Getting through the last weeks of winter is not for the faint of heart. Our bodies are longing for sun and warmth and anything but another potato or squash. Luckily, just as the weather starts to warm even the slightest bit, up come the wild spring greens, those edible weeds that can save us from having to eat another meal of root vegetables!
Early spring foraging can be a light at the end of the long wintery tunnel. Check out these 3 incredibly common edible weeds.
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Backyard Foraging is for Badasses
Spring foraging in your own yard is just plain badass. You can step out of your house, in your pjs if you wanted to, barefoot and as unkempt as ever, and walk back in with a bowlful of foods more nutritious than those you could buy at the grocery for little more than a small bit of your time and attention.
Foraging is an act of rebellion against dependance on a food system too complex for its own good. It’s a lil’ bit of a quiet rebellion ripe with sweet victory.
Foraging to Reconnect
I remember in one of my herbal medicine classes, we used to go walking out in the garden or through the nearby woods to learn about all the wild and wonderful medicines hiding in plain sight. Our teacher would always encourage us to take a nibble of the edible plants, to just take a piece and eat it.
Until then, I don’t think it had ever really occurred to me before, that I could just nibble on nature. Imagine the comfort in knowing how to feed yourself from the wild and how that kind of widespread knowledge could help heal our collective relationship with this planet.
(Also, note that there are definitely plants you should NOT ever nibble on. Some plants are toxic and/or deadly to humans, even in incredibly small amounts. Please nibble wisely.)
The Perks Foraging for Edible Weeds in Your Backyard
While it’s slim pickings out there in the cold winter months, as the earth crawls out of its slumber, all the wild foods and medicines begin to surface again. Springtime brings great edible abundance perfect for spring foraging.
With enough encouragement from the sun and rain, you’ll see all kinds of plants start to stretch their green bodies back out into the world. It’s so easy to notice the cherry trees and daffodils burst into bloom, but while they’re getting all the attention, the ones often called weeds bring us fresh green food and medicine just when we couldn’t stand to eat another potato or squash. And if you’re a backyard-having kind of person, you probably have a lot of these nutritious weeds just outside your door.
5 Reasons Why You Should Enjoy the Edible Weeds in Your Backyard
1. It’s a real short trip to your backyard & you don’t have to bring your wallet. Save time & money.
2. Any time spent in nature, even the backyard kind of nature, is good for the soul. Treat yourself.
3. Wild foods, including edible weeds, picked fresh are often higher in vitamins & minerals than those purchased at the grocery. That’s more bang for your money not spent.
4. Allowing these weeds to grow in your yard is beneficial to the pollinators. Take some for yourself & leave some for the bees. Sharing is caring.
5. In a food system that is largely riddled with corruption, exploitation, & detrimental environmental practices, backyard foods offer a small but mighty way to stick it to the Man… if you know what I mean.
3 EDIBLE WEEDS YOU CAN FIND IN YOUR BACKYARD
Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
Perhaps one of the most famous and recognizable edible weeds of them all, it’s quite likely you’ve spent some time trying to pry these annoyingly cheery pests from your yard.
I grew up seeing dandelions as a sign of yard neglect. In a land of pristinely manicured seas of Bermuda grass, the dandelion was an enemy and the sweet victory of successfully unearthing an entire, intact dandelion root was something to talk about at the dinner table. Little did I know that we should have also been eating it at the dinner table.
It’s pretty easy to identify dandelions and they seem to grow pretty much anywhere, don’t they? The ones you find growing up through sidewalk cracks are my favorite. While I probably wouldn’t eat these ones, it’s a true testament to nature’s strength and a welcome endorsement for nature’s great re-wilding campaign.
How To Identify Dandelions
You’ll find dandelions in areas of full to part sun early spring through fall. You’ll see their heavily-lobed, deep-cut, and lance-shaped leaves form their classic rosettes against the earth in early spring. And then the unmistakable yellow flower appears, later transforming into a ball of fluff perfect for carrying wishes out into the world. I think we all know this story.
If you told me you’d never closed your eyes and made a wish as you blew a ball of dandelion fluff out into the great unknown, I wouldn’t believe you.
And while dandelions do have many look-alikes, none of them are poisonous. When foraging, look for the low-growing rosette of lance-shaped leaves that are irregularly-lobed, have jagged edges, and are entirely hairless. When broken, both the leaves and stem will exude a white milky latex.
Dandelion Nutrition & Medicinal Benefits
The entire dandelion plant is edible, leaves, flowers, roots, and all. The leaves, especially, are little powerhouses of nutrition. They contain high amounts of fat-soluble vitamins A and K, as well as vitamin C, calcium, and iron.
Bitter dandelion leaves have long been touted in Western medicine as both a liver cleanser and booster. The bitter challenges the liver to produce more bile which, in turn, aids our digestive processes and increases our vitamin and mineral absorption.
How to Prepare Dandelions
Eat the leaves raw (when young and less bitter) in salads or cooked just as you would any other green. Spring harvested greens are always less bitter than those harvested later in the season. And because of their bitterness, most people enjoy mixing them with other greens.
Add dandelion greens to pesto, soups, and even throw a leaf or two on your sandwich. Fried dandelion flower fitters are also a classic preparation, as is dandelion wine.
