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Do you eat these 'weeds?'
Wild Edibles - in my own backyard!
There's been a lot of talk lately about food not lawns. Who says you can't have both?
I've been exploring native plants and wild edibles, starting with my backyard lawn. If you're like my family and don't spray or chemically treat your lawn, it can provide a lot of spring edibles, great mulch for other gardens, and plenty of space for kids, pets, and sports. (If you DO care a lot about a plush lawn and are trying to get rid of the following 'weeds,' you might prefer to read about organic lawn care instead.)
Wild greens (and domestic lawn salad) are at their best in spring, when they're fresh and young. As with any wild plant, start slow. Over-indulgence in unfamiliar foods can trigger "unusual digestive sensations," allergies, or existing food sensitivities. If you're worried about contamination from paint or pets, avoid plants that grew near roads or older houses, and wash with a mild detergent solution to remove any stuck-on dirt. Rinse well. If you have a very bad reaction, stop eating the plant, save a sample, and call your local Poison Control for advice: 1-800-222-1222
A Brief Note about Lawn Ecology:
The reason I was looking so closely at these weeds was because I was doing a survey of soil-building functions in my grandmother's orchard. After chemical-free maintenance for 20 years, a lawn becomes a diverse and balanced micro-ecology. The remaining plants tolerate mowing, and provide most of the soil-building services that are advocated for farming or permaculture. For the curious, then, here is what I found in that specific survey(loosely grouped by soil-building style):
- Nitrogen-fixers: clover, black medic, vetch,
- Mineral-taproots: dandelion*, dock, plantain, hawkweed
- Shade: scattered patches of violets, sorrel, and other succulent edible plants
- Mulch: All of the above plus grass.
- Groundcover: strawberries, Oregon green moss**.
(**Moss never needs mowing. It seems to irritate conventional landscapers no end, yet it's also a highly sought-after decorative plant for Zen gardens, rock gardens, and shady flowerbeds. Why not make it a feature? I recently saw a yard divided in parquet-like "tiles" by cedar strips. Some tiles were all moss, some were moss-free grass, and a few had small flowers. Enchanting. Moss isn't edible, so it won't be mentioned further down.)
Edible Lawn Plants
Here are a few of the succulent young plants that we're finding this season (late Feb - early April or May):
Dandelion: "For my money, a dandelion is one of the prettiest flowers," Grandma Enid said. "The only reason people call them a weed is they're so prolific." Dandelions were originally introduced as a medicinal herb. The young leaves can be eaten as salad greens (or, shade the plant to encourage mild-flavored leaves), brewed as a tea and tonic, the root can be cooked. That milky sap is rich in natural latex, not the tastiest part but possibly useful for crafts. And the blossoms can be eaten in moderation, or boiled in water to tea and the base for Dandelion Wine.
Lately, I've noticed that when I pull a dandelion, dock, or hawkweed, there are always a bunch of worms curled up underneath the crown - more so than in any other one place in the garden. It makes me think these tap-rooted 'weeds' are doing something powerful to encourage soil-building at many levels.
Bittercress / Wild Mustard: Look for the distinctive "lyrate" leaves and four-petaled flowers. (Each leaf has a larger lobe at the tip, then a series of smaller lobes along the central vein). These spicy flowers, stems, and leaves are pretty good by themselves, with sharp cheeses like cheddar or blue cheese, or with a mustard-friendly dressing such as honey-lemon-cardamom-flavored sour cream.
Other Mustards /Brassicas: "Cruciferae" refers to their cross-shaped flowers. All mustard-family flowers have four petals, four sepals, four tall stamens, and two very short ones, grouped around a central pistil. Flowers are typically white (like wild bittercress and garden arugula) or yellow (like broccoli and garden mustard greens) and highly edible. Wild mustards may interbreed with your garden brassicas, creating unusual hybrids if you let them self-seed. Look for these around last year's garden, and see if any of them are tasty.
Sheep Sorrel: Tart and tangy, a nice garnish or flavoring. The sour flavor is partly due to oxalic acid, so don't over-indulge. Look for ovoid leaves, almost like plantain, but with two sheepish "ears" by the stem. They are tender and tart at this time of year. Substitute for lemon in dressing or tabouleh, or use it to balance bitter greens in a salad.
