Want some great green stuff for your next salad or smoothie? Look no further than these terrific plants you’ve long mistaken for weeds. Besides fiber and chlorophyll, these free greens and flowers have bountiful micronutrients and antioxidants. And a number of them show up well before your garden is producing much food for the table, so you can feast on early plants like nettles, dandelions, chickweed and violets while your planted garden goodies mature.
But first a word of caution. Be sure to consult a good guide to identify your weeds so you don’t mistakenly eat something harmful.
There are plenty of good print guides to plant identification, and if you’re really lucky and/or cautious, you might even find a local naturalist to take you out on your first foraging expeditions. I had the good fortune of finding a series of classes given by a local foraging enthusiast who led groups around her property to find and harvest spring goodies like burdock, wild asparagus, ramps, and lambsquarters. After we gathered them, we cooked together and enjoyed a foraged feast. I was hooked.
These easy-to-spot bane of lawn-lovers are a great source of vitamins and minerals. One of the first greens of spring, you can use the tender young dandelion leaves in salads or in cooking, as well as their flowers and roots. Dandelions are reputed to be good detoxifiers. The long taproot that makes so them hard to oust from your lawn helps them take up minerals like iron and calcium. Dandelions are also a good source of B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and zinc.
Pick young leaves before the flowers appear to minimize the bitter flavor often associated with dandelions. Cooking will also help decrease bitterness, as will a fall frost. Dandelion greens take the place of arugula nicely in salads and on pizza. The yellow part of the flower can also be eaten raw or cooked, even made into fritters or used in baked goods.
Chickweed tolerates a fair amount of cold, so it’s often available in late fall even when everything else in your garden has succumbed, as well as in early spring before you’re able to set out starters. It can be used in salads and cooked dishes and contains vitamins A, D, C, and some B vitamins in addition to iron, calcium, potassium, and other trace minerals. Chickweed can also be used to make a nutritious pesto long before your basil’s ready.
A close second to dandelions in lawn-ruining ability, Creeping Charlie (also known as ‘ground ivy’, ‘gill all over the ground’, and a number of other names) can be tossed in salads, cooked like spinach or brewed into tea. Creeping Charlie has a rather strong flavor, so cook or use sparingly. Charlie has a long history of medicinal use — high in vitamin C, it’s considered a tonic that is also used to relieve headaches.
A member of the mint family, Creeping Charlie will take over anywhere it gets established and is difficult to get rid of. Embrace it as an attractive, pleasant-smelling groundcover and add it to the list of edibles you can harvest from your yard.
Nettles are at the top of most foragers’ lists of best-loved weeds. They make a tasty and nutritious early-season green, that can be added to soups or stews, and the tea made from the leaves is a popular way to treat respiratory ailments and fend off allergies. Nettles have become a hot culinary ingredient of late, and may turn up in pestos, frittatas, and dishes where you might expect spinach or other greens.
Nettles are among the first ‘weeds’ to sprout in early spring, so they are especially appreciated as the first fresh greens after a long winter. But wear gloves or use care when picking or you’ll get a mild sting after coming in contact with the prickly leaves. When harvesting nettles, pick from the top of the plant, with the first two or three bracts being the most tender. Once nettles are cooked or brewed into tea, its stinging characteristic is no longer present.
If you live in the southern part of North America, you’re surely familiar with kudzu, the “vine that ate the South.” Kudzu grows up to a foot per day, and has been known to enwrap telephone poles and even buildings. You can help the South with its invasive weed problem by cooking the bugger for dinner. It’s apparently very tasty, though I’ve never had the pleasure of trying it myself. The leaves, young shoots, flowers, and roots are all edible (not the vine). The blossoms can be made into jellies and syrups, while the leaves and shoots can be used in salads or cooked dishes. The roots are a good source of fiber, protein and iron and can be used as a thickener in cooking. Be careful not to confuse kudzu with poison ivy, which it resembles.
Purslane is a nutritional powerhouse, boasting not only vitamins, minerals, and fiber but also the best plant-based source of omega-3s. I use purslane in smoothies and like it so much that I’ve planted purslane seeds in many open places in my yard. In many parts of the world purslane is a sought-after vegetable for stir-fries and other cooked dishes. Encourage this superfood to spread anywhere you have open space.
If you are foraging for purslane, be advised to look out for spurge, which Steve Brill warns can be mistaken for purslane by the less experienced:
“Beware of spurge, a different-looking poisonous creeping wild plant that sometimes grows near purslane. The stem is wiry, not thick, and it gives off a white, milky sap when you break it. If you’re very careless, you may put some in your bag along with purslane, because they sometimes grow together on lawns, gardens, and meadows.”
Violet leaves and flowers make pretty and tasty additions to salads, and the flowers can be candied and used in numerous dessert recipes which you can source online. Violets are gorgeous atop cakes or ice cream, or you can freeze some into an ice-bowl for a stunning serving piece. Brewed into a tea, violets are thought to soothe nerves and alleviate coughs.
Violets also work beautifully as a groundcover for the shady spots of your yard or garden. Most of my shady front yard is now covered in violets, which do a great job crowding out other unwanted weeds and keep us in greens and flowers.
A relative of quinoa, lambsquarter is another green worth adding to your vegetable repertoire. Noted forager Steve Brill calls lambsquarter “one of the best sources of beta-carotene, calcium, potassium, and iron in the world.” Wow.
The leaves, roots and seeds all have nutritional uses. Lambsquarter leaves can be used fresh in salads or cooked like spinach. They can also be juiced, ideally as an ingredient to smoothies, but for best results only use the young tender leaves of the plant. The seeds can be ground and used as additions to cereal and flour, or sprouted to use as a micro-green that can be eaten in salads or added to sandwiches. Lambsquarter also has a number of medicinal uses worth exploring.
Wood sorrel also goes by the delightful name “lemon hearts” because of its heart-shaped leaves and a lemony flavor that children love. My kids and I like to snack on sorrel while we’re working in the garden. It has attractive yellow flowers and isn’t especially invasive, so we let this one grow and snip what we want to throw in salads or smoothies or right in our mouths. Wood sorrel is a good source of vitamin C and is reputed to be a stomach soother.
In discovering the various edible weeds in your garden, you’ll feel ever the savvy forager. Turn your weeding chores into harvests and enjoy this nutritious free food!
Also known as Claytonia, this succulent green has a buttery texture that fills early spring salads with its tart, pleasant flavor. Once derided as a weed by many gardeners, miner’s lettuce can now be found gracing plates in gourmet restaurants in salads, soups, and sautés. Rich in vitamin C, miner’s lettuce helped stave off scurvy for prospectors pursuing pay dirt during the California Gold Rush (which accounts for its common name). The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that this little plant also contains 22% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A and 10 % of the recommended daily iron.