Weeds are often seen as an insurmountable force, an unbearable nuisance, an overwhelming enemy in the garden, all of which ensure the utmost of destruction must take place. Before you tackle them with your hoe, harrow, or hands, please read on. It turns out that some of those weeds might be a delightful addition to your next meal!
First things first, a definition, and it’s quite simple on Grow Appalachia terms: A weed is simply something growing where you don’t want it. Now that we have that all cleared up…
In order to become an effective forager in the world of edible weed know-how, it’s first important to pay attention to some basic characteristics of weeds and plants. Leaf arrangement and leaf type are the simplest. Arrangements can be opposite, alternate, or whorled. In the diagram below (source), they’re pictured alternate, opposite, whorled. Additionally, there are two types of leave: simple and compound. Simple is a singular leaf on a stem or shoot, and compound leaves are a leaf composed of multiple leaflets. You can also see examples of those in the diagram below. Also note features such as flower color, flower type (can determine if the plant is a monocot or dicot; more on that here). By making note of just a few simple features, this gives you an advantage as to what to look for when you’re out in the field.
A Few Examples
A word to the wise: Please know what you are eating before you actually eat it! Many wild flowers and plants are actually quite toxic, so never eat anything without knowing whether or not it is actually edible. Also avoid weeds in areas that have been sprayed, are high in wildlife populations, or are near busy roadways. Lastly, keep in mind that only certain parts of the weeds may be edible (leaves, young shoots, etc), rather than the entire plant. Below is a list of common weeds (common to Appalachia) and how they are identifiable, but when in doubt, you can always take your weed in question to your local extension agent.
Lambsquarter, also known as wild spinach, is astonishingly nutritious, packing more good-for-you iron, protein, and vitamin B2 than both raw cabbage or raw spinach! This weed is identifiable by its diamond-shaped leaves, with jagged edges, and also white coarse particles under the leaves. The stalks and stems are green or sometimes red streaked. Try it as a green in salads, or cooked as a spinach substitute (supposedly it’s excellent creamed). Check out this lambsquarter soup recipe, posted from one of our partner sites last year!
Chickweed is probably one of the most common weeds plaguing gardens in this neck of the woods. Luckily, chickweed is also edible, very high in iron and widely used medicinally. It’s easy to spot because it tends to grow in “mats”, rather than as a single plant. The small, teardrop-shaped leaves grow opposite a stem that has one side of fine white hairs. Lastly, chickweed flowers are small and white, with 5 petals, although it looks like 10. The leaves are an ideal addition to salads.
Dandelion is more than known for its pretty yellow flowers; the greens and leaves are also very popular as a salad green or dried in tea. Dandelion greens are best edible when the plants are still young, before the flowers emerge; otherwise, larger greens are better cooked. You can add them raw in salads, or try them sauteed or braised. The flowers can also be added to salads, fried in batter to make “fritters”, or made into jams and jellies.
Chicory you’ve likely seen during a walk in the woods. The periwinkle-colored flowers are unmistakable! Often found growing in single tall patches (the plants themselves are rather leggy), the leaves can be prepared as described above with the other weeds, but one interesting anecdote about chicory is that it can be consumed as a coffee substitute in several parts of the world! Yes, you are reading that correctly: Dig out the plants, peel and trim the roots, and roast them at about 250F for approximately 4 hours. Grind the roasted roots and prepare with a ratio of 1 tsp root to 1 cup of water. You can read the complete instructions, and more on chicory, here.
Purslane is most noticeable with its reddish stems and succulent leaves. Unlike the weeds mentioned previously, purslane has a slightly acidic taste (even described as lemony), but that can be overlooked due to its richness in heart-healthy Omega 3s. It also tends to grow in “mats”, similar to chickweed. It’s also a favorite among Grow Appalachia staff!
Plantain, not to be confused with the banana-like fruit at the grocery store, has many of the same nutritional qualities as dandelion leaves and shoots, also best consumed when young. Look for broad leaves and seeded shoots 1-2″ long. In addition, the shoots are sometimes referred to as “poor man’s asparagus”, bearing a slightly nutty flavor. Allow the shoots to grow longer and turn brown, and the brown seeds left behind are also edible. Plantain is a low-growing weed, so look down! Medicinally, plantain leaves can also be chewed and applied to insect bites to stop the sting and itch.
We’re not going to leave you hanging with all of these tasty weeds you’ve gathered. With many of them, they’re best consumed raw because of their high nutritional content. However, like any other leafy vegetable, with some careful preparation, you can still obtain all the health benefits without losing their flavor. We tracked down a few recipes featuring these wonderful weeds and have posted them below in order to perhaps inspire some creativity in the kitchen!
1 pound fresh lambsquarters, bigger stems removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 leeks, finely chopped
1 cup canned pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon chili powder
salt and pepper to taste
Rinse greens several times to make sure all grit and sand are removed. Steam greens in a tightly lidded pot until wilted. Drain greens and finely chop them. In a large skillet heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and leeks and cook until leeks are soft, stirring frequently, 2 to 3 minutes. Add greens, beans and chili powder. Cover and cook on low heat for 5 minutes or until heated through. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
2 to 3 large bunches of purslane (enough for 4 cups worth)
3 cups plain Greek yogurt or Turkish strained yogurt
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Trim purslane bunches and wash and drain several times to remove any dirt or grit. Remove leaves from the stem, set stems aside. Spin the leaves in a salad spinner to remove any excess moisture. In a separate bowl, whisk other ingredients together until smooth and creamy. Add salt and pepper and adjust to your own preferences. Add the purslane leaves and toss thoroughly to coat. Serve immediately, or cover and chill for several hours or overnight.
1 10-inch pie crust
3 cups chopped chickweed
1 cup diced bacon
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1. Preheat oven to 325F. Line a 10-inch pie pan with the crust and make a raised border around the rim to prevent filling from overflowing.
2. Remove all leaves, twigs and roots from chickweed, reserving only greenest, leafiest parts. Rinse thoroughly in a colander and gently dry with paper towels. Bundle the chickweed together into a ball and chop finely. Measure to 3 cups worth, then add to a large bowl.
3. Fry diced bacon in a skillet until it begins to brown, then add the onion. Cook about 3 minutes or until the onion wilts. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon and onions to the chickweed.
4. In a separate bowl, beat eggs, then add sour cream, flour and nutmeg. Add egg mixture to chickweed, onions and bacon. Spread filling evenly in the pie shell and pat down firmly with a spoon. Bake 45 to 50 minutes or until the pie has set in the center and the top is golden.
What’s your favorite edible from the garden or woods? Share your pictures and recipes (if you have any) and until next time, happy foraging!
Six Edible Weeds from Mother Earth News
Power-Packed Purslane from Mother Earth News
The Five Healthiest Backyard Weeds from Live Science
Spring Foraging from Mother Earth Living
The Benefits of Dandelion: From Cultivation to Cooking
Online Weed Guides from A Way to Garden