Clover: Forbs, rhizomes, and blossoms are edible and faintly sweet. Imported agricultural clover blossoms make a nice herbal tea; our native clover's rhizomes are hefty enough to be boiled up as a snack. Plus, it adds nitrogen to the soil for other plants.
Chickweed: Sometimes we call this "corn salad," because it tastes a bit like sweet corn. There is another "corn salad," Valerianella (v. radiata, v. locusta). Both stellaria media and Valerianella ssp are edible, and they look and taste fairly similar. S. media is shown here.
To identify chickweed (S. Media), look for a starry white blossom atop cupped leaves, with buds waiting in the wings. It may look like ten skinny petals, but it's really five notched ones. Look for leaves wrapping partway round the stem, spade-shaped or heart-shaped. Taste for succulent, slightly sweet, corn-like flavor. A common garden weed, it seems to like the edges of things, and a fair amount of sun. A fuzzy cousin known as 'mouse-ear chickweed' is also edible but less choice, some prefer it cooked.
Grass Stems: this is more of a childish pleasure than a salad ingredient for me. The inner stems of most grasses have a sweet taste to them, and a few (like this lovely bluegrass) are even reported to be digestible. Most grasses aren't digestible by humans, but they still taste good. I won't pretend to tell you how to identify digestible grasses, but it's a great excuse for letting your lawn get a little shaggy.
Strawberry: White or pink blossoms make a nice surprise. The leaves make a mildly sweet tea, traditionally used to relieve children's diarrhea (I have used it on myself, with mild results, but not on kids). The fruits are always popular, and fun for small ones to discover.
Our native coastal strawberries have smaller fruits, and hardy leaves and stems that will stand up to a fair amount of abuse.
Violets: Pink, purple, white, or yellow, all violet flowers are edible and make a lovely grace note for salads, cake decoration, or candied as treats. Our native violets are mostly white or yellow; imported European violets in a range of colors are common garden escapees. Violet combines well with licorice or anise (as pastilles), or can be plucked and eaten with impish delight. The leaves are also edible, though a bit fuzzy. Some people report "unusual digestive sensations" after eating flowers for the first time, and as with any new food, it's best to start small and work up to larger amounts when ready.
The camelia blossoms falling around it are reportedly also edible, though I have done no more than taste them. A bit like their relative, green tea. Other edible flowers include roses (green taste), nasturtiums (peppery), and pansies. Lavender, squash flowers, clover blossoms, berry blossoms, borage, mint, rosemary - flower salad is fairylike fun, food for another article.
Plantain: (not pictured) Also called "Nature Band-Aids" at a summer camp I enjoyed, young plantain leaves can be eaten in moderation. Some varieties (when young) have a beautiful flavor kind of like nutmeg. Older leaves are tough and fuzzy. Mashed leaves can be used to soothe bug bites or other irritations; whole leaves make a placebo 'band-aid' for skinned knees.
Jungle Weeds (not really lawn!)
The Back Jungle
These are a sign that you've really given up on your lawn! But they sure are tasty. There are plenty of other edible plants that might grow in the fringes of your property, but these ones are pretty common:
Before they start growing new branches for this year, get in there and hack up that invasive Himalaya blackberry. The tender buds and new leaves can be eaten in spring, but I personally think they're better used for an interesting, slightly floral green tea. I'd love to hear of an exciting use for the roots, because they really do need to be uprooted and vigorously suppressed.
Don't forget to keep an eye out for our native trailing blackberry, rubus ursinus. It has a "trailing habit" (makes me think of errant nuns, but it really means it trails along the ground instead of trying to eat your trees). Rubus ursinus also has distinctly "blue" stems due to a powdery white coating. Its berries are delicious -- better than the Himalaya ones, if less prolific. Its shoots are also good for tea, but I leave it alone when I have Himalayas to harass.
Stinging Nettles are also choice for tea, or cooked greens. They're prime in spring; and the similar but stingless plant Lamb's Quarters will be coming up soon in my garden mulch.
Bedstraw: You probably have a pet name for this plant already,
something along the lines of "That horrible Velcro weed that sticks to
me and prickles my skin when I pull it, and leaves little round burrs
everywhere." But did you know that it can be eaten when young?
