A major part of achieving optimal health is living in partnership with nature.
Growing your own food is a great way to rekindle this connection with nature.
But have you thought about eating plants that grow wild—perhaps in your own backyard?
Some “weeds” can be delicious if prepared properly, and they are absolutely free.
In an article published earlier this summer, Live Science collected some easy-to-identify healthful weeds, including:
- Dandelion: The entire plant is edible, and the leaves contain vitamins A, C and K, along with calcium, iron, manganese, and potassium.
- Purslane: Purslane tops the list of plants with omega-3 fats.
- Lamb’s-quarters: Lamb’s-quarters are like spinach, except healthier, tastier and easier to grow.
- Plantain: Not the better-known banana-like plant with the same name. It has a nutritional profile similar to dandelion.
- Stinging Nettles: If you handle them so that you don’t get a painful rash from the tiny, acid-filled needles, these are delicious and nutritious cooked or prepared as a tea.
This is of course how our ancestors ate. They hunted and gathered, and ALL of it was wild. And by all accounts, they were far healthier than we are.
Of course, like anything else, identification and use of wild plants requires spending some time educating yourself, lest you eat something inedible or even poisonous. But with some attention to learning what to look for, you can avail yourself of some of the most highly nutritious, health-promoting plants for FREE—and have a lot of fun doing it. With the availability of the Internet, in addition to a number of excellent printed books and even wild-food foraging classes, this information is now easy to access.
So, grab your favorite weeding tool and a basket, and step outside to see what little gems you can find in your own backyard!
Major Groupings of Wild Edible Plants
Plants are classified into groups based on their botanical family, and there are hundreds of families within the plant kingdom. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on a few select members of the following five families:
|Purslane family (Portulacaceae), includes miner’s lettuce, red maids, rose moss and purslane||Sunflower family (Asteraceae), includes dandelions, daisies, and thistle (largest plant family with more than 22,000 species)||Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), includes spinach, Swiss chard, beets, quinoa, and lamb’s quarter|
|Plantain family (Plantaginaceae), includes common plantain, water plantain, and Northern plantain||Nettle family (Urticaceae), includes stinging nettle, wood nettle, and clearweed|
First, let’s take a look at the rock star of wild edibles: purslane—from the Purslane family, of course.
Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea (also called duckweed, fatweed, pigweed, pusley, verdolaga, ma chi xian in Chinese, munyeroo, or wild portulaca) is the omega-3 powerhouse of the vegetation kingdom, and there’s a high probability it’s growing in your yard right now. According to Mother Earth News, it’s the most reported “weed” species in the world.
Purslane looks very much like a miniature jade plant, with fleshy succulent leaves and reddish stems. The stems grow flat to the ground and radiate outward from a single taproot, sometimes forming large, flat circular mats up to 16 inches across. In about mid-July, purslane develops tiny yellow flowers about one quarter inch in diameter. Seeds of purslane are extremely tough, some remaining viable in the soil for 40 years. A single purslane plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds! And purslane can grow in almost anything, from fertile garden loam to the most arid desert soil, and even in your rock driveway.
Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge, because they can look similar, and spurge will make you sick. In the plant kingdom, similar appearing plants often grow next to each other—and often one is poisonous! Purslane has a stellar omega-3 fatty acid profile, compared to other vegetables. As you can see from the chart below, purslane beats all of the other veggies for omega-3s.
|Omega-3 Levels in Common Foods|
|Romaine lettuce, 1 cup, 53 mg||Purslane, 1 cup, 300-400 mg|
|Flaxseed oil, 1 Tbsp., 7196 mg||Broccoli, raw, 1 stalk, 147 mg|
|Chia seeds, 1 ounce, 4915 mg||Cauliflower, ½ cup, 104 mg|
|Walnuts, 1 ounce, 2542 mg||Spinach, 1 cup, 41 mg|
|Walnut Oil, 1 Tbsp., 1404 mg|
In addition to its bounty of omega-3 fatty acids, purslane has other nutritional benefits:
- SIX times more vitamin E than spinach
- SEVEN times more beta carotene than carrots, providing 1320 IU/100g of vitamin A (44 percent of the RDA), which is one of the highest among green leafy vegetables
- 25 mg of vitamin C per cup (20 percent of the RDA)
- Rich in magnesium, calcium, iron, riboflavin, potassium, phosphorous and manganese
Purslane is reportedly beneficial if you have urinary or digestive problems, and has antifungal and antimicrobial effects. It has also been found useful for skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and sunburn. Some people compare purslane’s taste to spinach or watercress, with a “crunchy lemony” flavor. Look for tender young leaves and stems, which are good in salads or sandwiches. Purslane is also rich in pectin, so it can be used to thicken soups and stews. According to Weston A. Price Foundation, the ancient Greeks made a bread flour from Purslane seeds and pickled its fleshy stems; the Mexicans enjoy it with eggs and pork, and the Chinese toss it with noodles.
