A feast of weeds

Most have heard of dandelion wine, made from the blossoms, but you can begin eating this plant raw in salads. Harvest the youngest plants, those not yet in bloom, for the best taste. You can steam the leaves as you would other greens such as spinach. If you are allergic to members of the aster family, such as ragweed and daisies, use caution when eating this plant or relatives such as chicory and burdock.

If you live near a field or have areas of unplanted soil, you may have burdock (Arctium). Africans know it as gobo and Italians as cardone. Roots can be steamed as a vegetable, but the best part is the young stems cut into half-inch pieces and steamed. Use them in stews, soups, or as a cooked vegetable with your favorite topping. Avoid this plant though if pregnant.

The leaves of lambsquarters (Chenopodium) can be steamed and eaten as you would spinach. Many who have eaten both actually prefer it over spinach. Try some in quiche. In New England it was traditionally canned for winter use. As with many weeds, the young shoots are best. Or you can keep harvesting new side shoots, promoting more branches and more young shoots.

Lambsquarter is another weed that has been enjoyed around the world, and through time. It was even cultivated in Neolithic times, seeds having been found preserved in archeological sites. Romans, and then later Europeans, cultivated it as a garden vegetable until the 18th century. Native Americans ate it, and Japanese still eat it, or preserve it in salt.

There are a couple of cautions with lambsquarter. If harvested from fields with heavy fertility, plants may contain harmful levels of nitrates. This is also true from herbicide-sprayed plants that should never be eaten of this, or any other weed. Those with arthritis, gastric inflammations, hepatic conditions, gout, rheumatism, or prone to kidney stones should use caution with lambsquarter and other similar plants containing oxalates. This would include dock (Rumex) and wood sorrel (Oxalis) among others.

Dock, also known as sorrel, has been used in French sorrel soup and cream sauces for fish. The lemony flavor is intense, so only use a tablespoon of chopped leaves. Enjoy in moderation, no more than once a week.

Young shoots of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia) are a favored vegetable in Asia, where they are steamed and served with rice. Or they can be used in fruit pies for their tartness. They contain Resveratrol, which has been shown to help prevent heart attacks.

Leaves of Ground Ivy (Glechoma) have a woodsy mint aroma, and slightly bitter taste. Use them in salads or in sauces. Until the 17th century when hops became popular to flavor beer, this plant was used.

Leaves of plantain (Plantago) can be eaten raw when young, cooked when older. Steam them as greens, or use in soups. Young flowering spikes can be sauteed in butter.

Leaves and stems of chickweed (Stellaria) are popular in Japan, traditionally eaten in spring with rice. Harvest this plant, or purslane (Portulaca), before flowering and use fresh in salads. The latter has a sweet-sour flavor.

Chicory (Cichorium) has been enjoyed as a vegetable in Belgium, the cooked roots in Arabia, and as wild greens in Greece and Italy. Young leaves are the least bitter. The blue flowers can be eaten and add color to salads. Chicory roots have been used as a coffee substitute. Grow them in a dark cellar, or hill up earth around the roots, to yield white, tender leaves lacking in bitterness.

The next time you “harvest” any of these or other weeds from your garden, consider supplementing your meals with them. In general, don’t make weeds a regular or large part of your diet. Doing so may interfere with your body’s chemical balance, or may cause other side effects such as being a laxative. Be positive you know what weed you are eating, and that it is edible without unknown consequences! Doctors and herbal practitioners are a good source of such information.

Dr. Leonard Perry is Extension Professor, Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. Visit his website at http://www.uvm.edu/~pass/perry/index.html