Skip to content

A free lunch, wild style

June 27, 2010

Last week, prepping for camping, I asked Col what meals we should pack.

“Um, beans, tortillas, noodles, bread, apples, carrots, peanut butter and…” he stopped, shrugged and said “lets just pick acorns and Daddy can shoot a squirrel.”*

And I know what he’s talking about. All this shopping and cooking and swiping peanut butter across bread and chopping vegetables into kid-sized bites and sliding the soupy dregs of uneaten cereal into the bucket of chicken scraps, and washing breakfast dishes while the kids are already lobbying for a morning snack. Sometimes it seems our life occurs in the brief recesses between eating, or maybe our life is the eating.

Yesterday the kids and I made a couple gallons of granola and it was so beautiful and satisfying to look at that when everyone tore into it, I caught myself thinking–in a Eeyore-ish way–“Oh, now everyone’s just going to eat it?”

And yet I can get giddy like a middle schooler gripping a note from the cute boy when the kids devour my (grainy, dense, brickish) homemade bread, or eat a bowl of pintos without extracting the green strands of garden chard as if I tossed wriggling caterpillars into their meal.

Funky, lumpy and dense, but seems to go down well with melted butter. (can you still see all the kitchen clutter I elbowed out of the photo op area? I thought so).

And in my efforts to shop less, spend less, and pack more nutrition in our meals, I’m serving my family weeds this summer. (how’s that for a segueway? Did it work just a little?)

It’s my Summer Manifesto (thanks to Nicola, for the idea of creating goals for this summer. This summer that’s chugging along faster than a toddler who’s just learned to run. Sigh. Why does that never happen in winter?).

I’ve always been a dutiful weed-eater, but there’s something humbling about observing edible lambs quarters and common mallow flourish in my hardpack garden-walkways without a sprinkle of water, while my pampered lettuce dreams of being transplanted to the foggy coast of Northern California. So, I’m accepting alfalfa and amaranth’s offers for a free lunch and getting serious about eating my weeds.

Wild weed salad with chard pie and homemade salsa

The Good News

The practical value of weeds is no coincidence; Europeans brought their favorite foods and medicines to America to accompany them in their new lives. Without the checks and balances of their natural habitats, these plants quickly spread out of control, rooting in the wake of soil-disturbing wagon wheels. And now we call them weeds. And I say, let them eat weeds!


The Players

Common mallow (Malva neglecta)

The tiny light pink flowers are common mallow; the large, magenta ones are a cultivated mallow that *acts* like a weed in my yard.

The entire plant is edible, leaves, flowers and seeds. This plant is in the same family as hollyhocks and okra and has a mucilaginous quality, making it a useful tea for sore throats. The taste is mild and green like a meadow of grasses exhaling. Young leaves are best, the bigger leaves get a little thick and scratchy with age (like me).

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

We love our dandelion greens around here. Even Rose will scarf them down if cooked into a cheesy pasta (though she’d probably eat gauze bandages cooked into cheesy pasta). The young leaves are best (they get bitter with age – though cultivating a taste for bitter will aid your digestion), gathered before flowering, raw in salads, or cooked like spinach and added to pasta, rice, soups. Dandelions are high in Vitamins A, B, C, iron and potassium. The leaves are a safe, reliable diuretic and the roots a gentle liver tonic. When Col was on a pharmaceutical diuretic for fluid-in-the-lungs as a preemie, I kind of wished I could slip him a little dandelion leaf tincture, but suspected that wouldn’t have gone over well in the chart-and-measure-to-the-hilt NICU.

Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

I am so happy about lamb’s quarters. They’re so zen and have totally mastered the practice of non-attachment. They wear these drab grey-green robes, doing their walking-meditation throughout your garden, sometimes pausing to bow in the moistness of the lettuce patch. If you choose to pull them up, they go without a fight. When you pick a leaf and turn it over, you’ll find its underside all purple with crystally hairs that would bring tears to any marijuana cultivator. The taste is so mild and fresh, lamb’s quarters blends into a lettucy salad like a very quiet hunter, tip-toeing through the forest. Also, full of Vitamin C and beta carotene.

Red Clover (Trifolium) and Alfalfa (Medicago)

Clover & Alfalfa: nutritional powerhouses

These legume-family plants are riddled with vitamins and minerals (good for pregnant and lactating women). The red clover flowers are sweet and even though Rose wants nothing more than to get the green light on chewing gum, she’s happy to pop these in her mouth for now. Picking flowers encourages more blooming – how do you like that for accommodating? Adding flowers to salad makes me feel like I’m dining at some bistro on the Mediterranean Sea, rather than just eating weeds from my little patch of earth.

