Many of the plants we regard as weeds are actually edible.
They have interesting, zesty flavours and are packed with essential nutrients. With the right knowledge, you can safely forage for food in your own neighbourhood. It’s fun and it’s free!
What are weeds and why would you eat them?
To a gardener, a weed is any plant growing wild and unwanted. Many of the weeds in our gardens and on our roadsides are introduced European species. Some have a long tradition in their countries of origin as food or medicine.
Edible weeds tend to provide more essential nutrients and trace elements than do many of our cultivated vegetables. Dandelion, for example, is the most nutritious vegetable ever tested by the US Department of Agriculture.
Foraging can bring a wonderful change of perspective for gardeners – once you start eating the weeds, your only concern will be not having enough!
What do I need to know to eat edible weeds?
Some edible weeds have toxic lookalikes. Gather information and be sure about identification before you eat any wild plants. Find good quality photographs or, better still, ask a knowledgeable friend to take you on a ‘weed walk’.
Choose your site carefully. You don’t want to eat wild plants from any areas that may have been sprayed with herbicide, or otherwise contaminated in any way. The safest place to forage is in your own or a friend’s garden.
Once you have positively identified the plant you want to eat, harvest with respect: use scissors and take small amounts from each plant so that they can continue to grow. Leave enough flowers and seeds so that annual plants can grow again next season.
Some weeds picked young and tender are good to eat raw in salads. Others benefit from cooking or juicing. For example, sticky weed has a rather unpleasant texture if you eat it raw but it’s great in smoothies. Nettles have a characteristic sting that is removed by cooking or juicing.
Some common edible weeds
Sweet violet (Viola odorata)
Both the leaves and flowers of violets are edible and contain high levels of Vitamin C. Use young leaves in a mixed leaf salad, and decorate it with the beautiful flowers. You can also cook with the leaves – try using them in soups where they have a thickening effect.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Beginners may confuse dandelion with sow thistles and cat’s ear (both also edible) – look for hairless leaves and yellow flowers, one per stem. Dandelion is high in iron, calcium and other minerals, as well as anti-oxidants. To minimise bitterness, harvest young leaves from plants that are not flowering or seeding. Leaves can be added to salads or smoothies, or cooked. Roots can be dried and ground as a coffee substitute.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed has fragile stems that lie along the ground, oval leaves and tiny white, star-like flowers. It has twice the iron content of spinach and is high in anti-oxidants. Harvest by snipping the first few centimetres from thicker strands. Add fresh leaves to salads or smoothies, or even use them to make pesto. A note of caution: take care to distinguish chickweed from petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus), which should not be eaten.
Suggested further reading
The Weed Forager’s Handbook, by Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland (Hyland House Publishing, 2012). See also the accompanying website at www.eatthatweed.com for lots more great photos.
Herbs for Australian Gardens, by Penny Woodward (Hyland House Publishing, 2008)
Food for Free, by Richard Mabey (Collins, reprinted 2012)
Healing Wise, by Susun S. Weed (Ash Tree Publishing, 1989)