HolisticWisdom.org web site
Linda Diane Feldt
NCTMB, Holistic Health Practitioner and Herbalist
The Ann Arbor Center for Holistic Health and Traditional Wisdom
Plants You Don’t Need To Plant –There is a Free Lunch -- Linda Diane Feldt
first published 2003, edited 2006
Dandelions, Yellow Dock, Lambs Quarters, Burdock, Pig Weed, Mallow, Wood Sorrel, Wild Grape, Virginia Creeper, Plantain, Wild Carrot, Chickweed, Violet, Dame’s Rocket – what do these plants have in common? Chances are most of them are already growing in your garden. Not only have they planted themselves; they are the weeds so almost no maintenance is needed to encourage them to grow!
More and more people are realizing that poisoning their lawns to be rid of weeds is not healthy for our environment, our families, our pets, or even the lawn itself! But what can you do with those weeds? We need a fundamental shift in consciousness about the abundance of these “pest” plants. Many of them were introduced to North America because they were originally valued for food and medicine. Their fall from favor is perpetuated by lawn companies who label these nutrient rich plants as “pests” and where whole communities consider the presence of the beautiful sunny dandelion flower a sign of failure on the part of the lawn owner.
There is a more intelligent, reasonable, resourceful, responsible, environmentally sound and even fun way to deal with these plants.
Let’s start with dandelion (Taraxacum officinale and others). Over 700 species exist, of which about 100 are common. This plant was intentionally brought to North America because of its value as a liver tonic, a source of vitamin A, a diuretic, and a reliever of digestive trouble. As a dark green leafy vegetable it is also one of the many plants with carotenes that research indicates help prevent cancer. With more than five times as much vitamin A as carrots, all parts of this often neglected and for some reason vilified plant are edible. The roots can be roasted for a coffee substitute (but beware the diuretic effects), the crown is boiled as a vegetable, the leaves are a pot or salad green, and the flowers can also be added to salads or prepared as the famous dandelion wine.
The plant can be bitter, depending on the variety but most importantly the time of year. Dandelions taste best in the spring and fall, when the bitter constituents return to the root. But some varieties are tastier longer than others. Virtually all dandelions are too bitter once they bloom. Boil the greens, add a few to salad, put a few leaves on your sandwich, add leaves to soup or stirfry, or soak a jar full of greens in apple cider vinegar for 6 weeks for a calcium-rich supplement.
Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album) is often described as having a “goosefoot” leaf. It grows readily in disturbed ground (your garden) and is easily identified by the chalk-like covering on the under leaf as it matures. Many people prefer this leaf to lettuce as the basis for a salad. It certainly has more nutrition, especially calcium! If left in the garden the plant can grow to several feet. Unlike lettuce it doesn’t bolt, and tastes good all summer. What you can’t eat can be blanched and frozen.
Pig Weed (Amaranth spp.), is similar to the lambs quarters mentioned earlier – and both have been called pig weed. However, Amaranth’s flavorful leaves come to life especially when briefly cooked (about ten minutes). This plant is easy to identify as it has a reddish tinge to the base of the stalk, sometimes visible only when you pull it from the ground.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is the large-leafed wonder that can be found all over most farms, but does find its way into the city as well by producing round burrs that stick to people’s socks and other clothing. While the leaf has impressive medicinal value it tastes awful, so our focus for now will be on the valuable root. A biennial (two year) plant, the root is tasty all of the first year, and only in the spring of its second year. Once the burdock begins to produce a crown (that will turn into the large flowering part) the root becomes woody and also loses most of its nutritional value.
While a chore to dig up, the long tap-root can be eaten raw, used in stir-frys, pickled, and roasted. The root of the burdock goes straight into the earth, and is one long tapering piece with tiny root pieces growing from it. While a first-year burdock root is usually 1/2 foot to a foot long, it can grow much longer. If you have been troubled by burdock, the best way to control it is to eat it!
