I am very enthusiastic about eating weeds.
I have recently been sharing this (and other wild ideas) with a variety of audiences. More talks and walks to come, but I have compiled some notes for new foragers to refer to.
Free food is everywhere – right under your feet. Along the path, in the supermarket parking lot, on your pavement, at the back of the hospital and all over your garden.
Weeds are plants particularly well-adapted to disturbed places. They don’t grow in the wild, they grow where you find humans. They thrive where the earth has been disturbed – and are part of the healing process, trying to return the bare soil to good condition. Apparently, you can tell what your soil is lacking by the types of weeds growing. So it seems pretty daft that gardeners spend so much time trying to get rid of them. If you are pulling up chickweed so your lettuces can grow, you might as well eat the chickweed.
Foraging really connects you to the season and what is growing in your environment. You will soon be walking around your neighbourhood with eyes peeled for wild edibles. The best way to learn is to explore and then take samples home to do some research. Definitely find out the Botanical name, as common names are very confusing and many plants have the same or similar names for completely different species. I find Instagram, in particular, a great place to learn about edible weeds and foraging in general.
Across the globe, many communities seek out the new growth of wild greens in Spring and Summer – a delicacy long awaited through the colder months in Europe. Many of the weeds have a natural bitterness, something we avoid in Western diets, but which is much sought after in other cultures. The bitter taste sends a message to the brain to produce hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which aids digestion and ensures we get all the nutrients. So those Gogos are smarter than one might think.
Marie Viljoen, author of the exceptional Forage, Harvest, Feast puts it perfectly “Eating wild food is a radical act of remembering and honouring our shared heritage.”
I also think that we have to get over preferences to foods that take a lot of effort, water or energy to grow. Climate Change is transforming the way we eat, so make the transition now to plants that thrive in challenging conditions.
Many South Africans dismiss the weeds as ‘poor people’s food’ or ‘squatter camp food’ quite unaware of the nutritional value of these plants. There is a Zulu saying, “uyadla imbuya ngothi,” which refers to the fact that you are so poor, you don’t have anything at all and are reduced to relying on wild food, like an animal. Such a pity.
Here are some of the weeds I eat. Certainly not all that you can eat, but the common ones in the KZN Midlands.
Amaranth Amaranthus hybridus Imbuya
This is one of the most popular wild greens, it grows profusely in poor soils requiring little watering or attention. There are many varieties – green or red, tall or creeping. It is the most nutritious leaf available to humans, very versatile and can be used wherever greens are called for in a recipe. Young leaves can be chopped into salad.
Amaranthus leaves have heaps more Vitamin C than cabbage or chard – just 50g contains 100% of our daily needs. The leaves are rich in beta-carotene, iron, calcium, carbohydrates and fibre. Leaves are frequently dried and stored for winter use. Seeds contain almost as much protein as quinoa and unusually for plant food, Amaranthus contain the amino acid Lysine. The red leaves contain anthocyanins.
Ugobolo (low growing member of Amaranthus family) is high in carotenoids and a good source of Zinc (important for children’s development and fighting infection). Plenty to be found in most gardens.
Black Jack Bidens pilosa Uqadolo
Pick the leaves young as they get bitter with age. I prefer to mix uqadolo with other varieties of imifino. I recently came across a Zimbabwean ice cream maker (on Instagram) who has infused milk with black jack and created a very interesting gelato.
Packed with Iron, Iodine, Zinc, and a good source of Vitamins A and E.
Lambs Quarters, Fat hen Chenopodium album Imbililikicane
I have heard that this drought and pest resistant plant sells for $8 a bunch in USA markets!
Gather in early summer when fresh leaves are tender. The smell of the leaves disappears when cooked. Nutrient dense, contains Vitamin B, lots of Vitamin A and protein. Seeds are also rich in protein and can be ground into flour to make bread or porridge, or sprouted for salads. The leaves and seeds can be dried for later use. Try crushing the crisp stems into biscuits.
Boiled young flowers taste like a combination of broccoli and asparagus (I think). I made a nest of them with an egg in the middle for breakfast recently. It was delicious.
Ribwort Plantago major
This plant is known as white man’s footprints – because wherever settlers went, they disturbed the land and ribwort soon followed. Leaves are useful for stings, scratches and blisters – a natural plaster.
Flower buds have a mushroom-like flavour when sautéed. Seeds are rich in starch and can be used in biscuits apparently. I don’t have the patience to collect all the tiny seeds but hope that one day I will.
Nastegal Solanum nigrum Msobosobo
These leaves become even tastier once dried and, to reduce the mild bitterness, a little milk is added when cooking. This plant also has tasty purple berries which are eaten fresh or turned into jam.
Stinging Nettle Urtica urens Imbati
Pick young leaves carefully! If you do get stung, simply rub your skin with a plantain leaf to relieve the sting.
