A major part of achieving optimal health is living in partnership with nature.
Growing your own food is a great way to rekindle this connection with nature.
But have you thought about eating plants that grow wild—perhaps in your own backyard?
Some “weeds” can be delicious if prepared properly, and they are absolutely free.
For example, one of the best solutions for dealing with pain is using wild lettuce, while it is not as known as it should be, it is most likely already growing in your backyard. Wild lettuce has been famous for a long time in the ‘natural remedy’ or ‘alternative treatment’ world. It is often referred to as “poor man’s Opium.
If you’ve suffered anxiety, headaches, or muscle or joint pain, you might already be familiar with wild lettuce. It’s also effective at calming restlessness and reducing anxiety, and may even quell restless legs syndrome. When using a wild-lettuce supplement, take 30 to 120 milligrams before bed.
Wild lettuce has proven to be effective in treating a wide range of things. It can work for everything from muscle or joint pain to whooping cough. In the book A Modern Herbal, Volume 2 it is even mentioned how Dr. Collins “stated that 23 out of 24 cases of dropsy were cured by taking doses of 18 grains to 3 drachms of extract in 24 hours.” Many people use it as a means to get rid of or help with insomnia as well.
In an article published earlier this summer, Live Science collected some easy-to-identify healthful weeds, including:
• Dandelion: The entire plant is edible, and the leaves contain vitamins A, C and K, along with calcium, iron, manganese, and potassium.
• Purslane: Purslane tops the list of plants with omega-3 fats.
• Lamb’s-quarters: Lamb’s-quarters are like spinach, except healthier, tastier and easier to grow.
• Plantain: Not the better-known banana-like plant with the same name. It has a nutritional profile similar to dandelion.
• Stinging Nettles: If you handle them so that you don’t get a painful rash from the tiny, acid-filled needles, these are delicious and nutritious cooked or prepared as a tea.
This is of course how our ancestors ate. They hunted and gathered, and ALL of it was wild. And by all accounts, they were far healthier than we are.
Of course, like anything else, identification and use of wild plants requires spending some time educating yourself, lest you eat something inedible or even poisonous. But with some attention to learning what to look for, you can avail yourself of some of the most highly nutritious, health-promoting plants for FREE—and have a lot of fun doing it. With the availability of the Internet, in addition to a number of excellent printed books and even wild-food foraging classes, this information is now easy to access.
So, grab your favorite weeding tool and a basket, and step outside to see what little gems you can find in your own backyard!
Major Groupings of Wild Edible Plants
Plants are classified into groups based on their botanical family, and there are hundreds of families within the plant kingdom. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on a few select members of the following five families:
Purslane family (Portulacaceae), includes miner’s lettuce, red maids, rose moss and purslane
Sunflower family (Asteraceae), includes dandelions, daisies, and thistle (largest plant family with more than 22,000 species)
Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), includes spinach, Swiss chard, beets, quinoa, and lamb’s quarter
Plantain family (Plantaginaceae), includes common plantain, water plantain, and Northern plantain
Nettle family (Urticaceae), includes stinging nettle, wood nettle, and clearweed
First, let’s take a look at the rock star of wild edibles: purslane—from the Purslane family, of course.
Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea (also called duckweed, fatweed, pigweed, pusley, verdolaga, ma chi xian in Chinese, munyeroo, or wild portulaca) is the omega-3 powerhouse of the vegetation kingdom, and there’s a high probability it’s growing in your yard right now. According to Mother Earth News, it’s the most reported “weed” species in the world.
Purslane looks very much like a miniature jade plant, with fleshy succulent leaves and reddish stems. The stems grow flat to the ground and radiate outward from a single taproot, sometimes forming large, flat circular mats up to 16 inches across. In about mid-July, purslane develops tiny yellow flowers about one quarter inch in diameter. Seeds of purslane are extremely tough, some remaining viable in the soil for 40 years. A single purslane plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds! And purslane can grow in almost anything, from fertile garden loam to the most arid desert soil, and even in your rock driveway.
Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge, because they can look similar, and spurge will make you sick. This video shows you how to tell them apart. In the plant kingdom, similar appearing plants often grow next to each other—and often one is poisonous! Purslane has a stellar omega-3 fatty acid profile, compared to other vegetables. As you can see from the chart below, purslane beats all of the other veggies for omega-3s.
Omega-3 Levels in Common Foods
Romaine lettuce, 1 cup, 53 mg
Purslane, 1 cup, 300-400 mg
Flaxseed oil, 1 Tbsp., 7196 mg
Broccoli, raw, 1 stalk, 147 mg
Chia seeds, 1 ounce, 4915 mg
Cauliflower, ½ cup, 104 mg
Walnuts, 1 ounce, 2542 mg
Spinach, 1 cup, 41 mg
Walnut Oil, 1 Tbsp., 1404 mg
In addition to its bounty of omega-3 fatty acids, purslane has other nutritional benefits:
•SIX times more vitamin E than spinach
•SEVEN times more beta carotene than carrots, providing 1320 IU/100g of vitamin A (44 percent of the RDA), which is one of the highest among green leafy vegetables
•25 mg of vitamin C per cup (20 percent of the RDA)
•Rich in magnesium, calcium, iron, riboflavin, potassium, phosphorous and manganese
Purslane is reportedly beneficial if you have urinary or digestive problems, and has antifungal and antimicrobial effects. It has also been found useful for skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and sunburn. Some people compare purslane’s taste to spinach or watercress, with a “crunchy lemony” flavor. Look for tender young leaves and stems, which are good in salads or sandwiches. Purslane is also rich in pectin, so it can be used to thicken soups and stews. According to Weston A. Price Foundation, the ancient Greeks made a bread flour from Purslane seeds and pickled its fleshy stems; the Mexicans enjoy it with eggs and pork, and the Chinese toss it with noodles.
You are probably already familiar with dandelions. There isn’t a yard in America that hasn’t sprouted a dandelion or two, usually greeted with vitriol by gardeners everywhere. But, in the words of The Daily Green,
“If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em!”
Every part of the dandelion is edible and full of nutrition. Dandelion, or Taraxacum officinale, is part of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). It also goes by other common names, including priest’s crown, Irish daisy, monk’s head, blowball and lion’s tooth. Dandelions have antioxidant properties and contain bitter crystalline compounds called Taraxacin and Taracerin, along with inulin and levulin, compounds thought to explain some of its therapeutic properties. Dandelions offer you a wealth of nutrition!
One of the richest sources of beta carotene of all herbs (10161 IU per 100g, which is 338 percent of the RDA)
Numerous flavonoids, including FOUR times the beta carotene of broccoli; also lutein, cryptoxanthin and zeaxanthin
Possibly the HIGHEST herbal source of vitamin K 1, providing 650 percent of the RDA
Vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, pyroxidine, niacin, and vitamins E and C
Great source of minerals, including magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, and iron
Leaves rich in dietary fiber, as well as a good laxative
Dandelions are found abundantly in fields, lawns and meadows. They have a long, stout taproot from which long, jagged dark green leaves radiate. The yellow flower rises straight up from the root, which matures into the fluffy white puffball you remember blowing away as a child. All parts of the plant exude a milky white “latex” fluid, if broken. The root is filled with a somewhat “yam-like” white pulp and can be harvested in summer for medicinal purposes. The Japanese actually use the root in cooking.
Dandelion leaves can be used in salads, soups, juiced, cooked the same way as spinach, or dried (with flowers) to make dandelion tea. The root can be dried and roasted and used as a coffee substitute, and the flowers can be used to make dandelion wine.