Yellow Dock, also known as curly dock or Rumex Crispus is less commonly known but is one of my favorites. The name describes the yellow root, which is used as a tincture for iron deficiency. The leaves are clearly high in iron and calcium, and noticeable for their chalky taste and iron-rich “mouth feel.” Pesto made from yellow dock leaves is easy to make, lacks the slightly strong aftertaste of basil pestos, freezes well, and would appear to offer a richer variety of nutrients. Yellow dock leaves can also be torn up and added to stirfrys, added as a nice textural ingredient in salads, and combined with pot greens. While it tastes great as the only green in pesto, you’ll want to combine it with other greens if you are simply boiling them or using them in salad. Be sure to use the NARROW LEAFED variety – the wide leafed yellow dock is awful-tasting. Yellow dock is easy to identify once it goes to seed, as the seeds are a rust color and the leaves start to have what looks like rust spots on them. The leaves are edible all season long, but the plant is so rich and good tasting the bugs in your garden will start to munch on it as well.
Mallow (Malva Neglecta) is sometimes called Cheeses for the round fruit it produces. A little like okra in flavor and useful as a thickener, the cheese-like fruit is a fun addition to salads, and the greens can be eaten as part of a salad or an addition to pot greens. Many kids are familiar with this plant that grows in both gardens and lawns.
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis montana) is familiar to many as it has a biting, citrusy sour taste from thin pale green leaves. All parts of this plant are edible, and as its taste gives away, it contains vitamin C. It adds a nice zing to salads, or even sandwiches. It has been used as a sort of tea as well, sweetened with honey. As the name implies, it does contain oxalic acid that can interfere with calcium absorption, so it should be used as a small addition rather than a main course.
Young Wild Grape (Vitis spp.) has the leaves most people have eaten wrapped around a rice mixture. These are best used when young. The very young leaves of both Wild Grape and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) are sour and make an interesting addition to a salad or change the taste of a mix of pot greens. A little goes a long way. The tendrils of both Grape and Virginia Creeper are loaded with vitamin C, and are a delightful addition to salads. Virginia creeper is a five-leafed vine that can easily overwhelm everything around it. Because it grows like poison ivy, often grows near poison ivy, and has branching leaves like poison ivy, it is important to be sure you see five leaves and not three. This is not a plant to taste for those who are easily confused or distracted.
Another ubiquitous plant in most yards is Plantain (Plantago major). This very common lawn weed is easily found, with broad veined leaves growing in a rosette low to the ground. The leaves can be eaten in salad or briefly cooked.
Our lawns also grow the edible flowers of Violets, (Viola odorata) and the lesser-known but more showy Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) – often mistaken for Phlox. Phlox has five petals, Dame’s Rocket has just four. The Dame’s Rocket (a member of the mustard family) has purple and white flowers to add to salads – do not use Phlox flowers. Adding flowers to salads can make a plain ordinary salad something truly beautiful and extraordinary. And they taste good. Dame’s Rocket is considered invasive, so eating the flowers and then pulling the plant is a good compromise to keep it from overtaking your yard.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis) is another invasive that should be removed and then enjoyed for its strong but wonderful taste. It is fabulous in salads, as a pot green on its own, or when combined with other cooked greens. While it was intentionally introduced, to North America it is now a serious threaten to native plants and can even disrupt the ability of trees to obtain proper nutrients.
Other treats to be found are Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) also known as Queen Anne’s Lace. The root can be cooked like carrot (although it is tiny by comparison to our cultivated carrots). The early leaves are a pleasant addition to a salad. The early leaves can be mistaken for wild hemlock, one of our more dangerous local plants, so proper identification is essential. The smell is part of the identification - wild carrot smells like carrot! Beginners should certainly have experienced help with this one.
Most lawns are also filled with Chickweeds (Stellaria spp. and Cerastium spp.), a great salad addition, pot green and generally useful green. I’ve been told it makes great pesto, but have not yet tried it. The mouse eared chickweed is best after cooking.