If you need a little culinary advice, there are quite a few purslane recipes out there—check out Prairieland CSA, Weston A. Price, Sunset Part CSA, and Epicurious.
You are probably already familiar with dandelions. There isn’t a yard in America that hasn’t sprouted a dandelion or two, usually greeted with vitriol by gardeners everywhere. But, in the words of The Daily Green,
“If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em!”
Every part of the dandelion is edible and full of nutrition. Dandelion, or Taraxacum officinale, is part of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). It also goes by other common names, including priest’s crown, Irish daisy, monk’s head, blowball and lion’s tooth. Dandelions have antioxidant properties and contain bitter crystalline compounds called Taraxacin and Taracerin, along with inulin and levulin, compounds thought to explain some of its therapeutic properties. Dandelions offer you a wealth of nutrition!
|One of the richest sources of beta carotene of all herbs (10161 IU per 100g, which is 338 percent of the RDA)||Numerous flavonoids, including FOUR times the beta carotene of broccoli; also lutein, cryptoxanthin and zeaxanthin||Possibly the HIGHEST herbal source of vitamin K 1, providing 650 percent of the RDA|
|Vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, pyroxidine, niacin, and vitamins E and C||Great source of minerals, including magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, and iron||Leaves rich in dietary fiber, as well as a good laxative|
Dandelions are found abundantly in fields, lawns and meadows. They have a long, stout taproot from which long, jagged dark green leaves radiate. The yellow flower rises straight up from the root, which matures into the fluffy white puffball you remember blowing away as a child. All parts of the plant exude a milky white “latex” fluid, if broken. The root is filled with a somewhat “yam-like” white pulp and can be harvested in summer for medicinal purposes. The Japanese actually use the root in cooking.
Dandelion leaves can be used in salads, soups, juiced, cooked the same way as spinach, or dried (with flowers) to make dandelion tea. The root can be dried and roasted and used as a coffee substitute, and the flowers can be used to make dandelion wine.
Dandelions are known for the following therapeutic properties:
- Laxative and diuretic; useful for premenstrual bloating and edema
- Normalizing blood sugar and cholesterol (dandelion root)
- Tonic; appetite stimulant and a good general stomach remedy
- Liver cleanser; remedy for liver and gall bladder problems
- Agent for treating burns and stings (inside surface of flower stems)
Dandelions also have antiviral effects so may be useful in combating herpes and AIDS. For more information on the nutritional and medicinal properties of dandelions, go to this article by Leaf Lady. Be careful not to confuse dandelion plants with Hawksbeard, which can look very similar. Hawksbeard won’t kill you, but it certainly doesn’t offer the great nutritional benefits of dandelion. Here is a video showing how to tell them apart.
The third weed-gem is called Lamb’s quarter (or Chenopodium album), also called goosefoot, wild spinach, pigsweed or fat-hen. Lamb’s quarter is a European relative of spinach and beets. It can be found along roadsides, in overgrown fields, on vacant lots, in disturbed soil, and is probably growing in your own backyard. The plants get to be quite tall, reaching up to 6 feet or even taller. But after flowering, they are usually found lying down if not supported by neighboring plants.
Lamb’s quarter has diamond shaped leaves with shallow “teeth” and a telltale white, waxy powder on the undersides of its leaves, which makes identification relatively easy. This powdery substance gives it a dusty appearance at a distance, which is why lamb’s quarter is sometimes called “white goosefoot.”
