On a country walk with a friend 15 years ago, Shelaine Sparrow was offered a piece of knowledge that transformed her attitude toward so-called ‘weeds’.
“My friend told me about lamb’s quarters and how delicious it was,” recalled Sparrow. “I was stunned, as I recognized it as a weed. I started learning about edible and medicinal wilds from that point on."
Now, Edmonton resident Sparrow and her daughter look forward to early season samples of lamb’s quarters – eating the young leaves right off the plant – and the “so sweet” taste of caragana flowers for their aromatic flavour or as a garnish in salads.
“We use a lot of these greens and things like plantain, in smoothies,” added Sparrow. “I love how there are short windows when these plants are available. It makes it special.”
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) is in the amaranth family and related to spinach. It is one of the most common garden weeds, and one of the most palatable.
The list of weeds we pass by or discard--not only edible but highly nutritious--is long. It includes curly dock, chickweed, thistle, sweet clover, purslane, viola and many more.
Sparrow has come to see that tossing these greens into the compost is not only a significant loss of free nutrition, it’s a disconnect that is cultural, relational and even spiritual.
“These are nutritious foods provided absolutely naturally with no effort on our part," she said. "And we are not only disregarding them, we are actively trying to destroy them.”
Dawn Watts, owner of Medieval Manor Gardens near Stony Plain, has channeled her interest in medieval and primitive skills into an Alberta perspective, where extremes of climate affect both native and introduced plant species. Watts defines weeds as plants we perceive to be in the wrong place that are generally not native to an area and have a tendency to be prolific and tenacious.
A natural way to help keep them in check is to eat them and use them in other ways, she contends. But, unlike the veggies we select from the grocery aisle, trekking into the world of edibles in your back yard requires some foreknowledge.
"It must be done properly," said Watts. "Land near garbage dumps, roadways or feedlots, any place that has been sprayed or takes in runoff from other non-desirable areas, are not best for collection.”
She also encourages would-be weed eaters to ensure they have the landowner’s permission and be sure of a plant’s identification, best time to pick and what part to harvest.
Also take into account individual taste and possible allergic reactions (garlic and mustard seeds, for example). "You want it to taste good or have some medicinal qualities. You don’t want to become ill in any capacity," Watts said.
A study at the University of California, Berkeley found six weed species that have a higher nutritional value than kale, and two (chickweed and dandelion) are found in many an Alberta back yard.
Chickweed (Stellaria media), which can match baby lettuce in tenderness and neutral flavour is best to eat raw, said Watts, as cooking does damage. "Harvest before it flowers and use in salads, smoothies or to substitute for basil in your favourite pesto recipe," she said. "And we could talk all day about the possible medicinal value of dandelion, but more research needs to be done."
Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate) are on Watts' favourites list as they’re in the mustard family and add a spicy kick to salads. She also points to redroot pigweed and burdock as edible options.
“Since COVID-19, more people are into gardening and want to get educated about weeds," Watts said, reminding that since weeds can often be invasive, (garlic mustard, for instance) preventing further spread is important. "Don't put seed heads in the compost, and make sure you're not carrying bits of roots or seeds on your clothing."
For those wanting to add weedy greens to the diet but don’t know how to start, Watts advises finding a mentor or authority on the subject. And start small, with easy to recognize plants and in small amounts to see how you react.
“Just try it,” said Sparrow. “Harvest from a clean source. Mix into your salads. Talk to others. Start a relationship with the plant and you will be enriched.”
FACT BOX - Nutritious, delicious weeds
Burdock - Eat young leaves or cook first-year roots in a soup or stir-fry. Studies have focused on its powerful antioxidant properties.
Dandelion - Young leaves can be eaten raw but cook the older leaves. Young flowers can be made into wine or used in fritters. People with bleeding disorders should be careful, as dandelion may slow clotting. It can slow the reaction time of certain medications too.
Garlic mustard - In the same family as horseradish, young leaves add a spicy kick to salads. Cook older leaves or make into a pesto to tone down the strong taste.
Pineapple weed - Makes amazing tea. Pick fresh flower heads away from potentially contaminated areas. Steep a half dozen in pre-boiled water, and enjoy a Hawaiian infused experience.
Shepherd’s purse - The second most common weed on Earth is known as Jicai in Shanghai where it is stir-fried with rice cakes and added to wontons. In Korea it’s used as a root vegetable. Shepherd's purse was used as a pepper substitute in colonial New England.
Redroot pigweed - Eaten as a vegetable across the world. In India, it's popular mixed with grated coconut, chili, peppers, garlic and turmeric. It had multiples uses in Native American medicine too.
Purslane - It's great raw in a salad or as a thickener in soups and stews. Eaten throughout much of Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Mexico in stir fried dishes or with foods such as feta cheese, it has low calories with rich amounts of Vitamin E and C. Purslane has been identified as the richest vegetable source of alpha-linoleic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid.
Curly Dock, - High in minerals such as calcium, phosphorous and iron as well as Vitamins A, B1 and B2 and Niacin, it can be high in oxalic acid which locks up other nutrients, especially calcium. Cook the leaves to reduce the oxalic acid.
Chickweed - Packed with vitamins including A, D, B complex and C, as well as calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and manganese. It has as much iron as spinach. Eat it raw or use it in salads.
Plantain - Used for centuries in traditional medicine to reduce inflammation, it improves digestion and promotes wound healing. One hundred grams of plantain contains about the same amount of beta-carotene as a large carrot. Eat the young leaves raw, or cook the leaves in soups or stir fry.
Common sweet clover and red clover - Best when just sprouting. Eat the young leaves gathered before flowering and use the flowers as a flavourful garnish in salads.
Roots of thistle - Edible raw before bolting in autumn but best when boiled or roasted. Eat the stems and leaves raw, after removing the prickles, or steam the immature flowerheads for a garnish in soups or stir-fry.