During the Covid-19 Lockdown season we all focussed our attention on our immediate environment, so came to appreciate the undervalued beauty of blackjacks, for example. We also tried out new foods as access to our usual favourites was restricted. This post features easily accessible wild and weedy edibles, with some nutritional information and preparation tips. Who knows, you might find something delectable right under your windowsill, that you hadn’t noticed before?
Blackjack, Bidens pilosa, uqadolo
It’s near the end of the season now and most plants are flowering or seeding. However, there might be some younger plants tucked in cool corners for you to try. Young leaves are less bitter than older ones. Pick the light green top two leaves from older plants. If you are not crazy about the taste of them on their own, just mix in with other greens – so you get the nutritional benefits. Blackjacks are a good source of Beta-carotene, Iron, Iodine, Zinc, Calcium, Vitamins A and E.
Blackjack is used as a medicinal plant in many regions of Africa. Roots, leaves and seed have been reported to possess antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Decoctions of powered leaves are reported to be helpful in treating many ailments such as arthritis, abdominal trouble, headache and diarrhoea.
Black jacks are often the first plant to cover disturbed, exposed soil – acting as a kind of bandage (Nature is not keen on bare earth). Apparently, one can tell the quality of the soil, and how deficient of nutrients it is, by the type weeds that grow. As the soil becomes more fertile, different kinds of plants start to replace the pioneering weeds.
Stinging Nettle, Imbati, Urtica urens
One thing I am going to miss particularly, now that I can’t get out to wander along the river, is nettle. I forage a few most days to add to our morning smoothie. Maybe you are lucky and have a patch in your garden. Despite trying, I have not been able to grow my own.
They are fabulous served with potatoes (although potato season is pretty much over now) or with dried beans (which are just starting to be ready). Once again crammed with Vitamin C, which is essential now. Also Vitamin A, magnesium, phosphorus, protein and sulphur.
In case you are wondering, they lose their sting when cooked or blitzed. Snip the top leaves off the bush with scissors, if you don’t like the tingle, and let them fall into a basket. If you do get stung while picking them and feel uncomfortable, rub the area with a ribwort leaf (usually growing nearby) to soothe the sting.
I make pesto with nettles and walnuts. Nettles taste a bit like walnuts anyway, so this is a great combo with peppery olive oil. I made nettle cordial for the first time this summer and it is a winner. Such an unusual flavour and beautiful colour. I used 4 cups of nettle leaves, 500g sugar, 500ml water and juice of half a lemon. Heat, but do not boil. Cool, then leave in the container, stirring daily. After a week, strain and bottle the liquid. I keep it in the fridge, but that may not be necessary.
Beans are not weeds but the idea of eating them is a bit wild to many people.
In most of our gardens, we are harvesting dried beans already, but many of the vines are happily still climbing anything they can grasp onto. Leaves of many bean varieties are delicious, and they don’t all taste the same. Lima beans are quite sweet. The prolific producer Lablab purpureus, is as much grown for its leaves as its pods, and in my garden, Lablab is virtually a weed. Cowpea leaves (Vigna unguiculata) are particularly tasty. These beans are valued crops in many parts of the globe.
I pick a few young bean leaves to add to our green smoothie every morning and occasionally nibble on them while I am gardening. Bean flowers are edible and scarlet runner bean blossoms are particularly spectacular added to salads. Tender bean leaves could be cooked on their own, steamed or stir fried, but I usually add them to a mix of greens which I serve with dried beans, polenta or potatoes. They are great in curries (very popular in India and South East Asia). Bean leaves dry well, so can be stored for later use.
Amaranthus hybridus, Imbuya, iSheke, Thepe, Pigweed
Amaranthus is the most nutritious leaf available to humans. It is absolutely crammed with protein and carbohydrates. Just 50g contains 100% of our daily requirement of Vitamin C and, unusually for plant food, it contains the amino acid Lysine.
This plant grows profusely in poor soils, along roadsides, in abandoned fields and back yards, requiring little attention. Although it will really flourish if you give it some love, manure and water. There are many varieties – green or red, tall or creeping.
Amaranthus is very versatile and can be used wherever green leaves are called for in a recipe – great in a quiche, fabulous mashed into pumpkin. I like to stir-fry Amaranth with spring onions, chilli and tomatoes. The leaves are rich in beta-carotene, iron, calcium, carotenoids tand fibre. Leaves are frequently dried and stored for winter use in rural areas. I’ve done that too this year – leave out in the sun during the day, but take them inside at night so they don’t get damp from dew.
The young flowers (one in the photo) can be steamed – they taste of broccoli. The seeds contain almost as much protein as quinoa. You can buy packets of seed in your favourite health shop (probably imported). The flowers are full of these precious seeds now, so give them a shake onto a cloth you will be amazed. The tiny seeds can be popped like popcorn, too.
Spekboom, Portulacaria afra, isidibiti esikhulu
I know, everyone is doing the spekboom thing. But at this time when you might need to boost your Vitamin C levels, it is a good thing to have a plant or two in your garden. Particularly if you would like to attract elephants – elephants LOVE spekboom.
