I was always interested in trying new foods, even as a child, so when my friend’s farmer grandparents introduced me to foraging, I was interested. I nibbled my way through the woods behind my house and found that there were lots of good things to eat out there. Then, in college, I came across the book Cooking with Flowers: Where in an Age-Old Art if Revived by Zack Hanle (I still have my original copy). It expanded my culinary world even more and was the cause of three bottles of dandelion wine exploding in a tiny closet in my tiny walk-up apartment.
Now, half my backyard is dedicated to a vegetable garden. The rest, too shady to grow vegetables, belongs to the dog. It’s gone over to weeds, and some of those weeds make good eatin’. There are a lot of flavorful foods growing in your yard and in your flower garden and if you try them, you might just like them. Plus, they’re free.
A warning: Some lawn weeds are hard to identify properly. Some can be downright dangerous. When I lived in Oregon, a local wild food expert died when he mistook a poison hemlock for a wild carrot. But, there are a number of lawn weeds that are easy to identify and have no toxic imitators. Disclaimer: Wash everything, particularly if you have a dog. Don’t harvest if your lawn and flower garden have been chemically treated.
Are you ready? Got your scissors? Here are some weed-eating highlights. It’s time to harvest.
Broad Leaf Plantain
Not to be confused with the starchy banana-like tropical vegetable, the broadleaf plantain has been growing everywhere in the United States since it was brought from Europe by the Puritans. It’s got medicinal properties as an anti-microbial agent and anti-inflammatory. The leaves are highly nutritious, rich in vitamins A and C. The raw leaves can be tough, but, boiled or steamed (cook young leaves for three minutes, older leaves for five minutes) they are delicious seasoned with a little sesame oil and a drop or two of soy sauce.
Oxalis is that pretty bright green plant with leaves that looks like a delicate clover and bright yellow flowers. They have a lovely lemon-sour taste, similar to the broad-leafed French sorrel. Like French sorrel, they make a great sauce for fish. Or, use them to make a slightly exotic tart. There are Internet warnings about the plant’s oxalic acid, which can be problematic for those with gout, kidney or bladder stones or arthritis, but so are broccoli and spinach. If you’ve been told to limit your consumption of broccoli or spinach, limit your intake of wood sorrel as well. Reportedly, cooking gets rid of much the oxalis acid.
Creeping Charlie is the bane of the lawn proud, a shade loving perennial ground cover. The leaves are good, raw or cooked like a vegetable but they’re best used as an herb–it’s a member of the mint family. Add a little of the chopped leaves to soups and stews. If you make beer, consider adding a little of this to the mix when hops are added. Due to their strong flavor, use it sparingly until you know how it tastes in your favorite food or brew.
The leaves are bitter but healthy. The blossoms can make wine. Just be careful or you’ll have to clean up a mess. At the bottom of the article is the recipe that I apparently didn’t follow correctly which is why the wine I was making exploded, leaving a sticky mess. (Note: the drinking age where this happened was 18, so it was legal.)
Not exactly a weed, a lot of people who grow this plant because it’s so pretty don’t know that it’s also tasty. They have a black pepper bite, good in salads and on sandwiches. You can also make them into a pesto. Here’s a recipe for nasturtium, rocket and tomato salad. The flowers are also edible—mild and slightly sweet, and make a great, colorful addition to salads or as an edible garnish. Nasturtiums do best in poor soil, but I’ve never seen them survive a Minnesota winter, which might put them out of the weed category.
Marigolds are mostly about color. They do not have a lot of flavor, but they’ve been used as a saffron substitute. There’s also a classic recipe, adding marigold petals to cream cheese and sour cream (add some chives, a teaspoon of sherry and your favorite fresh herb) to make 1960s style cracker spread or put them in your bread recipe. Add them to fritter batter (say that 10 times, quickly) or when you’re cooking cauliflower. There’s an African fritter recipe that uses marigold petals, too.
Yes, those nasty little acid-filled needles that cover the stems of the stinging nettle plant can be defeated by wearing gloves when you pick them. It takes only seconds in boiling water for the sting to be gone. Nettles have mild flavor are high in protein and minerals. They can be made into pesto, can be sautéed with garlic and olive oil or put into omelets.
This is just a start. There are a lot more weeds and flowers that are not only safe to eat, they’re good tasting and good for you. That includes daylily blossoms, violets and the sap from your sugar maple tree. Don’t be afraid to go out on your lawn and try them out.
Dandelion Wine recipe from Cooking with Flowers by Zack Hanle
2 qts dandelion blossoms
4 qts water
8 whole cloves
½ tsp powdered ginger
1 c orange juice
3 T lemon juice
3 T coarsely chopped fresh orange rind
1 T coarsely chopped fresh lemon peel
3 T lime juice
3 lb granulated sugar
¼ cake compressed dried yeast dissolved in
¼ c warm water
Choose flowers from an open field rather than from a lawn and pick early in the season when the plat’s leaves are still tender. Flowers that have jus opened are best and just the flower heads are used. Put the washed blossoms in water with orange, lemon and lime juice. Add the citrus rinds, cloves, ginger and sugar. Bring to a boil and continue to boil for an hour. Strain through filter paper. Cool While still warm, add yeast. Let stand overnight and pour into bottles. After three weeks, cork and store in a cool place. Makes about 8 pints.