In Part 1 of Edible Weeds, which appears June 2, 2012 on the Native Plant and Wildlife Garden Blog (at http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/edible-weeds/) I previewed foraged plants as nutritious alternatives to the pesticide-perfect, processed hybrid veggies from distant places which we have become accustomed to eating. A few of the edible invasives that appear here in eastern Pennsylvania are chickweed, dandelion, purslane, dock, lambsquarter, and stinging nettle. In this segment I’ll expand on the virtues of three of these commonly found invasive plants which I enjoy adding to my meals.
Broadleaf dock / Curly dock, (Rumex obtusifolia / R. crispus), are alien species from Europe, also known by many other common names. Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is similar to wild dock, but smaller. They’re in the buckwheat family, all the varieties of dock are edible, and its habitat includes fields, ditches, riverbanks; any disturbed soil, wet or dry. The leaves are high in vitamin A and C, minerals, protein, and the roots are high in iron. Dock and sorrel contain oxalic acid, which in large amounts can inhibit the absorption of other minerals and cause intestinal irritation to some, but it is doubtful you would eat enough of this green to suffer these results. Visit http://oxalicacidinfo.com/ for details. This veggie is best gathered in the spring, washed well and eaten either raw or cooked by plunging into lightly boiling water and simmering uncovered until tender, which neutralizes much of the oxalic acid and the strong taste. Cook them with sliced or chopped sweet onion to mediate any bitterness. The leaves become inedibly bitter by mid-spring, which is when the flower stalk can be collected. Peel off the tough outer layer and either eat it raw or steam to soften, after which it can then be eaten ‘as is’, or sautéed with garlic in a little olive oil. Read more about dock at http://eatingmymoccasinsnow.blogspot.com/2009/04/dock-rumex-crispus.html.
Lambsquarters, in the Chenopodium genus and also known by a bevy of common names, is an annual herbaceous plant in the goosefoot family. It’s coming up as a volunteer in my container garden and finding its way to my salad plate as we speak! This species was once a fully domesticated crop in prehistoric North America and is still cultivated in parts of Mexico. There are some interesting recipes for lambsquarters at http://phoenixfarms.blogspot.com/2010/05/lambs-quarter-recipes.html. The young tender leaves are good in salads, the older, larger ones are best plunged into a small amount of boiling water and simmered uncovered until tender. The water bath is served with the greens. For a treat, add fresh garlic cloves to the cooking greens and, when tender, serve with the bath, with a drizzle of olive oil. A half-cup of the greens contains calcium, Vitamin A, B, especially riboflavin and folic acid, plus 4% protein. Keep in mind that all edible plants in this family–including spinach, beets and chard—concentrate oxalic acid in the leaves. Not to worry, learn more by going to http://oxalicacidinfo.com/. Top the plants if you don’t want them to flower, and from those that do, harvest the flowering shoots as a broccoli-like edible green, then harvest the seeds from those plants that finally go to seed. Use them as you do Quinoa, cook them with grains, in soups, sauces, breads, pancakes. Read more about lambsquarters at http://www.susunweed.com/herbal_ezine/September09/healingwise.htm.
Stinging nettle or common nettle, Urtica dioica, a non-native import from Europe is a dioecious (having separate sexes) herbaceous perennial with soft green leaves 1-6” long on a wiry green stem, covered with many hollow stinging hairs which inject stinging chemicals when contacted. It grows from two to seven feet tall, thrives best in a moist environment, and provides more nutrients than any other edible invasive plant. It has long been used in the treatment of arthritis as it contains active compounds that reduce inflammatory cytokines. Soaking young leaves in water, or steaming them until tender removes the stinging chemicals from the plant so that it can be handled, chopped or pureed in soups and stews, added to polenta, omelettes, and smoothies. Because covering greens while cooking tends to darken them, an alternative method is to simmer them uncovered until tender. Nettle has a flavor similar to spinach and cucumber when cooked, and is rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. At peak growth cycle, stinging nettle contains up to 25% protein, dry weight, which is high for a leafy green vegetable. For more on stinging nettle, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinging_nettle.
And finally, but importantly, the novice forager should heed this advice from Terese Allen, Food Editor, OrganicValley Coop, published at http://www.organicvalley.coop/recipes/features/wild-edibles/dandelions-nettles-and-ramps-oh-my/ :
“Check with the appropriate authority before setting out. Foraging restrictions vary on public lands, and on private property you must get the owner’s permission. Reference a reputable field guide book, preferably one that’s specific to your region, or apprentice with an experienced hunter. Never eat a wild plant you can’t positively identify.
“When you get home, take care to thoroughly clean your cache. Tender greens, especially, should be rinsed well under or in cold water and often require several washings. Dry them in cotton or paper towels and keep them chilled in plastic bags. This will help prevent loss of moisture and vitamins, but not for long–most wild greens decline after a couple of days.
“If you’re new to a particular wild edible, make our first serving a small one. As with any food, allergic reactions are rare, but possible.
“Finally, whether you gather, grow or purchase the wild foods of spring, get them now, for all too soon, they’ll be gone.”
For additional important and helpful tips on responsible foraging and conservation go to http://www.wildedible.com/foraging.