Nettles are scrumptious with potatoes or dried beans and lose their sting when cooked. Try nettle cordial or nettle and date balls. Actually, you can use nettles in so many ways, just adapt your favourite recipes to include them instead of other greens. Full of Vitamin C and A, magnesium, phosphorus, protein and sulphur.
Make nettle juice to feed your plants and deter insects (great for snails and slugs) and prevent diseases (fungus). Fill a bucket with nettle plants, cover with water, let it stand for about two weeks (with a lid on as it is very smelly!) Strain, dilute with 4 parts of water and spray on your plants.
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale Ihlaba lekati
Particularly rich in minerals, especially iron. Young leaves are fantastic in salads. It’s a perfect springtime treat, much sought after in Europe. Add older leaves to juices and soups.
Gallant soldier Galinsoga parviflora isiShukeyane
Young leaves, cooked or raw are rich in calcium. These leaves are usually eaten before the plant flowers. I used to wonder about this, but soon realised that once a plant puts all its energy into flowering, the nutritional value of the leaves must be reduced – so it makes perfect sense. This plant produces thousands of seeds and spreads prolifically, so I simply snip off the tops of the carpet of young seedlings.
I use dandelions, gallant soldier, chickweed and other small leaves to make Green Eggs.
Purslane Portulacaria oleracea
This low growing succulent is rich in Omega 3 (it contains more than most fish oils), antioxidants, minerals and high quantity of Vitamin A, B and C.
Pick in the early morning for the best flavour. It is crunchy and has a slight lemony taste. Young, raw leaves and stems are tender and are good in salads and sandwiches. I think it works particularly well with tomato. They can also be lightly steamed or stir-fried. Purslane’s high level of pectin (known to lower cholesterol) thickens soups and stews. Perfect for a low fat pesto.
Marie Viljoen suggests a raw purslane and yoghurt soup, with cucumber and garlic. It sounds delicious and I can’t wait to try it as soon as I find a good source of purslane. Last summer I found lots along a path in Mpophomeni and harvested a few handfuls. Then all the kids wanted a taste, so I ended up with hardly any!
Sheep Sorrel Rumex acetosella subsp angiocarpus
Have a look in your lawn, you are very likely to have this growing. The interesting shaped leaves look great tossed in salads adding a tangy, sour flavour. Cook it with a mix of other leaves or combine with young broad beans to make a rustic pesto to put on toast. Masses of nutrients, including – antioxidants and Vitamin C, B, D,E, K, beta carotene, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and has antibacterial properties.
Bracken Pteridium aquilinum
These unfurled new fronds of the invasive bracken are called fiddleheads in America. It is easy to collect them in Spring – just snap off the new shoots, as you would asparagus. They contain toxic carcinogens, but considering the amount of braaied meat many people eat, a few meals of this in spring is hardly going to kill you. Definitely blanch in boiling salted water for a couple of minutes and then use in your dish. Obviously, don’t eat them raw. I think they taste like a cross of asparagus and cavalo nero (black palm kale) – yum!
Pepperweed Lepidium bonariense Sebitsa
These little leaves make a pretty peppery addition to potato salad or can be cooked with other imifino. I really love this flavour.
Chickweed Stellaria media
This pretty plant is anti-inflammatory and soothes digestion, a good source of boron and calcium. So we should not be weeding it out and throwing onto the compost heap. Perfect for salads, juicing and delicate and sweet pesto, although you might as well add it to soups and stews too if it is abundant in your garden. It is often fed to chickens to make their eggs bright yellow.
Spekboom Portulacaria afra Isidibiti esikhulu
Elephants love snacking on this plant and so do we. The succulent leaves are crammed with Vitamin C and other minerals. Young leaves are perfect in a summer salad with tomatoes, chickpeas and spring onions.
Spekboom mops up the excess CO2 responsible for climate change, has immense carbon-storing capabilities, and the capacity to offset damaging carbon emissions comparable to that of moist, subtropical forest. One hectare of Spekboom can sequester up to 4.2 tons of carbon per year!
Sow Thistle Sonchus oleraceus ihabehabe, iklaba
These leaves a rich in Vitamin C and iron. It has antibacterial properties and is used to treat stomach and liver problems. In many parts of the world, the sap is used to treat earache. I pickle the unopened flower buds, by simply tossing them into leftover pickling liquid and I think they are scrumptious.
Sorrel Oxalis sp suurtjies
Commonly used in Cape Malay cooking to add sourness to a dish. I love the leaves and flowers in salads. Contains vitamins A and C and oxalic acid. The leaves are a thirst quencher and soothe digestion.
Onion weed Allium
These plants are a real curse in gardens and impossible to get rid of, so we might as well eat them. The flowers make pretty garlicky additions to salads. I have steamed the buds and tossed them in butter – I think they taste cross between garlic and asparagus.
Tune in your eyes and tastebuds to the seasonal treats right on your doorstep.
Book an Edible Weed Experience on AirBnB