EVERY year, gardeners descend on their plots, pulling and digging out weeds and replacing them with domestic greens and vegetables. For most, there is an assumption and a simple satisfaction in knowing that "bad" plants are being replaced with "good" plants.
Those who have witnessed or heard stories about our forebears eating weeds often assume it was just a case of desperate times. With our much higher standard of living and reliance on commercial food supplies, we have developed a stigma against eating what is naturally abundant and available.
The truth is, many, if not all, weeds are superior to domestic garden greens in terms of nutrient content, flavour and medicinal value. They are also naturally abundant and easy to care for. I believe that if people knew what they were tossing out of their gardens they would scratch their heads at the absurdity of it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has done extensive analyses on the nutrient content of foods, including many common weeds. At a time when a ban on cosmetic pesticides is looming in Manitoba, it's worth knowing that, with the exception of parsley, dandelion greens contain more iron than any other leafy green listed in the USDA Composition of Foods. (Parsley contains twice as much iron as dandelion greens, but how much parsley is a person reasonably going to eat?).
Dandelions are also very high in Vitamin A. The roasted roots make delicious caffeine-free coffee and cocoa substitutes, and are especially tasty when brewed with a hint of lavender or mint. The flowers make fabulous fritters when deep fried and the petals can even be added to pancakes, muffins or other breads.
Of course, I can't neglect to mention the popularity of dandelion wine, which is also made from the flowers. In addition to all of this, dandelions are valued for their healing effect on the liver, stimulating bile flow and releasing toxins from the body. Research on its use as a treatment for cancer is currently underway.
Lamb's quarters, also referred to as pigweed or goosefoot, is a common weed that is closely related to spinach and quinoa. Both the greens and seeds are edible and it can be harvested several times during the growing season. I wonder how many people would pull it up and toss it aside if they were aware it has twice as many calories, 50 per cent more protein and more than four times the calcium as spinach, not to mention a much better flavour?
Most, if not all, of the weeds that grow in our yards and gardens are edible. Stinging nettle, red-root pigweed, Canada thistle, sow thistle, portulaca (a.k.a. purslane), chickweed, milkweed, goosefoot, wild caraway and burdock all come to mind as choice edibles.
Okay, so you're not about to let your entire garden go to weeds. I, too, like my domestic tomatoes, beans, carrots and potatoes.
Fortunately, many valuable weeds also grow in the wild places around our homes and gardens. Armed with knowledge and a caretaker attitude, we can tend these wild places so they become abundant sources of both food and medicine. A caretaker gives as well as receives, respecting the needs of the plants and landscape and leaving them in the same or better condition than they were found. Our actions might involve things as simple as picking up garbage, selective harvesting or even managing aggressive invasive species.
If you've ever talked to an herbalist or paged through a book on edible wild plants, you've likely been overwhelmed by the number and varieties of useful plants out there. Simply pick three to five plants you see every day -- in your yard, while walking the dog or riding your bike -- and get to know them really well.
Start by asking yourself the following questions about each plant and writing down the answers.
* What are its key identifying features? Does it have any poisonous look-alikes?
* What does it look like in spring, summer, fall and winter?
* Where does it like to grow and what does it look like when it's in good vs. poor condition?
* Which parts can I use (roots, shoots, flowers, seeds)?
* When should I harvest it? (What is the best time to harvest roots vs. shoots or seeds?)
* How do I prepare and use it?
Do your research and don't consume anything until you are absolutely sure of its identity. There are very few plants that are deadly poisonous in Manitoba, and several that will cause non-life-threatening illness, such as gastric upset. It pays to know which ones these are and how closely they resemble any edible plants that interest you.
Of course, when scouting out your own wild gardens, you will want to be aware of potential sources of pollution and other health or safety risks. Take note of both human and animal activities around the site. Which places are frequented and which are avoided? Is the area treated with pesticides or subject to chemical spills? Find out if that vacant lot was once a gas station or repair shop that may have been a source of contamination.
Once you start harvesting wild plants, you will find the benefit of eating them goes far beyond the physical health benefits. You'll start to see your surroundings in a different light as you suddenly realize garden weeds can be a blessing, not a curse. (There have been years when the weeds in my garden were the only things that survived a poor growing season.)
"Waste places" and vacant lots may take on a whole new meaning as they become treasure troves of free food. And you may find your neighbour with the unkempt yard is not who you thought he was when you ask if you can pick some of his lamb's quarters.