Just don’t go planting it in natural places where it wouldn’t usually occur – it could become a real problem.
Nibble a few succulent, lemony leaves every day, I do on my way out for a walk each morning. Well, I used to do that, now I pick a few on my daily walk up and down the driveway. You could chop it up and add to steamed potatoes or toss into a cherry tomato (so abundant at the moment) and chickpea salad, spekboom is fabulous with cheese. Andrew Giles taught me to make a spekboom pickle which is really yummy – good vinegar, salt, sugar, garlic, thyme – or your usual pickle mix. The young leaves work best for pickling. It keeps for ages, so perfect for adding to your recently revived pantry of staples. Trendy chefs are using it to garnish everything, so you might as well too.
Spekboom contains magnesium, manganese and lots of iodine and selenium. If you are thirsty, the leaves will quench thirst and help with dehydration.
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, ihlaba lekati, rhwabhurhwabhu
Not all plants with happy yellow flowers in your lawn, are dandelion. The long narrow leaves of dandelion are deeply serrated. Once you have spent some time identifying real dandelion, you won’t forget it. Right now, clumps of dandelions are flourishing, presumably because of the late rain. You will find them on road verges, cracks in the pavement, alongside paths, and probably in light shade in your garden too. It is a perennial plant about 30 cm high with a long tap root and a rosette of leaves at ground level. The leaves and stems have a milky latex when cut. The fluffy seed heads are an obvious feature when they have finished flowering.
Dandelions are a much sought-after springtime treat in Europe, where it is cultivated for salad and as a medicinal plant. Young leaves are fantastic in salads, and you might as well some pretty flower petals too. I pick and eat young leaves (they are less bitter) as I walk and try to bring a few home to add to our smoothie. Dandelions are particularly rich in minerals, especially calcium, iron and Vitamin K. They are great on a cheese sandwich. The leaves can be added to soups, stews or cooked with other greens as a relish.
The roots can be cooked and taste a bit like turnips. I have heard that the roots are sometimes dried, roasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute. I haven’t tried this. Dandelion tea made from the flowers is also well known and apparently, soothes digestion.
Sweet potato leaves
I don’t seem able to grow sweet potato tubers, but I am very good at growing the leaves. Luckily, I love eating the leaves, so I really don’t mind that moles get most of the underground parts. Young sweet potato leaves have a silky texture and delicate flavour – almost a fragrance of sweet potato. I like them best steamed or stir-fried for a minute to enjoy on their own. They are perfect too for adding to your daily green smoothie, bulking up the green component of soups and stews or just in a big bowl of mixed greens topped with feta.
I’ve never known much about their nutritional value, so I had to do an internet search. The Journal of Regenerative Medicine had such great information, that I decided to be lazy and just use that (so I can spend more time making lunch). Here you go: “Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) leaves are loaded with various nutrients, vitamins, dietary fiber, and essential fatty acids. It has great amount of protein, minerals Vitamin B, Beta carotene, Lutein and antioxidants. However, that polyphenols are important antioxidants in sweet potato leaves. The Consumption of polyphenols is associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases, possibly via a variety of bio-mechanisms, including antioxidation and antiinflammation. However, sweet potato leaves commonly consumed in Asia possess polyphenols. Recently studies have suggested that polyphenols of sweet potato leaves were bioavailable and could enhance antioxidant defence and decrease oxidative stress in young healthy people. Sweet potato leaves contain these nutrients which play a role in health promotion by improving immune function, reducing oxidative stress and free radical damage, reducing cardiovascular disease risk, and suppressing cancer cell growth.” Pretty impressive.
Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica
Everyone seems to be trying new recipes at the moment, so I thought I’d share an easy and delicious cordial recipe. This plant is very invasive, twisting enthusiastically up trees, smothering shrubs and out-competing indigenous plants along riverbanks. Even if you have been carefully removing new patches, chances are you still have some in your hedges and fences, so you might as well use the fragrant flowers.
Honeysuckle flowers and berries have been used traditionally as remedies for bacterial and viral infections and are apparently high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components.
I am not bothered about their health benefits, just the glorious fragrant cordial one is able to make from them. If you leave it unattended it continues fermenting and get really fizzy. I haven’t tried, but I see on the internet that it is possible to make honeysuckle champagne!
- 1 cup of fresh flowers
- 400 ml water
- 130g sugar
Combine all the ingredients in a wide necked jar and stir to dissolve the sugar. Cover with a piece of muslin kept in place with an elastic band. Stir the mixture every day. You will notice bubbles starting to form after a few days. Then it is ready to strain and bottle. I keep my bottles in the fridge so that the fermenting stops and there are no explosions.
