A weed by any other name

Marcelle Swanson talks about the benefits of weeds and the unexpected culinary delights they can offer.

As a foraging enthusiast, I love finding ways to supplement our seasonal food offerings.  Wild plants, also known as weeds, offer ample greens for free and are a great way to supplement your table at a time when many traditional crops are lacking. Now, of course, not all weeds are edible, or even palatable, but some offer excellent flavour, as well as nutritional value. 

“We will fight them in the fields, we will fight them in the gardens, we will fight them in the footpaths. We will fight them why? Because someone told us to.”

This quote by Costa Georgiadis in the foreword of Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland’s book The Weed Forager’s Handbook is a timely reminder that anything can become a weed, but it doesn’t necessarily make it of little or no value. A weed, by definition, is something growing in the wrong place. Well, I think we can all agree that many plants could be classified as weeds by this definition.  I’ve had lettuce, parsley and chives all growing in the “wrong place”, but I never referred to them as weeds – they were simply crops awaiting transplanting.

It does take a change of mindset to stop seeing these wild sown plants as weeds, but once you discover a few of these tasty treats for yourself, you’ll open up to a world of free seasonal produce, and crops that thrive in areas of disturbance (which makes them really easy to grow!).

Below are five wild foods you may have previously thought to be weeds that are worth adding to your culinary repertoire.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica urens) – Eating a stinging plant may seem crazy, but the truth is, once harvested and blanched, the sting is removed and the nettles, which are high in protein, can be used to make a pesto or served alongside many pasta and pastry dishes, with recipes available for both Italian and Greek cuisine. Pick only young, fresh growth.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – A common guest in many gardens and along pathways, purslane is high in Omega-3 fatty acids and is a nice addition to salads where the small leaves add texture and a crisp, tart flavour. Containing oxalic acid, eat only in moderation, harvesting bright green leaves when needed. 

Chickweed (Stellaria media) – High in protein, iron and vitamins, this little wild food has been used throughout the world to treat malnutrition and famine, and is well worth including in your own superfoods store. To identify, look for the fine hairs on the stems. Suitable for salads, stir-fries and even pesto. Chickens love this one too!

Mallow (Malva sylvestris) – An easy weed to identify which makes it a great one for the novice forager. The young leaves are a substitute for spinach while older leaves are suitable for adding to curries. Lightly blanch for optimal edibility. Medicinally, a tea of the leaves is said to be good for sore throats. 

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – The young leaves of dandelions are suitable for use as you would spinach or Asian greens, in soups, curries and stir-fries.  Medicinally, dandelion leaves are said to be good for your blood, especially in people with anaemia, and the third richest source of Vitamin A behind cod-liver oil and beef liver*.

Other wild foods or edible weeds often referred to in foraging books include blackberries, fennel, nasturtium and amaranth, but you could equally include roadside fruit trees in this cornucopia of free wild edibles. 

Caution

Only eat plants you can accurately identify without a shadow of a doubt. Collect weeds from areas known to be free of pesticides and herbicides.  Introduce new plants to your diet gradually as they can have digestive side-effects.

*Doris Pozzi, Edible Weeds and Garden Plants of Melbourne

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Marcelle Swanson

Marcelle is a sustainable farmer, gardener and horticultural writer. After graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Horticulture) from Burnley, she worked in print, TV, web and published 3 books before joining The Diggers Club as Publishing Manager.
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