I love when the season turns to summer and our garden beckons with food. This season’s food tastes best sun-warmed off the vine, or with a simple drizzle of olive oil over a flash of heat. There are layers to the season – first the peas and salad greens, next the plump zucchinis and tomatoes, and finally the mammoth cabbages and winter squashes. But growing quietly and steadfast all through the season are weeds, and I have learned to welcome their arrival.
I have always been a dutiful weed-eater but there’s something humbling about observing edible lambs quarters and common mallow flourish in my hardpack garden-walkways without a sprinkle of water, while my pampered lettuce dreams of being transplanted to the foggy coast of Northern California. So, this summer I’m accepting alfalfa and amaranth’s offers for a free lunch and getting serious about eating my weeds.
The Good News
The practical value of weeds is no coincidence; Europeans brought their favorite foods and medicines to America to accompany them in their new lives. Without the checks and balances of their natural habitats, these plants quickly spread out of control, rooting in the wake of soil-disturbing wagon wheels. And now they’re yours for the taking; enjoy your free lunch.
Common Edible Weeds
Mallow – Malva neglecta
The entire plant is edible, leaves, flowers and seeds. This plant is in the same family as hollyhocks and okra and has a mucilaginous quality, making all parts of the plant a useful tea for sore throats. The taste is mild and green like a meadow of grasses exhaling. Young leaves are best, the bigger leaves get a little thick and scratchy with age (like me.)
Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
We love our dandelion greens around here. Even my daughter Rose, 4, will scarf them down if cooked into a cheesy pasta (though she’d probably eat gauze bandages cooked into cheesy pasta.) The young leaves are best as they get bitter with age, though cultivating a taste for bitter will aid your digestion. Gather before flowering, and use raw in salads, or cooked like spinach and added to pasta, rice, soups. Dandelions are high in Vitamins A, B, C, iron and potassium; they have more calcium than milk, cup for cup. The leaves are a safe, reliable diuretic and the roots a gentle liver tonic. When my son Col was on a pharmaceutical diuretic for fluid-in-the-lungs as a preemie, I kind of wished I could slip him a little dandelion leaf tincture, but suspected that wouldn’t have gone over well in the chart-and-measure-to-the-hilt NICU.
Lamb’s quarters – Chenopodium sp.
I am so happy about lamb’s quarters. They’re completely zen and have totally mastered the practice of non-attachment. They wear these drab grey-green robes, doing their walking-meditation throughout your garden, sometimes pausing to bow in the moistness of the lettuce patch. If you choose to pull them up, they go without a fight. When you pick a leaf and turn it over, you’ll find its underside all purple with crystally hairs that would bring tears to any marijuana cultivator. The taste is so mild and fresh, lamb’s quarters blends into a lettucy salad like a very quiet hunter, tip-toeing through the forest. Also, full of Vitamin C and beta carotene.
Alfalfa and Red clover- Medicago sativa and Trifolium pratense
These legume-family plants are riddled with vitamins and minerals (good for pregnant and lactating women.) The red clover flowers are sweet and even though Rose wants nothing more than to get the green light on chewing gum, she’s happy to pop these in her mouth for now. Picking flowers encourages more blooming – how do you like that for accommodating? Adding flowers to salad makes me feel like I’m dining at a bistro on the Mediterranean Sea, rather than just eating weeds from my little patch of earth.
Enjoy your weeds this summer!
As always, make sure you feel comfortable with plant identification before wild-foraging for weeds. Also, only harvest from areas which you are certain are free from any weedkillers or pesticides. For more detailed information on dandelions and a Dandelion Fritter recipe, please see Dandelion Fritters in our Summer 2011 edition.
Rachel Turiel tends an urban homestead at 6512 feet in Colorado. Read more of her writing on her blog 6512 and Growing.