Winter’s dreary end seems to drag on and on into early spring. We itch to get planting the garden, poring over seed catalogs and babying those tiny light green tomato, pepper, and other infant plants in the south windows. How lucky we are that the very first delectable greens that our bodies crave are already growing in sunny, protected areas around the homestead, planted for us by God, himself.
More than a few mothers have taken a basket and paring knife, desperately scrounging around the south sides of buildings, trying to find enough tender, nourishing wild greens to feed their family during hard times. This was especially common during pioneer years and during the lean Great Depression. Such common “weeds” as dandelion, purslane, pig weed, and lambs quarter are very nourishing. And they are extremely tasty, to boot.
Each year, our family forages for and harvests many local wild greens to enjoy with simple meals. And we like them so much that I can and dry several varieties to use year-around. One benefit of eating “weeds” is that they grow exceedingly well, as we all know from weeding the lawn and garden. While we struggle to get that row of spinach to grow during warm weather, the pigweed and lambs quarters simply shoot up.
Did you know that no one can tell my home- canned spinach from these weeds when canned as well?
Let’s take a look at some of the more common and easily identified wild greens. Of course, as with any wild foraging, we must be sure of the plants we pick as there are some poisonous little buggers out there that we sure don’t want to serve for dinner. And take care not to harvest any plants from an area that might have been sprayed with insecticides, chemical fertilizers, or orchard sprays.
Pigweed (wild amaranth)
The coarse, lowly pigweed (Amaranthus spp.) is one of our most favorite wild greens. Most folks call pigweed a blankety-blank weed. But they’ve never actually cooked up a mess or they would realize what a jewel they have clogging up the garden rows. When we first moved on our homestead, walking over the abandoned cow yard with shoulder-high pigweed and waist-high lambs quarter among other edible wild plants, I thought to myself, “Well, here we could never starve to death!”
The most common pigweed is the red rooted pigweed. It is a coarse weed—even when young—vigorous and quick growing. The leaves are oval and come to a point, with distinct ribs and wavy or scalloped edges. The leaves grow in a widely branched rosette, with the new growth tighter and held above the older leaves. The leaf stems are a pale greenish pink, and the root a distinct red. You will seldom find only one pigweed; it is a prolific reseeder. This fact makes it a nasty garden weed, but ensures that it is also an abundant vegetable.
One plant can have over 100,000 seeds. This fact is also important, as the seeds are not only edible, but very good. Pigweed is wild amaranth which is an important food to many Native Peoples all across North and South America.
Pigweed is nutritious in all forms, being high in vitamins A and C and high in iron and calcium. There is one caution. In farmland and in some Western American areas, pigweed can store up dangerous amounts of nitrates. This does not mean you should not eat pigweed. Be moderate, varying it with other forms of wild greens.
We begin to pick pigweed when it is about six inches tall and very tender, continuing the harvest through summer when the plants shoot up. With larger plants, harvest only the tender leaves and stems, including the growing rosette at the top.
Once it begins to flower, we either pull the plant or cut off the top to encourage new growth. The main stem and larger side stems become woody and inedible, as do sunflowers.
The seeds of the pigweed are very good. In fact, amaranth is very well known, especially south of the border, as a grain. There are many varieties of domestic edible amaranth available, bred especially for their tasty seed production. As I’ve said, an amaranth plant can produce over 100,000 seeds. And all of them are tasty.
To gather the seeds, wait until the plants mature and die in the fall, turning brown and brittle. Then, before the wind sows billions of potential weed seeds right in your garden, gently clip the seed heads off into a paper bag such as an empty feed sack that is clean.
Do this on a dry day when the plants are quite dry to avoid mold problems during curing. Fill the sack with seed heads, but do not pack them down, allowing for air circulation. Store the sack in a warm, dry area, protected from birds and rodents. In about a week, the seeds will shatter out quite easily.
I tie the sack shut with stout twine, then simply walk on the bag quite briskly, even stomping gently on it. Turn the bag over and repeat. Shake the bag. You’ll begin to hear lots of little seeds rattling happily in the bottom.
Repeat again, until you think you’ve threshed the seeds out pretty well. Then untie the twine and gently pull out one seed head over a newspaper. Examine it, rubbing the hulls between your fingers. I’d recommend wearing gloves as amaranth seed heads are picky. More than one Indian tribe refers to pigweed as “that which picks the fingers.”
When the seeds have been mostly threshed free, I pour the sack’s contents a little at a time into a screen or basket with smaller holes between weaves, held over a large, clean, dry container such as a canning kettle. Shake the sieve and watch the little seeds trickle through into the kettle.
