What would we have done without edible weeds? They provided much-needed nourishment for our ancestors, and some have been bred to create tasty produce that we now enjoy. Listen to learn more about these wild plant wonders.
This segment of The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Musings podcast series was written by George and Becky Lohmiller and is read by Heidi Stonehill, an Almanac editor.
All of the fruits, nuts, grains, and garden vegetables that we enjoy today are descendants of wild plants. The early explorers and settlers of America depended upon edible wild plants to supplement their diet of fish and game. With the help of Native Americans they learned which plants were unpalatable or even poisonous and which ones were fit for the table. The forests, meadows and stream banks provided them with a cornucopia of fruits, roots, and leafy greens. The fruits of wild cherries and sweet June berries were eaten fresh or made in to preserves. Dandelions, lamb’s quarters, and chicory were used for fresh salads and pot herbs, and the roots of groundnut and Jerusalem artichoke made a tasty potato substitute.
As land was cleared and gardens planted, favorite foods like potato, squash, and corn were planted and hybridized and gathering food from the wilds became less important but not forgotten.
Today, lovers of edible wild plants can be found searching fields for wild strawberries or scouring the roadsides for a feed of fiddlehead ferns.
In parts of the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains, gathering ramps (wild leeks) is a spring tradition that is taken very seriously. The pungent vegetable that has a strong onion flavor can only be gathered for a few weeks in April before it becomes too strong to eat and halitosis becomes rampant.
Believe it or not, one of the best places to find tasty and nutritious wild edibles may be in your own back yard. They are weeds. Emerson defined a weed as a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered and indeed many have been discovered to be great eating. Purslane is a ground-hugging weed that is common in vegetable gardens and that is a great place for it because it is delicious. It can be cooked and served with butter, eaten raw in salads, pickled, or made into a delightful soup. The barbed burrs of the burdock plant that cling to clothes and animal fur make it an unwelcome weed on most properties but once you taste it you may welcome it’s presence. Peeled flower stalks can be steamed and eaten as asparagus. The roots, long used in Japanese cooking have a mild celery flavor and are a great addition to soups and stews and the tender new leaves can be cooked up and served as you would spinach.
Lawns are great hunting grounds for nutritious leafy greens. Dandelions, clover, plantain, and sorrel are all delicious and full of vitamins. Be sure to gather your salads only from lawns that have not been treated with pesticides.
There are many books available on identifying and preparing plants from the wilds. You may even want to gather seeds from some of your favorites and grow them in your garden so that you can weed it and reap.