Predictions about a massive future earthquake or devastating floods sometimes find me looking out to our lawn and musing, “At least we’ll be able to eat the dandelions.”
It would be a good choice: dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are said to have much more vitamin A than broccoli and almost as much iron as raw beet greens. Seed of cultivated dandelion varieties is now easy to obtain.
Their main problem is bitterness, though this can be reduced by choosing young leaves and boiling or frying them. An alternative is tying up large dandelion plants so that the inner leaves are blanched.
But dandelions are only one of many delicious edible weeds. Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are another favourite. These become stingless and as delicious as spinach after being boiled. As a child, it was my job in spring to put on my dad’s big leather bee-gloves and pick stinging nettles for dinner.
Later, mother made me drink the water the nettles were boiled in. She said it would purify my blood. Apparently there’s a lot of protein in stinging nettles plus vitamins C, A and iron.
Another spinach substitute is lambs quarters (Chenopodium album), which grow about 60-centimetres tall and have grey-green diamond-shaped leaves with a white floury substance on the underside. The tiny green knot-like flowers produce immense quantities of seed.
Lambs Quarters leaves are tasty when boiled like spinach, though, just like spinach and nettles, boiling shrinks them drastically. Leaves of spinach and lambs quarters tend to contain more oxalic acid than most other vegetables so it’s not a good idea to eat large quantities routinely.
This is also true of sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella). Sheep sorrel is another salad green with a fresh taste that’s somewhat acidic because the leaves contain oxalic acid. Sheep sorrel has fine running roots and tiny red flowers like little bunches of knots up against the stem.
It’s possible to buy cultivated sorrel plants or seed. Cultivated sorrel grows taller and more lush than the naturally-occurring weedy kind.
In early spring, chickweed (Stellaria media) grows rapidly into a mat-like groundcover in gardens with rich soil. The early leaves along with tiny white flowers can be used as a salad ingredient with a delicate, lettuce-like taste. It’s best when grown rapidly, early and snipped into small segments before using.
Then there’s garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that a vegan friend says tastes delightful in early spring salads. Garlic mustard has clusters of white, four-petalled flowers and wrinkled, bumpy-looking leaves with pointy edges. It tastes and smells of garlic and mustard.
But it’s one of the most invasive weeds I’ve ever encountered. If a friend recommends garlic mustard, you might want to think again and choose cultivated mustard instead. Garlic mustard is reported to be unusable by any of our native wildlife. It also crowds out the other plants our wildlife needs for survival.
It’s important to securely identify all these plants before eating them. Have a knowledgeable gardener look at them in person or scrutinize several photos and descriptions on the Internet. Even when identification seems secure, it’s safest to taste small quantities at first. The Latin name is much more reliable than the common name. People with food allergies should be especially careful.
Anne Marrison is happy to answer garden questions. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.