(Personally, it has to be very young for me to swallow it; the sticky
hairs irritate my throat.) Pojar & MacKinnon
recently tipped me off to the excellent coffee substitute that some
folks make from green bedstraw burrs, roasted and ground. Varieties of
bedstraw have also been used to strain or curdle milk, boiled to make a
hair rinse, or as a bedding material (possibly because it is easy to
pull up in large quantities, having very shallow roots). It doesn't
favor mown lawns, but likes disturbed edges of paths, sidewalks,
Oxalis: Not a salad plant, but a refreshing treat when you're outside on a hot day. They grow in shade, a three-lobed leaf sometimes sold as "shamrocks" in March. The stems are succulent and tart. As the name suggests, the tartness is due to oxalic acid, so a little goes a long way.
Oregon Grape blooms in spring, and bears fruit in summer. Its flower buds have some of the tangy, unusual flavor that is more pronounced in the berries. The roots and stems have other uses, including medicines and dyes. I asked herbalist J.J. Purselle (of The Herb Shoppe) to name her favorite medicinal plant to teach people about, and her eyes lit up over Oregon Grape. Tea from the root can serve as a camper's first-aid against nausea, vomiting, or digestive troubles, and a few berries are reported to also serve as a digestive tonic. (Of course, if you are near a working phone when your digestive troubles start, your best option is to consult a doctor or the Poison Control hotline: 1-800-222-1222)
Cultivating the Edible Lawn:
Don't go out and invest your time or money in installing these weeds.
But if they're already there, consider making friends. If you're going
to spend money, use it to get rare native plants from a local nursery,
or some really choice stepable culinary herbs, like fragrant creeping
thyme or garlic chives, or native groundovers like strawberry and wild
ginger. A full, lush law will tend to crowd out even the choicest weeds,
so look at the edges and shady areas for more variety. Digging out
unwanted weeds can create space for new plants to colonize.
Caring for an edible lawn is more a question of not doing:
- Don't use chemicals, because you and your kids may be eating them (or the food that grows downhill).
- Don't mow too much. Set your mower blade an inch higher, to spare the choicest young salad leaves while knocking the spunk out of older leaves and seed-heads.
- Don't break your back pulling "weeds." Save your energy for plants that are poisonous, truly unsightly, or both.
- If you really need to kill a particular weed, pull it early (when the soil is still moist) or try spot-treating weeds with boiling water. 'Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy' at www.richsoil.com has a few other recommendations for non-toxic tricks, such as soil amendments to favor grass over dandelions. Wear gloves to get rid of poisonous pests like tansy, poison hemlock, or poison oak.
When you're ready to harvest, take the time to get acquainted with your crop. Get a reliable book, ask local Master Gardeners or other experts. There's nothing like a personal introduction to start your relationship with new plants on the right foot.
It's also a very good idea to start by tasting tiny amounts, work up to a bite every few hours, and so on until you can comfortably eat a larger amount or use it as a garnish. Give your guests the same courtesy: introduce them, and let them make up their own minds what, and how much, to eat.
There are wild food enthusiast groups all over the country if you want encouragement. Some are scary-enthusiastic (nightshade jams and mystery mushrooms) while others are excellent botanists and careful mentors. Ask around, and get to know who you can trust locally.
Groups that may host wild food potlucks, classes, or excursions in the Portland, Oregon and vicinity include:
- hiking and wildlife clubs like the Mazamas, Audubon Society, and Friends of ___ (e.g. Tryon Creek, Forest Park, the Columbia Gorge, Oaks Bottom, etc)
- local farms and herbariums like Sauvie Island Organics, TLC Farm,
- dedicated wilderness education groups like TrackersNW,and Wild Foods Adventures (led by John Kallas).
- annual "rendezvous" where enthusiasts from around our region meet to share knowledge and harvest abundant seasonal foods.
Online resources include regional university and extension service websites, and online forums where gardeners and wildcrafters share personal knowledge:
An earlier version of this article was published in Portland's Village Builder magazine, May 18-26, 2008. Photos of mustard and chickweed were swapped in that publication; the photos above are shown correctly. -The Author