This article is adapted from a segment Joel did as a semi-regular guest on Radio Adelaide’s weekly food show ‘Gastronaut’.
Last year’s winter rains saw the forgotten edges of our backyard proliferate with growth. As the bits I couldn’t get to – down behind the shed, and outside the kitchen window – disappeared beneath a thicket of thistles and dandelions, I consoled myself with the permaculture-based observation that weeds are an essential part of ecological succession, colonising available niches as they prepare the ground for healthier ecosystems.
As the driveway disappeared beneath prickly lettuce, I was fascinated to read in Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, that traditional Andean farmers leave the wild ancestors of potatoes – what we might call weeds – growing on the edge of their potato patches so that the cultivated varieties can cross-pollinate with their wild relatives, “refreshing the gene pool” and imbuing them with wild resilience and robustness.
This idea of the wild, weedy edges indicates the resilience and value of weeds. Pat Collins, a herbalist from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales describes how many weeds not only have culinary or medicinal use and are good companions for fruit and vegetables, but they are also good indicators of deficiencies in soil health. Through their lives, weeds work to cultivate the life of the soil through improving soil structure and rebuilding organic matter.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
With the onset of the hot weather, some of the weeds that saw winter-abundance, like the delicate chickweed, have receded, making way for others to emerge. Purslane is a familiar plant pushing up through the driveway gravel. It has small, thick, flat leaves in a tear-drop shape that run in opposite pairs along the long, succulent, pinkish-red stems. Now naturalised pretty much everywhere, it’s apparently considered one of the world’s most effective colonising weeds. Pat Collins’ invaluable book Useful Weeds at our Doorstep says that you can eat the slightly salty leaves and the succulent stems. They are very high in Vitamin C, and helped keep early settlers and European expeditions in Australia free of scurvy. You can eat purslane leaves and stems raw in salads, stir-fried or pickled. Collins and other writers describe how some Aboriginal groups would harvest purslane seeds and cook them into cakes that tasted something like linseed. Collins has tips for how to do this in her book. Isabell Shipard further describes purslane’s health benefits in her book How can I use herbs in my daily life?, with highlights including increasing nursing supply in nursing mothers, both human and non, and being a significant source of Omega-3 fatty acids. In short, Shipard says, the nutritional value of fresh picked purslane is likely to be higher than anything you buy at the supermarket.
Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola)
Tucked up against the house, and often found beside railway tracks, prickly lettuce looks like a tough, spiny version of a familiar, domesticated lettuce that has bolted to seed. Its central stem carries rows of spines, also present on the central vein on the underside of the leaves. Despite not appearing like something you might want to wrap your tongue around, herbalist Pat Collins says that she eats this common weed when it’s still young and tender (and I’ve started having a nibble every morning while I feed the chooks). Its leaves are bitter – good for digestion – and the familiar lettuce-like appearance is because prickly lettuce is thought to be the wild ancestor of the lettuces we try to keep alive through summer heatwaves. One of its other names is “Opium lettuce” and it has been used historically as a sleep inducer, pain reliever and calmer of nerves. In Useful Weeds at Your Doorstep, Collins notes that some consider prickly lettuce an aphrodisiac, supported by recent Italian research by ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini. Samorini’s research suggests that the plant depicted in Egyptian bas-reliefs as an offering to Min, the ancient god of fertility and sexuality, is none other than the previously innocent prickly lettuce under our kitchen window. The same study proposes that depending on the dose, prickly lettuce can calm libido, as Pliny the Elder noted in his Natural History, but change the dose and the effect becomes that prized by Min and his swollen member.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Of all weeds, the dandelion is perhaps one of the most familiar, with its yellow flowers transforming into the wish-granting gossamer balls composed of parachuting seeds that kids obligingly distribute by blowing on. Its jagged, deep green leaves can be added to salads, soups or juices and are very high in minerals and contain a suite of vitamins and potassium. How can I use herbs in my daily life has more on the wonders of this plant. The fun doesn’t stay above the ground with dandelions however, the tuberous roots of the dandy can be harvested, washed, roasted until dark brown, then ground into a powder for use as a coffee-esque infusion. Soph and I did this once on a property in Canada and the hot drink made from the roots had a rich, earthy flavour.
Hunting for plants like dandelions highlights some of the challenges of urban foraging. Dandelions can often be confused with catsear (cat’s ear) which looks similar and often grows prolifically in similar spots. However, while the dandelion has a single, hollow stem with a single flower head, catsears often have multiple flower heads and fatter, furry leaves. While catsear isn’t harmful to humans (in fact, it’s probably pretty good for you), it demonstrates the importance of getting the right plant. Make sure that when you’re foraging for wild delights that you have a good guide that can help you positively identify plants (Collins’ book is a great place to start for common weed identification). It’s also important to be aware of the safety of the plants themselves, the possible effects of consumption, but also that they haven’t been sprayed with poisons or aren’t growing in contaminated soils. John Kallas, an American forager recommends, that you “don’t gather within 4 feet of an old house because of lead paint. Don’t gather within 30 feet of a highway – and even then, preferably gather uphill – because of nickel and cadmium from the batteries, petroleum chemicals wearing off tires and washing off the side of the road, coolant, and gasoline. And never, ever, ever gather near railroad tracks. They’ve been putting pesticides and herbicides in those areas for the last 100 years”. Plants also provide food and habitat within an ecosystem, so consider only taking as much as you need to ensure a perpetual harvest for other foragers, human and non-human alike.
For some northern hemispheric inspiration, Becky Lerner of Portland, Oregon, USA, took a challenge to only eat foraged food for a week and blogged about her adventures.