Eating the Weeds! 5 Steps to Enjoying Wild Edible Leaves, Roots and Flowers
Eating the Weeds
The organic produce aisle…of all places to have an epiphany. There I was, wrestling with the guilt of feeling bored with the canned veggies from my garden, when suddenly my eyes got stuck on the most peculiar looking foliage. I blinked a few times not quite believing what I was seeing – very luscious but expensive bundles of certified organic dandelion greens!
As an herbalist I was rather amused, thinking to myself about the pure abundance of dandelion greens growing in my front yard even in the dead of winter (albeit much smaller in stature than what I was seeing on the shelf in front of me). I had just collected some that morning to put into our salad for dinner.
I stood there slightly bewildered and thought, “Why would anyone actually buy dandelion greens, especially at this crazy price?” And then it dawned on me. Not everyone is as comfortable as I am walking out into my yard, a fallow pasture, or the forest to harvest and eat the plants that are growing there.
What is to me of second nature may be rather intimidating to others. Maybe the average person wandering through the grocery store is super interested in testing out the infamous dandelion greens of their granny’s dinner time stories, but they are a little freaked out by the idea of foraging them from wild spaces? Well, perhaps I can remedy that.
Acquiring knowledge about how to properly identify, harvest, and prepare edible weeds can be a lifelong journey and there is as much to learn as there is fun to be had. So on behalf of the wild weed kingdom, I would like to welcome you to an enlightening and satisfying way to build relationships with the natural world and truly connect with local wild foods you can rely upon for nourishment.
Why eat weeds?
Anyone reading a cooking blog these days can tell you that there is a growing interest and market for ‘wild foods’ such as mushrooms like chanterelles or morels and berries and fruits like elderberries, mulberries, or paw paw. These delicious and well-known miracles of nature can be both expensive and hard to find.
Fortunately, there are many less famous edible plants, or ‘weeds’, growing with wild abandon right outside our front doors whose tasty leaves, roots, and flowers contain tremendous nutritional value.
In fact, in the days before grocery stores, farmers markets, and year-round produce, these wild edible weeds served as primary sources of both food and medicine. Not only are these edible weeds nutritious, they are also free of charge, costing only the energy it takes to learn how to identify them and to get out into the great outdoors (with a bit of bending over). Research has shown that fresh air, natural light, and exercise all have the added health benefits of reducing the effects of stress on the mind and body (unlike a typical trip to the grocery store, in my experience).
Foraging for wild foods is a very rewarding and nourishing way to interact with nature. For many individuals and families, taking time to eat the weeds — even just those in your own front yard — can be an inspiring and memorable way to spend time with loved ones. It can also be a powerful teaching tool for parents wanting to instill in their children a sustainable food ethic and admiration and respect for nature’s bounty. In practicing the ethos of ‘eating local’, it is so important that we remind ourselves and our children where our food actually comes from. When learning to harvest and eat the weeds, we create mindfulness about respecting and honoring the life, the death, and the resources used to get that food to our dinner plates. In addition, preparing delicious food from the weeds you have harvested yourself can enliven the spirit behind your meal and the intention in your cooking.
5 Steps to Foraging and Eating Weeds
Step 1: Do your homework
When I find a new subject that I am uber excited about, I want to jump right in. However, in order to ‘eat the weeds’, we need to learn which plants are safe to consume as foods (i.e., not poisonous) and how to identify them accurately.
There are many poisonous look-a-likes out there, and although some of these plants are deadly, more often than not you and your guests could end up with a bad case of vomiting and diarrhea (it’s a terrible way to end a dinner party).
Needless to say, getting a handle on basic botanical identification is of utmost importance, so arm yourself with at least two plant identification field guides. The Herbarium and the blog of the Herbal Academy of New England are fantastic websites that house loads of great information about the properties of plants, but any good book on medicinal plants will cover edibility, what the plant is capable of inside the human body, and whether or not it may be ill-advised to consume it.
The caveat is this: always cross reference your field guides and herbal books in order to ensure you have positively identified a plant before harvesting it.
We also need to understand which plants are both edible and abundant. Many edible weeds also valued for their medicinal virtues are in danger of being over-harvested in the wild. Some edible weeds require very specific places to live which can also account for their rarity. Never collect rare or legally protected plants and never enter into fragile habitats where your presence can alter the sanctity or stability of the ecosystem. If you are not sure about these things, check out the United Plant Savers ‘At-Risk’ and ‘To-Watch’ lists and the USDA Plant Profile database which will provide information about the vulnerability status of the particular species you are interested in eating.
Step 2: Find a fresh location
Like vegetables grown in a farmer’s field, edible weeds absorb everything they are exposed to in the water, soil, and air. Therefore, it is important to consider the growing conditions. It’s generally good practice not to harvest edible weeds that are growing next to roadsides due to likelihood of residue from gasoline and diesel engines and the salt, fracking wastewater or coal cinders used for deicing.
These substances are full of toxic chemicals and heavy metals which accumulate in the soil. There is also a very high likelihood that roadsides have been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides to discourage plants from growing too close.
