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Weeds For A Green Salad

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Weeds are wild! As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “A weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” What if those weeds actually have a use? What if they have fallen from grace and were once thought of as a basic food similar to spinach? Would you bite?

Who wouldn’t love to save on their ever-increasing grocery bill? Many weeds growing in your yard have a past life. Once upon a time, salads were gathered, not out of a plastic bag. Greens added to omelets and soups were picked just like snow peas from your garden. Knowing what and when to pick provided food rich in vitamins and flavor. The trick to picking is knowing what that weed is and whether it will bite back.

One weed that will bite back is stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. Stinging nettle is popularly purchased as teas, capsules, and tinctures at health food stores. Before being purchased, those pesky stinging little hairs are cooked away.

If you have stinging nettle in your yard or have met it while hiking, you know how irritating to your skin it is. There is an old wives’ tale that if you hold your breath while pulling it out you will not get stung. That is not true, old wives! Any contact with stinging nettles requires gloves, not lack of airflow. Both leaves and roots may be used but need to be young and tender. Native Americans used stinging nettle roots for treatment for many ailments.

Dandelions are dandy and prolific. Just try getting them out of your lawn once they have galloped on ahead of you. Taraxacum officinale, dandelion’s botanical name, could be translated as “official remedy for disorders.” For such a small plant, dandelions are loaded with nutrients: vitamins A, B, C, calcium, potassium, sodium, and trace elements.

All parts of the dandelion are edible but timing is a must. Leaves must be picked prior to the flower stalks reaching full height or the leaves will be bitter. Older leaves should be steamed or stir-fried, similar to kale or spinach. To remove the bitterness, it is best to boil the greens, switching the water out several times. Dandelion roots are often used for healing purposes.

Here is another weed that has spread across the world from India and the Middle East, Portulaca oleracea. Growing low across the ground and looking like a mini jade plant, purslane grows in a variety of soil types. Purslane is the muscleman of nutrition. It contains vitamins A, C, several B vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Purslane has five times the omega-3 fatty acids of spinach. Purslane is an excellent substitute for spinach or watercress. Use it raw instead of spinach in salads, tacos, and on a sandwich. If cooked go easy; overcooking will make it slimy.

Other local weeds that have yummy attributes are cattails, chickweed, miner’s lettuce, burdock root, chicory, and plantain.

Before you scour your neighborhood for yummy weeds, be aware of the following: know your weeds – only harvest plants that you can positively identify and that you are absolutely sure are edible. Harvest away from roadways – plants next to roads will absorb exhaust fumes and any runoff from the road itself. Steer clear of contaminated plants – from pesticides, herbicides, and animal feces.

If it tastes bitter, too spicy, weird, or caustic, spit it out! Researching edible weeds will give you the knowledge to pick delicious weeds and meet your neighbors as they are wondering what you are doing. It’s a good day to try something different.

Julie Silva is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County who believes it is always good to be prepared. University of California Cooperative Extension Central Sierra Master Gardeners can answer home gardening questions. Call 209-533-5912 in Tuolumne County or 209-754-2880 in Calaveras County.