The Bountiful Benefits of Edible Weeds

If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em!
weeds surrounding wooden fence

Weeds, weeds, weeds. Those much-maligned plants. The only thing they have done wrong is to be too successful. A shift in perspective shows us that instead of being out to cause us grief, they may actually play a major role in the healing of the earth and ourselves.

In permaculture we like to fancily refer to weeds as opportunistic species. They see a gap in the ecosystem and they fill it. More often than not, those gaps have been left by us. We bulldoze forests for subdivisions, till up fields for agriculture and drain wetlands to build shopping malls. Mother Earth likes to be blanketed in greenery. Where a bare patch of ground is left she will find something to put there that will fill it…fast!

There are so many delicious and highly nutritious weeds out there that are free for the picking. We will explore one for each of the three growing seasons that you can learn to identify, harvest and enjoy with your family over the coming year. Once you have the ID of these three down and good picking locations cornered (this may even be in your own backyard) you can learn a few new ones each year and you’ll soon be wowing your friends with your weed-eating know-how!

Spring: Chickweed

chickweed

Spring is the best time to harvest the weeds that get more bitter or stronger-flavoured later in the season. Go for the ones that seem to have barely gone dormant over winter like chickweed, which is ready to harvest as soon as the snow is gone. Chickweed is mild and a little bit succulent. It makes a wonderful salad green and the whole above-ground portion (leaves, stems and flowers) can be eaten in the spring. As it gets older it gets a little more fibrous and you will want to stick to the newer leaf growth or juice it.

Description

A low-growing, tangly ground cover with tiny leaves (under ½ in long) that grow in opposite pairs along the trailing stem. The stem has fine hairs on one side of it. It has delicate white flowers with five petals – though each is divided so from a distance it looks like 10 petals.

Benefits and key medicinal properties

  • rich in Vitamins C, A, D, B6 and B12 complex

  • high in iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, copper, selenium and silica

  • good source of chlorophyll, gamma-linolenic acid, and beta-carotene

  • digestive aid

  • expectorant (removes mucus from respiratory passages)

  • galactagogue (promotes lactation)

  • febrifuge (reduces fever)

  • vulnerary (heals wounds)

How to use it

When young, use the fresh leaves, stems and flowers in salad or juice. As the plant gets older, harvest the upper leaves for salads or the whole above-ground plant for juicing. Fresh-crushed leaves can be used as a poultice for bruising, cuts, burns, insect bites and other inflammation or skin irritations.

Summer: Lambsquarters

Lambsquarter

Summer brings things into flower and the green parts of plants start getting a little tougher. Lambsquarters is one of my favourite edible wilds. It emerges in spring and reaches its peak in early summer. It is a very close relative of quinoa and I had quite a bit of trouble distinguishing the two in my garden last year when I tried growing quinoa for the first time. Like quinoa, it can be harvested for its leaf or its seed.

Description

Lambsquarters is most distinguishable for the dusting of white powder it has on the underside of leaves and sometimes on the top of new leaves. This is an indication of its mineral richness and gives it a nice salty flavour. The leaves can also sometimes have a purple tinge to them. It is typically around 3’ tall but can grow up to 6’ depending on the variety and site conditions. It has diamond-shaped young leaves with jagged edges. Each set of leaves grows in opposite pairs but they alternate around the stem from the pair below to create a fairly bushy stalk. The flower clusters are whitish green to light yellow in colour. They have no petals and aren’t showy because they are pollinated by the wind, not insects.

Benefits and key medicinal properties

  • very high in Vitamins A, C, and B complex (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin)

  • calcium, vital enzymes, chlorophyll, and trace minerals

  • the seeds are high in protein and can be cooked or sprouted similarly to quinoa

  • help with anaemia by being high in iron and by increasing red blood cell production

  • anti-inflammatory

  • astringent

  • antidiarrheal

How to use it

Young leaves fresh in salad, or juice, or cooked as a substitute for spinach or any other green. Dried and powdered in smoothies, baked into bread. Older leaves can be dried and used for tea. Chewed green leaves can be applied externally to soothe arthritis, insect bites, sunburn or inflammation.

Fall: Burdock

burdock

Fall is a good time to harvest roots. The plants have been putting energy into developing their roots all year long to store up for winter. Burdock has been important in traditional Chinese and Western folk medicine for thousands of years. It is a biennial plant, meaning that in the first year it develops its root system and in the second year it sends out a flower stalk and goes to seed.

Description

In the first year, burdock looks almost like a wild cousin to rhubarb, but without the red stalks. Its leaves are very similar although they are thicker and fuzzy on the underside. The stalks have fine hairs as well. In the first year, all of the leaves come out of a central rosette straight from the ground. In the second year it sends up a stalk with the leaves coming off of that and produces a flower and burrs – those infamous clusters that like to follow us home from walks in the meadow and were the inspiration for Velcro…

Benefits and key medicinal properties

  • good source of iron, manganese and B6

  • source of inulin which is a prebiotic good for colon health and reduces blood-sugar and cholesterol levels

  • anti-oxidant and blood purifier

How to Use It

Burdock is most often harvested for its root (which can be more than a meter long!). You want to harvest the root in the fall of the first year or the spring of the second year before it starts getting woody and less palatable. It can be eaten raw or cooked. If you find it too “earthy” tasting (a quality I love about it) you can soak it in water for 10 minutes prior to consuming. The immature flower stalk can be harvested and peeled for a crunchy treat and the young leaves can be cooked up like other greens.

Wild foods are stronger-flavoured than those we are typically used to eating in a North American diet. Introduce them to your table a bit at a time and your palate will soon start seeking them out. They are nutritional powerhouses and “food medicines” that will keep your family healthy and give a new perspective on some common plants they used to just walk past without even noticing or curse for taking up residence in the garden. Give weeds a chance!