The snow is melting. The birds are chirping. The promise of a new spring is in the air, but there is still some waiting to be done. It’s not quite time to bust out the seeds and start planting, so what does a gardener do when they get the “itch” to play in the dirt? Why not harvest what nature planted for you? There are oodles of common edible weeds in early spring, but I’m going to cover seven of them.
Now, you don’t have to go far to get a good harvest. Sometimes it’s right outside your front door. So go throw on your windbreaker, head down to the mailbox, and come back with lunch as well. Just make certain you know what you’re picking and don’t eat anything that may have been sprayed by chemicals.
I know, I know, the name doesn’t exactly sound all that appetizing, but just hear me out. A native of Eurasia that has naturalized in the US along every coast, hairy bittercress is in the brassica family. A relative of other cold-tolerant plants like arugula and broccoli, this late-winter green has been quietly growing under the snow since fall. Its leaves have a mild peppery taste similar to the aforementioned arugula.
Look for a bright green rosette with purplish centers growing near a water source (like a drain spout, or faucet). The plants, as they mature, produce a tall stem with small little white flowers that eventually turn into little, brown seedpods. These seedpods are one of my favorite things about this plant. They shoot their seeds in a manner similar to jewelweed, making them fun to brush against to spread next year’s crop.
Wood sorrel is a little plant with yellow flowers that looks similar to a three-leafed clover or a shamrock. Its family name is Oxalis, meaning “sour” which should give you a clue as to how this plant tastes. Rich in vitamin C, and often used traditionally to treat scurvy, wood sorrel likes those “out of the way” partly shaded places, so look for them in that old neglected flower bed.
All parts of the plant are edible, but by far my favorite parts are the leaves and little seed pods that look like miniature pea pods. A word of caution though, oxalic acid, which is what makes this little edible weed sour, is potentially toxic if eaten in large quantities. The acid can be neutralized by cooking so if you are going to eat wood sorrel raw, do go easy on it, okay?
I don’t know how many times I have had to pull wild onions out of my garden or flower bed. This pesky edible weed should still find a way onto your dinner table, especially if you spent so much time pulling them. Simply dig up the bulbs, as they will regrow if you just pull off the greens. Use them like you would garlic, onions, chives, or green onions.
Not exactly sure what you’re looking for? Just remember this. If it looks and smells like onions or garlic it’s probably safe to eat. Don’t worry if you don’t know the exact species. If it smells like garlic, but looks nothing like an onion or garlic, you might just have the next plant on this list.
There are very few plants I despise, but garlic mustard has made its way onto that list. Garlic mustard is believed to be one of the first plants that humans cultivated for food, but not in North America. A highly invasive species due to its early emergence, abundant seeds, and the chemicals it releases that inhibit nearby plant growth, if you are not already pulling this edible weed, you should, as it can quickly establish and prove to be a nightmare for years to come.
The one redeeming quality of this plant is that it is edible, so after you have pulled it, turn it into pesto, or add it to soups, sauces, and dips. If you have any that will not be making it to the dinner table, put it, roots and all, into a garbage bag for the regular trash, as adding this to the compost will turn your compost heap into a ticking time bomb of garlic mustard seed. Trust me, you don’t want that.
You knew I had to put this on the list.
The venerable and long-suffering dandelion should really get more credit for everything it can do. Rich in vitamins A, C, and K along with calcium, iron, and potassium, it is a wonderful salad green when the leaves are young. Try it in a warm salad or on a sandwich. The petals can be plucked to make anything from jelly to wine. Its roots make a coffee substitute and were a part of traditional root beer.
What can’t dandelion do? So before you spray it or pull it out of that crack in the sidewalk, consider having it for lunch instead.
Lamb’s quarters, also known as white goosefoot, is a native to America, even being cultivated by Native Americans. A relative of quinoa, all parts of the plant are edible and the leaves taste similar to spinach. Add it to soup, stews, or hide it in smoothies for your picky eaters.
The plant is easy very easy to identify. Look for pale green leaves that look like a “goose’s foot” with a dusty white underside. They are very common weeds given that a single plant can produce 75,000 seeds in its lifetime! So, if you have one you will many, many more.
Chickweed, also known as winterweed or birdweed, is a nutritional powerhouse that tastes and acts like spinach. Traditionally used as a restorative tonic for people who were recovering from a sickness, chickweed is rich in vitamins A, B, and C, as well as other minerals and nutrients. Chickweed was also used as an anti-inflammatory, a diuretic, and even used for skin conditions like burns, insect bites, and eczema. It’s also great for chickens, by why let them all have the fun?
Look for creeping green carpet, growing from even the smallest of cracks in the sidewalk, but be warned, chickweed does have some look-alikes. Chickweed does not have milky sap and it has a line of “hair” that alternates between the joints of the stem. If you’re still unsure about the identification just let your chickens out to confirm. If they eat it all, it was probably chickweed!
Heading for Home
One minute it is snowing the next it is bright and sunny. It’s not quite winter and it’s not quite spring, so what are you going to do when you just have to get your hands dirty? Walk right outside and get digging in the nearest flower bed, or pick and peruse the edible weeds on your way to get the mail. In just a short time you will have enough for lunch and a better appreciation of what nature can provide.