Dandelions are known for the following therapeutic properties:
•Laxative and diuretic; useful for premenstrual bloating and edema
•Normalizing blood sugar and cholesterol (dandelion root)
•Tonic; appetite stimulant and a good general stomach remedy
•Liver cleanser; remedy for liver and gall bladder problems
•Agent for treating burns and stings (inside surface of flower stems)
Dandelions also have antiviral effects so may be useful in combating herpes and AIDS. For more information on the nutritional and medicinal properties of dandelions, go to this article by Leaf Lady. Be careful not to confuse dandelion plants with Hawksbeard, which can look very similar. Hawksbeard won’t kill you, but it certainly doesn’t offer the great nutritional benefits of dandelion. Here is a video showing how to tell them apart.
The third weed-gem is called Lamb’s quarter (or Chenopodium album), also called goosefoot, wild spinach, pigsweed or fat-hen. Lamb’s quarter is a European relative of spinach and beets. It can be found along roadsides, in overgrown fields, on vacant lots, in disturbed soil, and is probably growing in your own backyard. The plants get to be quite tall, reaching up to 6 feet or even taller. But after flowering, they are usually found lying down if not supported by neighboring plants.
Lamb’s quarter has diamond shaped leaves with shallow “teeth” and a telltale white, waxy powder on the undersides of its leaves, which makes identification relatively easy. This powdery substance gives it a dusty appearance at a distance, which is why lamb’s quarter is sometimes called “white goosefoot.”
•A whopping 11,600 IU of beta carotene per half cup (compared to 6500mg for Swiss chard, and 8100mg for spinach)
•300mg calcium per half cup (compared to 88mg for Swiss chard, and 93mg for spinach)
•More than 4 percent protein
Lamb’s quarter is also rich in vitamin C, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, potassium, vitamin E, B6 and thiamine. Wild spinach is much more nutrient rich than its cultivated cousin and tastes very similar. You can prepare lamb’s quarter in the same ways as you fix regular spinach. Make sure your specimen is CLEAN because lamb’s quarter is a “purifier herb” that pulls pollutants out of the soil, concentrating them in the leaves.
According to Wildman Steve Brill, lamb’s quarter, which is odorless, looks much like a mildly poisonous plant called epazote, which smells resinous—so become familiar with both so you don’t confuse the two. Here is Steve’s video tutorial on lamb’s quarter, with lots of visuals to help you learn to identify it.
Plantains, or Plantago major, have a family all their own—the Plantain family (Plantaginaceae). It goes by many names, including common plantain, broadleaf plantain, ripple grass, waybread, snakeweed, Cuckoo’s bread, Englishman’s foot and White Man’s foot, because it was said to grow wherever your feet touch the ground. By the way, this is not at all related to the banana-like fruit called “plantain,” which is part of the Banana family (Musaceae).
This cool season perennial herb loves damp, infertile soil and fertile lawns, and has broad oval leaves (up to 10 inches long) with fibrous roots that spread out in a rosette. The plants produce numerous, small flowers along the ends of a long stalk, between 8 and 20 inches tall.
The young leaves of plantains are edible raw or cooked and are rich in vitamin B1 and riboflavin. This herb has a long history of medicinal use, dating back to ancient times. It truly seems to be a panacea for everything, as the list of its uses is extensive. One American Indian name for plantain translates as “life medicine,” which says it all.
Part of plantain’s nutritional power comes from a remarkable glycoside called Aucubin, which is reported in the Journal of Toxicology to be a potent anti-toxin. In fact, this “weed” is full of effective agents, including ascorbic acid, apigenin (a phytonutrient with strong antioxidant properties), benzoic acid, oleanolic acid, and salicylic acid, among others, which give the plant a wide range of uses as an antiseptic, poison antidote, anti-inflammatory, antitussive, diuretic, hemostatic, and even a heart remedy.
There is medical evidence that plantain can help with a variety of health problems, including:
Asthma, coughing, sinusitis, bronchitis tuberculosis and emphysema
Bladder problems, cystitis
Blood sugar control
Diarrhea, dysentery, gastritis, peptic ulcer, Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hemorrhoids and constipation
Allergies and hay fever
Providing a natural aversion to tobacco
Skin inflammation, wounds, stings, and malignant ulcers
Last but not least is the wickedly fascinating stinging nettle, a member of the Nettle family, Urtica dioica. This nettle’s nasty sting is well concealed behind its beautiful lacey leaves, which can shoot little poison darts into you if you aren’t paying attention.
