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24 Edible Weeds: This Spring, Turn Problem Plants Into Seasonal Treats

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24 Edible Weeds: This Spring, Turn Problem Plants Into Seasonal Treats

Spring’s edible weeds are ready to eat. But what is a weed? It’s not a new question but it bears repeating. Is a weed a problem plant, a nuisance plant? A plant that is not valued where it is growing? Usually. But in some notable cases, our weed is someone else’s food—or even someone else’s crop. A weed might be native to the region where it is treated with contempt (or herbicide), or introduced from another continent. Here are some of the useful, edible weeds that a temperate spring brings. Let’s call them greens, and vegetables. Because that is what they are. You may even want to cultivate some. Several are sold at farmers’ markets already.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: An early spring plate of bittercress, henbit, and chickweed—opportunistic lawn weeds, or good for pollinators and people?

Broadly, our collective understanding of weeds is culturally biased, regardless of where we live. It is often shaped by corporate farming and agri-business, and the challenge of raising one crop where another plant is able to infiltrate, compete, and interfere. Enter herbicides and crop-seeds bred to be resistant to poison. And then, in some countries (and especially in the United States), there is the big, big business of lawns. Many lawn-keepers are offended by anything less than a 100 percent grass expanse. More herbicides. More runoff into overburdened waterways and into the ocean.

If we learn to appreciate a diversity of plants, some edible weeds shape-shift in our perceptions into desirable seasonal treats.

Above: Garlic mustard, field garlic, daylilies, ground elder, lesser celandine, magnolia (not-a-weed), Japanese knotweed, butterbur, and mugwort.

Not all edible weeds are innocuous. Some very invasive plants (lesser celandine, mugwort, and Japanese knotweed, for example) can and do alter habitats, negatively affecting not only the native plant community but the system to which those plants belong, from mammals through to soil microorganisms. If you live where they have been introduced, and are not native, do not plant them. By all means, harvest them at their tastiest peak—that is what horticulturists and land stewards call mechanical control. For foragers and seasonal eaters, it’s called looking for dinner.

We’ll be brief in our list of 24: It’s a who, when, where, what, and how. With some links to more in-depth information about some of our favorite weeds.

Bittercress

Above: Bittercress blooms and its tender stems are peppery, like watercress.
  • Hairy bittercress is Cardamine hirsuta.
  • Very early spring.
  • Lawns, garden beds, fields.
  • Eat its tiny leaves, stems and flowers, raw or cooked. They taste peppery.
Above: Whole bittercress plants keep fresh in a bowl of water.

Butterbur

Above: Butterbur flowers appear before their leaves.
  • Butterburs are both native and introduced, in North America. The invasive species are Petasites japonicus and P. hybridus.
  • Early spring.
  • Damp places.
  • Butterbur buds taste like chrysanthemum greens. Do not eat raw: Boil before eating.

Read more at: A Butterbur Taste of Early Spring.

Chickweed

Above: Collect chickweed before its stems become wiry.
  • Chickweed is Stellaria media.
  • Early spring to mid spring.
  • Grows in lawns, in the shade of garden or park shrubs, on field edges.
  • Tastes like cornsilk. Eat the leaves and tender stems raw or cooked.

Read more at: Chickweed: Taste the stars

Common Mallow

Above: Common mallow’s leaves are tender and slightly mucilaginous.
  • Common mallow is Malva sylvestris. Dwarf mallow is M. neglecta.
  • Early to mid spring.
  • Grows in disturbed ground.
  • The leaves tastes mild and are slightly muciligenous. Best cooked like spinach, or baked as chips.

Dandelion

Above: Early spring’s dandelion crowns are choice.
  • Dandelions are Taraxacum officinale.
  • Best from early spring to early summer (and again in autumn).
  • Lawns, wastelands, fields.
  • Dandelion crowns, leaves, and stems range from mildly to very bitter, like chicories (plants growing in shade are the mildest). Blanch them if you dislike their bitterness. Eat raw or cooked. Do not juice or add to smoothies: In quantity dandelions can be diuretic.

Daylily Shoots

Above: Daylily shoots. Do not confuse them with iris.
  • Daylilies, or ditch lilies, are Hemerocallis fulva.
  • Their shoots appear in early spring.
  • They grow by roadsides, in woodlands, in open fields and in ditches.
  • Daylily shoots taste a little like scallions crossed with a juicy green vegetable. Blanch before eating.