Do you guys dine on your backyard weeds? Or, like my mom, buy bunches of gargantuan-leafed dandelion greens from the farmers market for $2.50 a bundle? Or think I’m a complete nut?

Who’s got a salad dressing recipe?

*for the record, we don’t shoot squirrels, but we do eat them

44 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen permalink
    June 27, 2010 10:50 pm

    What a beautiful phrase: “Like a meadow of grasses exhaling” is singing in my head. Too bad you can’t bottle that scent and spritz some on when spirits need lifting!

  2. June 27, 2010 11:50 pm

    You made me laugh: malva neglecta…I love it!

    We do eat weeds, just this year we’ve been wonderously introduced to eating nettles, copious amounts mixed into soups mainly, and some raw in smoothies (blending well, with a little water before adding other ingredients, takes care of any lingering zap).

    As the chickweed greened up early in winter (January it was greening up with our mild winter here), we munched handfuls and shared leftovers with grateful chickens. Now it’s been a fiesta of lambs quarters, viola flowers, (re-seeds like weeds in my garden, lol), succulent purslane, hidden patches of chickweed growing under the raspberries, and some rogue dandelions not nibbled to the ground by the chickens. Free food is the best! And I delight to witness my boys enjoying the green bounty of the earth, and not taking the weeds for granted, or as something to destroy.

  3. Ami permalink
    June 28, 2010 1:17 am

    Heya Rachel! Inspiring post! I imagine myself a weed eater! Although I am dutiful about an annual nettle-fest which sets in around early March. It’s what I do to convince myself that spring is actually on it’s way! :) After chiding my favorite herb and edibles nursery at the farmer’s market for actually selling miner’s lettuce, I have found myself inspired by Rita’s response; she just shrugged and smiled and said, “I thought I’d give it a try, it’s SO good!”. SO, thanks to her, I no longer pull them up, but have yet to make a salad from them. Additionally, I do swoon over violets. Those pretty heart shaped leaves and tasty flowers… mmmm…. Lastly, since this isn’t MY blog…. a salad dressing recipe – measure free….
    Equal amounts of tahini, olive oil, and honey. Add a dash of apple cider vinegar, a few drops of toasted sesame oil (and a splash of water if you like your dressing runny). Shake it up in a jar, and you’re good to go! It’s totally my fave! Tastes best on Northern California lettuce though! Wink wink!

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 28, 2010 2:09 pm

      That salad dressing recipe sounds awesome. I am definitely going to make some. Wish I could trade you lamb’s quarters for miners lettuce!

  4. Rebecca Crouch permalink
    June 28, 2010 1:23 am

    dandelions! they’ve taken over our grass and little 14 month old annslee LOVES them! mallow, too, is another favorite around here.

  5. June 28, 2010 3:03 am

    Totally random question – can one eat dandellion weeds with a grass alllergy? Little Lucy has been begging to stir up a pot with “carrot strips and flowers.”

    My life, too, occurs in the brief recesses between eating.


    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 28, 2010 2:11 pm

      Dandelions are in the Sunflower family and shouldn’t affect someone negatively with a grass allergy.

  6. abozza permalink
    June 28, 2010 7:15 am

    We live such completely different lives, and I just love reading about yours. One day, I hope to move somewhere less…rushed…and while I’m not completely sure we’ll eat weeds and squirrel, we will try many of the things you write about! :)
    Thanks for sharing these glimpses into your life!

  7. June 28, 2010 7:42 am

    YES! I spent all day in the garden yesterday weeding around my cabbages and chard and beets and noticing how pitiful my lettuces are. AND, also noticing the mighty mighty stands of amaranth and lamb’s quarters that require NOTHING from me!!! Not planting, not weeding, nothing. And they grow like, well, weeds, all over the place. So why am I futzing around with the fussy lettuces when there is all this bounty sitting there for the taking? I don’t know! I’ve been using both the amaranth and the lamb’s quarters as if they are spinach — mmmmm mmmmm!

