Dandelions, burdock, and other pesky weeds can be a delicious opportunity instead of a blight.
So-called weeds are thrivers, early adopters, pioneers, and pretty aggressive. Before grocery stores made it easy to get fresh greens, folks emerging from the dark grey days of winter cherished the arrival of the dandelion. If you hadn’t seen a fresh piece of lettuce in months, imagine how excited you would be to see this cousin of romaine on your dinner plate. After all, a weed is just a plant you don’t want growing there—an errant mint plant can be truly destructive to a garden, but it still tastes great in tabouli or a drink.
Just dandy dandelions
Dandelions as food or medicine have popped up in historical records for thousands of years in many parts of the world. Today numerous spring festivals still celebrate this little wild thing.
The plant is entirely edible and most of it is packed with vitamins and minerals. It’s the perfect plant for novice foragers because it is so recognizable. My first experience with dandelions was on a nature appreciation trip in junior high. We gathered the tender new leaves, then ate them for lunch with bacon dressing. Like many bitter greens, a traditional way to serve them is boiled with a bit of pork fat and sprinkled with salt and vinegar, so the field salad was similar.
In addition to snacking on the milder early leaves, you can boil the stems like noodles, according to Samuel Thayer, author of Nature’s Garden. Prepare tender one-year-old roots like parsnips, or roast roots to be used in tea. Wine, jelly, or salad toppings can be made with the petals.
Dandelion has been used historically to treat colds, bronchitis, warts, hepatitis, boils, cancer, tumors, kidney, and liver issues. Its French name, pissenlit, and English name with the same meaning, piss-a-bed, are testimonies to its diuretic attributes. According to the USDA, it is one of the top green vegetables in nutritional value: a rich source of beta carotene, vitamins K1 and C, plus several other vitamins and minerals.
Not just for chicks: chickweed
Chickweed is a seemingly delicate plant. It has tiny leaves and flowers and appears easy to pull up … but this warrior princess is no pushover. You may think you pulled it up but guess again. It will be back. This plant is the only green thing in our dormant greenhouse when temperatures outside drop into the single digits. One of its common names is winterweed. It even seems to resist some herbicides.
Though an annual, its seeds ripen and set during most of the year and Stellaria media isn’t picky about where it grows. It can thrive in most soils and conditions, typically showing up in cultivated or disturbed beds. You might as well look at its persistence as a gift.
Chickweed’s mat-like growth acts a bit like mulch, so we don’t pull it rigorously. What we do pull often becomes lunch. Some consider it reminiscent of tender corn. Others say spinach. Its gentle flavor makes it a versatile addition to salads or pesto. It can also liven up soup or be used like sprouts on a sandwich. Or try it in this Chicky Bowl with a cilantro vinaigrette.
It packs a lot of nutrition into its tiny leaves. According to Backyard Pharmacy, Weeds That Heal, chickweed is a robust source of fiber and minerals such as magnesium, manganese, and iron, and also provides calcium, potassium and A, B and C vitamins. It even has some protein and essential fatty acids. The leaves contain saponins, which are considered toxic but are also found in many other foods such as beans. Typically, the body does not absorb saponins easily, so generally, only large quantities are worrisome. Folks who consider them beneficial, Backyard Pharmacy included, say that saponins work as soothing emulsifiers that help the body dissolve fatty material and plaque in arteries and help remove toxins.
As good as gold: daylilies
More often found on the roadside rather than interloping in your garden is the daylily. I have dug up bunches of them to add to my garden. But they do multiply once they are there! The daylily isn’t really a lily at all, and it’s important to note that some lilies are poisonous. You can eat daylily’s early spring shoots in salads, soups, or stews. And, you can stuff the flowers with cheese and deep-fry them. Of course, almost anything you stuff and deep-fry will taste great, but the most heavenly dish is made from daylily buds tossed with a little oil, salt, and pepper and gently stir-fried. Digging and cleaning the roots for eating takes some effort, but firm, young tubers can be sliced into a salad or used in soups. However, you aren’t doing the plant any favors—daylilies rarely have seeds and reproduce mainly through their roots.
For the occasional person (1 in 50 according to expert forager, Wildman Steve Brill), eating this plant can cause digestive distress, particularly the shoots. So if you sample daylilies, start small with a flower or bud.
The flowers and buds are good sources of beta carotene and vitamin C and they have a distinctive taste with a pleasant texture. Catch the flowers in the morning and use them the same day because, as their name indicates, the blooms only last one day. Hemerocallis fulva has been eaten for thousands of years, especially in Asia. Traditionally, tea made from the roots was used as a diuretic and other parts of the plant were used medicinally, as well. You can often find fresh or dried flowers in Asian grocery stores, sold as “Golden Needles.”
More choke than dock: burdock
With its leaves the size of chair seats and a taproot as long as your forearm (longer in some cultivated varieties), burdock is a formidable plant. Its Velcro-like seed pods nestle seemingly with permanence in our sweaters, tangle horse manes into a vision of wild dreadlocks, and frustrate the heck out of our dog. The Skagit Indians called it “sticks to everything.” Like many tenacious so-called weeds, Arctium minus and Arctium lappa offer up some potent medicine.
