In the spring, I venture into fields, looking for signs of the first wild foods of spring. Yes, I have long foraged for dandelions and edible “weeds” which many people consider a nuisance. Here’s why I eat weeds.
In my neck of the woods, it’s time to go on a walk about the time that the buds on the maple trees burst and the lilacs and forsythia leaf out. 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.
I venture into the fields and gardens, looking for signs of the first wild foods of spring that typically don’t emerge until mid-April.
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.
A few wild violet leaves announced themselves in the lawn beside the pond.
Bowls of wild salad and cooking greens (“weeds”) will span the weeks until the arrival of our cultivated lettuce, lamb’s-quarters, amaranth, purslane, and others—bowls not only of wild leafy greens, but also of roots, flowers, berries, and stems.
Why bother eating weeds?
There are so many reasons that I forage.
Higher nutrient levels: 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 getting 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.
Health-promoting: Our human diets are meant to have more plant biodiversity than what a grocery store provides (i.e., a small percentage of edible plants). When you diversify your diet, you add vitamins and minerals to your diet. You’ll need to experiment to find tasty ways to serve wild foods.
Disease-fighting: Wild plants also must manufacture all of the compounds that protect them from excess solar radiation and from attack by fungi, viruses, and bacteria, as well as larger predators. The same compounds that plants manufacture for protection from environmental assaults may serve humans as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and pain relievers and in many other ways.
Nature: 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.
Young dandelions and stinging nettles ready for sauteeing (with cabbage and garlic).
Before you start foraging: Important rules of thumb
We live in a nation of extraordinary food abundance. Foraging for 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.
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. Seek old-timers who know their weeds and ask if you can accompany them on their foraging trips. The safest way to forage is to go alongside an expert.
Never forage weeds from lawns or agricultural fields or gardens that have been heavily fertilized or sprayed with pesticides. Even many city parks have been sprayed with chemicals. Basically, avoid places with heavy human traffic and know the history of the land you forage on.
Don’t harvest wild greens and roots from lawns or other areas frequented by animals, whose droppings may contaminate your harvest. This is especially important if you plan to eat your wild foods raw.
If you’re not ready to forage, there are other ways to expand your knowledge. You may find that some “weeds” such as purslane grow right in your garden. You can find many edible weeds at farmers’ markets and ethnic markets. (Many wild edibles are regular crops in other countries!)
For a good introductory book, read botanist James A. Duke’s Handbook of Edible Weeds.