Lamb’s quarter contains:
- A whopping 11,600 IU of beta carotene per half cup (compared to 6500mg for Swiss chard, and 8100mg for spinach)
- 300mg calcium per half cup (compared to 88mg for Swiss chard, and 93mg for spinach)
- More than 4 percent protein
Lamb’s quarter is also rich in vitamin C, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, potassium, vitamin E, B6 and thiamine. Wild spinach is much more nutrient rich than its cultivated cousin and tastes very similar. You can prepare lamb’s quarter in the same ways as you fix regular spinach. Make sure your specimen is CLEAN because lamb’s quarter is a “purifier herb” that pulls pollutants out of the soil, concentrating them in the leaves.
For a few recipes, click here and here.
According to Wildman Steve Brill, lamb’s quarter, which is odorless, looks much like a mildly poisonous plant called epazote, which smells resinous—so become familiar with both so you don’t confuse the two. Here is Steve’s video tutorial on lamb’s quarter, with lots of visuals to help you learn to identify it.
Plantains, or Plantago major, have a family all their own—the Plantain family (Plantaginaceae). It goes by many names, including common plantain, broadleaf plantain, ripple grass, waybread, snakeweed, Cuckoo’s bread, Englishman’s foot and White Man’s foot, because it was said to grow wherever your feet touch the ground. By the way, this is not at all related to the banana-like fruit called “plantain,” which is part of the Banana family (Musaceae).
This cool season perennial herb loves damp, infertile soil and fertile lawns, and has broad oval leaves (up to 10 inches long) with fibrous roots that spread out in a rosette. The plants produce numerous, small flowers along the ends of a long stalk, between 8 and 20 inches tall.
The young leaves of plantains are edible raw or cooked and are rich in vitamin B1 and riboflavin. This herb has a long history of medicinal use, dating back to ancient times. It truly seems to be a panacea for everything, as the list of its uses is extensive. One American Indian name for plantain translates as “life medicine,” which says it all.
Part of plantain’s nutritional power comes from a remarkable glycoside called Aucubin, which is reported in the Journal of Toxicology to be a potent anti-toxin. In fact, this “weed” is full of effective agents, including ascorbic acid, apigenin (a phytonutrient with strong antioxidant properties), benzoic acid, oleanolic acid, and salicylic acid, among others, which give the plant a wide range of uses as an antiseptic, poison antidote, anti-inflammatory, antitussive, diuretic, hemostatic, and even a heart remedy.
There is medical evidence that plantain can help with a variety of health problems, including:
|Asthma, coughing, sinusitis, bronchitis tuberculosis and emphysema||Bladder problems, cystitis||Fever||Hypertension|
|Rheumatism||Blood sugar control||Diarrhea, dysentery, gastritis, peptic ulcer, Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hemorrhoids and constipation||Allergies and hay fever|
|Providing a natural aversion to tobacco||Stopping bleeding||Skin inflammation, wounds, stings, and malignant ulcers||Rattlesnake bites|
Last but not least is the wickedly fascinating stinging nettle, a member of the Nettle family, Urtica dioica. This nettle’s nasty sting is well concealed behind its beautiful lacey leaves, which can shoot little poison darts into you if you aren’t paying attention.
The leaves look a great deal like mint… but they certainly don’t behave like it!
The nettle’s sting comes from tiny hollow hairs on its stems and on the underside of its leaves. Inside these hairs is a mixture of chemicals, including histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid. Whey you touch the hairs, they break, exposing sharp points that inject your skin with the toxin. Ouch!
The sting of the stinging nettle is a pretty good way to positively identify it. But there is another stinging plant, the Cnidoscolus stimulosus (or spurge nettle, which isn’t actually part of the Nettle family) that you could confuse it with. Spurge nettle has palm shaped or hand shaped leaves, as contrasted to the stinging nettle’s hock shaped or lance shaped leaves. You can learn more about stinging nettle in this short video tutorial by Green Deane.
David Wolfe shows you how to pick stinging nettles without getting stung in this video. If you do get stung, applying a paste of baking soda and water is said to effectively soothe local pain and inflammation.
Nettles are high in iron, potassium, manganese, calcium and vitamins A, C, D and K. Each cup of nettles supplies you with a whopping 1,790 IU of vitamin A, which is three days’ RDA. The parts of the nettle most commonly consumed are the leaves and roots, as the stems are quite tough on a mature plant.
