Weeds have a bad rap. Sure, they’re invasive and look awkward shooting out of your yard or embankment, but don’t dismiss them—it’s like having a free organic garden within your reach. Centuries ago, Europeans and Native Americans lived on wild weeds (The Europeans and Japanese brought some of these weeds over to North America), and during the Great Depression, curly dock fed the hungry.
Some weeds appear gnarly and weird—not exactly appetizing—but looks can be deceiving. Spring, summer, and fall are ideal for harvesting these weeds and using them in salads, soups, and desserts. Just be sure to correctly identify the weeds before you consume them, and if you’re unsure, it’s best to leave them be. And keep in mind eating anything grown in the wild can have traces of toxicity, so refrain from eating too much at once. The following “weird weeds” are probably growing in your yard, so forage the bounty instead of uprooting them and discarding them. As the old adage goes, if you can’t beat them, then eat them.
Photo by hspauldi CC BY-SA
You’ll know it when you find garlic mustard in the wild, because it’ll smell odorous, just like garlic—especially if you crush the leaves. The taproot smells like horseradish, which is why it’s used in condiments or in sauces. The flavor of garlic mustard’s bitter, much like mustard lettuce. The plant’s a good source of vitamin A and C, and sometimes the plant can be used as a diuretic and to treat ulcers. You can find the invasive garlic mustard growing in patches near hedges and in woody areas. The stems have an s-shaped bend that sprouts up high and have small white flowers on them. Once you’ve discovered garlic mustard, you can make pesto Recipes/GarlicMustardPesto.html out of it (maybe refrain from adding more garlic to it), and sauté the leaves with olive oil or butter to minimize the bitterness. You can add the greens to salads, make garlic mustard scallion cakes, and cornbread. Not to scare you or anything, but garlic mustard does have trace amounts of cyanide in it (so do a lot of other plants), but as long as you don’t, let’s say, eat it with every meal, you’ll be fine.
Liz West CC BY
Knotweed’s an invasive species, mainly because its thick taproot can grow up to over six feet tall and 65 feet wide. The plant’s been known to overtake properties to the point where some homes have become un-sellable. A couple of years ago, a man killed his wife and then killed himself because he thought the unwieldy knotweed growing next to his house would devalue his home (he was wrong). Murder aside, Japanese knotweed and giant knotweed exude a rhubarb flavor and are good in rhubarb recipes. You’ll recognize knotweed from its reddish stalk that looks like bamboo, but it’s actually in the buckwheat family. Grown in 39 states, you’ll find these edible delights on disturbed soil, roadsides and riverbanks. Knotweed’s a good source of vitamin A and C, potassium, and a natural laxative. One caveat: Knotweed has a high amount of oxalic acid, so if you can’t handle spinach or rhubarb, you should avoid knotweed. Now that you’ve chopped down some knotweed, what do you do with it? Well, you can puree it, make it into bread, make it into a crumble, steam the leaves and shoots, make it into a soup using tofu and veggie broth, and even make wine out of it.
People use the adjectives “tangy” and “salty” and “succulent” to describe purslane, but honestly it’s rather tasteless. Still, it’s a nice alternative to spruce up an otherwise dull salad. The teardrop-shaped leaves have a substantial texture and are attached to a red vein stem, which gets compared to the thickness of a computer cable. Purslane grows on the ground, and unlike knotweed, doesn’t grow very tall. Wildman Steve Brill has some great info on his site, and he warns purslane looks a lot like spurge, which is poisonous. Fun fact: Indigenous to India, purslane was Gandhi’s favorite food.
Even though purslane can lack the oomph of other green plants, but here’s why you should eat it: It has more omega-3 fatty acids in it than any other leafy green out there. On top of that, it’s chock full of vitamins and beta-Carotene. You’ll find purslane lurking in sidewalk cracks, near river banks, and being sold at farmers’ markets (yes, they’re selling you weeds). Because Greeks love purslane, many recipes revolve around yogurt. You can make a nice dressing using yogurt, purslane, capers, and garlic. You can also put it in potato salad, and substitute it in anything asking for spinach. Raw purslane works on top of a pizza, too.
NY State IPM Program at Cornell University CC BY
Curly dock looks like a typical spiky ground rosette weed, except for its “curled” or wavy leaves. The spikes can grow to be fairly tall—up to five feet in some places. You’ll find the dock in fields, on roadsides, forest edges, California mountains, wet regions, and seashores. The plant’s best not feed to livestock and horses, as it can be poisonous to them. Akin to knotweed, it’s also a member of the buckwheat family. The flavor of dock gets compared to rhubarb, spinach, and sorrel, and the leaves contain high amounts of beta-Carotene, vitamin C, and zinc. Because it’s packed with iron, dock’s good in treating anemia, but it does have a lot of oxalic acid in it, which could lead to kidney stones. Some people make a bitter tea out of the boiled leaves as a way to detoxify the urinary tract and clean out the system, so to speak. Besides the tea, you can make salads out of the leaves, a red lentil soup, enchiladas, kale-like crunchy oven cooked dock chips, and dock dolmas (substitute dock leaves for the grape leaves).
Wendell Smith CC BY
A part of the genus Chenopodium, goosefoot dates back to 4000 B.C. Akin to quinoa (also in the Chenopodium family), goosefoot seeds are ideal for a gluten-free diet. Over 100 species of goosefoot are grown or appear in the wild such as Swiss chard, Bull’s Blood, epazote, lamb’s quarters, and pigweed, and because they grow in thickets, animals appreciate the built-in cover. The plants feature “globby” flowers, some of which grow berries, and the spiky leaves sometimes are shaped like a goose’s foot. Goosefoot can be found in temperate areas all over the world, especially desert climates. As for consuming goosefoot, you can steam the leaves and place them in soups, potato dishes, and substitute it in spinach recipes—goosefoot has more protein and vitamin A in it than spinach. Chicago gave the goosefoot some love when they named a fancy, award-winning restaurant after the plant.
Garin Pirnia, who has a weird, made-up name, is a freelance arts and culture writer and has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, Mental Floss, and many other publications. Twitter: @gpirnia.