Read more about how to eat daylilies in that chapter of my book Forage, Harvest, Feast—A Wild-Inspired Cuisine.

Dead Nettle

Above: Purple dead nettle is one of the earliest spring bloomers.
  • Dead nettle, purple dead nettle, or red dead nettle is Lamium purpureum.
  • Early spring.
  • Dead nettle grows in lawns, ditches, and disturbed ground.
  • The tender tips are reminiscent of a sturdy, earthy chard, after cooking (cook to improve coarse texture). Flowers are pretty edible decorations.

Dock

Above: Dock buds in late spring are a delicious vegetable.
  • Various docks are edible. Curly dock is Rumex crispus.
  • Early to late spring.
  • Lawns, ditches, damp spots, disturbed ground, woodland edges.
  • Young dock leaves can be eaten raw. Blanch older leaves (they make good summer roll wraps). Leaves and stems are slightly viscous. The tender, unopened flower buds are an excellent cooked vegetable.

Field Garlic

Above: In a clump of field garlic, grasp the fattest leaves to get the fattest bulbs.
  • Field garlic, lawn chives, crow garlic, are common names for Allium vineale
  • Winter through mid-spring.
  • Woodlands, lawns.
  • Field garlic is like a more garlicky chive. The bulbs and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.

Learn more about why field garlic is a sustainable alternative to ramps.

Garlic Mustard

Above: Second-year garlic mustard has plump roots that taste like horseradish.
  • Garlic mustard (hedge garlic) is Alliaria petiolata.
  • Early to late spring.
  • Woodlands, shaded gardens.
  • One of the most habitat-altering of all these edible weeds, this biennial super-invader has pungently good leaves that can be cooked like greens, or turned into pesto. The fat roots of second-year plants can be microplaned like horseradish. In mid-spring its tender flower buds and stalks are a tender, garlicky green vegetable. Collecting the flowers prevents each plant from setting thousands of seeds.
Above: Tender garlic mustard flowering stems are a delicacy.

Greenbrier

Above: Thorny greenbrier puts out soft new shoots without thorns in mid to late spring.
  • Greenbriers (also called greenbriar, catbrier, and carrion flower) are species of Smilax.
  • Late spring.
  • Woodlands, hedgerows.
  • Tender spring greenbrier shoots form in late spring and are lightly lemony, with a tender crunch. They  can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled.
Above: Greenbrier shoots about to be quick-pickled with carrot and burdock root.

Ground Elder

Above: Ground elder leaves emerging in early spring
  • Ground elder (bishop’s weed, goutweed) is Aegopodium podagraria.
  • Early to late spring.
  • Woodlands, shaded areas.
  • Ground elder tastes similar to lovage or celery hearts. Eat raw or cooked.
  • Do not plant.

Ground Ivy

Above: Ground ivy blooms in early to mid spring.
  • Ground ivy is Glechoma hederacea.
  • Early to mid spring.
  • Lawns, woodland edges.
  • The leaves of ground ivy are minty, and the flowers are a vivid edible garnish. Eat leaves raw, in a green herb sauce, or muddle into drinks.
Above: Ground ivy with goat cheese, Norway maple, and magnolia petals.

Henbit

Above: Henbit flowers are a more fuchsia pink, and are longer, than dead nettle’s.
  • Henbit is Lamium amplexicaule. It’s related to dead nettle, and can be differentiated from it by ruffled leaves that clasp the stems.
  • Early spring.
  • Lawns.
  • Henbit’s flowering tips (with leaves) are beautiful as edible garnishes, or to include in floral ice cubes. The leaves can be eaten but gathering enough to cook is not for the faint of heart.
Above: A posy of henbit in early spring.

Japanese Knotweed

Above: Japanese knotweed emerging.
  • Japanese knotweed is Reynoutria japonica. In North America it is a thug.
  • Mid-spring.
  • Woodlands, woodland edges, river and stream edges.
  • Raw, Japanese knotweed shoots and tips taste slightly tart and mineral, and are very crisp. Cooked, knotweed collapses and almost “melts.” It is excellent as soup, and as a creamy-textured vegetable in braises and curries. Add the firmer tips to bean and lentils, omelettes, risotto, or sauces for pasta.
  • Do not plant.

Read more: A recipe for Japanese Knotweed Hummus.

Above: Foraging for Japanese knotweed is a form of mechanical control for a very damaging invasive plant.

