Enjoy a feed — tuck into edible weeds

Japanese knotweed and nettles can have their upsides, says Sean Brady, horticulturalist at Blarney Castle Gardens.
Enjoy a feed — tuck into edible weeds

The young stems of Japanese knotweed — as well as being edible and good for you, they can be medicinal

EATING edible weeds is an easy way to increase your garden’s productivity.

While everyone loves to bring in the harvest, weeding is most people’s least favourite part of gardening, but what if we thought of weeding as harvesting?

Knowing how to identify edible weeds turns weeding into harvesting and makes the exercise a lot more fun, not to mention tasty, and basic garden maintenance becomes more like a scavenger hunt.

I like to describe a weed as a plant whose virtue has yet to be discovered, but in reality, a weed is very simply a plant that is not appreciated as a result of where it is growing.

Most weeds are pioneer plants, which means they are the first to show up when the soil has been disturbed. They usually have long roots that reach down to tap into nutrients, they are rich in vitamins and minerals, can be used as cleansing tonics, and are easy to find.

Almost all edible weeds are high in phyto-nutrients and phyto-chemicals such as beta-carotene, because they haven’t been grown the way commercial crops have. Unlike our cultivated food crops, which we pamper with selective breeding, fertilizers, and chemicals that protect them from disease-causing microbes, wild plants have evolved sophisticated strategies for getting everything they need in an intensely competitive, often-hostile environment.

They often contain higher nutrient levels than those found in cultivated food plants, especially trace minerals. They have higher concentrations of natural vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients, that help protect the body against disease, as well as vitamin A, vitamin C, and minerals such as potassium. Their leaves, flowers and roots make tasty additions to salads, soups and other dishes, and as well as being a cost-saving measure, they can become another way to get creative in the kitchen.

These days, vegetables are bred for less bitterness, greater yield, ease of transport and bigger leaves. Perhaps a paradigm shift is called for in regard to our so-called fight against weeds. Maybe it is time to stop seeing them as weeds, and regard them as valuable and nutritious additions to your vegetable garden. If you’re collecting weeds in the wild, be certain you are foraging from a location free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Cleavers, whose name stems from its herbal usage — to cleave out illness
Cleavers, whose name stems from its herbal usage — to cleave out illness

There are so many ways to use these wonderful plants if we just give them value, here are but a few.

Burdock (Arctium Sp.)

With a 2+ft long taproot, burdock can be particularly difficult to remove from the garden. The sticky burrs are perfect for sticking to clothes, or fur, and can often be found growing alongside paths waiting to stick. The good news, burdock is an edible weed and every part is tasty. It is cultivated as a vegetable in Asian cultures where it’s called gobo.

Burdock taproot
Burdock taproot

The root is often used in curries, or roasted like any other root vegetable, and can be made into a really effective anti-inflammatory tincture.

Cleavers/bedstraw (Galium Sp)

Also known as bedstraw, cleavers has been used for centuries in the kitchen and home. It was once dried for bed filling, and bundles of it were used as a rudimentary strainer by cooks. The name comes from its herbal usage, since it’s noted for having the ability to ‘cleave out illness’. A tincture made of cleavers can be used to successfully treat urinary tract infections where it also has the added benefit of being a diuretic which helps move things along.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Probably one of the most common and recognisable varieties of edible weeds and also very versatile, they are on the top of most foragers’ lists of nutritious and delicious ‘weeds’. Dandelion greens work as pizza toppings, in salads, and in stir fries.

The yellow petals from the dandelion flower and the leaves can be eaten in salad, and the leaves can also be cooked and eaten like spinach.

The roots of the plant can also be dry-baked and used as a coffee substitute. The leaves are excellent sources of vitamin A, vitamin K, calcium and iron.

Nettles (Urtica dioica):

This classic green, known for its stinging hairs, sounds intimidating to eat (and gloves are necessary when collecting), but the leaves lose their sting when cooked. Usually added to soups or steamed like spinach, nettles are high in immune-boosting iron, beta-carotene and vitamin C, and help alleviate allergy symptoms. They taste similar to spinach and other greens cooked down from root vegetables.

Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria Japonica)

This is edible, and tasty. It’s also medicinal. One of the most invasive weeds, and very difficult to eradicate, it tastse a lot like rhubarb raw and a bit like asparagus cooked. A tincture of the root is one of the few herbal treatments for Lyme disease.

Knotweed is also traditionally used to treat a number of conditions, including respiratory issues and skin conditions. It is used to stop bleeding and as a mouthwash too.

There is some evidence it may be helpful specifically for gingivitis. It is also packed with anti-inflammatory resveratrol, which has been cited in treatments for heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The best time to eat it is when the shoots are young, around 12 inches tall.

There are so many ways to use edible weeds: Eat them raw, toss them in salads, sauté them or mix them into a bright, tasty pesto.

While some foraged weeds can be an acquired taste, you may be surprised at how tasty these edible plants really are. They also have a surprising amount of nutritional and health benefits, and the best part is that these edible wild plants are totally free.

There are literally hundreds of plants readily available underfoot waiting to be harvested and used either as food or as a potential therapeutic cure. Most are easily recognisable, renewable resources that we overlook and disregard, and are tastier and more nutritious than store-bought produce. So, embrace the wild and eat your garden weeds, Bon Appetit.

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