The last I will mention here, but certainly not the last free food in your lawn and garden, is Purslane (Portulaca oleracea). The stems, leaves and seeds of this plant can all be used in salads, boiled, or even pickled. This plant is known to be rich in iron, and Omega 3 precursors. .
The Latin names have been given to ensure proper identification, and make it easier to look up each plant for positive identification BEFORE you eat it. Learning one or two new plants a year is a reasonable pace, and allows you to focus on all of the benefits and cycles of each plant. It also makes it less likely that you will mistake a plant. Field guides are often available at used or discounted bookstores, with full color photos, for as little as $1-$5. If you are using a book for identification the good photos matter more than the text. Learn the few poisonous and dangerous plants we have in Michigan.
Experiment with combinations of kale, collards, beet greens, mustard, and any of the plants listed above that say they can be used as a pot green. Rinse and inspect the greens, removing midribs (they are easily torn free of the leaf), and discarding any yellowed or unhealthy-looking part of the plant. Tear or cut the greens into bite-sized pieces. Place them in a pot, and add water to cover. Put a lid on it, and cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes.
When you serve them you may want to add butter, vinegar, lemon juice, sesame oil, olive oil, or other condiment.
Save any water in the pot to use for soup, or just drink it. It is vitamin-rich. If you don’t plan to make soup in the next few days you can freeze it. If you start with a large container you can keep adding to the frozen water until you do need it for soup stock.
You may find that you prefer some greens cooked more or less. Not all the greens have to go into the pot at the same time. I prefer to add a few tablespoons of vinegar to the water, so the greens are infused with the taste. Adding a little lemon juice to the pot has a similar effect.
Blanching and Freezing
Most green plants need to be blanched before being frozen. This is a simple procedure. Bring water to boil in a large pot. Rinse and inspect the greens you want to preserve as described above. Plunge the greens into the boiling water. In about a minute or less the greens will change color. That is the signal that they are done. While many cookbooks say you should next plunge the blanched greens into ice water, I have always skipped this step with no negative effects. I put the greens directly into freezer containers (used tofu tubs, zip lock bags, or other plastic containers). I usually freeze in small containers so I can use just as much as I want.
Use your favorite pesto recipe, substituting yellow dock or other greens for basil. Here is mine: In a food processor fill the container with freshly picked greens that have been rinsed, inspected and dried off. Add 3-4 whole garlic cloves. Drizzle about 1/4 cup of olive oil over the leaves. Add ½-1 cup of the nuts of your choice; walnuts, pecans, and pine nuts are all favorites. Run the food processor at medium speed. Use a spatula to frequently scrape down the sides. If it isn’t easily forming a paste within a minute or so, add more oil. Use immediately on hot pasta, in a cold pasta salad, as a condiment on a sandwich, or any other use. This can also be frozen in plastic bags or small containers. For best results use frozen pesto within 6 months. I add cheese (parmesan or romano) as I use the pesto, rather than freezing it with the cheese mixed in. You may prefer to add the cheese while you’re making it.
To Learn More
I have been giving monthly free classes in herbs through the Co-op since 1994; my classes are listed at www.holisticwisdom.org. Matthaei Botanical Gardens has herb groups. Check the Crazy Wisdom Calendar for other opportunities. At the end of this year, look for my cookbook on preparing and enjoying dark green leafy vegetables (including weeds). Check into the references listed below for additional information.
Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons
Edible wild Plants, Peterson Field Guides, Lee Allen Peterson
A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central America, Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny
Healing Wise, Susun Weed
How to Know Wild Fruits, Maude Gridley Peterson
Taylor’s Pocket Guide to Herbs and Edible Flowers, Ann Reilly
Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants, Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman
Tom Brown’s Guide toWild Edible and Medicinal Plants, Tom Brown Jr.