Weeds We Like to Eat
Since we’re all avoiding the grocery store to help keep everyone as healthy as possible, the first thing you might run out of is lettuce. No problem! Spring is arriving in the northern hemisphere, and there are many things growing that can serve the purpose. I think a global pandemic, though unquestionably awful and scary, provides a great chance to learn about wild foods. You can maintain your social distance and your nutrition at the same time, while learning something new and fun.
I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, where we had a shady, mossy yard without much interesting growing in it. But we had hundreds of square miles of beautiful state park just up the road, and I learned to love wild foods from blueberries to boletes. Now that I live in North Carolina, the wild foods available to me are different but still wonderful. State park campgrounds are closing around here, but the trails are still open. Last week my family went hiking at Uwharrie National Forest, and we did not see another soul the entire day except some guys fishing from boats.
For greens, my family is currently eating chard, arugula, beets and beet greens overwintered under row cover. Chard and beets are always best cooked, and this particular arugula is trying hard to flower now that the temperature is up, so it’s really too spicy to form the bulk of a salad. It makes nice cooked greens with garlic, though. To make up the salad shortfall we’re adding in perennial French sorrel from the garden, plus wild chickweed, a bit of dead nettle, some oxalis and edible violets. This isn't a comprehensive list of everything that grows around here or even of all the wild things we eat, it's just a small collection of favorites.
Chickweed is a very widespread and fast-growing weed of disturbed areas. It is closely related to lettuce, so it tastes a lot like lettuce. It makes beautiful tiny white blooms with thin petals that look like stars (I hear this is where it gets its genus name, Stellaria). The stems can get tough and stringy, so I pick it from shady, damp spots where it is growing slowly and still tender. Alternatively, you can pick it where it’s huge and lush, and just trim off the leaves for salad, discarding the stems.
Along with the chickweed in the above photo is another edible weed called dead nettle. It’s distinctive because of the little purple flowers and square stems, and it is everywhere in people’s lawns this time of year. My neighbors up the road appear to have dead nettle instead of lawn. With its mild, innocuous, very slightly minty flavor you can totally eat it, and we do, but it’s not a favorite because the leaves are sort of fuzzy. Still, a few in a salad don’t hurt.
You may have seen something in the lawn or garden that you were sure was clover, and then later you noticed it had made little yellow five-petaled blooms instead of white spiky globes. This is wild oxalis, not a clover at all, and it has a very obvious sour lemony taste to it, completely different from the green and slightly bitter note of true clover. The sour flavor comes from oxalic acid, the same compound that makes sorrel taste sour, and is also present in spinach and other foods.
It’s not great for a body to consume large amounts of oxalic acid because it can reduce the absorption of minerals, and even increase the chance of kidney stones in people who are especially sensitive. But most of the oxalic acid floating around in the urinary system is made by the body anyway, so a little bit in a salad every day is not going to cause most people any sort of problem. Wild greens have all the nutritional benefits of domesticated salad greens, such as vitamins and fiber, and may even be more nutritious.
And they can also be prettier! Our fields are covered in wild violet right now, which can be added to a salad to pretty it up. Yesterday when I called the children in for lunch, they brought with them a whole handful of wild violets. They said it was all for my husband and I, because they had “already eaten plenty.” Because wild greens are a little more tedious to pick and process than store-bought or garden-grown, I’m happy for them to do the work themselves.
This is an important point. Many small children retain their habit of putting anything and everything in their mouth long past babyhood and into the school years. This can be awful when the available pickings are sidewalk gum, batteries and loose change, and many people worry that teaching them to eat wild plants is dangerous. Of course, some plants definitely are poisonous and should not be eaten!
In my experience, though, you don’t have to become a walking encyclopedia on every plant in the forest to make your kids safer. I’ve got one of those eat-everything kids. By teaching her some plants that are safe and yummy, I’ve been able to direct her away from the unknown and potentially poisonous species.
This education has greatly reduced her tendency to eat just anything, at least when it comes to green growing stuff (we still have to watch out for coins). We have also talked in depth about locations not to eat wild plants from: immediate roadsides, any place that might be sprayed with pesticides, and the pee zones that dogs are fondest of.
Aside from lettuce, another thing that will soon run low in my kitchen is onions. I don’t know about you, but onions are a very important part of my culinary life. As I described in my post on seed starting, I’m never able to grow enough to get us through the year. I have a few Egyptian walking onions that survived the winter, along with some regular varieties I grew from seed and a whole row I planted from sets, but it will be months before they are ready to eat. The green onions I started from seed will be ready sooner. They can be cut and regrown over and over, if I can restrain myself from over-harvesting.
In the meantime, the fields around our house provide an abundance of wild spring onion as long as the weather stays relatively cool. I see a lot of it growing on our neighbors’ lawns, too. The slender leaves have a blue-green, powdery cast to them, and they possess a nice pungent onion flavor. They’re a little tougher than cultivated chives, but when minced they’re great in soups, stir-fries, fritters and salads. I made myself a nice omelet yesterday with eggs from our chickens, chopped arugula from the garden and a bunch of wild spring onion.
When I asked my kids about their favorite wild thing to eat, they simultaneously shouted, “Spring onion!” It’s true, they often eat them by the wad while playing in the yard. I can’t count the times I’ve had to apologize to grandma for handing her two children with terrible onion breath, acquired on the way from the house to the car.
Of course, these are just the very common plants we have in our own immediate area. Chickweed grows really widely, but depending on where you are you may not have access to the same species as we do. There is lots of information about other wild edibles on the internet, some of it great, some dubious. I personally prefer to have a guide in book form when I’m out foraging, because I find it easier to identify things when I can hold a good picture up next to them. As always, you should never eat anything you can’t positively identify.
For people on the North American west coast, I loved my copy of Discovering Wild Plants. (All the book links are affiliate links. My commission doesn’t raise your price, and it supports this site first and then the Cool Effect). It helped me learn to identify nearly every plant I saw as I hiked around Alaska. For the east there doesn’t seem to be a comparable option, although Peterson’s Guide is useful to a point.
I’m also enjoying The Forager’s Harvest, which is a completely different sort of plant guide. Rather than including all the species you may encounter (with only a little information on each), it focuses on a much smaller number of plants and describes their use in detail.
This approach is particularly useful in supporting new foragers to safely try wild foods, if you happen to have those species available. We have many of those covered here in NC. People in the Midwest will find it an even better fit for their ecosystem, as the author is based in Michigan. If you’re in the desert southwest or somewhere else in the world, it won’t be a good fit for you.
This is a scary time. It’s hard to think about ourselves or loved ones being vulnerable to illness, and it’s frightening to watch the shelves go bare. Of course I’m not saying eating weeds will save our collective behinds. Nothing can do that but keeping calm, accurately assessing the risks and acting for the collective good. But as long as we’re stuck at home and running out of lettuce, it sure doesn’t hurt to expand our knowledge of our local environment. At the very least, it's a stress-relieving hobby.
Do you eat anything wild? Tell us about it in the comments. Don’t forget to mention your general region, to make the information more useful to everyone.