Edible Weeds You Can Forage From Your Yard

1 / 6
Green Amaranth
2 / 6
Curled Dock
3 / 6
Lamb's Quarters
4 / 6
Purslane
5 / 6
Sheep Sorrel
6 / 6
Wood Sorrel

Ever since the late Euell Gibbons’ first
book—Stalking the Wild Asparagus—came off the
press in 1962, more and more people have taken to the
backwoods to forage everything from Jerusalem artichokes to
wild wintergreen. Surprisingly enough, however, it’s
not at all necessary
to hike hither and yon to start
reaping nature’s bountiful harvest of volunteer vegetables.
Fact is, you needn’t took further than your own backyard
(in most cases) to find plenty of free eats.

I was made aware of this simple truth one day
when—after hours of hoeing and pulling—I hauled
a wheelbarrow full of stout, leafy weeds away from my
garden.

“Hey there!” my Latvian-born neighbor called from his yard.
“Where’re you going with all those plants?”

“To the trash bin.”

“But that whole barrow load is good to eat!” the man
declared. ”

Good to eat ?”

“Yes. In the old country, we used the leaves as soup
greens.”

My neighbor didn’t know the plant’s English name, nor did
I. But a little research soon taught me that the
persistent, branching “weed” I’d just uprooted from the
vegetable patch in bushel quantities was actually
lamb’s-quarters . . . a delicious green I’ve since come to
savor as much as any cultivated plant in the garden.

Since that incident, I’ve gone on to discover an array of
tasty vegetables in my backyard which—until
recently—i didn’t even know were there! And the nice
thing about these free eats is that they require no
fertilizer or special care . . . and they grow without my
having to sow a single seed. (Naturally . . . they’re
weeds!)

Chances are, your backyard, lawn, or garden is well stocked
with these free edibles too. So come with me, and I’ll show
you how to find—and prepare—some of the more
common species of “good to eat” weeds.

Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

Lamb’s-quarters—also known as pigweed, goosefoot, and
wild spinach—is a relative of spinach and one of the
most widely distributed plants on earth. In years gone by,
both Europeans and American Indians cultivated this leafy
annual for its abundant yield of seeds (seeds
which—incidentally—contain an average of 16%
protein, compared to wheat’s 14%).

As a green, however, lamb’s-quarters is delicious. And
surprisingly nutritious . . . for the uncooked plant
happens to be richer in iron, protein, and vitamin B 2 than
either raw cabbage or raw spinach.

Mature lamb’s-quarters stands two to seven feet tall and
can be identified by its jagged-edged, diamond-shaped
leaves . . . leaves which—on their
undersides—are powdered with coarse, whitish
particles (hence the Latin name album, or “white”). The
short leafstalks may either be reddish-streaked or plain
green. (Both the stem and leaves of young plants are
usually just mealy white.)

While only the tender, growing tips of mature
Chenopodium album are mild enough to
eat, every part of the plant from the ground up is tasty
when taken from lamb’s-quarters less than a foot tall.

Some folks like to use this green in salads, but I prefer
mine cooked as a substitute for spinach. (It’s especially
delectable when creamed, I might add.) Lamb’s-quarters is
also quite toothsome when wilted in hot dressing, as
follows:

Fry one small, diced onion in 1/2 cup of salad oil. Then
(after first checking to make sure the oil isn’t hot enough
to “splash”) add 1/4 cup vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon salt,
and—if desired—pepper to the frying pan. Throw
in four cups of lamb’s-quarters, stir-fry until limp . . .
and eat with pleasure.

Once you’ve tried Chenopodium album— either
cooked or raw—you’ll know why pigs chomp happily away
on all of this weed that they can sink a tooth into!

Green Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus)

A milder-tasting relative of lamb’s-quarters that can be
prepared in the same manner is green amaranth . . . also
known as redroot, wild beet, and (coincidentally) pigweed.
Euell Gibbons has labeled this hardy native of tropical
America “among the most common of all weeds”.

You’ll recognize green amaranth by three main features: [1]
a stout, hairy stem, [2] rough-to-the-touch, pointed oval
leaves borne on stalks almost as long as the leaves
themselves, and [3] a crimson-colored root (hence the names
red root and wild beet). The height of the plant varies.
I’ve personally harvested a six-footer with a stem thicker
than some baseball bats! Usually, however, the mature plant
grows no more than three feet tall.

While some authors suggest ways of preparing raw
amaranth leaves, I recommend that you only eat the leaves
after they’ve been cooked, due to the fact that
the foliage contains a substance called saponin. Used
commercially as a foaming agent in fire extinguishers,
beers, etc., saponin gives the raw leaves of green amaranth
an odd taste and—because of its detergent-like
properties—can cause digestive upsets.

