When you see dandelions or clover in your yard, instead of getting out the shovel or spade, maybe you should reach for the mixing bowl.
Many plants we consider weeds are not only edible, they’re also nutritious, packed with vitamins and full of flavor. Before you toss them in the yard waste bin, consider cultivating certain weeds for your culinary pleasure.
“The only formal definition of a weed is that it’s a plant that came up where we didn’t want it,” said Eve Hanlin, horticulturist and master gardener volunteer.
Hanlin shared information about five weeds — or more accurately, edible plants — that are likely growing in your yard right now that can be eaten raw in salads, sauteed as a side dish or even baked into cookies.
“People may very well be pulling out delicious greens to make room to plant and grow other greens. It’s already there. Why not use it? Eating weeds will help solve a problem. You don’t have to worry about overharvesting,” Hanlin said. “People often react with disgust to the idea of eating weeds. It’s kind of silly if you think about it. They’re just vegetables, as long as you’re harvesting from a space that is clean, like your own yard or garden.”
She added a strong warning, however: Many plants have poisonous look-alikes.
“I recommend that people check three sources of information before consuming a plant: A knowledgeable friend, a book (and maybe another book) and a trusted corner of the internet,” Hanlin said. “People should forage in a safe, clean place where they know how the plants and soil have been treated. They should have permission to forage. … People should read all the information they can about a plant before consuming it because plants might need to be cooked or processed in a certain way before eating. Do your homework.”
The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) may be the most recognizable of all weeds.
Both the leaves and the bright yellow flowers of dandelions are edible, Hanlin said. They’re very nutritious, rich in potassium, vitamins A and D, iron and zinc. Most folks prefer to harvest dandelion greens in the spring, when they are less bitter, but the flowers can be eaten all summer long. Leaves and blooms can be eaten raw or cooked. Leaves can be added to salads or sauteed with other leafy greens, like spinach, collard greens or kale. Make dandelion fritters by coating the blossoms in dough and frying them or make sweet dandelion wine by fermenting blooms with water, sugar and wine yeast. Bake the blooms into cookies or muffins for a mild flowery flavor, said Hanlin, who confessed that she gets a kick out of slipping dandelion blooms into baked goods.
“I like to freak out my friends and give them dandelion muffins,” Hanlin said.
Hanlin also mentioned an edible dandelion look-alike called a cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata) with smaller flowers and leaves, which can be unpleasantly fuzzy if eaten raw.
The entire white clover (Trifolium repens) plant is edible, the leaves as well as the many-petaled blossoms, Hanlin said. Kids especially love to eat them, she said, plucking off a single white petal and sucking the sweet nectar from the bottom. Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is also edible. Clover, which is related to beans, is rich in protein and minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium, though relatively low in fiber. The sweet smell is a good indication of the flavor, Hanlin said. Put the greens or the blossoms in salads or bake the blooms into cookies.
“You take a cup of the flowers and you add them to your cookie batter and it adds a light floral flavor,” Hanlin said. “I like to add extra vanilla flavor because I think it pairs well with the clover.”
Hanlin said that purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is one of the most popular edible weeds, and that’s for a reason: It tastes very good. Furthermore, she noted that purslane, a succulent with red stems, small green leaves and a low-growing, spreading habit, contains more omega-3 fatty acid than any other leafy green plant. A single cup contains about 350 micrograms of omega-3. Another interesting fact about purslane, Hanlin said, is that its flavor changes throughout the day so that it’s sweeter if harvested in the afternoon, when it’s warmer. Purslane can be eaten raw or lightly sauteed. If you can’t find purslane in your yard, you can buy seeds for a variety called golden purslane.
“It’s crunchy and has a light, sweet-sour flavor,” Hanlin said. “It’s a nice green vegetable. It makes a good side dish.”
Hanlin admonishes forgers not to confuse purslane with spurge (subspecies euphorbia), a toxic, potentially fatal look-alike. There are many kinds of spurges but all have “flat leaves and if you break the stem, there’s a poisonous, milky sap, but purslane has fleshy leaves and no milky sap,” she said.
Creeping woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata) has shamrock-shaped green or purplish leaves and grows in full sun. This weed, not native to the Northwest, has a similar woodland cousin (Oxalis oregana), also edible. All parts of creeping woodsorrel are edible — leaves, stems and flowers. It’s extremely high in vitamin C but it also contains a lot of oxalic acid, so those prone to kidney stones should avoid it. Gardeners will recognize it because the seed heads explode when ripe, Hanlin said, and that’s why it’s among the most-hated weeds. However, it’s also got a tart, citrusy zing that makes it a favorite of foragers.
“I like to make a pesto out of it to add a lemony flavor to dishes with salmon, fish or chicken,” Hanlin said.
This small type of mustard plant, sometimes called hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), wild peppercress or shotweed, is “annoyingly prolific” in the early spring, Hanlin said. When the seed pods of this weed are mature, they’ll pop and send seeds flying, similar to woodsorrel. Hanlin said bittercress should be eaten before it goes to seed, otherwise it will be bitter. The pleasantly peppery flavor of bittercress, which is very high in vitamin C, can be enjoyed cooked or raw and tastes like mustard greens, Hanlin said. Like all mustards, it’s part of the cabbage family, which also includes radishes, cauliflower, kale, broccoli and horseradish.
“It’s closely related to peppercress, which is a gourmet green that people will buy seeds for and plant it in their gardens. Even fancy restaurants might have it on a sandwich,” Hanlin said. “It really illustrates the fact that a lot of weeds can be considered close relatives of plants that we normally eat.”
Hanlin mentioned a few more edible weeds, such as deadnettles, broadleaf plantain, lamb’s quarters, chickweed and pineapple weed, a sweet relative of chamomile. To learn more about these and many other edible weeds, Hanlin recommended Melany Vorass Herrera’s “The Front Yard Forager” because much of what the Seattle-based author discusses is specific to our region. She also said that foragers should stay cautious while cultivating their curiosity.
“It’s kind of balance between respecting that there are dangerous and poisonous plants while still having the confidence to learn about new plants and try new foods,” Hanlin said.