The widespread war on weeds is based on the notion that "the lawn is meant to showcase the diligence of the person who owns it," as I remark in my brief History of Lawn Mowers. "Diligence," in this case, means strict weed control, the goal being a lawn uniformly composed of grass, with no "intruders" permitted. But as many have come to question this attitude, an alternative view has arisen, in which weeds are tolerated -- at least the edible weeds. Treating certain yard nuisances as potential food sources and harvesting them is a great way to save some money.
Edible Weeds: What's in It for You
Not only will you be saving money on herbicides by tolerating edible weeds, but you'll also be saving money that would otherwise be spent on conventional edible plants from the supermarket.
However, the benefits of appreciating edible weeds go beyond saving money. For one thing, you won't have to worry about the potential harm that herbicides can cause children, pets or wildlife. Moreover, you'll develop a closer relationship with nature, one that will encourage you to stop to smell the roses. You'll find that your study of the edible weeds in your lawn will put you in closer touch with seasonal changes, botany and history. For instance, did you know that the dandelion, ubiquitous in North America, is not native to this continent, but introduced from Europe? Settlers brought it across the Atlantic precisely because it is an edible weed (with medicinal properties to boot).
Caveats in Harvesting Edible Weeds:
Of course, not all weeds are edible plants. In fact, some are quite poisonous! Consequently, proper identification is essential. Don't underestimate the complexity and potential danger involved:
- Never ingest a weed without first being certain that it is an edible plant! Books and the Web can help you with identification of edible weeds; but better yet, contact your local wildflower society or similar source for expert guidance.
- Just because a particular plant is an "edible weed," that doesn't mean that every part of it should be eaten. In some instances of "edible weeds," just the root or leaf, e.g., should be eaten.
- Likewise, some "edible weeds" must be cooked first -- never eat them raw!
Nor is that all. Consider the fact that "edible weeds" are only as safe as their growing conditions. For instance, avoid harvesting edible weeds in an area that has been subject to:
- Past or present herbicide use
- Road salt
- Pet waste
Examples of Edible Weeds:
The following are examples of edible weeds; click on the links for more information about each:
Another caveat: Treating Japanese Knotweed as an Edible Weed
While the purpose of this article is to open your mind to an alternative approach to draconian weed-control measures, there's no need to swing to the other extreme! By listing Japanese knotweed among the edible weeds, I am by no means endorsing its cultivation. Far from it: I would encourage you to eradicate it.
For, while dandelions and purslane are unobtrusive enough, Japanese knotweed is nothing if not obtrusive. Moreover, for any given stand of established Japanese knotweed, there is a good chance that somebody has tried to kill it in the past -- using toxic substances that could still cause you harm.
However, if you are sure that the area in question is toxin-free, you may wish to treat your Japanese knotweed as an edible weed prior to eradicating it. If so, I have good news for you: it's high in vitamin C!
Collect the shoots of Japanese knotweed in the spring. When they first emerge (and until they are around 6" tall) they are still tender. Strip the leaves off the shoots, slice them up and steam or boil them. Flavor them with butter and salt.
But these edible weeds have so tart a flavor that you may have to add a sweetener to make them palatable as a vegetable dish. In fact, while they may remind you of a red version of asparagus as their shoots push up through the earth in spring, tastewise, think of them more along the lines of that tart, fruity vegetable, rhubarb.
Anyone for some strawberry-knotweed pie?