Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Weeds You Can Snack On

You can eat it all!
What do you think when you see this picture? Do you recognize any of the plants here? Or do plants growing out of the sidewalk generally escape your notice?

I know all these weeds. I've known them intimately since I was about six years old when it was my (very detestable) job to pull weeds out of the cracks of the patio. I got to know them even better a few years later when I started taking an interest in wild plants and their uses. I guess I was kind of a weird kid. But I liked me, and I had a couple friends that liked me, so I think I was a good weird. Personally,  I think it's weird that anyone wouldn't be interested in food you can get for free from your yard without any planting or tending.

So, these weeds. You can eat every darn thing in this picture! English plantain, wood sorrel, and clover are all very nice greens, though that plantain would probably not be too tasty. Tough and stringy. You've got to get that when it first comes up. You can still chew it up and smear it on a bee sting or scrape, though.

Are you interested in learning to eat some of your local backyard plants? It's very easy. I have a strategy for you.

First, go outside and look around. What's growing abundantly? If you're looking for something to eat, you want enough to actually fill you up and not completely obliterate that species from your environment. So you need something that's really growing like crazy. Also, it should be in a spot where dogs do not regularly come by, a place that doesn't get sprayed by chemicals and pesticides, and preferably not near a lot of road traffic.
Telephone pole = lots of dog urine! Also, too close to the road. Exhaust and other pollutants galore. 
The next step is to figure out if this plant growing abundantly in your yard is actually edible. There are poisonous plants out there, but this isn't like mushroom hunting where you need a certified professor from the local university mycology department to determine if your find is safe to eat. Plants are very distinctly identifiable when you get to know them. Get a field guide! A good one with lots of drawings and photographs. Once you have your plant figured out, you can either consult one of the many books on edible wild plants out there or google the scientific name (plants tend to have lots of common names, so it's better to put in the latin name to be sure you are looking up the right one. You'll be surprised just how much stuff is just right in your lawn that you could eat.

Maybe you've never noticed this little white flower in your lawn. It's around in spring and fall and it is a very yummy plant called chickweed! Right now I am pulling it out of my garden in enormous piles to make room for other plants. Use it anywhere you would use spinach. Salads, cooked, soups. In fact, all of the plants I'm going to show you today are pretty common across North America and can be eaten the same way.

Purple dead nettle
This is known as henbit or purple dead nettle. When we lived in Baltimore it was THE wild plant in every lawn in the spring. I didn't know you could eat it at the time. Now I do. Better cooked than raw, and mixed with other greens. Very fine in a spring greens soup.

Pennsylvnia bittercress
This is really quite a tiny flower: bittercress (this link has some excellent illustrations for identification). There are several varieties and they all have a peppery snap to them.  Also very common in Baltimore lawns, I remember. So if you live in Baltimore, you have no excuse. Just walk out the door. Of course, this requires that you have a lawn or greenspace of some sort, and unfortunately there's not enough of that in that good city.

Violets! The little blue flowers mixed in there are the speedwell plant, beautiful but not particularly tasty. Violets, however, are extremely healthy and very dense in Vitamin C. The leaves and the flowers are both edible in any way you would like to eat them. I've yet to try making candied violet blossoms, but you can.

This is just a tiny smattering of some plants you might be finding outside this spring in the eastern United States. Now trot out to your lawn and pick yourself a salad for dinner!

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