Lesser Celandine

Above: Lesser celandine flowers signal that the leaves have become too mature to eat.
  • Lesser celandine is Ficaria verna.
  • Early spring.
  • Forests, stream edges.
  • The young leaves are a good addition to salads and summer rolls. The flowers can be included in floral ice cubes and the petals can be strewn into salads. Mature leaves, typically with a maroon splotch in the middle of the leaf, are acrid and should not be eaten.
  • Do not plant.
Above: Very young lesser celandine leaves.

Mugwort

Above: Mugwort will grow anywhere.
  • Common mugwort is Artemisia vulgaris.
  • Early spring through fall.
  • Meadows, forest edges, lawns, waste ground, disturbed ground.
  • Spring mugwort is very mild, and more like a vegetable than the pungent herb it becomes as it matures. Add whole tufts to soups, stews, beans, or turn into tempura.

Read More:  Spring Mugwort: Loathe the Weed, Love the Weed

Nettles

Above: Early spring’s stinging nettle tips are a culinary treat.
  • Nettles (stinging nettles) are Urtica dioica.
  • Early to late spring.
  • Disturbed ground, woodland edges and clearings, very fertile soil, ditches.
  • Cooked nettles taste earthy and mineral. Drop stinging nettles into boiling water for a couple of minutes to dissolve their stings. Refresh in cold water and make a vivid green soup, or add the squeezed-dry leaves to tarts and savory pies, breads, biscuits or even cake (after puréeing).

Pennycress

Above: The flowers of field pennycress taste peppery and bright.
  • Pennycress (field pennycress) is Thlaspi arvense.
  • Mid spring.
  • Waste ground, lawn edges, garden beds.
  • The tender leaves, flower buds, and flowers of pennycress are best appreciated raw for their peppery, wasabi-like sting.

Pokeweed

Above: As long as pokeweed shoots are very tender, they are good to eat (cooked, not raw).
  • Pokeweed (poke, polk, poke sallet, inkberry) is native American Phytolacca americana.
  • Mid spring.
  • Woodland clearings and edges, disturbed ground, open lots, gardens, and fields.
  • When cooked, this native vegetable has a unique green flavor that is hard to describe. Green bean meets asparagus, but not quite. Pokeweed is good to eat when its spring shoots are tender enough to snap off in your hands.  Peel of any red membrane and drop the shoots in boiling water until tender, like asparagus.

Read more about pokeweed: Weeds You can Eat: Pokeweed, and a Recipe.

Sheep Sorrel

Above: Sheep sorrel leaves are brightly sour.
  • Sheep sorrel is Rumex acetosella.
  • Mid-spring, and again in autumn.
  • Disturbed ground, lawns, sunny forest margins, dunelands.
  • Sharply sour sheep sorrel is good raw or cooked. Cooked, it loses its color but melts deliciously into sauces, braises, and curries.

Sow Thistle

Above: Sow thistle is best cooked, when it becomes silky and soft.
  • Common sow thistle is Sonchus oleraceus.
  • Mid to late spring.
  • Disturbed ground, woodland edges, gardens.
  • Cooked young sow thistle is one of the silkiest greens imaginable. Blanch or wilt and serve simply with olive oil and lemon (or sesame oil and shoyu), or add to slow stews, where it absorbs the flavor of other cooking juices. Harvest before its flowers open (otherwise it becomes fibrous and bitter).

Wild Lettuce

Above: Wild lettuces grow statuesque, but are best eaten when young and easily cut with a sharp knife.
  • Wild lettuces are Lactuca species, including L. canadensis and L. biennis.
  • Mid to late spring.
  • Semi-shaded edges of woodlands or meadows, disturbed ground.
  • The raw, bitter leaves of wild lettuces welcome strong flavors like crisp bacon, mushrooms cooked in soy sauce, toasted almonds, and good vinegar. Cooked, the bitterness is tamed. The young, succulent stems make a good vegetable, when boiled till just-tender.

Wintercress

Above: Wintercress flowers add a spicy kick to a compound butter.
  • Wintercress (yellow rocket) is Barbarea vulgaris.
  • Mid to late spring.
  • Meadows, damp spots, stream edges, gardens.
  • Spicy winter cress is good raw or cooked. It has spice of watercress, with a firmer texture. Wilt to top bruschetta, or chop up raw to stir into good olive oil as a dip, or mash into butter for stellar sandwiches or basting anything hot off the grill.

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