Frustrated with your weeds? This year, consider a new plan for revenge: tossing them in a salad and eating them!
As the garden starts to send out signs of life this spring, so do all of the herbaceous weeds that hid out of sight all winter long. Mulching in late winter or early spring can help keep some weeds from germinating or photosynthesizing, making the work of spring weeding much easier. Other weeds, especially taproots, are stronger and may require more work to keep their populations manageable. If you struggle with weeds in your yard, you might benefit from a new plan of action based in Integrated Pest Management (IPM): a holistic yet comprehensive approach to weed control.
The first step in any IPM weed plan is to identify and know your weeds. This will help you find the most effective time period and method to intervene with their growth, in a way that is most beneficial to your garden and supportive of the greater ecosystem. The Garden Hotline is a great resource to help you identify your weeds and develop an IPM-based intervention strategy.
Steering away from pesticide use in your yard also opens up the possibility for the really enjoyable weed control strategy of eating your weeds! Not all weeds are edible, of course, but a surprising number of them can be eaten at some point in their life cycle. And again, what better motivation to get outside and weed than knowing a tasty, nutritious treat awaits?
Edible Spring Weeds in the Pacific Northwest
Spring weeds can be annual or perennial, and knowing the difference will help you determine how to best harvest them (or remove them). Annual weeds will die yearly and release seeds that will germinate in the fall or spring. Make sure to harvest before they go to seed, and mulch bare soil in fall and spring to keep them from germinating. Perennial weeds survive year after year, and most have taproots or deep root systems. This means they can require more effort to keep them from flowering and reseeding and to remove as much of the root as possible. Hearty tools like digging forks, shovels and even weed wrenches can help!
Chickweed (Stellaria media) – annual
A juicy, succulent groundcover, chickweed thrives in moist soil and partial shade and has an affinity for vegetable gardens, disturbed soil and roadsides. Its texture is fresh and crunchy, similar to that of fresh sprouts or shredded lettuce. Chickweed is also a nutritional all-star, high in calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, potassium, selenium, zinc, copper, gamma-linoleic acid and more. Harvest the upper growth by combing through it with your fingers; it should easily detatch from lower foliage. Try to eat it as fresh as possible, just as you might use sprouts. Some examples: as a topping on sandwiches or salads, a garnish for soups or other entrees, or in a sauce like pesto or chimichurri.
Cleavers (Galium aparine) – annual
Also called “bedstraw,” this creeping annual grows along the ground in and around garden beds and along edges of fields. Along the stem are tiny, whitish, hook-like hairs and whorled leaves in groups of six along the stem. Don’t let the little hairs discourage you! Cleavers are rich in vitamin C and have a fresh flavor that some liken to sugar snap peas. In herbal medicine, cleavers are often used to nourish and move lymph. Harvest cleavers when they are young, that is less than eight inches tall, and before they flower. Cook as you would any leafy green, or eat raw if you’d like.
Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) – perennial
The quintessential garden weed, dandelion has a rough reputation that isn’t quite deserved. Thanks to a deep taproot, it brings minerals up to the soil surface and also provides great food for pollinators. Even better: all parts of dandelion are edible and even medicinal! The roots are rich in inulin and minerals, and tonic to the liver and digestive system. Flowers have been traditionally used to make wine or in fritters, and eating them before they turn into poofs can keep them from reseeding. Early spring leaves have a bitter flavor, which improves digestion, and also contain high levels of potassium and vitamin A, in addition to iron, vitamin C, calcium and protein. In the early spring, use the young greens in salads or cook as you might prepare kale and then added to dishes. The roots can be harvested in early spring and easily removed with a digging fork. Then wash, chop in a food processor or blender, and dry in a dehydrator or in the oven for 2-3 hours at 200 degrees fahrenheit. You can then roast the roots at 400 degrees for 30 minutes to get a good flavor and store in an airtight container to use as needed for tea or as a tasty coffee substitute. Flowers can be harvested at any time and removed from their stems and sepals, using in any recipe for dandelion wine, jelly, syrup, fritter or other baked good. Avoid if you are allergic to plants in the ragweed family, such as chamomile or yarrow.
Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) – perennial
Believe it or not, this notoriously invasive noxious weed can be edible as a young shoot! It can be hard to identify as it is young and just emerging from the soil in early spring, but looks similar to a reddish asparagus spear. At this time of year, before they begin to leaf out, the plant contains potassium, phosphorus, zinc and manganese as well as lysine and reservatrol. It also contains oxalic acid, so please see the note for lamb’s quarters above. Harvest by snipping the growing shoots at ground level and peeling off the outer skin before consuming. Its flavor is often suggested to be like that of rhubarb, so consider cooking your Japanese knotweed sprouts in similar ways, like jam, pie or baked goods. With Japanese knotweed in particular, as it is a noxious weed and often the subject of herbicide treatments in public spaces, it is extremely important to check with any applicable sources to make sure it has not been sprayed with any chemicals prior to harvest or consumption.
Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album) – annual
A relative of spinach and beets, lamb’s quarters has rounded, slightly triangular leaves of a grey-green color with distinctive white, powdery look on new growth. While plants start small and herbacous they’ll eventually branch out and reach two to three feet in height or more, with stalks of tiny, rounded flowers. Understandably, the leaves taste similar to spinach and contain oxalic acid and saponins. Because of this, avoid consuming lamb’s quarters if you have arthritis, gout, or any kidney or urinary tract medical issues, and if you don’t, be sure to balance your intake with other foods. Its leaves are high in vitamins A and C as well as calcium, manganese, potassium and iron. Eat entire young plants in the early spring as you would any other leafy green, raw or cooked.
Plantain (Plantago major) – perennial
Known to soothe external wounds, plantain is often seen in grassy urban areas as it prefers lightly compacted soil. Sometimes it can also grow in gravel parking lots—not the safest spot to get your harvest. Two main types of plantain are often found: lanceleaf with long and narrow leaves and broadleaf with shorter and wider leaves. Harvest the young, tender leaves of either type in the early spring for a flavor similar to spinach that can be eaten cooked or raw. Plantain leaves are good sources of vitamins A, C and K and also contain calcium and potassium.
Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) – annual
Not to be confused with stinging nettle, this low-growing groundcover is often found in disturbed soils like garden beds and has tiny purple flowers. At this time, no nutritional analysis has been done to determine its benefits, but its leaves have a flavor is similar to spinach and it likely contains trace minerals. Be sure to harvest before it flowers. L. purpureum can be eaten cooked or raw, much like spinach.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) – perennial
Well known for its sting delivered from hairs that release formic acid, this nettle species is an herbaceous perennial native to the Pacific Northwest. Found in diverse habitats it prefers soils that are somewhat moist. Their leaves are remarkably nutritious, containing choline, iron, potassium, phosphorus, 29 times more calcium than spinach, magnesium, silica trace minerals, more protein than many legumes, and vitamins A, C and D. As such, in herbal medicine nettles are often used as a nutritive to restore a fatigued, weak constitution and can also be anti-inflammatory and astringent, helping to regulate blood pH and ease burden on the kidneys.
Harvest nettles when they are below knee-height and before they go to flower. To prepare, either boil the leaves for 5-15 minutes before adding to a dish (and use the cooking water as tea) or blanch for 3 minutes or so and then blend up leaves into a pesto recipe. Cooked nettles can also be frozen if rinsed with cold water, drained and stored in freezer-safe containers or bags.
Shotweed (Cardamine hirsuta)
This little plant packs some serious punch, earning its name from how it explodes to release seeds from its long seed pods. One of the earliest spring weeds to appear, you can easily distinguish it from its leaves emerging in a basal rosette with lobed, oppostive leaflets along the stem. It can be found almost everywhere there is bare soil, but likes soils that are more damp and also unusual places like rockeries, walls and sidewalks. A member of the Brassica family, shotweed has a spicy flavor similar to that of arugula or watercress. Eat the entire plant before the flowers go to seed for optimum weed control. Enjoy its peppery flavor fresh in salads.
Many other weedy plants are edible throughout the year, including horsetail, mallow, money plant and more. To learn more, consider checking out The Front Yard Forager, an indispensable book by Seattle’s own eat-the-weeds advocate, Melany Vorass Herrera. There are also many classes offered in the area on wild food foraging. Check out Tilth Alliance, Wilderness Awareness School, Alderleaf Wilderness College, Earthwalk Northwest or other outdoor survival schools to learn more.
For more information on identifying edible weeds or managing weeds naturally, please contact the Garden Hotline at 206-633-0224 or www.gardenhotline.org. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube.
Safety Disclaimer: Please only harvest wild plants or weeds in areas where you are 100 percent certain that pesticides, pet waste, vehicle pollution, lead residue or other harmful substances are not lingering on plants or in the soil. Always make sure you are 100% certain of a plant’s identity before putting it in your mouth (the Garden Hotline can help), and even if you are certain, only sample a little bit of the plant your first time and wait at least 15 minutes to assess any possible allergic reactions before eating more. Just as with any other food, every person responds a little differently to plants and you want to play it safe just in case. No need to be scared, just prepared!