The leaves look a great deal like mint… but they certainly don’t behave like it!
The nettle’s sting comes from tiny hollow hairs on its stems and on the underside of its leaves. Inside these hairs is a mixture of chemicals, including histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid. Whey you touch the hairs, they break, exposing sharp points that inject your skin with the toxin. Ouch!
The sting of the stinging nettle is a pretty good way to positively identify it. But there is another stinging plant, the Cnidoscolus stimulosus (or spurge nettle, which isn’t actually part of the Nettle family) that you could confuse it with. Spurge nettle has palm shaped or hand shaped leaves, as contrasted to the stinging nettle’s hock shaped or lance shaped leaves. You can learn more about stinging nettle in this short video tutorial by Green Deane.
David Wolfe shows you how to pick stinging nettles without getting stung in this video. If you do get stung, applying a paste of baking soda and water is said to effectively soothe local pain and inflammation.
Nettles are high in iron, potassium, manganese, calcium and vitamins A, C, D and K. Each cup of nettles supplies you with a whopping 1,790 IU of vitamin A, which is three days’ RDA. The parts of the nettle most commonly consumed are the leaves and roots, as the stems are quite tough on a mature plant.
Stinging nettle has the following medicinal uses:
Treating anemia and fatigue, due to its high iron and chlorophyll content
Relief of arthritis, joint pain, and gout (internally and externally), by promoting elimination of uric acid from your joints
Nettle root is reported to be helpful for enlarged prostate (Benign Prostate Hyperplasia, or BPH)
As a styptic (an arrestor of local bleeding)
Urinary tract infections
Breaking down urinary stones
Relief from hay fever and seasonal allergies
Treatment for hives, rashes, and other skin irritations (especially reactions to shellfish) by virtue of its antihistamine properties
Stinging nettle is even rumored to be an aphrodisiac
Most people cook stinging nettles because cooking neutralizes the sting, although there are some uber-hard core foodies who eat them raw. Soaking them also reportedly helps remove the stinging chemicals, so do that first if you want to try them in a salad. For some great sounding nettle recipes, see this article by HonestFood.net.
There are certainly more good wild edibles out there. Prickly lettuce, chickweed, sow thistle, red clover, burdock, cattails, Japanese knotweed, and sheep sorrel all deserve attention but are beyond the scope of one article. As you expand your wild palate, you can gradually learn about some of the other wild edibles just waiting for your discovery.
Safety Tips for the Frolicking Forager
Before foraging out your new wild-edible adventure, there are some precautions to take, since not all wild plants are safe to eat.
You should never eat a plant unless you are entirely sure it is not poisonous.
One last word of caution: Introduce new wild foods to your body gradually.
Even a high-quality, nutritious wild plant or herb can cause an unexpected reaction in some people. Try them one at a time and in SMALL amounts to see how your body is going to react. If you feel good, have at it! But don’t consume a big bowl of wild greens all at once that you’ve never eaten before, because if you DO have a bad reaction to one of them, you won’t know WHICH one.
Edible wild plant expert John Kallas recommends that, if you want to begin a foraging lifestyle, you should have a “starting library” that consists of the following:
1Three books about edible wild plants
2Three books about plant identification
3Three books about poisonous plants
He also makes suggestions about what books to choose in each category.
The following are a few book suggestions, to get you started:
• Edible Wild Plants – Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate Volume 1 by John Kallas
•The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes by Connie Green and Sarah Scott
If you prefer to learn by video, you might want to take a look at Green Deane’s video series about edible plants. He has 125 videos on YouTube, most of them about foraging.
Lastly, Sergei Boutenko has released an iPhone app called “Wild Edibles” for those of you who want a field guide right inside your smart phone.