In Other Words
By Jill Richardson
You might not be a master gardener, but odds are you grow one of the world’s healthiest vegetables in your yard every year. It’s a superfoodthat packs more calcium, iron, magnesium, and Vitamins C, B6, E, and K than an equal amount (by weight) of spinach. And, if you notice this amazing vegetable at all, you probably get annoyed by its uninvited presence in your lawn.
I’m talking about the humble dandelion.
Yes, the very weed my dad used to pay me a penny apiece to remove from our lawn when I was a kid. Instead of tossing them out, we should have brought them into the kitchen and had them for dinner.
As an adult, I assumed the proper way to deal with weeds was to get rid of them. And, for some weeds, that’s the case. Don’t even get me started on my opinions of monsters like Bermuda grass. But after years composting just about every weed I found in my garden, I’ve realized that many of them are edible. Some are even nutritious and tasty.
For me, the biggest surprise came from stinging nettles. Several years back, I ordered stinging nettle pizza at a fancy restaurant. It took me a while to connect the gourmet delicacy I paid top dollar for with the nasty, stinging weeds I swear at in my garden. Eating them feels like the ultimate revenge for the stings they cause in the garden. And no, they don’t sting once they are cooked or dried. But until then, handle them with gloves or tongs.
These days, so-called “conventional” farmers use fertilizer and pesticides to grow most of our food. Even some of the most eco-conscious farmers use fossil fuels to operate tractors and other farm machinery. Weeds, however, flourish without any assistance from tractors, fossil fuels, pesticides, or fertilizers.
Sadly, we usually overlook this plentiful food source. Even worse, homeowners and farmers douse these weeds with poisons that pollute our waterways.
So how do you start taking advantage of the free food that appears in your yard each spring? Step one is identifying your weeds. The Internet is handy for this. In addition to dandelions and stinging nettles, some of the most common edible weeds across the nation are chickweed, plantain, mallow, lamb’s quarters, purslane, clover, and filaree.
Most taste best before they flower. An easy way to distinguish dandelions from similar plants is that dandelions have only one flower per stem whereas many similar plants have several flowers on each stem. But once you positively identify a dandelion, learn to recognize its leaves. That way, you can find the less bitter plants that haven’t flowered yet.
It’s also good to know if any potential edibles you find have poisonous lookalikes. Although dandelions have no poisonous lookalikes, you might mix up purslane — a delicious greenchock full of healthy omega-3s — with poisonous spotted spurge. To tell the difference, break off a piece of the plant. If a milky sap comes out of the stem, it isn’t purslane.
Once you’ve found edible weeds growing in an unpolluted place where you know no one has sprayed pesticides, all you need are recipes. And there are plenty of those online.
I like to mix dandelion greens with basil in pesto and use nettles in tomato-based Italian dishes. I’m waiting for the day when I have enough dandelion flowers handy to cook up a batch of dandelion fritters.
Fresh, healthy, organic vegetables can be expensive, but the superfoods we call “weeds” are free. See what they can do to spruce up your favorite salads.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. OtherWords.org