Now that our Victory Gardens are starting to burst with the fruits (and vegetables) of our labors, those of us who have just recovered from the physical exhaustion of planting the crops find there's "no rest for the wicked" — or at least not in regard to weeding.
In between rows, interspersed with seedlings and spilling over the sides of raised beds, weeds tend to put our intentionally sown plants to shame when it comes to an early summer growth explosion. They can spread out, casting shadows over smaller seedlings, or their roots can throttle the underground growth of those carefully nurtured heirloom varieties. Keeping the unwanted greenery at bay requires a hoe or tireless fingers, determination, and infinite patience. Even well-mulched beds can fall prey to wandering dandelions or purslane or other leafy "pests." And no matter what we do, sometimes it seems like the weeds always win.
There's a reason for that: according to an article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the increased levels of carbon dioxide that characterize global climate change have given weeds — better defined as "plants out of place" — a supernatural advantage. Being native species that have already proven themselves highly adaptable to unfavorable conditions (Roundup, anyone?), a little extra hot air really isn't much of a hurdle.
So what's a gardener to do when faced with a bed of weeds?
The answer is simple: Eat them!
Okay, to be fair, the answer isn't really that simple. You don't really want to go through your garden or backyard just eating any old bit of greenery that strays outside the lines of your careful landscaping. Not every plant species is safe for human consumption, not to mention even palatable, and there's really no point in recreating thousands of years' worth of trial and error. And you sure don't want to eat something that you've sprayed in order to get rid of it.
But many common weeds found in our yards or in areas where the soil has been disturbed can become tasty additions to the dinner plate. In many cases, these weeds (or wild edibles, as some call them) possess greater nutritional value than our garden-variety greens, roots, and berries. And while foraging for these plants may not yield as glamorous a harvest as gathering untended fruits (with permission) from neighborhood trees (as done by a growing number of foraging groups), scouting out common wild edibles can very quickly give you a deeper sense of place.
You can't get much more local than in picking salad greens from your lawn: dandelion leaves, wood sorrel, chickweed, lambs' quarters, miner's lettuce, violet blossoms, and a host of other unassuming plants all make a refreshing change from lettuce. Why limit your pesto-making to basil when you can enjoy chickweed pesto or even garlic mustard pesto? Don't forget gathering ripe berries from the wild black raspberry canes or blueberry bushes that grow rampant here in the northern states — some of these berries prove sweeter and more satisfying than their cultivated cousins.
Foraging, a skill more widely practiced by our ancestors, has gone mainstream, as knowledgeable guides like "Wildman" Steve Brill find more people interested in taking their classes and learning what foods can feed them in survival situations. (Perhaps foraging will be this year's food trend?) Here at the Ethicurean, we've been exploring the possibilities of wild foods, too: Bonnie regaled us with her foraging adventure earlier this year, Janet recently had a one-on-one tutorial with a local wild edibles expert, and I've enjoyed regular foraging hikes whenever I visit my favorite farms.
It isn't difficult to start. If you can find a class given by an experienced forager, do it! You can also visit one of the web sites linked here or pick up a book and start reading. You'll be surprised at the number of edible plants you've been yanking out of the garden and tossing into the compost. I've carried my copy of "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places" to the farm for every visit, trying to learn something new. (Bonnie also recommends "Stalking The Wild Asparagus" by Euell Gibbons; foraging readers, please chime in with others.)
The weeds might have the advantage as our climate changes and cultivated species find themselves more prone to pests and diseases as a result. But there's one possibly delicious way to tame those wild plants: grab a fork and dig in.
Wild and Weedy Potato Salad
Lambs' quarters make a pleasant and mild substitute for spinach, and they offer a stunning nutritional load. Chickweed grows in low creeping mats and has a bright, tangy flavor, so adding it like an herb to this dish contributes a pleasing contrast to the richer flavors of the potatoes and greens. Makes 2 servings.
1 pound small potatoes, scrubbed and cubed
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 wild (or cultivated) garlic scape, chopped
1/3 c lambs' quarters leaves, rinsed thoroughly
1/2 tsp vinegar
1/4 c chopped walnuts
salt and pepper to taste
2 T chickweed sprigs and leaves
extra virgin olive oil to toss (if needed)
Steam or boil potatoes until tender. Drain and rinse.
In medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add chopped scape and sauté 2 minutes until fragrant. Add lambs' quarters and sauté another minute. Add vinegar and continue to stir until liquid has largely evaporated. Add to potatoes along with walnuts. Salt and pepper to taste, and add chickweed sprigs before tossing one last time.
Serve warm or cold.
Additional links on foraging:
Not all of these links address foraging in regard to weeds and wild edibles; many forage (with permission) cultivated produce from residential areas where owners either are unaware of the local bounty or have too much. But all will open your eyes to all the good food growing in plain sight!