I promised my teenage kids this year that we could celebrate 4/20 — considered by some as an occasion for smoking marijuana — by having some weed.
So I went out to the yard and picked a couple dandelion leaves and some chickweed. They tried both. The chickweed was the clear favorite, so we chopped it up and added it to a brownie mix. That way we could share “weed brownies” with extended family later that night. We all had a laugh and got a few extra vitamins in our dessert.
Dandelions and chickweed aren’t the only backyard weeds that can be eaten. Several types make a regular appearance in my yard that we’ll nibble on from time to time, though I must confess (to the relief of my family) I’ve never gathered any for dinner. Still, I like knowing I could eat them. If I wanted to.
Before you dig in to these or other edible weeds, here are some words of caution. First, make sure you know what you’re eating before you eat it — if in doubt, don’t risk it. Second, only eat weeds growing in pesticide-free areas and skip anything growing next to a road. Third, some of these weeds have medicinal qualities, so check with your doctor first if you have a medical condition.
These cheery plants brighten up the springtime yard and quickly multiply even if you keep your seed-dispersing wishes to a minimum. The plant is nutritious and valued by herbalists for its medicinal properties. All parts of the plant are edible — leaves, flowers and roots.
The leaves are best when young. Like lettuce and other greens, they become bitter by the time they flower, so you’ll want to look for these hairless, serrated leaves early on. The leaves are good mixed into a salad, added to soup, sauteed with garlic, oil and salt or blended into a smoothie. Some make an herbal tea infusion with the leaves.
Dandelion flowers have a sweet flavor when young. And, according to one of my kids, “taste like short hairs” when they’re on the older side. The green part of the blossom is bitter, but the petals can be sprinkled as a garnish into salads or used to make dandelion wine.
Dandelion root can be dried, roasted and used to make an herbal tea infusion that is reminiscent of coffee. But don’t expect roadside dandelion root tea stands anytime soon, most wouldn’t consider the bitter drink a suitable coffee replacement.
People sometimes confuse dandelion with prickly lettuce or other look-alike plants, so if you aren’t sure you’ve got a dandelion, find a field guide or look online to make sure you properly identify your plant.
Chickweed tends to grow in patches in shady areas of my yard. The leggy plant has a hairy spine on the stem and small white flowers that appear at the tops. The flavor falls into the “tastes like spinach” category (the botanical equivalent of “tastes like chicken”) and can be eaten fresh, cooked or turned into an herbal tea infusion. Chickweed tastes much better with a dressing, which I discovered when I covered a patch with a salt-vinegar weed-killing spray. They didn’t die, but they were tastier.
If chickweed tastes like spinach, plantain leaves even look the part. One of my kids didn’t realize it wasn’t until after I said so. The low, broadleaf weed pops up in all types of soils, sending up a shoot of seeds from the center. Young leaves are best; older, larger leaves become bitter and fibrous. Besides being eating like spinach — fresh or cooked — the leaves can be used to make an herbal tea infusion.
Where other weeds can get bitter, mallow is mellow. Its round, lobed, geranium-like leaves have almost no flavor. They’re typically mixed into a salad or added to a soup, where they take on the flavor of their surroundings. The leaves, however, are mucilaginous, a word that my kids immediately found revolting for its used-tissue associations. But think chia seeds. The leaves get slightly gelatinous when wet, which is of use for thickening soups, but also makes them fun to chew on.
Purslane doesn’t pop up until it gets hot, but I include it in the list because it’s a favorite. At least that’s my excuse for growing so much of it in my garden. This red-stemmed succulent will grow almost anywhere and forms a low, circular mat similar to the goathead weed. But where goathead is solely malevolent in nature, purslane makes for tasty, nutritious eating. It has a slight lemony flavor and, when well-watered, offers a refreshing crunch as you bite into it. Wash it well — there are lots of places for dirt to get stuck — and throw it into salads, sandwiches or add to the end of a stir-fry. It’s also one of the best plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.