If you’re looking to eat more sustainably, you may already be growing some of your own food. But did you know that there are some common “weeds” that are actually edible and probably growing nearby?
If you can’t grow your own garden, and still want to eat locally (or want to supplement your garden and farmer’s market finds), foraging wild edibles is a great opportunity to take advantage of some of the bounty nature provides – for free!
These 5 wild greens are a great example of the incredible abundance of food all around us that we often overlook. When we start to take on a more self-sustaining mindset, opportunities to collect wild foods like these will become more evident. Most of these are best when picked and eaten young, so keep an eye out for them, and celebrate the spring season with some of these fresh, tasty, wild greens on your table!
Hundreds of wild plants with edible leafy greens grow across North America, but many are regionally specific. No matter where you call home, whether a big city or a remote homestead, at least one of the five plants featured here is likely in your yard — many of you can find all of them within sight of your doorstep. These wild greens are unique yet mild in flavor, and cooking them is simply a matter of adapting familiar methods and recipes. They don’t require special preparation to render them palatable, and if you identify them carefully, you aren’t likely to confuse them with any dangerous plant.
In the kitchen: Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) can be eaten raw, but it’s much better cooked and is almost always prepared that way. The stems soften when heated. Amaranth greens are high in calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. My family enjoys amaranth shoots chopped into short sections, tossed into a vegetable stir-fry with onions and peppers, and served over a bed of seasoned rice or couscous….
Field identification: Many similar species of amaranth (often called “pigweed,”) grow throughout North America, terrorizing gardeners and farmers in every corner of the land…. Amaranths love full sun, but they are otherwise generalists…popping up in every kind of disturbed, well-drained soil….
How to harvest: Amaranth is grown commercially for its seeds, which are used as a grain, but a forager wants the tender stems and young leaves….
In the kitchen: Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is a mild green perfectly suited for salads…. The flavor is slightly sweet and reminds me of corn silk. You can cook chickweed, but it’s so delicate that it almost dissolves with heat. On a nutritional note, chickweed is quite high in iron — higher even than spinach.
Field identification: Common chickweed is a hardy plant that grows best in the cool weather of early spring and late fall…. You’ll find chickweed where moisture is high, from full sun to shade….
How to harvest: When picking, look for lush, large, clean plants upon which flowers are just beginning to bloom, preferably with stems that are erect and crowded….
In the kitchen: A relative of spinach, lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album) can be used similarly. Few wild greens have been analyzed for their nutritional content, but lamb’s-quarters is so commonly eaten that it’s listed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database. One of the most nutritious vegetables ever tested, it’s exceptionally high in calcium and in vitamins A and C.
Field identification: You can find lamb’s-quarters in any sunny spot where the soil has been disturbed. It has alternate diamond-shaped leaves that may have smooth edges or a few scattered, shallow teeth, and its stems are ridged….
How to harvest: Lamb’s-quarters is an annual that is at its best in spring and early summer, although you can harvest it even in summer heat….
In the kitchen. I rank shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) as one of the most delicious vegetables on Earth. The leaves are the mildest mustard green you can get, with only the faintest hint of a pleasant pungency, and they’re loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, iron and vitamin A. My family likes to mix these in salads with other cool-weather greens, such as chickweed. We also enjoy them stir-fried with dandelion greens, dock leaves and chives. Shepherd’s purse is cultivated in China for its greens and stems, which are considered a delicacy. The stems taste much like a broccoli stalk without the tough skin. They are marvelous in soups or steamed and served with butter and salt.
Field identification: Shepherd’s purse is much despised — it infests almost every garden and crop field, and it sprouts up in vacant lots and sidewalk cracks. The leaves look a lot like those of dandelion, but they’re more deeply lobed and don’t have the milky sap….
How to harvest: If you pick the tough, dirty, ground-hugging leaves from the base of a July plant, you’ll be disappointed….
In the kitchen: The tender leaves of common sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus) have a slight bitterness that’s similar to leaf lettuce but have a delightful flavor unique to this plant. These greens can be eaten raw in salads, but our favorite way to prepare them is sautéed with bacon, drizzled with vinegar, and then served over polenta, cornbread or potatoes. Sowthistle is an excellent source of manganese.
Field identification: Found throughout North America, this annual loves backyards, roadsides, vacant lots and gardens, and it favors disturbed soil. Common sowthistle leaves look much like dandelion leaves and also have milky latex….
How to harvest: Collect leaves from spring to early summer when they’re still young, or cut the whole stalk before the plant begins to flower….