Weeds and Plant-Based Food . . . Heed the Weed!
So for all of you fixated on the Snoop Dog (Cheech and Chong for you older readers) interpretation of the last word in the title, sorry to disappoint, we’re talking real weeds here.
What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Weeds are oftentimes the most abled-bodied plants to occupy a given environment. They have won the Darwinian race by virtue of longer taproots, ability to withstand the elements (drought, frost, etc.) and ability to deter insects and other fauna. While we tend to focus on more succulent and weaker species for our table top, weeds can be a tasty and nutritional addition to the plate. While plant-based food is all the rage these days, I submit, if we’re serious about this movement, and we should be, we should start paying more attention to those varietals in the ditch.
Without further ado, I present our top six “junk food” candidates:
- Dandelions – An easy “top of the order” addition. Wildly abundant nearly everywhere, if picked early in the spring (before they’ve bloomed yellow flowers), their leaves are mildly sweet (less bitter) and tender. Owing to an exceedingly deep taproot (ever tried to pull a whole dandelion from the ground?), they are also incredibly nutritious as they can pump nutrients deep from within the soil that spinach or lettuce cannot reach. Rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Vitamin C, calcium as well as fatty acids which assist in joint health.
- Chamomile – A member of the daisy family (and “cousins” of sunflowers), chamomile grows abundantly in the wild in sunny fields, along roads, and astride fence lines from southern Canada to southern California. The German and Roman varietals have for centuries been used for medicinal properties. In the U.S., chamomile flowers are most commonly used in tea, but in other regions of the world the flower is widely used to treat stomach ailments, heartburn, nausea, anxiety, insomnia and skin irritation. Chamomile is rich in vitamins A and C and minerals Zinc and Magnesium. Imports of chamomile into the U.S. range from 750,000 to one million pounds per year (90% of which is utilized in tea) though this trade imbalance could surely be reduced by busy Americans who simply “stop and smell (and pick) the flowers,” on the way to Starbucks.
- Lambs Quarter – “Famine food” doesn’t exactly conjure up mouth-watering images, but owing to its abundance and mild taste, that’s the name Great Depression citizens gave this hearty plant. Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, while older leaves (a bit bitter) are typically cooked and “pair” well with lamb. Lambs quarter grows abundantly in the U.S. and Canada, particularly in nitrogen rich soil, and in my home state, CA, at elevations approaching 6,000 feet. This “weed” is rich in fiber, Vitamins C and A, Calcium, Riboflavin, Potassium as well as Omega 3 fatty acids. True to the adage, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Lambs quarter is the predominant weed among soybeans (a leading domestic cash crop) in the U.S., but is a cultivated, staple food in parts of India.
- Evening Primrose – Following “famine food”, evening primrose sounds positively proper – though it is also known as hog weed. Native to eastern and central U.S. and Canada, the entire plant is edible, roots to seeds. Depending upon the time of year, the roots and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, or in the case of leaves, used to make tea. The flower buds are considered a delicacy, and the flowers themselves have a sweet flavor. Native American tribes such as Cherokee, Iroquois and Ojibwe used various parts of the plant for food and also for a litany of medicinal purposes ranging from a stimulant, to a topical paste applied to muscles for strength.
- Clover – Not only symbolic of good luck (and an important part of the 17-time, NBA champion Celtics logo), clover is a delicious sweet treat. A true survivor, clover can run rampant in a yard and because its root nodules generate nitrogen, clover stays green longer than its surroundings and is rich in Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron. I used to eat clover by the handful growing up, but had I known what I know now, would have devoured more.
- Mallow – I saved the best for last. This salad green boasts a mild flavor and its mucilaginous leaves are good for digestion. While numerous mallows exist, including the Chaparral, Carolina and Indian varietals, no self-respecting foodie will vote against one particular, brackish water, swamp-loving mallow. A mallow whose pulverized and processed roots are near and dear to smores lovers the world around, none other than Althea officinalis …or better known as the marshmallow!
Want to add some green stuff to your next salad or smoothie? Consider these alternatives, but word of caution, be sure to consult a guide to ensure what you’re adding is helpful and not harmful!