  8. June 28, 2010 8:08 am

    Love the can-do spirit–Just shoot a squirrel! And really, it does feel like there are very few pauses between eating (and those are filled with cooking and cleaning up!) when you have small children (and hungry spouses). My husband just gathered some weedy purslane from around the garden to throw in with the other, cultivated greens and my kids sit around the yard munching clover flowers (and leaves)…we made some violet jam this spring (via soulemama) and have in the past enjoyed daylilly bud fritters (though not a weed, since I planted them, they’re not technically a food plant either). I just started making salad dressing: 1 part vineagar (I use balsalmic) to 2-3 parts olive oil, a smushed garlic clove, a spoon of mustard, some salt & pepper. Maybe some herbs. Or use a light vinegar (apple cider, white wine, rice wine) and add a spoon or two of honey. Put it in a jar and shake, shake, shake.

  9. Just Peaches permalink
    June 28, 2010 8:22 am

    I’m growing dandelions in a pot…how’s that for nutty?
    You might want to try wood sorrel – tangy and citrusy.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 28, 2010 2:15 pm

      Dandelions in a pot! That is the best thing I’ve heard all day. We have a wild, mountain sorrel here in Colorado that is so wonderfully sour and tangy, it’s fun to eat it just to remind my tongue what sour tastes like.

  10. June 28, 2010 8:30 am

    I’ve always wondered why it is in the parenting books that they mention nothing about how life occurs in random bursts~between breast feeding and meal time. ;)

    Eating weeds~~love it. I’ll be paying more attention in my yard as I *weed* today!

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 28, 2010 2:16 pm

      And poop! Those books never talk about how much time goes into analyzing and cleaning up poop!

  11. June 28, 2010 8:32 am

    Oh yeah, and Col’s squirrel/acorn comment will keep me smiling all day!

  12. Judy permalink
    June 28, 2010 10:45 am

    Hooray for the weeds! Purslane is coming in now in NJ – & quite welcome, as the current heat wave is making regular lettuce & other greens bolt. Lovely glossy leaves & fresh crunchy taste & very high in omega-3 –

    bon appetit

  13. June 28, 2010 2:31 pm

    Funny we both talked about weeds in our latest post – except mine didn’t end up on my dinner plate. Had I read this earlier, I would’ve sent you what I harvested in my yard :) Actually, I’ve had dandelion greens, just not the others you mentioned. I should be on the lookout for them and give them a try. I’m always willing to try something new (and subject my family to it as well – hah!)

    Thanks for the information – it really is helpful.

  14. Just Peaches permalink
    June 28, 2010 2:38 pm

    P.S. I’m not sure if you know this but if you quickly blanch dandelion you can freeze it for the winter and use like frozen spinach. Really good sauted in olive oil with a bit of garlic and kosher salt – mmm.

  15. Melissa permalink
    June 28, 2010 6:12 pm

    The meal looks mouthwatering and beautiful . . . we could definitely use some more greens in our diet over here. Avi and I had ice cream for lunch and now we are stuffing ourselves with hummus and pita. This mama needs to hit the store but what a pain! Wish I could just go pull some weeds–at least there would be no carseats involved!

    And your children! Gorgeous little beings.

    If I made salad dressing, I would try my best to recreate Goddess dressing, for sure . . . happy eating!

  16. Rachel Kohnen permalink
    June 28, 2010 7:03 pm

    I was telling Ben today about your nail-free sunporch and the hand-carved animals from your talented husband. Super cool. Our favorite dressing? Yogurt (perfect for the extras that float around) with chopped chives or green onion, a minced garlic clove and a dash of pepper. Got any yogurt???

  17. June 28, 2010 7:08 pm

    Oh, what a lovely post!!! Your salad is beautiful : )
    I appreciate your writing and yes we are weed and flower eaters too!
    Nothing quite like a good flower salad! Before we moved we hung out at an organic teaching farm down the road from us. Before dinners we would all go out with a basket and collect weeds that would make up the salad for the big meal. (we made an amazing pesto/dip too I will have to see if I can find that recipe…) The kids and I just went walking yesterday we were thrilled to find many patches of wild blackberries/raspberries and came home with happy bellies! I picked weeds/wildflowers along the way creating a cheery bouquet… I think we came across ‘mallow’ I did not realize it was edible. I remember this flower being on sort of a vine because I did not pick it for my bouquet. I wonder if it truly was a mallow? Off to see if you wrote where you live somewhere, it would be lovely to hang out : )
    (I enjoyed reading through the comments here too! Wow, long comment lol sorry I am a little excited about this ahem!)

