This article is adapted from a segment Joel did on Radio Adelaide‘s Gastronaut.
With healthy winter rains on the Adelaide Plains, neglected corners have once again been swallowed beneath a green tide. In a segment earlier this year, I presented a handful of the last edible weeds standing midway through an Adelaide summer. The cooler months bring with them a wealth of unsolicited edibles in the form of chickweed, mallows, plantain, nettles, thistles, and others. (In fact, almost all of these were the most prolific plants in the nature strip outside my house).
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed thrives in the cool, wet months, and I was delighted to discover it coming up in my community garden plot. Sometimes confused with other herbs like petty spurge, chickweed is a ground cover that has opposite pairs of small, teardrop shaped leaves, and tiny, white, star-shaped flowers. It is particularly identifiable by a single line of hairs that run up one side of the stem.
Medicinally, chickweed has been considered by some as a panacea for all ills. As Isabell Shipard points out in her excellent book How can I use herbs in my daily life, it is primarily esteemed as a soothing and healing herb for the digestive system, skin conditions and respiratory complaints, but has been regarded as useful for everything from epilepsy to swollen testicles. Culpepper recommended a chickweed ointment be bound to a wound, and it would “with God’s blessing, cure with three dressings”.
Nutritionally, chickweed is a gold mine, high in vitamins and minerals. According to Pat Collins‘ book Useful weeds at our doorstep, chickweed seeds have been found in the guts of Danish bodies preserved for centuries in bogs. It’s best eaten fresh to get the full chlorophyll hit, and it carries none of the bitterness that might be associated with other weedy delights like dandelions or prickly lettuce. You can toss it into salads or sandwiches, or use it everywhere else you might use spinach or chopped greens.
For gardeners or farmers, chickweed indicates fertile soil, and in northern Europe, it is said to be encouraged in orchards and vineyards as it is believed to increase the tree or vines yield. It takes its name from the fact that chickens thrive on the stuff, and it is welcomed by most livestock.
Mallow (Malva sp.)
Originating in the Mediterranean, Mallow (Malva sp.) has now spread across Australia, and is commonly seen in neglected or degraded gardens, vacant lots or farmland. I remember reading the reminisces of a Greek migrant to South Australia who recalled how their family would harvest mallows from the parklands at night in case they were seen by the locals and thought of as crazy. At least eight species of mallow are known to be edible, and Pat Collins suggests that they’re all likely to be fine in moderation.
Mallows are recognisable by their large, round, scalloped leaves, and the leaves, young shoots and immature seedpods (sometimes called “cheeses”) are all edible. They’re quite mucilaginous, making them soothing for sore throats and some skin conditions, in fact, their botanical family name “Malvaceae” means ‘soft’ and ‘to heal’. Pat Collins suggests making a tea from mallow leaves and other herbs for sore throats. Isabell Shipard’s book How can I use herbs in my daily life again has a bevy of further medicinal possibilities for their herb.
The mallow has a long cultural heritage, referred in the Biblical book of Job as a survival food, and with Pliny claiming that “Whosoever shall take a spoonful of the mallows shall that day be free from all the diseases that may come to him”. They’re used in North African and Western Mediterranean cuisine, particularly in soups, where their mucilaginous quality acts as a thickener. The excellent Community Gardens book, by Penny Woodward and Pam Vardy, has an Egyptian recipe for a mallow soup called Khobaza. Likewise, the Israeli Kitchen blog offers a recipe for making stuffed Mallow leaves, or what we might know as dolmades.
Pat Collins suggests that Mallows serve an important function in aerating the soil with their deep roots, and tend to stick to areas where there is decent humus.
Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
Plantain is familiar from most lawns, with the species we often see, the Narrow-leafed Plantain or Ribwort (Plantago lanceolata) distinguishable by its long, narrow leaves with 3-7 distinct, parallel veins running lengthways along the leaf. It sends up long, narrow stalks topped with soft seed heads. I remember at primary school the in-thing was to wrap the stem on itself and pull so you could shoot the seed heads at your peers. This perhaps accounts, in part, for how widespread this plant now is!
Plantain has long been esteemed for its medicinal qualities, particularly by the herbalists and healers of Old Europe. Pat Collins suggests that Plantain was one of the “nine sacred herbs” of our Saxon ancestors. Once again, it has a bevy of healing possibilities, but is particularly suited to the healing of open wounds and stemming bleeding. It has anti-inflammatory properties, and also contains a substance that stimulates new cell growth. Next time you cut yourself, place some crushed plantain on the wound and see what happens.
In regard to eating, it’s likely that this is one of the few weeds you might find in a supermarket. If you are inclined to prowl the health food section for psyllium husks to sprinkle on your muesli, then you’re really just buying plantain seeds. Alternatively, you can just wander out to your front lawn and gather a few spoonfuls to ensure your digestive regularity. Likewise, the young leaves can also be eaten, and some varieties are favoured over others. Shipard describes the flavour as “slightly bitter with a mild, mushroom flavour”. She also alludes to how when plantain seeds are soaked in boiling water, they take on a “thick, jelly-like consistency”, and when cool can be added to fruit juices, milk shakes, jellies, or dare I suggest it, a bioregional bubble tea.
Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)
With its botanical name (Sonchus oleraceus) meaning something along the lines of “hollow stemmed herb used in cooking”, there’s no escaping the culinary uses of the Sow or Milk Thistle. This thistle is distinctive from other thistles by the fact that it is without the spines of its relatives. It is hollow stemmed, with a milky substance exuded when the stem is broken. It has small, dandelion-like flowers, and soft, green, irregularly toothed leaves. It is adored by livestock, as is suggested by its common name of ‘Sow thistle’, and I pick a handful of thistles from the footpath whenever I go to feed our chooks.
Like so many weeds, the Sow Thistle is nutrient-rich and invites inclusion in salads and anywhere else you might include greens. In fact, according to Pat Collins it is a vegetable traditionally enjoyed by some Aboriginal and Maori groups here in Australia and New Zealand, with historical records from the 1880s describing the gusto with which Aboriginal groups would harvest thistles from farmland.
Nettle (Urtica sp.)
Despite its prickly reputation, many herbalists have trouble exercising restraint when it comes to singing the praises of the nettle. There are two varieties most common in southern Australia, a tall, perennial nettle (Urtica incisa) and the smaller, annual nettle (Urtica urens). They should need little introduction and are readily identified by the small, rigid, stinging hairs that cover their stems and lance-like leaves. According to herbalist Pat Collins, there’s virtually nothing nettles can’t be used in, from hair conditioner to beer. They are a “storehouse of goodness”, “used to strengthen and support the whole body”. Collins alludes to how in the 18th Century, nettles were sold as a vegetable in English markets, and traditional English country gardens always contained a nettle bed as “the first green vegetable to appear after the long winter’s diet of salted meat”. Isabell Shipard offers pages of medicinal possibilities for nettles in How can I use herbs in my daily life?, and there are also significant culinary options.
Cooking removes the stinging action of nettles, and young shoots can also be eaten raw when chopped finely. So, within these parameters, nettles can be used anywhere where spinach or other greens are called for, included in pastries, stews or soups, steamed and mashed with potatoes, blended into smoothies, and probably a great deal more.
It’s also recommended as an excellent animal fodder when dried, and you can use nettles to produce organic fertilisers and compost activators for your garden. On a recent visit to Nirvana Farm, near Stirling, biodynamic farmer Deb Cantrill swore by the wonders of this plant, and sent us all away with cuttings to cultivate at home.