Darling of the millennial urban community garden, kale has earned every bit of its hipster cred. Whether we’re talking about Amome, Siberian or Lacinato – more commonly known as the dinosaur variety – kale is pound for pound the most nutritious leafy green you can fill a salad bowl with. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that kale is the only nutrient bomb out there in the plant world.
Sure, you’ve got your nuts, seeds, and vegetables, and then of course your fruits masquerading as vegetables – looking at you tomato and avocado – but I’m talking about the overlooked, unsung hero of the edible plant kingdom. Weeds, guys. Edible weeds.
Before you wrinkle up your nose and cringe at even the notion of chowing down on a bowl full of weeds, pause to consider just how good for you these botanical pests can be.
A recent study out of the University of California, Berkeley has found that some of the plants growing up from cracks in the sidewalk and around your backyard are actually healthier for you than much of the food found for sale in cities, especially in food deserts. Researchers from the Berkeley Open Source Food Project have mapped 52 species of edible plants growing naturally – some would say invasively – throughout San Francisco.
Of the 52, six species in particular are singled out for their robust nutrition. Compared to kale, all six put up similar or even higher levels of fiber, protein, Vitamins A & K, calcium and iron. Notably, the edible weeds also stacked higher sodium levels, and slightly higher caloric content as well. In fact, the only major nutrient category that kale was able to hold onto was that of Vitamin C. What’s more, after a quick rinse, not a single one of the sampled weeds tested positive for traces of the resilient pesticides you might expect to find on produce purchased in a grocery store.
Here are the six you should get to know:
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Though just an invasive bother to most gardeners, those in the know call this weed “the little star” both because of its tiny white flowers, and the high levels of saponins present within the leaves of the plant. These compounds assist cellular membranes in the absorption of minerals, helping you to make the most of a healthy meal. This tiny green makes a great garnish; it tends to have a mild flavor and crisp texture, and is best consumed raw.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
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The leafy greens of this wish-making plant are praised for their unique bitter flavor as well as their potent antioxidants. Dandelion-green consumption is linked to everything from clear skin to more efficient blood sugar and insulin regulation. Dandelion is also extremely versatile – the entire weed can be used from root to flower, with leaves perfect for sautéing, flowers for anything from baking to frying, and roots excellent for dandelion tea.
Dock (Rumex crispus)
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Dock comes in a wide array of forms, with broadleaf, butterdock and cushy-cows dock being among the most frequently spotted in cities. Used medicinally across Europe for hundreds of years, dock is noted for its mood-enhancing abilities, and properties linked to both good ocular and bone health. Dock, which can taste anywhere from bitter to citric, makes a great salad green or sautéed side dish.
Mallow (Malva sylvestris)
Proof of this edible weed’s use dates all the way back to the Old Testament, where the plant is used as a sick Biblical burn to call people boring. But in other cultures, the mucilaginous properties of mallow have been linked to sexual health and virility. Mallow consumption can assist the body in healing sores, improve the health and growth of hair on the scalp, and even reduce the inflamed tissue of hemorrhoids. Mallows make a good salad green, but their slightly slimy, okra-like texture (thanks to that mucilage) can be a turnoff to some.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Likely the prettiest weed on our list – sorry, dandelion – the orange blossoms of the nasturtium plant have been eaten for thousands of years to prevent scurvy, especially in the roughly 30% of the world where citrus fruit cannot be grown. The peppery taste of nasturtium flowers make them a beautiful addition to any salad, and a relatively accessible substitute for capers in many recipes. pickled seeds of the plant are considered a culinary delicacy in some parts of the world.
Oxalis (Oxalis pescaprae)
You’ve likely picnicked atop a bed of oxalis in one city park or another at some point in your life. That’s because most of the sprawling patches of three-leafed plants that we mistakenly call clover or shamrock are actually oxalis. An easy way to tell them apart? Oxalis leaves are heart-shaped, while clover are more ovular. Oxalis is quite high in oxalic acid, one of the compounds that makes spinach such a nutritional powerhouse, which can give the weed a sour flavor. For this reason, oxalis is best tossed in a salad as a complimentary green when raw rather than serving as the main event. Cooking the weed neutralizes the oxalic acid.
Other edible weeds out there include amaranth, plantain (not the starchy fruit) and purslane. The first step in incorporating these vitamin- and mineral-packed plants into your diet is simply familiarizing yourself with them. It’s easy to pluck a handful of basil or cherry tomatoes from your vegetable garden largely because you’ve long since identified them. By studying up on the nutritious (and delicious) plants creeping into your garden, you’ll be better poised to start taking advantage of their health benefits. Happy foraging!