  18. June 28, 2010 9:33 pm

    mmmm weeds. i confess, i’ve been real good about drying them for teas later, and not so good at eating them fresh. it is so great that ‘them’ will eat the weeds!

    i often have a flash in my head of ‘why do i even try to clean the clothes?’ but i do it so i can photograph it for my blog. i mean. i do it out of pure love? well, you know. excellent post, rachel!

  19. Chi-An permalink
    June 28, 2010 10:08 pm

    Hmm… we don’t have so many edible weeds growing here (San Francisco), unfortunately. Fennel grows 8 or 9 feet high by the side of the freeway, but honestly I wouldn’t eat it… too much car exhaust gunk.

    I’ve always found your writing delightful, but I feel compelled to point out, in a schoolmarmish way, that the word is either “segue” (a link from one topic to the next) or “Segway” (the thing that looks like an enormous motorized lollipop, upside down, with a person standing on it), both pronounced as “seg-way”.


  20. Ellen permalink
    June 28, 2010 10:09 pm

    The truth is that the much heralded Mediterranean diet is not the pasta with tomato sauce and meatballs that we think, but wild tasty, bittter greens…weeds which are pulled from the hillsides of Crete and Sicily…with maybe a little oil.

    Weeds are a delicacy…and so, so healthy.

  21. June 29, 2010 11:44 am

    I’m so glad weeds are getting notice for how great they are! We’ve been farming for 19 yrs. now and for the past few years have had weeds at our market booth, at the encouragement of our permaculture advisor and our green smoothie guru, Victoria. Now we even grow selected cultivars of a few, like magenta spreen lambsquarter, golden purslane, orach, minutina plantain. The cultivated dandelion is actually a chicorum, related to radicchio and endive; tap-rooted and very nutritious but not a true dandelion. Miner’s lettuce is my personal fave for taste, chickweed is great in the spring too. Pigweed is wonderful as a young leaf with immature seed heads. My hispanic workers prefer the lambsquarter with seed heads on it, which is actually at its peak nutrition. This plant that is considered the most nutritious one you can eat along with stinging nettles. In fact I’ve had elderly Euros come through market and smile when they see the lambsquarter, and say they survived WWII as kids by foraging it in the wild.
    As you can see, we love our weeds!! But like I tell folks at my market booth, eating from a diversity of plant families is best. Keep in mind that orach, lambsquarter and pigweed are all related to amaranth and quinoa, along with chard, beets and spinach. All of these have varying amounts of oxalates so keep that in mind if you eat lots of them.
    Thanks again for a wonderful post! My kids probably graze on the weeds as much as the “official” veggies on our farm!

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 29, 2010 10:08 pm

      Mary, thanks for sharing your knowledge. I love the idea of magenta lambsquarters. And cultivated dandelion not a true dandelion? Why ever not? Chickweed just showed up under my morning glories, what a fun surprise. Thanks for the reminder about the oxalates!

  22. Caraway permalink
    June 29, 2010 12:38 pm

    Awesome post, Rachel! Love the pics from the garden as usual.

    I’ve been bemoaning the fact that there are no lamb’squarters on our property, and just this morning I saw some lamb’s quarters starts at the Farmer’s Market! I bought some and am going to plant them right now. Is that a paradox? Does it make them less of a weed if I cultivated them like that? Either way, it’s going to be tasty.

    love, caraway

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 29, 2010 3:08 pm

      Caraway, if you can buy lambs quarter starts at your farmers market, that may be the start of a revolution! (no surprise that Ashland is leading the way). I think if you cultivate lambs quarters it is no longer a weed, and now a crop! (interesting food for thought).

  23. Emily permalink
    June 29, 2010 3:54 pm

    Who said the wild west was a thing of the past?
    Can we have a poster of *them*?
    I had no idea that clover and its beautiful flowers could be a tasty part of a salad! Yesterday I went hiking with a friend in the hills north of Vallecito and there was so much yumminess like chives and osha. Dandelions were in full bloom. Had I known that clover was a tasty I would have picked it too, it was growing bountifully! Next time^^ Thanks Just Peaches for the frozen dandelion tip. Nice one.
    My favorite weed this season has been the thistles across the valley behind the house. Using scissors and delicacy, I get a bunch of leaves, cut ’em up in the blender with water, grind and blend it, strain, refrigerate and drink! No sweetny or anything, just straight and delish! Doesn’t have to be cold, but it adds a lot of depth to the flavor somehow. When they get taller I’ll harvest whole plants, peel the stalk and eat like celery. mmmm mmm mmmm mmmmm mmmm!

