Expert forager “Wildman” Steve Brill told me foraging is “as difficult to learn as driving.” While you may not have Steve’s 30+ years of experience leading foraging tours through Central Park, there’s no reason you can’t forage for tasty greens in your own backyard. One person’s weed is another’s dinner, after all!
One of the easiest “weeds” to forage and one of my personal favorites is the much maligned dandelion. These impervious weeds are packed with vitamins and minerals. Two cups of dandelion greens contain only 50 calories, three grams of protein, almost four grams of fiber, 11,000 IU of Vitamin A, 430 mg of potassium and 200 mg of calcium.1 The long tap root is what makes them nutritional powerhouses.
The best way to pick dandelion greens is to cut the young tender leaves before the flower blooms in early spring and late fall. Though you can eat the leaves at any time, if you plan to eat them raw, you’ll want younger, softer leaves. If the leaves are a little more mature and/or bitter, chop them and sauté with a little oil and garlic. I love to prepare them with cannellini beans as either a main dish or power-packed side.
Another superstar weed is the broadleaf plantain. You see these all over the place, especially between sidewalk cracks. According to Ray S. Vizgirdas and Edna Rey-Vizgirdas, in Wild Plants of the Sierra Nevada, 100 grams of plantains contain as much Vitamin A as a carrot (one small carrot contains over 8,000 IUs). Since the leaves can be fibrous it’s best to chop them into smaller pieces and cook them with other veggies and greens or put them into stews. Vizgirdas also notes the traditional medicinal properties of the plantain, including the use of the juices to soothe wounds and earaches and act as an insect repellant.2
As a novice gardener I was thrilled to see all the “tomato” seedlings I had growing in my garden, only to discover a few weeks later it was lots and lots of lambsquarter instead. After I got over my initial disappointment of not having many (or any) tomato plants, I realized I had another edible gem. Three ounces contain a mere 37 calories, but pack 3.5 grams of protein, over 9,000 IUs of Vitamin A, 265 mg of calcium and 384 mg of potassium.1 Lambsquarters are a great addition to any recipes that calls for greens. Just make sure to take the leaves off of the woody stems before you add them to a dish.
Purslane is another delectable garden find, packing potassium at the rate of 420 mg per three ounce serving.1 With a fresh and tangy taste, I prefer to enjoy it raw, chopped into my salads. It also tastes great cooked in meals. No matter which way you prepare it, just make sure to wash it really well first.
The Wildman’s Weeding Rules
As Steve said, foraging is like learning how to drive – some common sense (and even a manual) is required.
1. Always ask permission before foraging in someone else’s backyard.
2. Forage in an environmentally responsible way. Only pick items that grow in abundance. Think of them as renewable resources.
3. Don’t pick plants sprayed with pesticides.
4. Forage in public lands at your own risk (due to liability laws).
5. Only pick what you are familiar with.
If you need and/or want further guidance, “Wildman” Steve also has an app that can show you how to recognize different plants. So forget spending up to $2.99 per pound at the store, start weeding!
1: Cengage Diet Analysis Software
2: Ray S. Vizgirdas and Edna Rey-Vizgirdas. Wild Plants of the Sierra Nevada. 2005.