The use of pesticides and herbicides can also be an issue with public parks, as can excrement or urine from pets (or even people!). Be weary of immaculate or highly manicured lawns, parks and gardens, which are not likely to be pesticide-free. Know the history or maintenance regimen of the land you wish to forage from, even if it looks wild. Stretches of land with a dubious past may look benign but could have been an old landfill or industrial dumping ground. Your local county auditor’s office or public library should have historical plat maps that can tell you the history of that land.
It is also important that you seek permission from private landowners before foraging their property for edible weeds.
If you intend on foraging from state or federal lands be sure you know what you can legally harvest. For example, many state parks and nature preserves have a moratorium on harvesting anything from their properties, and federal lands like the national forests might require special permits or have specific rules about what you can and cannot take.
Step 3: Harvesting fresh plant material
Before harvesting fresh plant material, get in the right headspace and be prepared with the necessary equipment.
You’ll need a magnifying glass to assist in proper identification of flowering plants, clean and sterilized scissors or pruners, a trowel or hori-hori for digging roots, collection bags with labels, and a pair of gloves (for harvesting species with thorns and stings).
It is also a good idea to bring along a first aid kit. If going out alone, be smart and let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return — getting lost or injured in the deep woods when no one knows where you are can be a terrible and frightening experience. There are also some ethical issues to consider.
Bottom line: do no harm and leave no trace.
Be gracious and caring about your foraging practices, never harvesting more than 10% from the plant itself or from the plant grouping. If you are collecting roots, remember to be mindful of the damage you are causing to the surrounding area, including other plants and the soil.
If significant damage is likely, don’t harvest. Always remember that when you harvest the the plant can attempt to regrow (depending on the species, sometimes regrowth is possible, sometimes not). Use what you pick and don’t let wild foods go to waste.
There are real benefits for harvesting with the seasons. In the case of flowers this is pretty straightforward, but the nutritional (and medicinal) benefits as well as the palatability of weeds and their various parts will ebb and flow throughout the year.
Spring and summer are definitely good times to harvest leaves and aerial parts, where late summer through fall is believed to be the best time for digging roots. Some plants are only available in the spring or taste better when young, whilst others last all season long. Get to know the growing season to help you decide when, and where, to forage.
Avoid collecting material that is damaged, diseased, infested by bugs, or pooped on by critters.
I personally prefer to keep my weeds separated by species when I am harvesting (hence the multitude of bags and labels).
Keeping edible weeds separated will help with the final stages of preparation when you are removing non-edible material or undesirable tag-alongs.
Step 4: Preparing the weeds for consumption
Proper rinsing and cleaning of your weeds is straightforward.
Dispose of any damaged, buggy, or rotten material that you may have overlooked when harvesting and sort through your weeds carefully to make sure there is no foreign or unidentified plant material. Most edible weed parts like flowers and leaves are best consumed fresh, but for short term storage, make sure they are drained of excess moisture and then stored in bags in fridge.
Consume them within a few days so you do not lose them to rot. Flowers will wilt and go off sometimes within hours of being picked, so it is often best to eat them right away.
The roots of a plant should also be consumed fresh for highest nutritional benefit, but they can also be chopped and dried for longer-term storage. Learning how to dry edible weeds properly is both an art and a science and care must be taken in order to avoid spoilage. Some edible weeds, like dandelion leaves, nettle, chickweed, and red clover all make wonderful weedy vinegars that can be used in salad dressings and other recipes.
The vinegar not only preserves the plant material by extracting the nutritional and medicinal virtues of the plant, but also assists the body in assimilating them. For further lessons in drying and preserving edible and medicinal plants, check out the Herbal Academy of New England’s online Introductory or Intermediate Herbal Courses.
They are chock full of solid information, how-to’s, and delicious recipes!
Step 5: Cooking and eating the weeds!
Finally! The exciting moment of reaping the nutritional rewards of your harvest has arrived. When first starting out and especially when preparing weeds for others, a little will go a long way. A whole mouthful of dandelion greens may make a different impression upon a dubious first-time weed-eater than a few leaves chopped up and added to a salad. Start small and go slowly, giving time for palettes to adjust to the new tastes and textures.
Similar to legumes, there are some weeds that contain properties that can be harmful if not nullified by heat, and some of which may require substantial cooking. On the other hand, there are some wild weeds whose nutritional value and palatability can be completely annihilated through cooking. Make sure you know which herbs you need to cook and others that would be better off eaten fresh. Everything in between is left to you, the artist!
Last but not least, have fun! Be creative! Remember that sometimes it can take a while to incorporate new things into our lives and wild foods are no different.
Be patient with yourself, and with those whom you share food. It may take some convincing or stealth weed-eating tactics, but eventually everyone will likely come around and enjoy eating weeds with you.
Good luck and happy foraging!
This post was written by Erika G Galentin, MNIMH, Medical Herbalist and Assistant Director of Course Development, Herbal Academy of New England