  24. June 29, 2010 6:16 pm

    how do you *know* alla this? is it books? experience? do you have a garden mentor?
    will you be my garden mentor?
    all these random lil greenlings keep popping up in the yard and garden and i have no.idea.what they are. would love to eat ’em if i could know they wouldn’t poison me.
    are many things even poisonous?
    any good books you could recommend about gardening/weeds/etc?
    love the pictures.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 29, 2010 10:00 pm

      Shady Kati, Books and experience and a long apprenticeship at Hummingbird Herbals. I would be happy to come identify weeds in your yard. Really. Do you have my #? If not, e-mail me. Not too many poisonous plants likely to pop up in your garden. I use about four different books (Weeds of the West for pictures, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West for info, and Katrina Blair’s Local Wild Life for recipes. That was three. Hmmm. Okay, and Flora of the San Juans by Sue Komarek).

  25. June 29, 2010 6:38 pm

    Well, DUH, you’re a nut! That’s why I like to read you!

    And those salads are BEAUTIFUL. Almost too pretty to eat. But I’d force myself…

  26. June 29, 2010 7:02 pm

    you rock mama!!!

    just finished writing (and re-writing way too many times) a post about our trip to boston. you ask. i write.

    it will be up tomorrow am.



  27. June 29, 2010 9:12 pm

    Of course we eat our weeds! Lamb’s quarters are probably my favorite, we made pesto the other night with a mix a lamb’s quarters and spinach from the garden. Very yummy. Your salad is beautiful!
    By the way, my husband says to me tonight, I might want to go look at that one blog, talking about yours, so that I would come here for him. He has bows and hunting on his mind!

  28. June 29, 2010 9:40 pm

    That photo of your little weed-eating pioneer-like “thems” is cracking me up. Also, could I fly you down to identify the weeds in my yard and instruct me on which ones are edible?

    PS: How did the gardening class you taught the other night go??

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 29, 2010 10:04 pm

      The gardening class was super fun, thanks for asking.

  29. June 29, 2010 10:50 pm

    The internet is a great resource for photos and nutritional info on wild plants, tho I’m still trying to find out some info on things like plantain.
    Re: the pesto, my market helper has just started making pesto from lots of leafy greens that pile up in her ‘fridge (thanks to often taking home too many on market day!) And you can always freeze the pesto for a raw veggie hit in the winter.
    Re: cultivated dandelion, it’s an Italian green more properly called catalogna chicory. I guess it’s called dandelion as a common name too because it looks the same (or maybe the weed took its name…)

  30. June 30, 2010 9:27 am

    Oh the FEEDING. It is so fulfilling and so frustrating. All at the same time. There really is nothing like it. And I think I’m going to go hunting for some weeds.

  31. June 30, 2010 9:44 am

    Yes, I appreciated the irony of our diligently spending 2+ hours clearing out a 30×40′ recently tilled (and subsequently ignored) plot of the lovely lamb’s quarters growing there so happily. ($2 a pound at our local health food store and we’re pitching them by the roadside!). If anyone lives near Harrisburg, Pa you are welcome to come by for more! ;) Thanks for the wonderful post!

  32. June 30, 2010 3:06 pm

    Heck I never know what the weeds are in my yard/garden if they aren’t dandelions or the little white clover. I’m thinking I must have the lamb’s quarters as they look quite familiar. Is there a good easy reference guide you recommend? Any that I should avoid?

    I also worry because the previous owners sprayed the yard and so do the neighbors next door.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      June 30, 2010 3:12 pm

      Anna, I’m not sure where you live, but Weeds of the West has fantastic pictures. It’s a whopper of a book and doesn’t discuss edible/medicinal qualities, but it’s a good tool for ID-ing. The internet is also likely a great resource for pictures and information. Happy eating! Rachel

  33. June 30, 2010 3:27 pm

    I thought of you the other day in my garden as I was pulling weeds, but I hadn’t yet read this post! Sadly, we waited too long to plant lettuce, but maybe my salad makings were right there under my nose the whole time!

  34. July 1, 2010 6:44 pm

    oh yum! your wild salads look delicious to me. yes we are always eating our weeds. right now it is wild daylily (i have a hard time calling this a weed really). I have a recipe up now…

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I love hearing from you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s