Fortunately, brief cooking will serve to [1] drive saponin
out of the plant’s leaves, and [2] create a vitamin-rich
vegetable side dish that’s sure to please the most
fastidious palate. (Because the plain, cooked greens have a
very delicate flavor, you may wish to serve them with a
stronger-tasting vegetable—such as curled
dock—or with a cheese sauce.)

Boiled, wilted, fried, creamed, or steamed . . . green
amaranth is an uncommonly delicious “find”.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

If you want a weed that you can safely eat raw,
try purslane.

A native of southern Asia, pussley —as some
folks call it—is at present widely cultivated
throughout Europe and the Orient for use as a salad green
and potherb. In America, however, relatively few gardeners
have discovered how tasty—and nourishing—this
small, ground-hugging plant can be.

Although purslane
rarely grows taller than two inches, it can—and
will!—quickly spread its fleshy, reddish-purple stems
and paddle-shaped leaves over a large portion of one’s
garden. Which is probably just as well, since all
above-ground parts of this iron- and calcium-rich
semi-succulent are edible. (Harvest only the tender,
growing tips, though, if you want to keep your purslane
productive all summer long.)

The leaves or tips add a welcome and slightly acidic flavor
to salads. In addition, the foliage is delectable either
boiled or fried in butter with salt or pepper.

The texture of purslane is somewhat gooey or mucilaginous.
If you find this disagreeable, try [1] dipping the plant In
a beaten egg, [2] rolling it in a mixture of bread crumbs
and flour, and then [3] frying the vegetable until it’s
brown. The glutinous quality of the leaves is rendered
unnoticeable by the procedure. (I should add that this same
“gooey” quality makes pussley a good substitute for okra in
soups, sauces, and most any recipe calling for a
thickener.)

You may wish to take advantage of purslane’s rich yield of
seeds—up to 50,000 per individual plant—for use
in breads, biscuits, pancakes, etc. To collect the seeds,
simply pick some plants before their pods have fully
ripened, lay them out to dry for two weeks on a sheet of
plastic film, thrash the dried pussley,
and—finally—winnow out the myriad tiny, black
seeds.

Curled Dock (Rumex crispus)

The docks are some of the hardiest, most widespread, most
persistent weeds found anywhere. (Pull one out of
the ground—if you can!— and you’ll soon find
that it’s been replaced by two more.) And docks are
found
practically anywhere: alongside streams and
roads and driveways, in pastures and vacant lots and
gardens . . . in short, wherever you’d expect a weed to
grow!

Of the 15 Rumex species called docks, all are
edible. None, however, is as well known—or as
savory—as curled dock (synonyms: narrow-leaved dock
and yellow dock). The plant’s name refers to the fact that
its slender, lance-shaped leaves—most of which sprout
directly from the ground—have wavy edges. Often,
these leaves reach two feet or more in length . . . while
the weed’s spindly flower stalks grow to a height of four
or five feet before they bear small, green blossoms.

Curled dock’s glossy foliage is unusually flavorful …
often (especially if the leaves are more than a foot long)
to the point of tasting bitter. There are two ways of
dealing with this unpalatable pungency.

The first is to boil the plant through two waters. (In
other words, place the leaves in cold water in a pan, bring
to a boil, drain the hot water off, and—after adding
more liquid to the container—cook the foliage until
it’s tender.) Yes, by doing this you are pouring
valuable vitamins down the drain . . . but the steaming hot
greens that remain in the pan are—in my
estimation—among the best-tasting of all wild
vegetables. As a result, I make up for the lost nutrients
by eating more leaves than I would if they tasted bitter!

A second effective way to rid dock leaves of their
astringency is to cream them. To do this, simply [1] mix a
tablespoon of flour with a tablespoon of melted butter in a
pan, [2] add two cups of chopped dock leaves and 1/2 cup of
milk to the butter-flour paste, and [3] cook—stirring
constantly—until the sauce thickens. The result: a
gourmet’s delight, without the “bite”.

Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

A close relative of curled dock—and a frequent
inhabitant of neglected gardens—is sheep
sorrel
(also known as sourgrass).

While it’s true that the light-green, arrowhead-shaped
leaves of sourgrass are a bit acid-tasting (due to
the presence of potassium oxalate) and shouldn’t be eaten
in excess . . . don’t let this keep you from upping the
“zip factor” of your salads, soups, and other dishes with
small amounts of sheep sorrel foliage. (Place a few leaves
of acetosella— literally , “small
vinegar plant”—in a salad and you can omit the
vinegar from your dressing!)