Throw the spent heads into another paper sack to burn, as there are always some seeds that never thresh out and you sure don’t want to add them to your compost pile.
Now you have a kettle with a good layer of tiny seeds mixed with chaff. On a fairly windy day, winnow out the chaff by simply pouring the seeds from one container to another on the ground, with a foot or so between them.
The wind will carry the light chaff away, and let the heavier seeds fall to the lower container. Do not do this in a heavy wind, as amaranth seeds are small and fairly light and will blow away in a stout wind.
You may now toast the seeds by spreading thinly on a cookie sheet in an oven set at 250° and baking for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Toasting gives the grain a nutty flavor.
The raw or toasted seeds may now be ground with a mortar and pestle or blender and added to any multi-grain bread. To each five cups of wheat flour, you can add a cup of amaranth flour.
Or you can make a traditional “mush” by simmering 1 cup of water with 1 cup of ground amaranth seeds. The toasted seeds work best for this unusual breakfast food. Adding dried fruit improves the flavor to those accustomed to more zesty fare.
Another wild green that is a favorite of ours is lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri). Also a common garden weed, plentiful in most areas of the country, this wild vegetable is easily gathered in the spring and early summer. In some parts of the country, lamb’s quarter is called pigweed, but is not a true pigweed or amaranth, but a chenopodium.
Lamb’s quarters has triangular, notched leaves that look sort of like a goose’s foot. This is why, in some parts of the country, folks call it “goosefoot.”
The veins of the leaves are whitish, and the undersides and tops of new leaves are sparkling with white “fairy dust.” We pick lamb’s quarters when it is about eight inches to a foot tall. When it gets too large, the stems become woody and tough.
Lamb’s quarters leaves are quite good in a salad or just for a snack on cool mornings with dew still clinging to them.
Like pigweed however, don’t go overboard eating this green exclusively, as it can harbor nitrates in heavily farmed and fertilized areas. And lamb’s quarter contains oxalic acid, which can be harmful when consumed in bulk over quite a lengthy period.
But when eaten in moderation, as one would any garden vegetable, there is scarcely any better green, domestic or wild. We use a lot of it, off and on, all year, for I home can pints and pints of lamb’s quarter to use during the winter.
Besides being very tasty, the lamb’s quarter is extremely nutritious, being high in vitamins A, C, riboflavin, thiamine, and niacin. It’s easy to see why this green was a staple of many ancient cultures, from Europe to North and South America.
We used to carry burlap feed sacks into pastures and abandoned homesteads to pick “quilites” or “greens,” namely the succulent lamb’s quarters. Then the next day, the wild greens were rinsed, boiled in salt water just enough to wilt them, and packed into canning jars and processed to ensure that we had enough lamb’s quarters to last until the next spring’s crop was abundant.
One of my favorite recipes for lamb’s quarters is to fry a slice of ham, then add a tablespoon of butter to the frying pan when the ham has been removed. Then sprinkle handsful of fresh, rinsed lamb’s quarter into the pan, stir frying until just wilted and tender.
Sometimes I add a small chopped onion or mellow mild red chile pepper, which has been seeded. Served hot, along with the fried ham, you have a pretty darned good lunch. For those of you who do no eat pork, a slice of smoked venison ham works equally well.
Like pigweed, the seeds of lamb’s quarter are also tasty. They are tiny, but we find they thrash out quite easily, just as do those for pigweed seed. You may toast the seeds and/or grind them to make mush or flour. It’s fun to add wild seed ground grain to your homemade breads. Try sprinkling toasted lamb’s quarter seeds on the tops of buttered, baked rolls and bread as you would poppy or sesame seeds. Pretty darned good.
The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is one weed which needs little introduction. Many of us grew up, digging this tenacious weed out of our folks’ lawns and gardens. With its cheery bright yellow flower, we think it’s as pretty in our lawn as planted crocus and daffodils. And at our homestead, it is very seldom ever pulled as a weed.
The dandelion is very nutritious, perhaps the most nutritious garden vegetable. Pretty darned impressive for a weed. It is very high in vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, D and many minerals, such as calcium, zinc, selenium, magnesium, iron, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, and sodium.
Nearly every part of the plant is not only edible, but delectable and different tasting than the others. The flowers, twisted and pinched off the stems are sweet and when steamed just enough to make them less “fuzzy” to the mouth, they are wonderful drizzled with butter and sprinkled with vinegar and salt.
The leaves are a bit bitter but still very good, both raw and cooked. The steamed or boiled leaves are more mild than the raw ones, and when more bitter leaves are boiled in two waters they become milder. Never over-boil dandelion or it loses its health benefits.
