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Wild about weeds

Jeff Holman

5th April, 2011

An underrated source of vitamins; nettles, dandelions and chickweed are a nuisance on the lawn but great to eat. Jeff Holman takes another look

Weeds. At best we’re indifferent to them; at worst they’re a blight on our gardens. People invest millions in weed killers and chemicals to get rid of these pests - after all, who wants their lawn ruined by these unseemly plants? But there just might be a better way to deal with the problem, and it’s not only good for your garden, it’s good for you too. 

The solution? Eat them. Before you roll your eyes, consider this: According to Marcus Harrison of the Wild Food School, we’ve actually been eating weeds for hundreds of years. We can, he says, find evidence of many common weeds being grown for consumption throughout history. ‘These things [weeds] have been grown for centuries as food,’ he says. ‘It’s [eating them] a bit like reinventing the wheel.’ So why not reinvent your weeds as crops? As Michael Pollan noted in his book, In Defence of Food, ‘some of the healthiest traditional diets such as the Mediterranean make frequent use of wild greens.’

And that’s not all. According to Steve Andrews, a weed expert and singer, also known as the Bard of Ely, many weeds are actually better for you than store bought vegetables. ‘Unlike so many of the vegetables we can buy today, [weeds] are packed full of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need.’ He says the lack of human interference is what makes weeds so nutritious.  ‘Weeds are adapted to survival in conditions where more delicate plants have a tough time of it and because of this they tend to concentrate much needed nutrients in their roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds’.  So which weeds can you eat?

At the top of the list is a plant most of us see growing from cracks in pavements and all over grass verges everyday: the dandelion. Young leaves can be used in salads and are a good source of vitamins A, C, and B1. Older leaves can be cooked and served like spinach. The roots can also be used to make coffees and teas and work well as flavouring for soups. In terms of health, dandelion has been proven to stimulate liver function and improve digestion. As Steve points out: ‘Because of all the vitamins and minerals dandelions contain, eating this common weed makes a lot of sense.’

Milk thistle is another weed that can prove a tasty addition to your supper. Unlike dandelions however, it’s relatively tricky to gather thanks to its spines.  Boiling fresh shoots until they start to wilt is one way to get rid of them, while peeling the outer skin off the stalks to remove the thorns and leaving them in a bowl of water over night also works. These raw shoots can then be eaten as crudités. Milk thistle contains anti-oxidants that help boost the health of your liver as well.

Like milk thistle, nettles are another plant that can be a tricky to get your hands on, thanks to their famed stinging properties. Happily, cooking neutralises the sting and they are rich sources of vitamins A and D. Robin Harford, of eatweeds.co.uk, notes that nettles have three times more iron of spinach and up to seven times the amount of vitamin C of oranges. So versatile are they, nettles can even be made into a leaf protein. Once cooked, they can be used in a variety of ways, from salads to lasagne and even for making beers and wines. They are also great when used in conjunction with other vegetables, such as garlic, leaks, or onions, so don’t be afraid to try something new when it comes to greening up your meals.

Purslane is another weed that can be used as a leafy green. The taste resembles that of spinach or watercress, and has a little bite to it as well. ‘Purslane is a great little plant to eat in salads or it can be cooked as greens,’ says Steve. It works well both by itself or when combined with other greens. You can serve it fresh or sautéed, and it makes a great addition to omelettes, sandwiches, and casseroles. The stems can also be used as a garnish to any dish you see fit, and have a crunchy but satisfying flavour; try them with onions, cheese, and scrambled eggs.  ‘You can eat the stems, leaves, and flower buds and the plant has a lot of vitamins and minerals in it,’ explains Steve. ‘Purslane is particularly good as a source of omega-3 fatty acids.’

Chickweed is one of those common leafy greens found all over the place. Interestingly, it can stand a bit of cold, so you can actually harvest it during the autumn and even during the winter months when most other plants aren’t available. As with other greens you can use it in everything from salad to pesto. You can cook it with olive oil, lemon juice, black pepper, and garlic for a great salad. Use it on sandwiches with cheese, tomatoes, and meats. You can even put it in a tea ball with hot water for a tea that’s soothing for those suffering from colds.

Given the historical use of weeds as a foodstuff and their nutritional properties, many weed experts find it hard to understand why they are so underrated. ‘Most people throw out [weeds] that are two to three times more nutritious than the plants they are trying to grow,’ says Robin. ‘Not only are weeds nutritious and cheap, foraging can build a new sense of connection with the natural world and help you understand it better.’ Marcus says that ‘the golden rule for all these plants is you need to get them young,’ just like vegetables at the supermarket. There are plenty of other edible weeds out there including sea beet, nipplewort, chicory, salad burnet, shepherd's purse, common mallow, among others. And why not have a go? Eco-friendly, cheap and ultra-nutritious; don’t spray weeds - eat them instead.

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