Stinging nettle has the following medicinal uses:
|Treating anemia and fatigue, due to its high iron andchlorophyll content||Relief of arthritis, joint pain, and gout (internally and externally), by promoting elimination of uric acid from your joints|
|Nettle root is reported to be helpful for enlarged prostate (Benign Prostate Hyperplasia, or BPH)||As a styptic (an arrestor of local bleeding)|
|Urinary tract infections||Breaking down urinary stones|
|Relief from hay fever and seasonal allergies||Treatment for hives, rashes, and other skin irritations (especially reactions to shellfish) by virtue of its antihistamine properties|
|Diuretic||Stinging nettle is even rumored to be an aphrodisiac|
Most people cook stinging nettles because cooking neutralizes the sting, although there are some uber-hard core foodies who eat them raw. Soaking them also reportedly helps remove the stinging chemicals, so do that first if you want to try them in a salad. For some great sounding nettle recipes, see this article by HonestFood.net.
There are certainly more good wild edibles out there. Prickly lettuce, chickweed, sow thistle, red clover, burdock, cattails, Japanese knotweed, and sheep sorrel all deserve attention but are beyond the scope of one article. As you expand your wild palate, you can gradually learn about some of the other wild edibles just waiting for your discovery.
Safety Tips for the Frolicking Forager
Before foraging out your new wild-edible adventure, there are some precautions to take, since not all wild plants are safe to eat.
|You should never eat a plant unless you are entirely sure it is not poisonous.|
According to raw food and wild plant expert Sergei Boutenko:
“When you harvest wild plants for food, there is a high guarantee that edible plants will be sharing their living space with non-edibles. These non-edibles may range in toxicity from mild to extreme. If you are anything like me, then you too prefer to avoid any form of poisoning whether it is mild or severe. For this reason it is a good idea to first learn how to positively identify wild plants and then exercise caution when gathering them for food.
Fortunately, there are far more edible plants than poisonous ones. Boutenko claims there are thousands of safe, edible plants growing wild in North America, but there are only 150 listed by the American Association of Poison Control as poisonous. Of those 150, only about 50 are considered to be “highly poisonous” (i.e., can be fatal), and the rest are classified as “mildly poisonous,” which means they may cause nausea, diarrhea, or headache, but probably not kill you.
Boutenko argues that it isn’t too difficult to learn what you need to know to avoid the 50 dangerous plants, and once you’re familiar with those, your chances of getting poisoned are almost nil. Some communities even offer classes that teach you how to identify safe, edible plants, so you might want to investigate the possibility of a “foraging,” “grazing” or “wildcrafting” workshop in your area. And purchasing a good field guide will get you off to a good start.
Some of the most common poisonous plants you will need to familiarize yourself with are listed in the table that follows.Please understand, this is NOT a comprehensive list, but just a sampling.
|Hyacinth, Narcissus, Daffodil||Oleander||Rosary Pea, Castor Bean||Monkshood|
|Mistletoe||Water Hemlock and Poison Hemlock||Nightshade||Jimson Weed (Thorn Apple)|
According to Wilderness Survival, if you see a wild plant you can’t identify, the characteristics that you should regard as “red flags” for toxicity include:
|Milky or discolored sap||Beans, bulbs, or seeds in pods|
|Bitter or soapy taste||Spines, fine hairs or thorns|
|Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley like foliage||“Almond” scent in woody parts or leaves|
|Grain heads with pink, purple, or black spurs||Three-leaved growth pattern|
The fact that a plant has some of these characteristics doesn’t necessarily mean it’s poisonous, but if you can’t positively identify it, you’re better off not adding it to your salad. And remember to NEVER harvest plants that have been exposed to herbicides or pesticides, road salt, asphalt runoff, paint or pet waste. Here is one helpful site that includes pictures of poisonous look-alikes, side by side with the edibles.
One last word of caution: Introduce new wild foods to your body gradually.
Even a high-quality, nutritious wild plant or herb can cause an unexpected reaction in some people. Try them one at a time and in SMALL amounts to see how your body is going to react. If you feel good, have at it! But don’t consume a big bowl of wild greens all at once that you’ve never eaten before, because if you DO have a bad reaction to one of them, you won’t know WHICH one.