Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, is past president of the Institute of Food Technologists and a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, Orono. Chris Kilham is an instructor of ethnobotany at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and founder of Medicine Hunter, an enterprise that explores plant-based medicines.
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You’ve plucked them and chucked them into your trash or compost pile. You’ve cursed their very existence. You’ve racked your brain trying to think of better ways to deal with the weeds in your yard—but have you ever considered eating them?
To dig a little deeper—pardon the pun—into ways to turn the drudgery of weeding into the joy of foraging, we spoke with Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, a nutrition professor at the University of Maine and president of the Institute of Food Technologists, and ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, founder of Medicine Hunter, Inc., who travels the world in search of beneficial botanicals.
A FEW PRECAUTIONS
Before you even consider eating a weed that’s growing wild, pay attention to these two safety rules…
• Know your weeds. “There are many lookalikes in the plant kingdom,” warns Dr. Camire. Of course, anyone can recognize a dandelion, but if you’re not sure about a plant, don’t eat it. To learn to identify what’s edible and what’s not in your region, she suggests that you look for a “wild foraging” workshop at your local Cooperative Extension, arboretum or chapter of the Audubon Society. You can also look up plants in books such as the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons or Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods by Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman…or check online resources, such as the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s publication, Edible Wild Plants.
• Go organic—and beyond. Pick weeds only from areas that haven’t been treated with pesticides or herbicides, says Dr. Camire, and “avoid plants that have been exposed to high levels of car exhaust, such as those that grow alongside roads, near septic leach fields or businesses that use chemicals, or near any other potential sources of contamination.” Even if the yard or field is organic and unpolluted, you’ll want to rinse the plants thoroughly before you eat them to remove grit and insects. It’s also not a good idea to collect food from any site where animal feces have contaminated the plants.
Ready? Here’s how to safely enjoy five tasty, nutritious and even healing garden-variety weeds that grow plentifully throughout the country.
SUPERGREENS AND HEALING HERBS
These common weeds are delicious…
• Dandelion. It’s common, familiar—and eminently edible. The leaves have the best flavor—they’re a little bitter, like broccoli rabe, and can be added raw to salads or sautéed, says Chris Kilham. The stems and roots are less tasty but are fine if picked young and chopped and steamed or sautéed with other vegetables. Besides adding an earthy taste, fresh dandelion leaves provide a hefty dose of vitamin A, calcium, iron, vitamin E and potassium. You can also dry and roast the roots and then grind and brew them for a delicious coffeelike drink without caffeine. Finally, you can take Ray Bradbury’s lead from his 1953 story in Gourmet magazine and make dandelion wine from the flowers. Here’s a recipe.
• Lambsquarters. This weed has nothing to do with baby sheep—it’s actually related to spinach. It grows throughout much of the US, especially in the summer months. A mild green that tastes a little like spinach, lambsquarters is often paired with mesclun (a leafy green) in restaurant salads, and it can also be steamed, sautéed or added to soups, Kilham says. It’s a good source of fiber, calcium, magnesium and potassium, as well as vitamins A and C. A three-and-a-half-ounce serving (about a cup and a half), for example, provides 80 mg of vitamin C—and a generous 300 mg of calcium. (Compare that to the same serving size of the “superfood” kale with a mere 135 mg of calcium!).
• Fiddlehead ferns. These little beauties are the furled fronds from a young ostrich fern, and they are hot items in farmers’ markets and trendy restaurants these days, especially in the early spring. (Note: Make sure the fiddleheads you’re collecting really are ostrich ferns and not bracken ferns, which are carcinogenic.) Fiddleheads should never be consumed raw or undercooked because of a risk for illness (the exact reason why some people get sick from eating them raw isn’t known, but when you thoroughly cook them they’re completely safe). Rinse them thoroughly, gently steam or boil, and then sauté them, perhaps with some olive oil, chopped garlic or onions, salt and pepper, Kilham suggests. Fiddleheads are nutritious as well as delicious, with a taste like earthy asparagus…a solid source of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamins A and C, and niacin.
• Elderberry. The flowers and purple-blue berries of the elderberry plant are edible…the leaves are not. The berries can be made into jam, syrup, pies, even wine, while the large gossamer-like flower clusters can be dipped in pancake batter and pan-fried like a crepe, Kilham says. You can eat elderberries fresh off the bush or tossed into a salad for a hint of sweetness. With every cup of these berries, you’ll get a substantial serving of fiber, calcium, iron, potassium and vitamin C. Elderberry syrup may boost the immune system, so it might help you skip your next cold or bout of flu. To make it, collect about one-half or three-quarters cup of berries, dry them, then boil them in three cups of water for a half hour or more, cool, strain, mix with one cup of honey and store in the refrigerator.
• Red clover. A wild perennial plant that belongs to the legume family, red clover is nutritious and may have medicinal properties. The leaves, which taste slightly like alfalfa sprouts, can be tossed into salads, sautéed or added to soups, and they are quite nutritious, containing calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, niacin and thiamine. But it’s the weed’s red flowers, which have a mildly sweet taste, that get the most attention. They are rich in isoflavones, compounds that act as estrogens, so it’s not surprising that red clover tea is a common remedy for menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. So far, study results are inconclusive, some finding a benefit and others not, but if you want to try it, dry the flowers, then steep a teaspoon or two in a cup of just-boiled water for a half an hour, and drink two or three cups a day.
Of course, now that you’re acquainted with some of the tastier weeds, you may want to take the easier route and just look for them in your local farmers market. Chances are you’ll find fiddleheads in the spring and big bunches of dandelion greens and lambsquarters all summer long and into the fall.