"Rodney’s eating our lawn again,” my husband mused aloud as he stretched his legs beneath the kitchen table and stared at his boots. Through the window, I observed a happy muncher savoring a golden dandelion in our unkempt lawn. Too much trouble for our family in farm country to maintain a velvet green commercially cultivated turf. Rather, our yard, while green, comprises volunteer weeds and wild grasses.
Lest you imagine that Rodney is a goat, he is an experienced landscape manager and nutrition buff. Raised in Morgan County with a respect for the land, Rodney Allgood teaches his children, ages 2, 9, and 14, and our family, to value what nature freely offers for human nourishment, including weeds. He is particularly jazzed about the power of wild greens.
I already knew dandelions for their peppery blossoms and citrus green salad leaves. Rich in vitamins A, B6, C, E and K, potassium, and calcium, the herbaceous perennial’s leaves and showy blossoms dazzle from afar. My maternal grandmother sprinkled the leaves on salads. My great-grandfather made dandelion wine on our family’s farm. When mom solicited dad to repeat the romantic treat, he turned his less than stellar result into dandelion wine jelly that our family enjoyed with toast and savory dishes for many months. Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Blossoms for wine and jelly. Leaves, most tender when picked young before the plant blooms, for salads or sautéed. Roots can be steeped for tea.
Beyond the dandy lion of the wild greens jungle, other nutrition-packed gems can be hiding in plain sight. Rodney points to henbit, a member of the mint family that tastes like wild carrot and kale and packs iron, vitamins, and fiber. Named for the observation that chickens find it tasty too, thus appearing “hen bit,” hummingbirds also choose it for nectar. The prolific annual botanical populating our lawn and crevices in our brick wall features festive wrinkly heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges and tiny vibrant pink-purple blossoms. Leaves and blooms can be eaten raw in salad, added to soups, or steeped for tea. Some culinary fans prepare henbit in ravioli draped in mushroom sauce. The wild green also pairs well with soft cheese, nuts, pork, poultry, and wild game.
Back to hens, common chickweed tops pecking order for poultry dining preference and human foragers for tasty wild greens. Its scientific name (stellaria media) translates “little star in the midst of” for its tiny white star-shaped blossoms and low creeping profile.
Chickweed’s many nutritional presents include calcium, magnesium, niacin, copper and zinc, vitamins C and B complex. Apart from nutrition, the sensitive botanical serves as a charming garden barometer as it folds its leaves before rain and nightfall. Traditionally touted chickweed recipes include pasta dishes, bread, tea, and pesto.
Tim and Rebekah Esau, of historic Eatonton village, embrace the nutritional value of chickweed and other wild greens harvested on their three-acre homestead circa 1898. They advocate permaculture landscape design that includes sequencing botanicals by distance starting with proximate kitchen-ready culinary plucks moving outward to mid-range row crops followed by an orchard, then on to a naturalized forest perimeter perfect for foraging. To supplement daily fare, the couple and their seven children, ages 5 months to 10 years, nibble on nutritious serendipitous chickweed, henbit, dandelions, violets, and wild onions. By profession, Rebekah teaches American literature in Putnam County High School.
Tim is a market gardener and luthier who specializes in guitar repair. Yet when home, the couple enjoys nature’s free bounty of nutritional gifts.
“When it comes to weeds,’ Tim says, “people need to prepare themselves that wild greens are very, very nutritious and therefore may taste a bit strong.” The Esau family often adds dandelion greens when cooking collards and tosses them into arugula salads along with violet greens. By choice, they forego dandelion blossoms to ensure that bees can feed on the blooms. Tim teaches his children that bees visit dandelions before the arrival of clover season.
To minimize any pungent taste, foragers typically harvest nasturtium buds, flowers, and young leaves just after the flowers open in the morning. Petals are milder tasting than the whole flower. Nasturtiums add flavor and nutrition to salads, stir-fries, pasta, and flavored oils. The fresh flowers can be stuffed. Flower buds and seedpods can be pickled for capers. Blossoms can be muddled into a martini. Crushed petals make a colorful spicy butter spread.
For the herbal medicine fan, one or two leaves consumed three times a day may mitigate an early cold or flu. So much for the nuisance plant.
Another colorful wild green, the perennial blue violet that socializes in shady nooks, historically blends art, science, and gastronomy. For romantics, its jewel-tone blossoms suggest humility in the lexicon of traditional flower symbols. It appears as a favorite motif in the decorative arts. For foraging enthusiasts, the charismatic plant signals vitamins C and A. Its heart-shaped leaves can fluff a salad and make a tasty pesto. Delicate violet blossoms, candied or fresh, can add pizazz to a simple dessert. They can also be frozen into festive ice cubes, or gathered, steeped, and prepared for syrup or jelly for biscuits and scones.
In the pharmacy of weeds, a parade of other nutritional greens can masquerade as ‘nuisance’ botanicals in the yard. Lemony purslane boasts more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green. Pigweed contains vitamins C and A. Prickly pear produces fruit that tastes like strawberry-kiwi. Dainty bittercress tastes like spicy cabbage. Dock, lamb’s quarters, wood sorrel, and wild garlic add to the list.
So, to the plucky adventurist, when next you spy a pesky edible weed, pause before plucking and tossing. Consider popping it into your mouth, salad, soup, or dessert, and know that nature, in her generous bounty, offers free vitamins and minerals just for the picking.
"A weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Story and photos by Michele L. Bechtell