When it comes time to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you probably turn to your fridge or pantry for supplies. But there's a really cool new source that you might want to investigate to add necessary produce to your daily diet: your backyard.
In your backyard is plantain, broadleaf, and lanceleaf: plants that you've likely disdained and hope to get rid of. There's chickweed and dandelion and purslane, too. Each of these "weeds" offer nutrients and vitamins that can help add diversity to our diets. Diversity isn't often discussed in our diets, but it's important, because the plants and protein sources we're eating are ever more narrow.
That's right—weeds are nearly always more nutritious than cultivated vegetables. That’s because farmers bred the bitterness out of most commonly consumed plants, and many nutrients (which have a sour, bitter, or astringent taste) were stripped away in the process.1
Moreover, plants that thrive in bad conditions, such as driveway cracks or barren soil, are loaded with phytonutrients and phytochemicals such as carotenoids and flavonoids. Plants produce these chemicals to protect themselves from insects, disease, ultraviolet light, bad weather, and animals. And wild plants need more protection than the domestic plants humans carefully tend and protect. Weeds send strong taproots deep into the soil to draw minerals into their leaves, so they’re also packed with calcium, magnesium, iron, and trace minerals. Lamb’s quarters, for instance, have three times as much calcium per serving as spinach.
Are you ready to take advantage of the bounty of highly nutritious, free food that’s available steps from your back door? First, you must learn to identify plants with absolute certainty. Get started with these common edible plants that grow nearly everywhere, perhaps even in your own backyard.
How to Identify Wild Greens
Unlike our ancestors, most of us did not grow up picking and eating wild greens. If it feels daunting to differentiate between dozens of common weeds, remember that you’re learning a new skill, and it will take some time. The payoff? A bounty of fresh, nutritious food.
The first step to identifying plants is to use your senses to examine them. But don’t taste anything yet. How do different plants look, feel, and smell? Are they large or small, hairy or hairless? What color and shape are the flower petals? How are the leaves shaped? Small details are important when identifying edible plants.
Start by picking one of the common edible wild plants listed above, and read everything you can about it. Start with these excellent resources:
Identifying and Harvesting Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants by Steve Brill
Discovering Wild Plants by Janice Schofield
Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman
A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Peterson
Scout your yard, garden, or neighborhood for the plant. It probably won’t be difficult to find. These plants are called weeds because they grow and flourish nearly everywhere. However, some have poisonous (or safe but less tasty) doppelgangers, so you’ll need to be absolutely sure you identify the correct plant.
Nothing beats a real-life expert guide.6 Check online and local bulletin boards for foraging classes, workshops, and plant walks in your area. Contact your local extension service, community college, botanical garden, and garden centers: sometimes these organizations sponsor classes. If none are available locally, consider an online course. A number of apps are also available to help people identify wild edible plants.7 Always consult more than one source before tasting anything.
How to Harvest Wild Greens
Once you’re confident you’ve identified the correct plant, it’s time to pick and taste it. If you’re harvesting a lot of greens, bring along scissors and a bucket filled with a few inches of water to keep the cuttings fresh. Follow these rules from expert Sergei Boutenko:
- Pick greens from your lawn if it is unsprayed, free of pet waste, and located away from roadways.
- Taste only a small amount of a new wild food and only one new wild food at a time to rule out an allergic reaction.
For the most flavor and nutrition, pick young plants or harvest a plant’s tender new growth.
If you want the plant to flourish where it is, leave the roots. Otherwise, harvest the entire plant. Some plants’ roots can be eaten or used to make tea. Chicory and dandelion roots make a delicious, nutritious coffee substitute. Clean and chop them, roast at 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the oven, grind, and store in an airtight jar. To make the beverage, simmer a tablespoon of ground roots in a cup of boiling water for five minutes.9
How to Eat Wild Greens
Prepare wild greens as you would spinach. Toss them in a salad, steam, or sauté, or add to recipes that call for spinach. Edible wild plants are generally very safe for healthy individuals when they’re eaten in normal quantities as part of a healthy, varied diet. However, as with any food, it’s best not to eat unusually large amounts. And that’s especially true for people with certain health conditions, such as thyroid, blood, kidney, or gallbladder disorders.1011 When in doubt, ask your doctor.
Wild greens may take some getting used to because they tend to taste more bitter than cultivated vegetables.12 Bitterness is good for the liver, because it stimulates the production of bile. But if you’re not a fan of the bitter taste, dilute, leach, or mask the bitterness of wild greens by:
- Boiling them for several minutes (after you’re done, let the leftover water cool, and then use it to water the garden or houseplants for an added dose of nutrients.)
- Adding a salty ingredient such as table salt, sea salt, or tamari
- Adding a sweet ingredient such as sugar, maple syrup, or honey
- Adding fat such as butter, coconut oil, or bacon drippings
- Mixing bitter greens with a less bitter vegetable
The following recipes are delicious with any of the wild greens listed above, or with a combination.
(Adapted from livingwild.org)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup walnuts or pine nuts
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups chopped fresh wild greens
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
If using garlic mustard, leave out the cloves of garlic. Add ingredients to a blender or food processor and puree.
(Recipe adapted from EdibleWildFood.com)
- 2 Tablespoons oil (olive, sesame, or other)
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 8 cups fresh wild greens
- 1 Tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
- 1 Tablespoon maple syrup (optional)
- 2 Tablespoons toasted nuts (optional)
Heat oil in a skillet at medium heat. Add the wild greens and garlic and sauté for a few minutes. Add the tamari or soy sauce, maple syrup, and toasted nuts. Blend well. Remove from heat and enjoy.
(Recipe adapted from EdibleWildFood.com)
- 8 cups fresh wild greens
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 3 Tablespoons olive oil or butter
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Pre-made pizza crust
- 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Coarsely chop the wild greens and boil until they are tender and wilted. Drain well, let cool, and squeeze out the excess liquid. Sauté the onions in oil or butter until soft and golden. Add the greens, and sauté about five minutes. Beat the egg and sour cream. Add the nutmeg, Parmesan cheese, sautéed onions, and greens. Spread evenly on the pizza crust. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top. Bake for 15 minutes or until the cheese bubbles. Slice and enjoy
Eating Gone Wild
Learning to harvest and prepare common edible wild plants is a delicious way to connect with nature, add nutrient-dense foods to your diet, save money at the grocery store, and contribute to a sustainable food system. After all, food doesn’t get more local than your very own yard. Once you discover the abundance of superfoods hiding in plain sight, getting dinner becomes a wild adventure.