The crown, or smaller rosette of leaves, and small, unopened buds just at and barely below ground level are like a separate vegetable, being mild and succulent to the taste.
Even the slender, parsnip-like root of the dandelion is good to eat. I scrub the larger roots well with a pot scrubber, then lay them in a shallow baking dish. If the root seems woody or stringy, I scrape or peel it, depending on the root. Then bake the roots in a moderate oven until tender. Serve with a dab of butter or chill and add to cold salads.
You can even toast the roots in an oven with the very lowest temperature or only the pilot light on until crisp, but not scorched. Then run through a grinder or your blender. Now you have a coffee substitute which can be brewed just as you would coffee.
I hate coffee and think roasted dandelion root tastes much better. This could come in handy as a survival drink for those of you who just need that morning cup of java. Unfortunately, you won’t get a caffeine fix, as dandelion is caffeine free.
One problem for many people is that the dandelion grows so low to the ground that it is often gritty with blown dirt. This makes it hard to rinse clean enough to get the grit out completely. I find that a salad spinner does a great job. Or lacking that tool, rinsing the plant vigorously, under strong running water will do quite a good job.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the cattail (Thipa L.), especially its round, cigar-shaped fuzzy seedheads. Besides being fun to whack each other with (as kids we would watch the fuzzy seeds blow about in the wind,) the cattail plant is a storehouse of good eating.
From the very top (the yellow pollen), to the mucky bottom (fleshy roots), the cattail provides a wide variety of edibles for the wild forager. And you don’t have to get very “wild,” either, as the cattail is common in farm ponds, along streams and lowlands nationwide. Do not pick cattails from polluted bodies of water, or those having high nitrate run-off from farm fields. Also be careful about harvesting from heavily traffic areas, due to auto pollutants.
Be sure of the plant you pick, as the wild flag or wild iris, which has a blue-purple flower, is toxic to consume, lives in the same habitat as the cattail and has quite similar leaves. Generally, the cattail leaves are wider and more hollow. The wild flag’s leaves are iris-like and flat down to the bottom, where the cattail shoot is rounded right down to the root.
Like many other wild foods, the cattail is extremely nutritious in all forms. Our first spring foraging trips always include a side trip to a remote mountain marshy creek, where abundant cattails grow. As a child canoeing with my parents, we would pull tender white cattail shoots from the water to eat as a snack on each trip.
These taste just like a mild cucumber. Simply grasp the green cattail leaves of young plants and pull upward. The shoot comes up easily, with the lower portion being a very succulent, tender white.
Dipping these in your favorite vegetable dip or simply sprinkling with vinegar dressing as you would a garden cucumber, and you have a wild salad deluxe. I’ve even made wild pickles by using sliced cattail shoots in place of cucumbers for fresh refrigerator pickles, from dill to bread and butter types.
This same blanched, tender shoot can be steamed for ten minutes and served with butter or a cream sauce and you have a tasty vegetable that tastes kind of like mild parsnips.
Likewise, in the spring for a short period of time, the spike on top of the plant above the more familiar green “hot dog” that later becomes the brown seed head, can be eaten for a delectable treat. This is sometimes called cattail corn on the cob.
Like corn on the cob, you prepare it by dropping it in boiling water for about five minutes. If not tender at this point, simply let it sit in the boiled water for five or ten more minutes until it is. Then dribble butter over the spikes and sprinkle with salt and you have an excellent vegetable.
This male spike quickly goes from green (corn on the cob) to yellow. This yellow powder is the pollen, and once the spike loses its green color, it is no longer good as corn on the cob. But this yellow pollen is quite easily collected and is a flour substitute (use about half domestic flour and half pollen).
To collect the pollen, simply stick the pollen spike into a paper sack and shake or beat the head inside to release the pollen. You will get quite a bit of chaff as well, but this can be sifted out with a common flour sifter or fine screen. Once you have sifted your pollen, it is ready to use as flour.
We often make pancakes or cornbread using cattail pollen, especially when out camping. It is a bit slow to absorb water, so you need to make your batter, then let it rest for half an hour, stirring occasionally, until all is evenly moist.
And finally, the root can be dug to eat as a starchy flour substitute. This is a messy job, as you can’t simply pull the cattail plant. You need to get down and dirty. We wade barefoot in cattail marshes, digging down around the base of the cattail with bare toes and a pointed digging stick.
The toes locate the rhizomes and the digging stick helps pry them out of their mucky bed. Once cleaned, the rhizomes can be slowly roasted until dry. Then grind the roots between two smooth large stones to release the starchy powder.
