focus on wild foods that are available nationwide, most of which thrive on “disturbed,” or cultivated, land.

By far the best method of getting to know wild edibles, though, is with the help of a locally experienced forager. Many universities, arboretums, and community colleges offer classes in local plant life, as well. These may or may not be focused upon edibles, but even those that aren’t can be useful if you already know which plants you’re interested in learning about.

As you progress, you may discover, as I have, that knowing how to identify wild foods provides unexpected bonuses. If so, you’ll find yourself seeing in a new way, as you begin to notice the details of leaves: their shapes, their smoothness or hairiness, whether they clasp the plant stalk closely or spring out on delicate stems, and if they occur singly or in compound leaves of several leaflets. When your eye passes over a weed on the sidewalk and — instead of simply registering a blob of green — reports a known plant in all of its intricacies, even the shortest stroll will suddenly become a delightful adventure.

Foraging Edible Weeds for Health

In addition to offering strikingly individual flavors, many wild edibles are far superior in food value to their cultivated counterparts (particularly if you’re careful to harvest vigorous, healthy looking specimens). It’s almost as if their seeds, which-unaided by the unnatural nursing of chemical fertilizers — prosper only where the specific soil nutrients match the needs of the plant, concentrate that natural goodness for those that eat them.

The sidebar on the preceding page lists some examples of the nutrient density of wild foods. All values listed are for 100 grams (approximately 3-1/2 ounces) of raw food unless otherwise stated. Conventional prime sources of each nutrient are also given for comparison.

“Weeding Out” Alienation

Finally, learning about and using edible wild plants can be an effective antidote for the destructive sense of rootlessness that so many people suffer from in this world where much of what we eat, wear, and use has been hermetically sealed off from its origins. By incorporating the plants in your environment into your diet, you can actually establish a firmer kinship with the flora and fauna around you and, yes, with the earth itself. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is the true value of eating weeds.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The foragers on MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff all heartily recommend Lee Peterson’s fine photographic volume, A Field Guide to Eastern Edible Wild Plants. Published by Houghton Mifflin, this excellent reference book can be found in many libraries or ordered — for $10.95 — through your bookstore.