by Susan Teitelman, Certified Holistic Nutritionist and Herbalist
Gardening season is upon us, which means gardeners everywhere will face their perpetual problem: WEEDS! While some turn to hand pulling or spraying weeds with herbicides, many plants we consider “weeds” are edible and can make a delicious, nutritious addition to a meal. Numerous weeds can be incorporated into salads, soups, stir fries, and spreads or brewed into a nutrient-rich tea. Like any other veggie or fruit harvest, be sure to gather edible weeds from a clean, non-toxic part of your garden or neighborhood. Always positively identify a plant before eating it. Use a reliable plant ID book; see below for our plant book and resources!
CHICKWEED – Stellaria media
Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Chickweed is characterized by its small, white star-shaped flowers; you can identify it by the single line of soft hairs along the stem. It is often found in moist, shady spots throughout gardens and yards. The young greens that pop up in spring can be harvested for food and medicine.
Uses, Health Benefits, and Preparation: Chickweed is cooling, soothing, and moistening; it is best used fresh. Chickweed has an affinity for the skin and mucous membranes and has historically been used to alleviate chronic skin conditions like eczema, boils, and ulcers. It can be used wherever there is heat or inflammation – especially in and around the eyes, ears, throat, and skin. It may also be used where there is heat and inflammation in the urinary tract or digestive system.*
Nutritionally, chickweed is a good source of Vitamins A and C, flavonoids, calcium, iron, and potassium.They make a lovely addition to salads, but my favorite way to eat them is by making a delicious, nutritious pesto.
Actions: antioxidant, astringent, cooling, demulcent, diuretic, emollient, nutritive, vulnerary
DANDELION –Taraxacum officinale
Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Most people are familiar with dandelions popping up in their yard every spring, and some consider them a pest. However, instead of spraying them with chemicals to eliminate them from your lawn, try harvesting them instead! All parts of the plant – leaves, yellow flowers (before they puff out), and roots – can be harvested for their nutritional and medicinal qualities.
Uses, Health Benefits, and Preparation: This plant is incredibly versatile! Dandelions are highly nutritious; they’re a very good source of vitamins A, B, C, E, and K, and minerals calcium, iron, potassium, and manganese. Dandelion leaves are diuretic, which means they can help support the kidneys; they also contain high levels of potassium, a mineral which is often depleted with use of commercial diuretics.
The leaves also have a slightly bitter flavor, so they can help stimulate digestive processes. Try the leaves in a salad or dried for tea. Dandelion roots are known for their gentle detoxification properties; making a tea from the fresh or dried roots is a nice addition to a spring cleanse. They can also be roasted for a delicious coffee substitute. With the yellow flowering tops, try making fritters or turn them into wine or mead!*
Actions: bitter, cholagogue,diuretic, laxative, tonic
LAMB’S QUARTERS – Chenopodium album.
Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: This plant is in the amaranth family and is a relative of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa). Like quinoa, lamb’s quarters contain saponins, a bitter chemical compound found in many plants. They also contain compounds known as oxalates or oxalic acid, which are also found in spinach and brassica vegetables. To avoid saponins, rinse off the silvery dust on leaves of lamb’s quarters (where the saponins are found) prior to cooking. To reduce oxalic acid levels, simply cook them!
Uses, Health Benefits, and Preparation: A North American native species of lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri) was one of the earliest documented crops used for food. The seeds of this native chenopod were eaten widely prior to the popularization of corn in agriculture. Chenopodium album is the species that is currently typically found popping up in gardens and yards. You can eat the succulent leaves just as you would eat spinach. In fact, sometimes this plant is referred to as wild spinach! They are one of the most nutritious weeds, as they are rich in fiber, protein, vitamins A, B, C, K, calcium, potassium copper, and manganese. Due to its saponin content, it can help lower cholesterol. Try throwing these greens in salads, soups, stir fry, lasagna, or quiche.*Actions: emollient, laxative,nutritive, vulnerary
PLANTAIN – Plantago major.
Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: You probably know this plant by sight even if you don’t know it by name! Plantain has distinctive ribbed leaves and a long floral plume that protrudes from its base. It can be identified by its stretchy ribbed fibers. It is often found growing in the cracks of sidewalks or in otherwise disturbed soils. The leaves of plantain may be gathered any time of year from a clean area.
Uses, Health Benefits, and Preparation: Plantain leaves can be used fresh in salads or dried for tea. When eating fresh, you may want to discard the stringy fibers! This plant has an affinity for the stomach, so drinking a tea can soothe digestive complaints. Its mucilaginous properties can also soothe the respiratory and urinary tracts. Finally, this plant also soothes skin: a poultice can be made from fresh leaves and be placed on cuts, scrapes, bruises, or wounds – especially bug bites as it has poison neutralizing actions. Do not use for deep wounds because like comfrey, it contains the compound allantoin which can make healing happen so fast that deep wounds could fester.*
Actions: anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, demulcent, diuretic, emollient, vulnerary
Purslane – Portulaca oleracea.
Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Often found growing in yards or disturbed soils, this plant is characterized by its reddish stem, and spoon-shaped succulent green leaves.
Uses, Health Benefits, and Preparation: Purslane contains vitamins A, C, E; minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium; and amino acids. However, its claim to fame is that it’s extremely high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most of us do not typically get enough of these anti-inflammatory fatty acids, which support cognitive and mental health as well as cardiovascular, hormonal, and immune health. Omega-3s are commonly found in certain types of fish, flaxseed, and chia seeds, so if you’re not eating enough of those foods, it’s purslane to the rescue! Try making these succulent, lemony leaves into a delicious tapenade.*
Actions: anti-inflammatory, diuretic, nutritive
Red Clover – Trifolium pratense.
Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Many people are familiar with the red or white clover plant. They are common in yards and hiking trails and are sometimes planted as a cover crop to fix nitrogen in soil. In herbal medicine, red clover (as opposed to white clover) is typically used.
Uses, Health Benefits, and Preparation: Red clover may be used to calm spasmodic coughs or other respiratory ailments and gently detoxify the lymphatic system. It also has an affinity for hormonal support: it has been used in treatment for hormone-dependent cancers (breast, prostate) and to reduce hot flashes in menopausal women. For medicinal preparation, the dried or fresh flowers are typically infused into a tea. The leaves and flowers of red clover can also be sprinkled on salads.*
Actions: mild alterative, mild anti-spasmodic, blood thinner, expectorant, lymphatic, sedative
Violet – Viola odorata.
Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Violets may be considered weeds, but they’re often a welcome addition to lawns and gardens as they add a pop of color with their purple flowers. The flowers may be harvested while in bloom and used for food or medicine.
Uses, Health Benefits, and Preparation: The leaves and flowers can be thrown into a salad; they boost nutrition as they boast very high levels of Vitamins A and C. The flowers can be turned into jelly or candy. Violet is considered moistening, so chewing on the leaves or flowers can soothe a dry throat or cough, or ease digestive woes like indigestion or constipation. Topically, the flowers can also be infused into oil and used for range of skin conditions.*
Actions: alterative, analgesic, demulcent, emollient, febrifuge, nervine
Many of the aforementioned plants make wonderful topical remedies due to their vulnerary (wound healing) and emollient (skin soothing) properties. Here at Meadowsweet, we infuse local, freshly harvested violet, chickweed, and plantain into organic extra virgin olive oil, which serves as the base for our gentle Silver Salve and Silver Lotion.
To learn more about edible weeds and plants, we recommend the books “Edible Wild Plants” by John Kallas, “Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West” by Gregory Tilford, and “Nature’s Garden” by Samuel Thayer. Also check out last month’s article on edible weeds by Meadowsweet’s own Trez Robbins in The Changing Times, available here.
*Please note that the information shared in this article is intended for educational purposes only. It has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.