Is it safe to eat weeds?
Consider the poor, unloved weed: the scourge of gardeners, that reliable representative of unchecked growth, the rangy opportunist peeking from crackings in the sidewalks.
Now consider eating it.
Consider the wild, bitter flavor that’s common to many undomesticated edible greens. Consider feeing these plants as part of a holiday gala, as one may do in Japan, or feeing them slow-cooked in a stew with pork and chiles, as is commonly done in Mexico . Weeds aren’t factory-farmed; they’re optimized to the conditions of wherever they happen to be growing; “they il be”, by definition, a local food. Pluscheap as hell.
Speaking of definitions: What do we entail when we talk about weeds? There are some characteristics that may attach to the conceptexuberant growth, a certain quality of nuisance. But according to the dictionary itself the( kind of sad) truth is this: A weed is a “plant that is not valued where it is growing.”
So there you have it. Weeds are not a class of vegetable. They’re not an inherent menace to successful gardens , nor some broad category of indigestible plant. They’re simply something that, according to the judgment of a broader cuisine or a culture, is unwanted.
But what if that judgment is wrong?
What constructs wild plants nutritious is the same thing that has, historically in the U.S ., attained them undesirable. “A lot of wild plants that aren’t popular have bitter qualities that we’ve over time bred out of a lot of our plants, ” Kristen Rasmussen, a nutritionist, cook, forager, and co-investigator at the Berkeley Open Food Source( BOFS ), told me.
In fact, there’s plenty of grocery-store fare that’s less nutritious than its wild relatives, including fennel and lettuce. That’s because wild greens tend to be specifically heavy in phytonutrients, a kind of antioxidant that’s thought to help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease. Wild dandelion, for instance, contains seven times more phytonutrients than spinach. Tests undertaken by the BOFS found that wild dandelions also contain about twice as much fiber and iron, and more calcium, than their domesticated counterparts.
“The bitter compounds[ in weeds] can signal something that we’re not supposed to eat, ” Rasmussen told. Aversion to bitterness has an evolutionary component, helping humen avoid toxic plants, like rhubarb leaves. But bitterness is a flavor imparted by many phytonutrients, which also contribute bitterness to chocolate, red wine, and green tea, the savour of which you don’t tend to hear a lot of complaints about. It’s possible we’ve overreacted, and farmers over generations have selected plants the hell is sweeter, milder, you could even tell blanderand, accordingly, much less nutritious.
In truth, in the U.S ., wild greens never went away altogether, though they’re rare at the supermarket. As Ronni Lundy writes in her forthcoming volume, Victuals, a volume of Appalachian recipes and history, people in the mountains have long eaten wild greenspokeweed, dock, purslane, lamb’s quarters, and upland cress, locally called creasy greens. When she was young, Lundy’s parents moved out of Appalachia in search of jobs. “When my mothers lived in Detroit during World War II so my daddy could work in the factories, my mother met dandelion and other wild greens from the median of a boulevard, ” Lundy writes. “She told me she couldn’t find kale or mustard in the grocery, but the tender greens cooked with bacon provided a savour of home.”
Outside of the states, weeds are even more embraced. In January in Japan, people celebrate the Festival of Seven Herbs by feeing a porridge stimulated with seven wild herbs of spring. And Mexican cuisine has a name for a whole class of wild greens called quelites”basically an umbrella word for any type of green grown in Mexico that has small edible leaves, ” such as amaranth, malva, and epazote, told Lesley Tellez, the author of the cookbook Eat Mexico: Recipes From Mexico City’s Streets, Markets and Fondas, and the proprietor of the blog The Mija Chronicles. On that blog, Tellez has written repeatedly about quelites, with recipes for guisado de quelitestewed greensand purslane in salsa verde.
Though quelites have traditionally been thought of in Mexico more as peasant food, Tellez said, “I think that perception is changing. More and more people are realizing that they’re packed with nutrients, they’re delicious, and they’re relatively inexpensive.” She attributes the changing postures to an embracing of Mexican cook. “For a long time in Mexico it was considered more fashionable to look outward, and to look at European cuisines, and to look at the United States. In the past 20 to 30 years, there were cooks who really started to plant the seeds of appearing inward, reexamining the cuisine, looking at the rich tradition that Mexican food actually has, and for the first hour telling, hey, this is awesome.”
In the U.S. there is at least one foraged plant that garners attention: ramps, the wild-growing allium that, arrive springtime, is the hottest wild food on the block. But the popularity of ramps isn’t unproblematic. Overharvesting can injury the plant’s long-term prospects and threaten the lives of its surrounding habitat. In Quebec, as Epicurious explained last year, the commercial sale of ramps has been illegal since 1995, owing to concerns about overharvesting.
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It’s not just ramps; other wild plants are at similar risk. In their 2012 cookbook Foraged Flavor, for example, authors Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux coordinated wild plants into groups of green, yellow, and red, the first comprising species that should be picked with abandonedmostly invasive, aggressive plants like garlic mustard. Yellow denoted plants that should be harvested advisedly, like ramps, elderflower, and cattails; the authors say a good rule of thumb is to take only 20 percentage of what you find. Red plants, such as anise hyssop, should be picked merely from your garden.
In California, the Berkeley Open Food Source is trying to spread the word on weedsspecifically wild foods that are available in urban areas. In the Bay Area this involves nasturtium leaves, wild mustard and radish, and nuts from the California bay laurel tree, which Kristen Rasmussen says savour like “coffee and chocolate combined” when they’re toasted.( She provides further information, and suggestions for further use, on her website .)
The organization has sponsored wild-food walkings and wild-food weeks at local restaurants, and BOFS advocates for forager-friendly public policy, like reduced herbicide employ. But different groups is also thinking more creatively about what wild foods can do. For instance, trying to encourage farmers to sell weeds rather than dispose them. And BOFS has mapped three areas in Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond with restricted access to groceries and fresh render, and where wild foods might provide easily accessible, affordable nutrition.
Part of the process involves soil testing to allay concerns over toxins.( And over other stuff: The first question in an FAQ on the organization’s website is “What about puppy pis? “) And part of it is just about public educationteaching people to identify what’s edible and what’s not. This is probably easier in verdant Northern California than it might be in less temperate climes, but Rasmussen recommended get a volume or twothere’s plenty out thereand asking around about local experts and foraging tours. “There’s a lot of cool social networking happening in the wild-food world, ” she said.