The first-year roots of this biennial are the most prized part of the plant. Its medicinal value was noted even in the time of Hippocrates. It contains vitamins C, biotin, vitamins B1, B6 and B12, chromium, iron, vitamin E, potassium, sulfur, silica, selenium, zinc, and manganese. The dried root is often included in teas intended for liver and kidney support and cleansing. It offers a combination of diuretic, antibiotic, and diaphoretic effects that may help detoxify and stabilize the body.
You can dig your own roots, although it is challenging, and eat them directly or dry them for later. They are mild, earthy, and slightly sweet and can be boiled, sautéed, or roasted like a carrot or potato. Their mucilaginous attributes and starchiness can help thicken stews and sauces. One of my favorite chefs makes burdock chips (thinly sliced and fried) for a spring specialty.
The immature flower stalk of backyard burdock can be whipped up into a traditional Italian meal that is usually made from cardoon, a Mediterranean vegetable. Although dock, a general term for weed, is part of its name, burdock is not related to other “docks.” Both burdock and cardoon are related to artichokes. The recipe calls for dredging boiled stalks in eggs and seasoned breadcrumbs and cheese then baking or frying. Search for recipes for fried or baked cardoon, cardone, or cardunni, or variations on the spelling.
Or, keep it simple. Find a thick stalk, peel it, and you will find a tender shoot that tastes like an artichoke heart. It can be enjoyed in soups and stews or parboiled then drizzled with oil, salt, and pepper.
No shrinking violet
Little violets have a lot going for them … and for you. They may look small and retiring but one plant can expand into a large patch in just a few years. Plus, they are brimming with health benefits and fun to eat.
Violets do resemble a couple of poisonous plants in the early spring, so observing your patch of violets for a year or two before sampling is a good idea. According to Wildman Steve, dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne) and monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) may look similar, but the larkspur flower has a spike and the monkshood has a helmet. Common violet (Viola papilionacea) has neither.
The perky little fresh flowers hold up well sprinkled in a salad or decorating a cake. You can freeze them in ice cubes or candy them in sugar. The spring leaves taste mild and add an appealing texture, as well as vitamins and minerals, to your salad. Later in the year, the leaves are still edible but not as tender. They can also be sautéed like spinach or added to soup. The leaves are mucilaginous and will thicken soups, stews, and sauces. Fresh or dried leaves make a pleasing, healthful tea that can be served with flower-filled ice cubes.
Wildman Steve Brill advises us to steer clear of the roots unless you want to throw up. Because the plant propagates mainly through its root system or rhizomes, it is best to leave them anyway. The little brown flower that shows up in the fall carrying seeds is also not edible.
In addition to high amounts of vitamins C and A, violets also contain rutin and salicylic acid. Rutin helps to strengthen capillaries and salicylic acid is an ingredient in aspirin. These components along with the mucilage might be why violets are a traditional remedy for cancer and bronchial issues. In addition to helping reduce pain, salicylic acid is used in skin care products to combat acne and inflammation. It tends to soften skin tissue, and there are reports that applications of the leaves can reduce corns and wipe out warts.
Free-range weed: purslane
Purslane is my favorite “weed.” It has permission to thrive almost anywhere it ends up. It tucks in neatly around things I have planted on purpose. Calling it a weed is very American. In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East it is a valued vegetable.
Purslane is one of the richest green plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. It has many times the omega-3 content of spinach and is loaded with A, B, and C vitamins, plus it’s a rich source of iron, calcium, and potassium. You could call it a super veggie.
The best thing is … it tastes great! The leaves, flowers, and stems provide a delightful crunch to a salad throughout the growing season. No bitter period. No tough period. You can also make these Purslane Refrigerator Pickles. And, it’s usually nice to its neighbors. It has a mat-like root structure so I let it go crazy in my carrot beds. Among my herbs, it rarely takes over and never overshadows. Yet it can thrive in many conditions.
Because of its high-powered mineral and vitamin content, as well as its mucilaginous qualities, purslane has been valued for use in the treatment of osteoporosis and psoriasis, not to mention relieving muscle cramps and headaches.
Getting into the weeds
Foraging willy-nilly is highly discouraged. Unless you are lost in the wilderness and have been starving for days, you should take a very studied approach to eating plants in the wild—even in the wilds of your own garden. Many foraging experts recommend watching a plant and its habitat for a full year to verify identification and to make sure the habitat is free of contamination before consuming. Tagging along with an experienced forager to confirm that your quarry is indeed edible is your best bet. Earth Spirit Educational Services, located in Orchard Park, NY (earthspiritedu.org) often offers forage and feasting treks.
A few useful resources:
- Plants for a Future, an extensive database featuring the edibility, medicinal uses, and habitat of plants
- Wildman Steve Brill, includes information about commonly foraged plants as well as the ability to sign up for foraging tours in the New York area
- Nature’s Garden, A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer
- Earth Spirit Educational Services in Orchard, New York
*This story comes to us from Edible Western NY. Illustrations by Jennifer Maffett.