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Eating Weeds: Why Not?

April 6, 2012

Young dandelions and stinging nettles ready for sauteeing (with cabbage and garlic)

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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In late March, three weeks after knee-replacement surgery (which explains my lengthy absence from this space), northern New England experienced a record-breaking heat wave.

Daytime temperatures soared into the 80s. The buds on the maple trees burst and the sugarers took down their sap lines. The  lilacs and forsythia leafed out, and some forsythias bloomed.

The ice on our backyard pond melted, and we had visits from migrating waterfowl: Canada geese, mallards, and wood ducks.  A blue heron flew in to fish in the shallows.

Gradually recovering my ability to walk—albeit it slowly and awkwardly and with trekking poles at first—I ventured into the fields and gardens looking for signs of the first wild foods of spring that typically don’t emerge until mid-April.

Sure enough! Spritely dandelion rosettes poked through the thatch of dead grass in the back yard. The devilish (but delicious--cooked of course) stinging nettles had emerged from the mulch in the raspberry patch. Wood sorrel appeared along the edges of one vegetable plot, and a few wild violet leaves announced themselves in the lawn beside the pond.

Bowls of wild salad and cooking greens (“weeds”) span the weeks until our cultivated lettuce, lamb’s quarters, amaranth, purslane and others—not only wild leafy greens, but also roots, flowers, berries, and stems.

Why bother eating weeds?

We live in a nation of extraordinary food abundance. Foraging wild foods requires knowledge, skill, and a lot of work (and time). Plus, it takes most people a while to acquire a taste for the often-stronger flavors of wild foods and to learn to prepare them creatively.

  • Unlike our cultivated food crops, which we pamper with selective breeding, fertilizers, and chemicals that protect them from disease-causing microbes, wild plants have evolved sophisticated strategies for foraging everything they need in an intensely competitive, often-hostile environment. They often contain higher nutrient levels than those found in cultivated food plants, especially trace minerals. 
  • Wild plants also must manufacture all the compounds that protect them from excess solar radiation and from the attack by fungi, viruses, and bacteria, as well as larger predators. The same compounds plants manufacture for protection from environmental assaults may serve humans as anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, pain relievers, and in many other ways. These health-promoting compounds, which generations of selective breeding have all but eliminated from our cultivated crops, are responsible for the stronger flavors of wild foods. You’ll need to experiment to find tasty ways to serve them.
  • Finally, for me anyway, foraging a little of my food from the wild satisfies some deep, primal need, connecting me to the natural world around me and to my hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Before you start foraging: Important rules of thumb

  • Never use any plant for food, beverage, or medicine, unless you can identify it with certainty. How do you learn? Read books on wild-food foraging. Check to see if your local Cooperative Extension office, Master Gardener program, or community education center offers wild-food foraging workshops. Seek old-timers who know their weeds and ask if you can accompany them on their foraging trips.
  • Never forage weeds from lawns or agricultural fields that have been heavily fertilized or sprayed with pesticides. Know the history of the land you forage on.
  • Don’t harvest wild greens and roots from lawns or other areas frequented by domestic pets whose droppings may contaminate your harvest. This is especially important if you plan to eat your wild foods raw.

Start learning

Edible Wild Plants 
Edible Wild Greens in Maine
Taste of the Wild: A Guide To Edible Plants and Fungi of New England

Related Articles

Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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Tiny sunflowers about size of

By Betty Ames

Tiny sunflowers about size of end of finger with apx 3' stems growing straight up with tiny tiny leaves growing from stem
what is this? it came up this year along my fence. I remove a lot of it, but had never seen it before and decided to let some of it grow.
flowers just came on it.

Hmmm. You haven't given

By Margaret Boyles

Hmmm. You haven't given enough information for a proper identification, Betty. 

Can you post a photo or two?

I have only a camara phone

By Chef M

I have only a camara phone can I post to a facebook page to you ??I can send the pic and text the photo to you..Im really curious to know what this plant is..

I have those in my garden

By Chef M

I have those in my garden they have toothed leaves very long stem a bulb of some sort in the middle kinda looks like an artichoke..All the leaves are on the top none on the stem..I would like to know what this plant is also..

There are a few leaves on the

By Chef M

There are a few leaves on the stems but so far spaced from each other..

The wild edibles are truly

By Deborah Zappa

The wild edibles are truly wonderful and do pack a punch of flavor. I love the comment about the cornbread. And we used to make a meal of it for sure. Cornbread and chili. Mmmm wonderful stuff.

We have some very tasty edibles in southern New Mexico that local tribes have used as dietary staples for thousands of years. Wild amaranth and purslane grow anywhere there is a little water here. I did a post on them at my gardening web site: http://www.queendranchgardening.com/organic-weed-control/ so you can read more if you like.

I'm from southern California and there we used to pick wild rose hips (packed with vitamin C), yucca (tastes like sugar cane), wild mustard whose flower buds taste like broccoli. Tons of good stuff growing out there just for the harvesting.

Thanks for your comment,

By Margaret Boyles

Thanks for your comment, Deborah. I always have plenty of purslane and amaranth as "weeds" in my vegetable garden. In fact, I'm going up to harvest some purslane now to add to a big veggie stir-fry for supper.

Lots of wild mustards, too, but I like to get 'em out of my garden before they flower, as they attract flea beetles and spread various diseases to my broccoli and cabbage.

Thanks to all for your

By Margaret Boyles

Thanks to all for your responses. I'm an ardent member of the forager tribe, humbled by the fact that I have so much more to learn.

Just harvested my first tiny dandelions, though, so I'm off to a good start.

Here in southern

By Mimi T

Here in southern Illinois,spring things are starting to appear and are a welcome site. Many of the names are so familiar and bring back great memories. I agree with Polly about the cornbread! If we are eating out I never order cornbread because it ends up tasting like sweet cake. YUK!
Does anyone know the true name of a plant locally called Shonni? Would love to be able to find this again. It is delicious. Also love wild green onions steamed and then added to scrambled eggs.

I just love hearing from

By Margaret Boyles

I just love hearing from other foragers. We're a big tribe that keeps growing as people seek greater connection with the natural world.

I'm a mountain gal from

By Sharon n

I'm a mountain gal from southwest Virginia. I've been pickin' polk for 2 weeks now and loving every minute of it! I think by now I've had enough for 5 pounds or more. We've eaten it boiled then fryed in bacon grease and mixed with scambled eggs with a hunk of cornbread! My momma taught me how to identify and cook all the wild greens and I am teaching my granddaughter. It's a wonderful, delicious tradition.

Loved this article. I recall

By Polly Petrey

Loved this article. I recall every March going "green picking" with my mom, grandma and great grandma when I was a kid in south easternn Kentucky. They had so many names for the varous "weeds": leather britches, cow's glory, mouses's ear, to name a few. Granma would only gather a few dandelions cause my grandma said it would make the greens too bitter, and just a little poke. There are more and I really miss my granmother fixing them. She would boik them first and then fry them with hot cornbread, not the sweetened stuff that people nowadays pass off as cornbread and you could make a meal form that alone.

Can you by chance tell me the

By Patrick Payne

Can you by chance tell me the actual name of those weeds? I'm in western ky... lol

To Polly Petrey: I grew up

By M. J. Essex

To Polly Petrey: I grew up in very southern Ohio, and we did much of the same foraging. My grandmother dug sassafras roots in the early spring to make "tonic." I still love sassafras tea. My aunt showed me where to pick wild asparagus. What a treat it was after a winter of canned vegetables.

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