Edible weeds grow abundantly in our gardens, lawns, and even our driveways! The idea may turn up some noses, but these fast growing plants are chock full of nutritional value, and they literally grow for free. Challenge yourself to reconsider what a “weed” is, since it's merely a wild plant that grows in an unplanned spot.
That could be applied to many floras, depending on what you intend to grow. Annoying “weeds” tend to be native species, as well, and may have a beneficial reason to be there in the first place. Here are a few common edible weeds for you to welcome into your kitchen, or brew into delicious, healthy tea.
This yellow flower has been attacked by homeowners who strive for the environmentally unfriendly goal of having grass that mirrors a golf course. Considered a nuisance, they're actually full of nutrients from flower to root. If you want to remove them, absolutely do so, but then take them to your kitchen and have them for dinner!
Chopped leaves are high in vitamin K and A, as well as iron and calcium, and are great in salads. Older, bitter leaves taste better sautéed, whereas younger, smaller leaves towards the center are palatable when eaten raw. The flowers are crisp and sweet, and can be eaten as is, added to salads, fried, or made into dandelion wine! Roots can be used like any other root vegetable, or roasted as an alternative to coffee.
Purslane is a low-lying succulent that thrives in harsh conditions and poor soil. Also known as “hogweed”, homeowners spend their afternoons prying it out of patios and interlock bricks without knowing that the red stems and green leaves are a low-calorie food packed with nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A and C. Made of mostly water, it’s a saltier, lemony version of spinach that can be eaten raw or cooked.
Purslane is high in oxalates, which is detrimental in large quantities to anyone prone to kidney stones, blood diseases, and pregnant women. It is commonly mistaken for "spurge," another low-lying weed that is not edible. Break a stem and if a milky substance comes out, it's spurge.
3. Wild Sorrel
There are many different varieties of sorrel, and most of them, if not all, are edible and best eaten fresh. The most common ones found in the U.S. are the wood sorrel and the sheep sorrel. The former is often mistaken for clover because of its three leaves, however clovers are oval and sorrel leaves are heart-shaped. Also, the sorrel boasts tiny yellow flowers and small pods with seeds.
The leaves have a citrus-like tang, but the lower stems are tough and stringy. Sheep sorrel is a much smaller plant than the wood sorrel, and its leaves are longer. Some varieties are high in oxalic acid like purslane, so consume in smaller quantities for the same reasons, while still getting their beneficial beta carotene and flavonoids.
Chickweed is another nutritional powerhouse, and like sorrel, its leaves are best consumed like sprouts or mircogreens: fresh is best! High in vitamin C, iron, zinc, potassium, and loaded with fiber, the stems, leaves, tiny white star-shaped flowers, and seed pods can all be eaten raw. Cook with them if you like, but most culinary experts agree that they taste best when picked and used within the same day.
Unlike other edible weeds, chickweed leaves offer a nice flavor comparable to corn silk, and are tasty at any stage of growth. Snip the tops of the small plants with scissors, leaving the main bottom part of the stem, and look for varieties that don’t have hairy stems!
Chickweed is known to help with inflammation, used as a tea to cleanse the blood, as a healthy tincture, and for general eye health. Like other leafy greens, they contain saponins, but are only dangerous when consumed in large quantities on a daily basis.
The broad oval leaves of plantain are highly nutritious—similar to dandelion’s health benefits, and also aid in digestion. Older leaves tend to be bitter, and some people choose to blanch them, or prefer them cooked in some way. Young leaves are easier to eat raw. Small flower spikes protrude from the middle of the rosette, and the seeds are a good source of fiber.
They can also be used as a laxative. Dry plantain leaves can be used to make healthy teas. When the leaves are chewed, they are known to work as a soothing salve for cuts and burns, since plantain is naturally anti-inflammatory and antibacterial.
6. Wild Amaranth
Commonly referred to as “pigweed” the various forms of wild amaranth are normally considered unwanted weeds in most American gardens. Sadly, getting rid of them is negating a great food source! Mature leaves can be cooked like chard, whereas younger ones are less bitter and can be eaten raw and used as any leafy green. They are full of vitamin A and C, as well as calcium and iron. Amaranth seeds are packed with protein and can be cooked as a whole grain, or ground up into meal.
7. Wild Mustard/ Brassica
Mustard is in the brassica family, along with cauliflower, broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc. Wild brassicas are readily found along roadsides, walkways, and gardens, prolifically growing in different types of soil. Wild mustard is one of the most popular in this family, and all varieties are edible in many alluring ways.
Greens are best when picked young, or if in their more mature stage, can be sautéed with other vegetables. Flowers and mature leaves can be used as an herb to add punches of flavor. The seeds can be ground, and when added with vinegar and salt, make the delicious yellow condiment we all know and love. Whole seeds can be added to anything being pickled. Wild mustard is also a frost and drought tolerant “green manure” plant, since it grows quickly and can be used as organic material when dug back into the soil.
8. Lamb’s Quarters
A healthier spinach, the velvety leaves of lamb's quarters are easy to eat raw or cooked, especially when they are young and tender. They won’t be found growing through sidewalk cracks, but prefer dirt patches. The seeds, like most of the edible weeds listed here, can be harvested and eaten but sometimes take time to get enough. Spend your time with the leaves instead, as one cup offers high doses of vitamin K, A, and C, as well as calcium and magnesium.
As with any plant, make sure you are comfortable identifying an edible weed before consuming it, as many of these listed have competitors that look similar. Sign up for an edible weed walking tour, or talk with others who are experts to make sure you are not eating something toxic.
It may seem cumbersome, but we do the same thing with plants we are already comfortable eating, or we rely on the grocery store to tell us what “food” is. If we can start to develop a healthier understanding and relationship to what’s growing all around us, we can start welcoming edible weeds into our daily health and food routine.