May/June 2010 Living Now
Outdoor Plate: An Urban Forager's Guide to Edible Weeds
by Rebecca Lerner
We have been taught to think of the wilderness as a thing separate from ourselves, a place we must travel to reach. But the truth is that the wilderness is indelibly woven into the fabric of our being. It is part of our DNA — it is what makes us who we are.
Though modern humans have been farming for 10,000 years, we are genetically identical to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Through foraging, we can experience our connection to nature anywhere there's a wild plant. Our little green friends are still here, beckoning us to rediscover our primal relationship with them.
If you can find an overgrown yard or a scraggly sidewalk, then you've got something to work with. Whether food or medicine, every plant in the world has a gift to offer. Here are three edible weeds you're likely to encounter during the next few months.
Chickweed (stellaria media)
Chickweed is a common weed you'll see growing at the edges of sidewalks and lawns in moist, semi-shady soil. It is distinguished from look-alikes by a fine line of thin hairs growing on one side of its stem that climbs like a spiral staircase from the ground to the flower. The Latin name for chickweed, stellaria media, refers to the plant's small, white, star-shaped flowers.
Chickweed is a mild-flavored plant that makes a great raw salad green. It can also be steamed or boiled as a spinach substitute.
Chickweed is regarded medicinally for its cooling effect on the body, both internally and topically. If you have an insect bite, for instance, you could chop up some chickweed greens, add water to make a paste, and then apply the mixture directly to the irritation for some relief. Historically, the Iroquois people used this method — called a poultice — to treat inflammation associated with arthritis.
Purslane (portulaca oleracea)
This shiny, dark green succulent prefers bright sunlight and rich, sandy soil, but you will also find it growing in sidewalk cracks, planters and waste places. It has plump paddle-shaped leaves and fat red stems that branch across the ground.
Purslane is highly nutritious, offering omega-3 fatty acids as well as iron, calcium, and vitamins A, C and E. It has a mild, faintly lemon-like flavor and can be eaten raw or boiled as a potherb.
This plant is found all over the world, from Africa to China to Mexico to Hawaii and beyond. It originated in India and was once believed to ward off evil spirits.
Dandelion (taraxacum officinale)
The most-vilified weed in existence was once considered a panacea, said to cure everything from diarrhea to jaundice to cellulite. Even now, herbalists advocate boiling the roots to make a tea that works as an effective diuretic. It's also used as a detoxifying cleanser for the liver, kidneys and blood.
Dandelion is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean and was intentionally introduced to North America by European settlers on the Mayflower. The plant is rich in vitamins A, B, C and E as well as iron, potassium and even protein.
The young flowers are sweet when eaten raw and make a colorful addition to salads as well as an interesting ingredient for a golden herbal wine.
The jagged leaves are bitter but can be quite palatable when young and are commonly sold in bunches in grocery stores, where they are marketed as a salad green and potherb.
The roots can also be roasted in the oven to make a tasty coffee substitute that is caffeine-free. To make it yourself, rinse and chop the roots, stick them in the oven at 350 degrees until they smell like burnt chocolate chip cookies, and then remove them and grind them. You can use a mortar and pestle, a coffee grinder or even just a rock. Then put them in your coffee maker or in a tea ball and enjoy.
Though it announces its presence with bright yellow flowers, this plant does have some look-alikes. The true dandelion has smooth leaves that grow from the root, not off of the stem. Also, the true dandelion leaves are smooth rather than hairy or spiny.
Rebecca Lerner is a Portland-based journalist and urban forager. She leads plant walks and writes about wild food on her blog at www.firstways.com.