Also, try these dandelion recipes:
Chickweed – Stellaria media
As one of the sweetest and surest signs of spring, chickweed is an incredibly welcome tender and juicy morsel of springtime succulence. Chickweed lives for the nitrogen-rich soils. If you’ve got a vivacious patch of chickweed in your yard, you know you have some healthy soil.
It loves the cooler temperatures of spring and fall. As soon as the temperatures start to warm, chickweed will flower, go to seed, and quickly disappear for the season.
How To Identify Chickweed
Chickweed might be one of the most endearing edible weeds that pops up in spring. It has tiny star-shaped flowers, a single mohawk of peach fuzz that runs along one side of its stem, and a bungee-like cord that runs through the center of its stem. You’ll feel it when picking, almost like pulling a teeny tiny rubber band apart.
Chickweed has no poisonous look-alikes.
Chickweed Nutrition & Medicinal Benefits
Like the dandelion, chickweed is also a nutrient powerhouse. Although in contrast to the bitter of the dandelion, chickweed has a very mild, pleasantly grassy taste.
It’s high in chlorophyll, vitamin C and B, and also provides more calcium and iron per serving than spinach. Chickweed is also especially high in magnesium, manganese, zinc, phosphorus, and potassium.
And in addition to being mineral rich, chickweed actually contains plant compounds called saponins that further aid our ability to absorb its nutrients.
Medicinally, chickweed is used to help cleanse the liver, reduce fevers, clears toxins, and help with inflammatory skin issues. It’s considered to be very moistening and cooling.
How to Prepare Chickweed
Its flavor is delicate, mild, and some think slightly reminiscent of pea shoots. Because it’s so tender, it’s best enjoyed fresh, as in salads, but can be cooked as well.
Due to its high mineral content, chickweed infused vinegar is another common preparation. Chickweed can be infused into vinegar with other mineral-rich herbs like dandelion and stinging nettle for a potent mineral tonic to be used in salad dressings and more.
By far, I think the two most popular ways to enjoy chickweed are chopped up fresh into salads or made into pesto like this one. Treat chickweed as you would any delicate leafy green.
Purple Dead Nettle – Lamium purpureum
It’s easy to confuse this pretty little plant with stinging nettle (Urtica spp.) in name, but purple dead nettle is not the kind of nettle infamously known for its sting. They are actually in completely different plant families, not related at all.
How To Identify Purple Dead Nettle
Purple dead nettle is in the mint family, has the characteristic square stem, and its purplish upper leaves and unique shape make it relatively easy to spot. Like most weeds, purple dead nettle is found growing in a wide variety of places and conditions. It’s a true trooper.
This edible weed is best harvested in the spring and fall, as mid-season stems tend to be tough and not as enjoyable.
The Nutrition & Medicinal Benefits of Purple Dead Nettle
As a food, purple dead nettle is high in vitamins A and C, iron, and is also rich in many antioxidant, anti-inflammatory flavonoids making it a great food to support our immune systems.
As a medicine, purple dead nettle is considered to be a mild antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-fungal, and more. Its medicinal properties make it a great addition to herbal skincare products. It’s commonly used externally as a poultice on small cuts or wounds to help stop bleeding.
How to Prepare Purple Dead Nettle
Like both dandelion and chickweed, all aerial parts of the plant are edible, including the stem, leaves, and flowers. Purple dead nettle is a little fuzzy, as it’s covered in fine hairs, and some folks have a hard time eating it because of this. But I find that if you either blend it into a pesto or chop it small for a salad, you won’t even notice. It has a bit of an earthier flavor, some would even describe it as having slightly umami characteristics. I find that the nutrition benefits and flavor trump fuzz.
You could also stir-fry purple dead nettle with other greens or veggies, or throw it into a soup as you would kale or collards.
More Foraging & Edible Weeds Resources For You
This is really the very teeny tip at the top of the iceberg that is the world of spring foraging and edible weeds, but I hope it piques even the smallest bit of curiosity and inspiration to walk into your backyard and pick yourself a wild salad.
You’ll find most of these growing all over the United States, perhaps with the exception of the parts that experience extreme low and high temperatures. These are a few of the most common edibles found in my backyard. Your yard might have a wide variety of others. If it doesn’t, you can put them there. Yes, that’s right; plant those weeds straight into your yard, you rebel.
Learn More About Edible Weeds & Spring Foraging
- Dina Falconi’s book Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook provides an abundance of information on the most common wild edibles, beautiful botanical illustrations, and a plethora of wild food recipes.
- Mia Wasilevich’s book Ugly Little Greens is a great book to take on your spring foraging adventure. It offers valuable information including when and where to harvest, lots of helpful photos, and lots of recipes such as Lambsquarters Marbled Bread and Acorn Sliders. She also offers quite a bit of information about ethical harvesting. If you plan to expand your foraging beyond your backyard, please take the time to educate yourself on ethical foraging practices.
- The Grow Forage Cook Ferment blog has been a long-time favorite. You could spend hours here and leave with a life-time of invaluable information and inspiration. Colleen writes about fermenting, permaculture, regenerative gardening, and herbal medicine making as well.
Happy backyard spring foraging, folks! What kinds of edible weeds do you find in your backyard?!
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DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.