These roots contain a net of fibers, which can be picked out and the flour sifted. This flour is good to add to stews and soups or to add to your bread or pancakes. As well, they really aren’t too bad roasted and eaten with salt and butter, mashed with your fork or fingers and the good part sucked off the fiber. Not bad at all, for this common weed of marshy places.
My husband’s very favorite wild plant is purslane (Portulaca oleracea). This is a very common garden weed and grows nearly everywhere including waste land. This is a portulaca, related to the garden flower and is easily recognized. It is low-growing, forming a large mat.
The leaves and stems are succulent and fleshy. They are smooth and reddish in color, with the stems being more highly colored than the greenish oval leaves, which like the garden flower, are broader at the tip than the stem end. The plant is easy to pull, having roots small for such a hearty plant.
We like purslane so much that we scarcely ever pull it from the garden. And it is very nutritious, more so than most domestic vegetables. It is high in vitamin A, C, E, folic acid, containing fatty acids, sterols, calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium, to name only a few nutrients. Besides, it is very tasty.
After it is thoroughly rinsed, I snip up tender stems and leaves, adding it to garden salads. Or you can simply drop large pieces into boiling water for a few minutes and serve with a bit of butter or drizzled with herb vinegar. I also often stir fry it with a little smoked meat. Or dip hand-sized pieces of purslane in deep frying batter and fry until golden brown.
The tiny black seeds can be harvested in the late summer and ground to add to breads. The numerous seeds do take awhile to gather. One reason hunter-gatherers were seldom over weight.
Home canning wild greens
These wild greens, with the exception of the cattail, can be easily home-canned, allowing us to enjoy them year-round. In fact, I generally can more wild greens than domestic greens. Not only do the wild cousins out-produce their domestic brothers—which can be finicky to grow some years—but they just plain taste better.
Wild greens must be canned under pressure, as they are low-acid vegetables. It is not safe to can them in a water bath canner, as they require a higher temperature to kill possible harmful bacteria. But this is easy to do using a pressure canner.
Simply harvest and rinse your wild greens well to get rid of all grit and dirt. Pick through them, discarding any insect-chewed leaves or dry leaves. Then dip them into a large pot of boiling water for just long enough to wilt them. A large amount of greens will wilt down to an appreciably smaller amount.
Dip the greens out of the pot and fill clean canning jars to within one inch of the top. Then dip up the boiling water, in which they were cooked, filling the jar to within an inch of the top with the water. Add one teaspoon of salt to quarts or one half teaspoon to pints, if desired.
Wipe the rim of the jar clean and place a hot, previously boiled new lid on the jar and screw down a ring, firmly tight. Place in warm canner. Process the jars (all types of wild greens) at 10 pounds pressure for 90 minutes (quarts) or 70 minutes (pints). Adjust pounds of pressure, as needed for altitudes above 1,000 feet, if necessary. See your canning book for directions.
Wild greens, canned in this way, will stay wholesome and tasty, nearly indefinitely. Be sure to mark the jars, regarding what type of green you have canned. I neglected to do this and can never tell what type of greens I am serving at a meal.
Wwe play “guess the green” while we eat. Is it spinach? Pigweed? Lamb’s Quarters? Oh well, they are all great eating. While these and more wild greens are great eating, one more of our favorite spring wild food is not really a green, but appears at the same time.
In the early spring, the tender shoots of ferns poke up suddenly through pine needles and debris of the forest floor. The shoots of bracken fern and ostrich fern are edible and very good. While the bracken fern is toxic when mature and eaten in bulk, the new shoots are edible and taste like asparagus.
Fiddlenecks (fern shoots that have a small curl at the top, resembling the neck of a violin) are covered with a fuzzy, papery sheath. They must be picked before the leaves appear, or the stem becomes woody and tasteless.
Like asparagus, pick the youngest shoots, just after they emerge, cutting off just below the surface with a sharp knife. Wipe the papery and fuzzy membrane off as well as possible, then simply steam or boil until just tender.
Remove from the pot and wipe off any clinging membrane or fuzz. Serve with butter or a cream sauce as you would asparagus and you have truly delectable eating.
Fiddlenecks can be home-canned to enjoy during the winter. In some parts of the country, they are harvested heavily just for this use. Process as you would asparagus after you have cleaned the stalks of their fuzz and membrane.
Some folks regard wild greens as a “survival food”. This is not giving them enough credit. While hundreds of wild foods are edible, these wild greens are truly scrumptious eating, deserving of being added to regular homestead meals. I hope you, like us, never quite regard a “weed” in the same light again.
Suggested resources for preppers: