In a magical and geeky kind of way, it is interesting to me that when soil is disturbed there are particular plants that always appear first, without any tending or nurturing. They are most often called weeds and thought of as bad, when, more accurately, they can nourish and sustain us.
This is an introduction to five edible plants. That said, I will offer a disclaimer. Please learn to properly identify these plants and be cautious as to where you forage. Everything growing along railway tracks, for example, is not only very dirty but also heavily sprayed with pesticides. Before ingesting, check with someone who really knows their stuff. Like I said, this is just an introduction.
Lamb’s quarters // Chénopode blanc // Chenopodium album
Also known as pigweed, goosefoot, and wild spinach, this weed is a member of the same family as garden beets and spinach. Only young, tender plants, less than 30 centimetres high, should be collected. While the leaves of young plants are excellent either raw or steamed, the seeds of mature plants are excellent when ground up and mixed half and half with wheat flour for baking. It makes the end product darker, similar to the effect of using buckwheat flour.
Chenopodium album can range in height from 20 to 200 centimetres. The first two to four true leaves are opposite, but later leaves and branches are distinctly alternate. The leaves are broadly rectangular with irregular, shallow teeth. They are green with a covering of white mealiness or a powdery surface, sometimes with a reddish under coating. The flowers and seeds are very small and densely grouped together into thick, granular clusters along the main stem and upper branches. Chenopodium album is a very good source of fibre protein, calcium, potassium, copper, manganese, sodium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, C, and K. It is a also good source of niacin, folate, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.
Purslane // Pourpier potager // Portulaca oleracea
Originating in India or Persia, this succulent plant has been eaten for more than two thousand years. It is a prized garden vegetable over much of Europe and Asia, where several varieties have been developed. It is also known as wild portulaca, little hogweed, and pusley.
The entire plant, stem, leaf, and flower bud are good to eat. It can be used raw or cooked and should always be washed thoroughly, for it is apt to be gritty. It has a mucilaginous quality, which adds consistency to soups and stews.
Purslane is a ground cover similar to chickweed. Its stems are fleshy, smooth, reddish-green to purplish-red, repeatedly branched, and often form circular mats 30 to 60 centimetres in diameter. Leaves are flat, but thick and fleshy, deep green to reddish-green, broadest near the rounded tip and narrowed towards the base. This plant is hairless. At the tips of the branches, leaves crowd together. The flowers are small (five to ten millimetres across), in axels of stem leaves or near the tips of branches. They open only on bright, sunny mornings with five small pale yellow petals, which soon fall off. Portulaca oleracea is one of the most common garden weeds. It is found in row crops, waste areas, and along the edges of driveways. It cannot survive in heavy shade.
Portulaca oleracea is a very good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese, and vitamin A, B2, and C. It is a good source of niacin, vitamin B1 and B6, and folate. It is reputed to be excellent for refreshing the digestive system and cleaning the blood.
Chickweed // Mouron des oiseaux // Stellaria media
It is almost impossible to eradicate chickweed — one more reason to put it to good use as food. The leaves and stems can be added to anything you might add greens to. When harvesting for eating, pick only the last five to eight centimetres of each tip. Chickweed is a ground cover, horizontally spreading leafy stems that root at the nodes. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of common chickweed is the single, lengthwise line of fine white hair on one side of the stem, but alternating sides above and below each node. The leaves are opposite, oval with pointed tips, and smooth or slightly hairy. The flower is small, with five two-lobed white petals.
Stellaria media is very high in vitamin C and mucilage. It also provides rutin, gamma linolenic acid (an omega 6 fatty acid derivative), magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, manganese, sodium, selenium, silicon, niacin, and vitamins A, B1, and B2. Externally, chickweed relieves itching and inflammation and is generally soothing and moisturizing.
Shepherd’s Purse // Bourse à pasteur // Capsella bursa-pastoris
Capsella bursa-pastorius is edible in the early spring, while the basal leaves are still young and tender and before the plant flowers. It can be added raw to salads, simmered in soups and stews, sautéed, or steamed. If you find the leaves’ taste too strong, or if you discover this plant only after it has flowered, just harvest the flower tops for a tasty addition to any salad. The seeds have also been used to control mosquitoes. In early spring, sprinkle the seeds on water where mosquitoes breed. The mucilage of the seed will kill the larvae, thereby reducing the number of mosquitoes in the area. One pound of seeds is capable of destroying ten million larvae (though it may cause a proliferation of shepherd’s purse).
Capsella bursa-pastorius has deeply toothed basal leaves similar to Taraxacum officinale (dandelion). Both species also form basal rosettes in the early spring, but shepherd’s purse leaves have no milky sap and the teeth point outward, not toward the leaf’s base like the dandelion. Like its mustard relatives, it has tiny, four-petaled flowers. The flowers are arranged like a cross and appear in long vertical clusters. While some mustards have yellow flowers, shepherd’s purse flowers are white. They give way to tiny, flattened, triangular seedpods. Capsella bursa-pastorius can be found in disturbed soil, unmowed meadows and lawns, and along roadsides and trails. It is high in vitamins C and K, and a good source of protein, sulfur, calcium, iron, sodium, and potassium.
Stinging nettle // Ortie dioïque // Urtica dioica
Urtica dioica provides one of the best sources of minerals (its iron is easily absorbed because it also contains vitamin C). But, as its name suggests, stinging nettle STINGS! Proper handling is essential; use scissors and a bag, or gloves. Use the scissors to first snip off the top parts of the plant (five to twenty centimetres), then like tweezers to pick up the clippings and drop them into the bag. Alternatively you can wear gloves — but sometimes the hairs pierce through. Whatever way you choose, part of Urtica dioica‘s medicine is to slow you down and demand your full attention. To ingest stinging nettle you must deactivate the venomous hairs by cooking or steaming, infusing in vinegar, or dehydrating.
Urtica dioica is an erect, weedy perennial, growing up to one metre tall and covered with tiny stinging hairs. Its leaves are alternatively arranged, long-stalked, and coarsely toothed. Stinging nettle is an excellent source of calcium, iron, silica, potassium, manganese, sulfur, and vitamins A and C.
The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Tompkins & Christopher Bird
Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism, Stephen Buhner
Stalking the Wild Asparagus: Field Guide Edition, Euell Gibbons
A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Lee Allen Peterson & Roger Tory Peterson