For gardens and landscapers, weeds are the enemy – they grow in the wrong place, they look wrong and they kill off the expensive, attractive horticultural stars they are trying to cultivate. Yet from a health viewpoint, a number of weeds are surprisingly beneficial to humans to eat. And while the urge to rush out and grab them from the garden may not quickly overtake you, it is certainly worth a look.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a wild plant that produces flowers all the way through spring and summer and then is eaten by many birds, including chickens and hence its common name. It is also a weed that is friendly to other plants because its presence decreases the amount of damage caused by insects. It has thin stems with white hairs on them and produced small white flowers that are star shaped. It grows in many lawns as well as in pastures and cultivated field as well as in waste areas. Seeds can be purchased to grow your own as well.
The leaves of chickweed plants can be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches. They can also be tossed into soups and stews and both the stem and the flowers can be eaten once they have been cooked. The taste of the leaves is likened to spinach and it is full of good stuff – ascorbic acid, calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and riboflavin to mention a few.
Not many of us escape childhood without a few encounters with the common nettle (Urtica dioica) and therefore the sight of it usually encourages us to go the other way. But the nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat different ailments as well as to make dishes such as nettle soup and tea. The leaves, stem and roots are all edible and the young leaves taste the best. Whenever you pick a nettle, never eat it until it has been dried or cooked, as the stinging hairs will still do their thing. It is found all over the place but for the best young leaves, check out shadows tracks in late summer.
Nettle does well in the place of spinach to make soup or even a pesto. The young shoots have even been used to make beer and a tea is made using the root known for its benefits for those with urinary problems. It is rich in iron and vitamin C and can help the body in its production of haemoglobin. Externally it is used for muscle pain and to treat conditions such as eczema, arthritis and gout.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) started out as a plant of ancient Persia and has spread around the temperate world. Its use in cooking isn’t a new thing and has been used for thousands of years as a salad or herb. It is a low growing weed that turns up at the edges of lawns or the gap in paving slabs and has smooth, oar-shaped leaves.
The plant works well with or in place of lettuce as the leaves as crispy and chewy, as are the stews and have a mild lemon taste. It is popular in south east Asian dishes where it is stir fried with flavour such as chilli or ginger. Researchers at the University of Texas say it has the highest amount of omega-3 of any edible plant and also has good amounts of vitamins E and C as well as a cancer-inhibiting antioxidant called melatonin.
Lamb’s Quarter (Chenopodium album) is an annual plant also called wild spinach and has a dusty, white powdery coating on its leaves. It is good in the garden because it help get the nutrients back in the soil and is prolific, producing some 75,000 seeds per plant. The leaves, shoots, flowers and seeds can all be eaten and it is often found in the garden, in lawns and on the roadside. It does contain a substance called oxalic acid so if you are eating raw, make sure you don’t eat too much.
It can be used in place of spinach in dishes such as lasagne or ravioli as well as in salads and even smoothies. It can also be added into soups.
Another weed whose medicinal potential has been known for centuries, Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major) grows from spring to autumn and are good for overall health as well as for digestive disorders. They have stems with string-like vein visible on the leaves, while the leaves are hairless and egg-shaped, ranging from 5cm to 30cm in size. It grows anywhere that the ground has been disturbed by humans such as lawns and fields.
Blanching the leaves makes them tender and more edible and can then be frozen to use in soups and stews. Seeds are eaten raw, cooked, and even ground into flour. The dried leaves can make a tasty herbal tea. It offers calcium and a number of vitamins when eaten.
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