Wild Edible Plants in Your Garden

Some wild weeds in your garden, including purslane, dandelion, violets, and chickweed, are actually edible delicacies.

| June/July 1992

At this time of year, weeding is one of our most important gardening chores. Weeds, those unwelcome trespassers, can grow rapidly, choking out our tender hybrid flowers and vegetables. Although we spend so much of our time fighting them, comparatively few of us actually know much about weeds.

Have you ever wondered why some plants make weeds of themselves? It's as if this wild vegetation prefers human company to life in the pristine wilderness. Ironically, it's because many of these plants were naturalized many centuries ago by our ancestors for food, medicine, or other purposes—they're actually semi-domesticated. Although we abandoned them as our lifestyles changed, they faithfully continue to follow us!

Most of those dreadful weeds are edible. Some are choice, and are cultivated in other countries and by those of us who still appreciate them. I've been eating and enjoying wild edible plants—beneficial weeds, you might say—for over 20 years in addition to more "normal" foods, for their flavor, freshness, and nutritional value. They're also free—another inescapable attribute.

By consuming those wild edible plants, you will realize a number of benefits: One, you get an "early harvest" at a time when most gardens are just getting started. Two, you increase the productivity of your garden. (Weeds, you'll come to see, are not pests—they're homegrown food.) Three, as with most other homegrown food, you'll save money. This particular food is especially economical—it's totally free (you didn't even have to pay for the seeds). Four, you'll expand your own culinary horizons. There are approximately 50,000 edible plant species in the world, but the average American eats only 30. Hence, if you only use three kinds of edible weeds as part of your diet, you've probably increased your food choices by 10%! And five, it's easier to avoid using herbicides once you view weeds as food, helping the environment.

Although wild plant life varies in different climate zones, there are quite a number of wild edible plants that are considered "cosmopolitan"—they thrive nearly everywhere. Here are just a few of the most pervasive garden or "lawn" weeds. If you are familiar with these plants, feel free to experiment with them. But don't try eating anything you're not sure of. Check its identity with a good field guide, your local agricultural extension agent, or park ranger. By the way, many nature centers and state parks offer edible plant walks. This is one of the best ways to learn more about wild foods.

Purslane, Portulaca oleracea

Also known as "pulley." this common garden weed is rich in flavor and nutrients. Purslane's a popular vegetable in many parts of the world, including Holland and France. If you've visited Mexico, you may have enjoyed it as "verdolago." In fact, part of its scientific name, oleracea, actually means "like a garden vegetable." No less a personage than Henry David Thoreau praised purslane in the classic Walden, when he wrote "I have made a satisfactory dinner off a dish of purslane, which I gathered and boiled. Yet, men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for lack of necessaries but for want of luxuries."

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