Gardening is one of my favorite hobbies. I just love going outside, picking a fresh bunch of vegetables and herbs, and walking into my kitchen to cook or prepare them. Right on par with my gardening affections is my fascination with using the many edible weeds that grow in my backyard. Most of us have no idea how many weeds that we consider bothers are actually tasty and nutritious foods! I’m excited to share with you five of my favorites that are well-known, nutritious, tasty, and easy to find.
Before you go picking and eating, keep in mind some foraging basics. Make sure that you only gather edible wild foods where you have the right to do so. Choose places that haven’t been contaminated with pesticides or other harmful chemicals; urban roadsides or sprayed lawns are places to avoid. Lastly, and most importantly, check before you chew. Make sure you know that you have positively identified your plant and haven’t mistaken it for a potentially harmful look-alike.
And now… on to the food!
Everyone is familiar with dandelions . Children love them for making bouquets, and adults tend to hate them for marring their lawns. But how many of us know that dandelions are nutritional powerhouses? Chock full of nutrients like beta-carotene, iron, calcium, B vitamins and other vitamins and minerals, dandelions offer a greater nutritional punch than spinach and other domesticated greens for the great price of free. Dandelions are usually best harvested in the early spring and late fall.
Young dandelion greens can be enjoyed raw in salads, as can the yellow flowers (minus the bitter green sepals, which are the small green leaves that hug the base of the flower). I like the leaves better cooked. Just sautéing them renders them quite bitter, but gently simmering them in a sauce or other liquid for about ten minutes after sautéing removes the bitterness, leaving you with a nutritious, economical, and tasty green side dish! Dandelion roots and leaves also make a very healthful tea that supports the liver. I like to roast freshly dug and washed roots and dry the leaves in the fall to have a detoxifying tea through the winter.
Violet flowers not only look pretty, they also have a taste very similar to black pepper, and we enjoy them raw. I love sending my children out to gather violets for salads. They are so easy to spot and identify, and they add a wonderfully spiciness to an ordinary salad of garden veggies. My children think that it is so neat to eat wild flowers in their salads, and I think it makes them more willing to eat their greens. Though we usually just eat the flowers, violet leaves are also edible and said to be tasty anywhere other cooked greens would be used. You can find violets in the spring. Please know that African violets, the popular houseplants, are poisonous and not safe to eat.
I’ve recently started seeing purslane seeds in the seed catalogs I get in the winter, but I never have any trouble finding purslane in my yard. These succulent plants with thick red/purple stems and plump oval-shaped green leaves are a common weed found in many gardens. When looking for purslane, be sure that the leaves have no dark spots and that the stems aren’t wiry. That plant might be spotted spurge which somewhat resembles purslane and is poisonous.
Purslane is excellent raw in salads or on sandwiches. It has a nice mild flavor, somewhat sweet and sour, and a juicy crunch that my children especially enjoy. You can also cook it by steaming, sauteing, boiling, or stir-frying for about 10 minutes. When it comes to nutrition, it is hard to beat purslane. It’s bursting with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and C, and minerals like calcium, potassium, and iron. According to foraging expert Steve Brill , purslane is one of the most nutritious plants on the planet! I’ve heard of it becoming a popular ingredient at fancy posh restaurants now, too. I’ll probably just eat it at home and pretend to be posh.
I finally realized what chickweed was this past year while gardening and constantly pulling out mats of a green weed with small leaves, tender stems, and itty bitty white flowers. Once I realized I could eat it, I couldn’t believe all of the food that was dumped into the compost bin! Along with being delicious, another great thing about chickweed is that you can often find it during colder seasons, allowing you to enjoy free greens for a greater part of the year.
Raw chickweed has a wonderfully sweet green flavor. I like to chop it up fine for salads. You can also quickly saute it, and I’ve found it to be an excellent ingredient for egg frittatas or omelets in place of spinach. If you like sprouts on your sandwiches or wraps, you might just find chickweed to be an excellent addition or substitute! Another highly nutritious plant, it provides ample amounts of vitamins A, C, and D, along with folic acid, calcium, potassium, zinc, iron, and other nutrients.
A neighbor once allowed me to taste some sorrel that was growing near his house years ago, and I had never tasted anything like it. It looks like a baby spinach leaf with rounded points on the sides, but tastes like lemons! I decided to grow a garden variety so that I could enjoy it at our new house, but was delighted last year to find a patch growing in our backyard. Like most other wild greens, sorrel provides a host of various nutrients. The best time to find sorrel is in the early spring and fall.
Its bright, strong, lemony flavor is a nice addition to salads, sandwiches, soups, and casseroles. If you have a recipe that calls for spinach, chard, or kale, throwing in some sorrel leaves just might take the dish to a whole new level! One of the best chicken soups I’ve made had a few handfuls of sorrel in it, and our whole family was amazed at the flavor. The leaves cook quickly, so try adding them during the last 10-20 minutes of cooking time for a soup or other dish.
Want more ideas and information?
There are so many more delicious, nutritious, and free foods available to us in our backyards. I love my Wild Edibles app, available both as a free “lite” version and a paid full version with over 150 plants listed. There are loads of photographs, illustrations, and information relating to harvesting, seasons, nutrition, recipes, and more. If you are interested in wild foods, I highly recommend it! No smart phone? No problem! “Wildman” Steve Brill’s website has a great section all about some of the most common wild plants in the United States area.
My name is Kristen Smith, and I am above all else a Christian, filled with God’s Holy Spirit, and living by every Word of God and that only by the grace of God. I am married to the handsome and admirable Jesse Smith, my high school sweetheart, pastor, and best friend. We have been blessed thus far by four precious children here and one waiting in heaven. I thoroughly enjoy homeschooling our older children in the Charlotte Mason and Classical styles; cooking real, whole foods via traditional, nourishing methods; living a more natural, DIY, and economical style of life; venturing into creative projects when I can somehow make the time.
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