Sheep sorrel’s crisp tartness makes it the perfect
accompaniment to fish. Verify this for yourself by
including some chopped sourgrass leaves in your favorite
seafood sauce . . . or—the next time you bake a
whole, stuffed fish—add a small quantity of sorrel to
the stuffing mix.

Sheep sorrel also may be substituted for rhubarb in pie
recipes. All you have to do is cook the sorrel leaves,
combine them with the remaining recipe ingredients, and
pour the resulting mixture into a pie shell. Then top with
a layer of crust, pop the whole thing into the oven, and
bake according to the recipe’s directions.

Another sheep sorrel dish—puree—goes back many
years. The dateless instructions I use say to [1] boil
three pounds (quite a sackful!) of the leaves until tender,
[2] drain them, [3] press the cooked foliage through a
sieve (if you have a blender, simply whiz the leaves-with a
little water, if necessary-until they’re smooth), [4] pour
the pureed greens into a saucepan containing two
tablespoons of butter, and [5] simmer—while
stirring—for 10 minutes. Finally, add more butter-or
milk or cream—as desired, and salt and pepper to
taste.

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella and other species)

This fragile plant—held by some to be a descendant of
the original shamrock—grows in shady areas alongside
houses and fences, and can be recognized by its familiar
triple-lobed, clover-shaped leaves. (Unlike clover,
however, the lobes of wood sorrel’s leaves are
heart-shaped.) Most of the dozen species of Oxalis
known as “wood sorrel” bear yellow flowers (see photo),
while some have white blossoms and others have violet- or
pink-petaled blooms. Regardless of the species, the pointed
seedpods of wood sorrel are always good for a refreshing,
lemony nibble on a hot summer day.

Wood sorrel (as you might expect from the name “sorrel”,
meaning “sour”) is similar in taste to sheep sorrel . . .
thus, you can replace one plant with the other in many
recipes. However, because the wood sorrel’s stem can be
stiff and hard to chew—even after cooking—you’d
be well advised to harvest only the leaves from Oxalis
species.

You’ll find that raw wood sorrel leaves add a delightful
flavor to sandwiches, and that the shamrock-like foliage
makes a decorative and tasty garnish.

Food is Where You Find It

You can use any of the plants described in this
article—alone or mixed—as soup greens or the
base for a puree. And it’s no chore to store the wild
edibles for year-round use: All you have to do is [1]
blanch the greens by placing them in a small amount of
boiling water for two minutes, [2] cool the foliage quickly
in pre-chilled water, and [3] pack the victuals into
airtight containers before [4] putting them in the freezer.

Give lamb’s-quarters or redroot or purslane or curled dock
or either of the sorrels described here a try. (Add an
extra measure of nutrition to your meals and watch your
grocery bill go down at the same time!) I think you’ll find
that it makes good sense to stop thinking of garden weeds
as ornery pests and begin accepting them for what they (in
many cases) really are: no-work, natural,
free-for-the-pickin’ food.
 


Five Commandments for the Novice Weed Stalker

  • DON’T ever put a plant to your lips or tongue
    until you’ve positively identified—and determined the
    edibility of—the weed in question with the aid of a
    guidebook or an experienced forager. When in doubt, take
    the plant to your county agricultural agent for
    identification.
  • DON’T depend on general rules of thumb (regarding
    color, shape, milky sap, etc.) to determine a plant’s
    edibility or non-edibility.
  • DON’T pick wild food from areas that might have been
    sprayed with herbicides, pesticides, or chemicals not meant
    for use on edible vegetables. (Hint: Wash whatever you eat
    before you eat it.) .
  • DON’T forage too close to roadways, where lead from
    auto exhausts may have contaminated the soil to a dangerous
    extent. Consider a 25-foot separation between plant and
    highway to be a bare minimum, and try—if
    possible—for 50 to 100 feet of separation.
    (Similarly, don’t forage in areas which are likely to
    contain pollution . . . such as near factories, chemical
    dumping grounds, or effluent-tainted waterways.)
  • Finally, DON’T let the above warnings frighten you out
    of experimenting with wild foods. Instead, remember that if
    you [A] gather your foliage in a safe place and [B]
    positively identify your plants, there’s nothing to fear.
    Become a weed stalker and you’ll soon understand more about
    the natural world than just which plants are edible. What
    better way is there to become acquainted with Mother
    Nature, than to eat from her hand?