Exotic superfoods are in fashion at the moment. There’s cacao, spirulina, chia seeds and coconut water – just to name a few. Many superfoods not only come with a high price tag, they can also have high environmental and social costs.
Transported from the corners of the globe, superfoods often come with super food miles. Our demand for these foods is also impacting upon the communities from which they come. For example, our taste for quinoa has inflated prices so much that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia can no longer afford to eat their staple grain.
Thankfully, there are sustainable and ethical superfoods available for free and you’ll likely find them in your own backyard.
The benefits of eating weeds
Many weeds are tasty and highly nutritious. Edible weedy greens are actually more nutritious than the greens you’ll find at the greengrocer. Jo Robinson, in her book Eating on the Wild Side, describes how the domestication of wild foods has led to a decline in the nutrient content of many of the fruits and vegetables we eat today. Early cultivators selected varieties that were sweeter and less bitter. By doing so, they unintentionally selected against nutrients and in particular, phytonutrients. Phytonutrients have a bitter taste and possess anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Wild greens are typically bitter and still retain loads of phytonutrients. Dandelion greens, for example, have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach.
Foraging also has other benefits. Gathering wild food is far more fun than a trip to the supermarket. Foraging outdoors and connecting with nature nurtures physical and emotional health.
Eating weeds is also a great way to save money. A bunch of organic kale can cost about $5 – whereas you can pick similarly nutritious greens from your backyard for free.
Foraged food is also very local and super fresh.
Weedy superfoods for beginner foragers
Picking and eating weeds can be intimidating for beginner foragers. Thankfully, many edible weeds are relatively easy to recognise and are unlikely to be confused with anything poisonous.
I recommend beginner foragers start with one or more of the following:
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- Chickweed (Stellaria media)
- Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
- Fat Hen/Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)
- Scurvy weed (Commelina cyanea)
- Sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus)
- Stinging nettle (Urtica incise)
If you are a gardener, you may already recognise these weeds.
Read descriptions and browse images of these plants online and in books. You’ll be surprised that, once you know what you are looking for, a weed that you hadn’t noticed previously will suddenly appear everywhere.
Before you eat something, collect a sample and confirm that you have identified it correctly. Either ask an experienced forager or compare what you have with a formal description.
Where to forage for weeds
Good places to forage include your own garden, a friend’s garden or a local community garden.
When foraging, you want to avoid places that may have been sprayed with herbicide or are likely to be polluted. Avoid busy road verges and areas surrounding old painted buildings because these areas are likely to be contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.
How to eat foraged greens
Once you know how to find and identify weedy greens, you can start including them in your diet.
Collect tender young leaves and use them as you would salad greens or spinach. Use them in frittatas or omelettes, in stir-fries, pesto, or simply steamed or sauteed. You can also use them in green smoothies.
I hope that one day, foraging weeds is perceived as normal as opening up a plastic bag of hydroponically grown spinach leaves.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 21st April 2014.