WEEDS are defined as wild, unwanted and unvalued — but while there’s no disputing their wildness, many people would definitely want them if they understood their true value.
Many of the rapidly-growing green ‘pests’ actually boast a wealth of health benefits if consumed, because they contain useful bioactive compounds like polyphenols, vitamins, minerals, proteins and fibre.
“Today’s weeds were our ancestors’ medicine cabinet, “ explains Tea Advisory Panel dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton. “From teas to soups and garnishes, they have a role in our diets —but take care to identify edible weeds properly, as some plants such as hemlock, deadly nightshade and foxgloves contain powerful toxins which can cause illness, and even kill.”
Here, Ruxton and pharmacist Roy Lamb, co-founder of Nasslor Healthdrinks which makes Emunity Nettle drinks , highlight 8 weeds that could be added to your superfood cupboard instead of your compost bin...
This stinging scourge of bare flesh has been used over the centuries to make cloth, fishing nets, and even World War I German army uniforms when there was a shortage of cotton, says Lamb .
Benefits: Nettles contain essential amino acid levels comparable to chicken, and similar amounts of omega-3 to those found in spinach, says Lamb. Per serving, up to 100% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, 50% of calcium, 20% of fibre and 12% of iron, can be provided by nettles, he explains.
Ruxton says: “A study of postmenopausal women found a preparation made from nettles reduced hot flashes and increased quality of life . Always pick them in the spring when they are most nutritious, and discard the woody parts.”
How to use it: There are several ways to prepare nettles for consumption, advises Lamb. To render the sting harmless, drop them in a pot of boiling salted water for a few minutes, or they can be dried using a dehydrator, or soaked in water for a few days.
After this, they can be converted into nettle pesto or soup, or as an infusion in tea.
In many areas, chamomile is considered a noxious weed to be eliminated, says Lamb, who also points out it’s one of the most popular ingredients in herbal teas.
Benefits: This common flower has long been championed as a way to ensure a good night’s sleep, but its fan-base is larger than just old wives, stresses Lamb. Scientific evidence suggests chamomile has a range of health benefits, as its flowers contain chemicals shown to be moderate antioxidants and antimicrobials.
Additionally, studies indicate potent anti-inflammatory action and some cholesterol-lowering activities, he points out.
Ruxton adds: “Just one daily serving of chamomile tea improves sleep quality and control of blood sugar levels, according to a scientific review. Steeping the teabag for 15 minutes ensures optimal levels of the bioactive properties, including polyphenols and prebiotics.”
How to use it: Chamomile flowers can be washed, dried and used on their own, or as a blend, in herbal teas. For desserts, such as panna cotta, Chamomile also makes an attractive and healthy garnish, although Lamb warns it can cause allergic reactions, so take care, especially if you’re allergic to flowers like daisies.
Clumps of distinctive tall white elderflowers can be found throughout the countryside.
Benefits: Studies suggest elder is a rich source of bioactive compounds, such as polyphenols, which can be anti-pyretic (fever-reducing), diuretic, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, says Lamb.
How to use it: Elderflower cordial dates back to Roman times, and many people make their own elderflower ‘champagne’. Lamb points out that dried elderflowers contain a lot less goodness than fresh.
4. Broadleaf plantain
This isn’t the green banana relative found in African and East Asian cuisine, it’s a completely different plant commonly found across Europe, explains Lamb.
Benefits: For 1,000 years, broadleaf plantain has been associated with health benefits, with recent studies backing up beliefs that it’s useful for enhancing the immune system, reducing the size of tumours, and protecting the gut, Lamb says. It’s also an anti-inflammatory, anti-infective, antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral and antioxidant, and is high in calcium and vitamins A, C, and K, and can also be used to heal the skin when applied locally, he says.
Ruxton adds: “A placebo-controlled study revealed that an extract of broadleaf plantain boosted an anti-obesity chemical in the blood called leptin. This backs up evidence that polyphenol-rich plants, such as tea and cocoa, can help support weight loss.”
How to use it: Lamb says both leaves and the seeds of broadleaf plantain can be eaten raw, cooked in stews, or simply baked on their own.
5. Common purslane
Hardy, with an ability to spread rapidly, common purslane is found in gardens and public spaces.
Benefits: Lamb says this weed’s succulent leaves are an excellent source of nutrients and antioxidants. It’s rich in potassium, magnesium and calcium, and it contains four different types of omega-3 fatty acid, which is useful for controlling cholesterol. Common purslane has some of the highest amounts of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and gamma-linolenic acid (LNA) of any green leafy vegetable, he says.
How to use it: Once washed, leaves of purslane can be eaten raw in a salad, or blended with basil and pine nuts into a healthy pesto.
6. Sheep’s sorrel
This perennial small flowering plant is commonly found growing in gardens.
Benefits: As a good source of vitamins C and E, sheep’s sorrel can contribute to a healthy immune system and glowing skin, says Lamb. It’s also a good source of antioxidants, he says.
How to use it: Sheep’s sorrel is best picked in summer or early autumn. It has a tart, lemony flavour and can be added to salads or stir-fries. However, Lamb says that because of its high levels of potassium oxalate, it should only be eaten in small amounts.
7. Lambsquarters/white goosefoot
This fast-growing weed is commonly found in gardens and the countryside.
Benefits: Raw lambsquarters has the highest amount of folate of any commonly found weed, says Lamb. It’s also rich in carotenoids, which can be converted into vitamin A to promote growth, immune function, and eye health. Lambsquarters also contains more than 10% of the recommended intake of iron and magnesium, as well as vitamins B6 (when steamed) and K, says Lamb.
How to use it: Lambsquarters can be eaten raw in salads, but if it’s steamed or sauteed you’ll extract maximum vitamin goodness, explains Lamb, who says it can be used as a spinach replacement in recipes. It needs washing thoroughly to get rid of the white powdery bloom.
Dandelions are everywhere in spring and summer, but as well as being an important nectar source for pollinators, they have many benefits for humans.
Benefits: Recent research has shown dandelion can reduce cholesterol, blood glucose levels, and inflammation, says Lamb. As a mild diuretic, it can also help with urinary tract infections or thrush. Ruxton adds: “The diuretic properties of dandelion tea are much more than old wives’ tales. A clinical trial found a dandelion extract increased urine loss by an extra 200ml on average, so dandelion could be effective for bloating during the late menstrual cycle or post-menopause. Dandelion tea is also used to promote digestion.”
How to use it: All of the dandelion plant can be used in recipes, from petal-infused wine or honey to simply eating dandelion roots whole.