Learn to Love Your Weeds
Are you a gardener that always dreads going out to weed around your meticulously cared for plants? Maybe it’s one of your most despised chores or maybe you find it cathartic, either way, I’m here to tell you that you should be bringing some of those dreaded weeds back into the kitchen with your hard-earned garden veggies! Some of them may even taste better than your veggies, and are much easier to grow! *Gasp*
The term ‘weed’ has a weird taboo around it. Often bringing thoughts of evil plants that kill native species, ruin agriculture, take over your yards, and harm your families. Hyperbole aside, a weed is really just any plant growing somewhere that it isn’t wanted. That cherry tomato from last year that self-seeded in your garden bed and is stealing resources from your prized, heirloom beefsteak? Yeah, that’s a weed. The mint that started uncontrollably taking over that corner of your yard, you know the one. That could also be considered a weed; a person can only drink so many mojitos! Once you start thinking about weeds in that frame of mind, simply a plant in an undesirable location, they seem to become a little more approachable as food plants!
Now, that all said, some weeds are indeed damaging to native species and agriculture, at least according to the authorities that decide those things. These plants are generally classified as noxious weeds, and many of them do live up to the noxious designation, which means harmful or poisonous. However, some are delicious edible plants! So, by foraging for designated noxious weeds you can help the environment and get some tasty wild plants. You definitely shouldn’t be encouraging these to grow in your yard though, and some even need special treatment to prevent spreading, like Japanese Knotweed!
Here's a list of the currently designated noxious weeds in Colorado. Every state has a list of its own. https://ag.colorado.gov/conservation/noxious-weeds/species-id
Below are a handful of the most common garden weeds that you should be adding to your harvest, this is not a comprehensive list by any means. Also, this list isn't meant to guide in the identification of these plants though I may mention some identifying aspects of them. For a thorough understanding of how to properly ID these species take a look at my Resources Page! I have a bunch of great options for books and other resources there.
Now, let's get into the weeds!
Purslane, Portulaca oleracea
Common purslane, is a low-growing, annual succulent with beautiful little yellow flowers, a nice snappy texture, tangy flavor, and high levels of omega-3s! Purslane is one of my favorite plants, and might give dandelions a run for the 'most common award' when it comes to yard and garden weeds! This little plant is lovely, but it will also happily take over, so keep it in check if you're worried about that. Purslane has one toxic look-a-like that you'll want to be aware of, spotted spurge, Euphorbia maculata. At first glance, it can look similar but the spurge is not succulent and exudes a milky sap when damaged.
Purslane is great raw in salads, sandwiches, or as a garnish. It can also be pickled, fermented, and cooked! Some of my favorite preparations are Leda Meredith's purslane relish, purslane kimchi, and just simple raw purslane dressed with a vinaigrette! Be advised that purslane can become a little mucilaginous when cooked, and it contains oxalates (that's where the tangy flavor comes from) so those with kidney stone issues may want to use some caution.
Lamb’s Quarters, Chenopodium album
Do you try to grow spinach every year but only get a small harvest before it bolts? I know I do... I'm also a fairly amateur gardener so that could be part of the issue. Hah! Nonetheless, I prefer the taste of lamb's quarters over spinach! Lamb's quarters flourishes in the high heat of summer and dry conditions, so adding just a touch of that garden love results in an amazing green! I pretty much treat lamb's quarters just like spinach, and like it cooked more than raw.
It's worth noting that orache or saltbush, Atriplex spp., is a very similar looking and tasting plant that can also show up in yards and gardens as well! It's less common so it doesn't have a full entry here, but worth knowing! Orache likes saltier soils, and they taste a little salty too! Pre-salted spinach? Sign me up!
Amaranth, Amaranthus retroflexus
This, like lamb's quarters, is another lovely green for cooking though it can also be eaten raw! Amaranth is most commonly referred to as 'pigweed', but I prefer the name red-root amaranth because it sounds fancy and desirable! Who would eat pigweed? Red-root amaranth? That'll be an upcharge!
Amaranth and lamb's quarters, really all of these plants, like the same sorts of conditions so you'll often find them growing together. In the photo above you can see a baby spotted-spurge just to the right of the amaranth (remember, that is the toxic purslane look-a-like).
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
Oh dandelion, what a lovely plant and the target of so much undeserved hate. Everyone knows what a dandelion is and they're often "baby's first wild plant". The inexperience can sometimes lead early foragers to taste bitterness and disappointment. Luckily there are some techniques to make eating dandelions enjoyable! Stop weeding them and start eating them!
The entire dandelion plant is edible with the leaves, flowers, and roots being the most noteworthy. For the leaves, look for plants that are growing in well-shaded areas. These plants have to make nice big leaves to get their energy for flowering (reference the very first photo of this article to see what a monster dandelion leaf looks like). If you still find these larger leaves bitter, try cooking them first, and finally, if they're still too strong -bitterness sensitivity is different for everyone, it's okay. If they're still too strong, try giving them a quick blanch in a pot of open water.
The flower buds can be pickled or fermented into delicious capers, and the open flowers can be made into sweet fritters, wine, mead, jelly, and more! The roots are most often dried and roasted to be used for "dandelion coffee", but my suggestion would be to try Ellen Zachos' dandelion coffee ice cream recipe from her book The Forager's Pantry. It's soo good, and that book has a ton of amazing master recipes! It should be in every forager's library.
These are some of the most common edible weedy plants that I see in yards and gardens, but there are many, many more! When I find these I will happily leave them in our garden and thank them for their presence, they’re wanted and loved here! I hope some of those dreaded weeds will now become welcomed into your gardens and diets too!
Many of these species along with nearly 100 others are covered in my online Foraging Calendar! A monthly-updated resource that is full of edible plants, trees, and mushrooms. If you’re interested you can find more information on my Patreon page. Thank you for your support!