When is a weed not a weed?
What separates herbs for culinary and medicinal use – such as parsley or dill, from what we call (edible) weeds, like dandelion, sowthistle or others? Not much.
The difference between the two types appears to be accepted use, often due to flavour and digestibility. In country Greece, the locals will often forage for wild herbs and what we would call weeds (such as wild fennel) and add them to meals. These wild plants contain health giving properties just like their “more domesticated” cousins.
To harvest these edible weeds in the wild (and this could be your own backyard) it is important to correctly identify the plants. You can read up on these weeds, consult a guidebook or you could talk to someone who knows, like Diego Bonetto.
I attended one of Diego’s classes last spring, with a number of other curious people like myself. We walked around the back of the State Library and surrounding parks while Diego picked up seemingly small plants and explained their taste and medicinal properties. Once invisible to my eye, I started to see the wonderful flora around me. These weeds did not make their presence known like a bright flower, but seemed to stand quietly holding their ground; their dogged determination to survive is quite amazing.
According to Diego, three generations ago, foraging was common knowledge in the community. However, two generations ago, there was a change in thinking from obtaining food from home gardens, to a focus on business and shops to provide sustenance. One generation ago this foraging knowledge was, in many ways, lost. In a turnaround, many are now trying to understand and preserve these skills.
Like many herbs and plants, wild plants may be used to introduce minerals to our diet. The bitterness of some of the plants aids in digestion. The wilderness tends to have more diversity. These plants may be used to counter the trend of some commercial growers to breed out bitterness in plants.
Can I grow wild weeds?
Normally they self-sow and grow without interference. Ideally a patch of the garden would be left undisturbed to allow nature to work it’s magic. Of course, you can “help” the process, for example, by picking up dandelion heads when they are in full bloom and spreading the seeds around to encourage growth.
- Explore your backyard. Diego recommends that the best place to forage is in your own garden, where you know it is “clean”; that is, not contaminated by chemical waste, animals, cars etc.
- Positively identify what the item is. Attend a class with a knowledgeable guide or get some expert advice.
- Eat a small amount. This is not about eating to survive, but to supplement the diet.
- “Be nice to the colony”, implores Diego. In other words, do not harvest to the point of removing all plants, to allow the plant to continue to propagate.
Some examples of wild weeds:
|Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
|It is possible to eat the whole plant. When the plant is young, the leaves are best to eat. When the plant is flowering eat the flowers (the leaves are too bitter). When the flowers are finished, eat the fruit or seeds. When the whole thing dies (in the winter) eat the roots. In other words, follow the plant’s growing cycle.
|Sowthistle (Sonchus spp)
|Sowthistle is popular with Mediterranean peoples and Pacific Islanders. The plant is eaten raw, especially the younger leaves. It is bitter and this indicates a high level of nutrients present.
|Chickweed (Stellaria media)
||Chickweed is a winter plant which dies in summer. It has a fresh taste. It is very important medicinally, especially for rashes and eczema (where the plant is applied as a poultice).
|Wood Sorrel – (Oxalis Spp)
|Oxalis flowers have 5 leaves in the shape of a cup. It can fetch as much as $40 per punnet for restaurants! There are 800 varieties of this plant. The leaves are edible also.
|Amaranth (Amaranthus viridis)
|This plant is present in summer, the leaves are using for cooking, either boiling or frying. The seed heads form in late summer and autumn and may be used as a grain or ground into flour.
and many more…
Some useful books on the subject:
While there are many books on herbs and their uses, and even local native flora, there aren’t many books on local edible weeds.
Diego Bonnetto- Wild Stories a foraging guide
Darina Allen – The Forgotten Skills of Cooking
Diane Kochilas – Ikaria, covers the wild herbs and plants of Greece
The information in this article about the edible, medicinal and craft uses of species is for educational purposes only.
Copyright text and photos: Sophia Poulos