Three Edible “Weeds” You Can Forage Right Now

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If you’re looking to get into foraging, you might be able to start in your own backyard. There are
likely some tasty treats in your vicinity right now. Foraging is a great way to get outside and
have some free samples — without needing any special equipment or dealing with the
complexities of seasons and licenses. You don’t even need a weapon, but you should go armed
with knowledge and enjoy nature’s bounty with humility and respect.

Many edible wild plants are classified as weeds. This means they’re often undesired —
invasives that cause ecological ruckus like crowding out native species. But many of these so-
called weeds are tenacious and approachable gifts that provide food and medicine to the
forager. The following three plants all originate in the Eastern Hemisphere and are often called
weeds, but they’re also delicious, nutritious, and user-friendly.

First up is lambsquarters: Chenopodium album. Lambsquarters can be identified by its
triangular, toothed, water-repellent leaves, which sometimes have a pinkish tint and a white
powdery covering. Lambsquarters is a great beginner “crop” — offering healthy food with
minimal effort. It’s extremely hardy and grows readily in a variety of soil types and conditions. It
doesn’t mind the heavy clay where I live, and I’ve seen it sprouting from cracked concrete at an
urban gas station.

Lambsquarters is very nutritious, mild-tasting, and makes a great substitute for spinach, which
doesn’t do well in the heat. You can grow and eat lambsquarters almost year-round, and its
calcium, protein, and vitamin A and C levels blow spinach out of the water. It cooks up well with
bacon fat or lard and makes a great curry, soup, and pesto. I’ve even chopped it up in pasta
salad and used the leaves for an heirloom tomato BLT. Or rather, a BLQT.

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Now for the downsides: Lambsquarters is very prolific, and can easily overrun farm fields and
gardens alike. Each plant produces thousands of seeds that I always say I’m going to harvest
and eat, but I don’t. I’m reminded of this when I’m pulling up countless eager little plants in the
spring. And summer. And fall. Like some of its relatives, lambsquarters contains oxalic acid —
which is reduced by cooking, but can cause an upset stomach or mess with calcium absorption.
All told, I am deeply grateful to know such a powerful plant.

Also consider common purslane, Portulaca oleracea. This drought-resistant succulent might be
sprouting from a hot sidewalk near you. The plant has small, juicy, rounded leaves, reddish
stems, and a tangy flavor due to malic acid of apple fame. It reminds me of the seaweed salad
you can get as an appetizer at sushi restaurants. Cultivated purslane (verdolagas in Spanish)
shines in salsas and pork dishes. There are ornamental varieties bred for their beautiful blooms.
If you’re still not sold, purslane is one of the richest plant sources of omega-3s, antioxidants,
vitamins (especially A and C) and minerals.

On the other hand, cooked purslane has a mucilaginous texture that isn’t for everyone. It also
contains oxalates and shouldn’t be consumed in massive quantities. Also, be cautious of toxic
lookalikes such as spurge. Purslane reproduces vigorously, reseeding itself and even growing
from mere pieces of the plant. While a low, thick mat of purslane can help control other weeds, it
can get a little too abundant, and quickly.

Last up is plantain: not to be confused with the fruit. It comes in broadleaf (Plantago major) and
narrow leaf (Plantago lanceolata); among others. I remember first seeing this plant in
elementary school courtyards, where the cool kids would “shoot” each other with the narrow leaf
flower heads. Look for ribbed, stringy leaves growing in a basal rosette (a circle close to the

You can eat the whole plant. My favorite way to enjoy plantain is by putting the young broadleaf
flower spikes on homemade pizza. But perhaps the most fascinating thing about the plant is
how well it treats insect bites and similar maladies. It’s got tons of medicinal uses, vitamins, and
minerals. However, like the other plants listed here, plantain spreads effortlessly thanks to its
wild vigor and zillions of seeds.

I look forward to the weeds just as much as the mushrooms, berries, and pawpaws. They’re
more reliable than game and less fickle than fish. But always forage responsibly! Do your
research using reputable sources, and ideally learn from an expert who can mentor you hands-
on. When in doubt, even a little bit — don’t eat it. Harvest from clean, safe areas — avoiding
busy roadsides and places that may have been chemically treated or frequented by pets. If you
plan to forage in a state or national park, study the regulations before heading out. With an open
mind and some culinary creativity, you can enjoy a taste of the wild just outside your door.

Heidi Chaya

Heidi Chaya is a food journalist, farmhand, and avid home cook. Her experiences living and working in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley provide her with many opportunities to expand her culinary horizons and continue to learn and grow through fishing, foraging, and hunting.

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