Alina and Nombuizelo’s Favourites
Much of what I learnt about weeds began with two Basotho women who lived on the same farm as I did for many years – Alina Mofokeng and Nombuizelo Nokhoakhoa. Many South Africans dismiss weeds as ‘poor people’s food’ or are unaware of the value of these plants as a powerful local source of nutrition and health. There is a Zulu saying, “uyadla imbuya ngothi,” which refers to the fact that you are so poor that you are reduced to relying on wild food, like an animal. In Lesotho, the use of these nutrient dense foods is widespread, so I have always felt very fortunate to have had these women share their knowledge with me. Today I highlight two of their favourite weeds – sheep sorrel and pepperweed. Now they are also favourites of mine, but I seldom find them where I live – when I do, I get really excited. One morning recently at the Karkloof Farmers Market, I enthusiastically weeded their beds for handfuls of pepperweed and while visiting an open garden last month, I was delighted to find sheep sorrel in the gravel paths and nibbled lots, eliciting curious glances from the other visitors.
Sheep Sorrel, Rumex acetosella subsp angiocarpus
These interesting shaped leaves look great tossed in salads adding a tangy, sour flavour, but can be cooked with a mix of other greens too. Sheel sorrel contains loads of antioxidants and Vitamin C, B, D,E, K, beta carotene, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and is known for its antibacterial properties.
Pepperweed, Lepidium bonariense, Sebitsa
Tiny plants, often found in lawns. Not to be confused with carrot weed, which looks similar. I love these best in a potato salad. The feathery shape is very pretty and the peppery peppery is perfect with potatoes. I have also used them with avocados.
Pepperweed contains lots of Vitamin C and K, carotenoids and a variety of other minerals.
Gallant soldier, Galinsoga parviflora, isiShukeyane
Most plants in my garden have gone to seed, but I just found a fresh crop of tiny plants in a damp shady area – they literary cover the ground. These leaves are usually eaten before the plant flowers. I used to wonder about this, but soon realised that once a plant puts all it’s 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. Young leaves, cooked or raw are rich in calcium. They make a good pesto, but are lovely added to anything, or cooked on their own as a side dish. I like to use them to make green eggs – loads and loads of herbs and greens scrambled into eggs, with a teaspoon of flour and a few spring onion tops.
Guta kola, Centella asiatica, nyongwana
Guta kola is an adaptogen. That means it helps your body deal with stress and balances the nervous system. Apparently, it promotes mental alertness and improves memory, but I am not sure about that as I eat a few leaves every day and don’t feel particularly sharp.
It is used extensively in Asia to promote healthy skin, hair, and nails, and to support blood vessel strength and blood circulation. So clearly, it is good for you and you will find it in all sorts of forms in your health shop. The flavour is quite earthy. It is good cooked in the usual imifino way with chilli, garlic, tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon. In India and Sri Lanka it is served as a relish which includes grated coconut, which sounds scrummy. As it grows so easily everywhere, I think one might as well just eat a few raw leaves when you come across some.
Watercress, uxhaphozi, Nasturtium officinale
When I do talks to Garden Clubs, I always tell the women that if they want to learn about edible weeds, they should ask their housekeepers or gardeners to teach them. Last week a friend sent me this photo of Sthembiso Nxele, who works for her. She had come across him foraging on her afternoon walk and was intrigued by what he had picked. I was able to identify it as watercress. The isiZulu name for watercress is uxhaphozi which means wetland, illustrating clearly where one would find it growing. In seSotho it is named mohata meke which means ‘walks on water’. It flourishes in the nutrient rich streams through suburbia too, so I always have a good supply.
Watercress is a member of the Nastutium family and has a similar very flavour – peppery and mustard-like. It was introduced as a crop from Europe and Asia and is now a widespread weed.
Although, in the past it has been used more as a garnish than a vegetable, it is certainly worth adding to the other greens in your diet. The strong pepperiness becomes mild when it is cooked. Water cress soup is absolutely delicious.
A fantastic source of Vitamin K and contains the antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid which is believed to lower insulin levels, plenty of Vitamin C and iron too.
Pumpkins are not considered weeds, although they can take over your lawn and cover your carport if left unchecked! The best way to deal with the fast growing, trailing vines is to eat them. The tips and tendrils are delicious. Cutting off the vines also puts more energy into any pumpkins developing, so they grow bigger. Pick (at the base of the stem) the newer leaves near the end of the vine. Then settle down in a comfy chair to strip the hairy strings from the stems and leaf veins. To do this pinch one side of the cut edge and gently drag towards the leaf. The prickly strings will come away easily. This ensures they are not bitter. I have forgotten to do this once and they tasted awful.
Chop the leaves and the stems and fry with chopped tomatoes, chillies, garlic. For an interesting treat, add a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter when cooked and stir. I believe cooking with fresh peanuts is a classic African recipe.
My favourite way of eating pumpkin leaves is with isijingi. To make this steam chunks of pumpkin (or use leftovers) and mash into warm, wet mealie meal at a ratio of 2 parts pumpkin to 1 part of mealie meal. Drizzle with olive oil or stir in some butter. The yummiest thing to serve this with is steamed pumpkin leaves (imifino yentanga).
Pumpkin leaves are very nutritious and a good source of: Protein Vitamin A Vitamin C Thiamin Riboflavin Niacin Vitamin B6 Folate Iron Magnesium Phosphorus Potassium Copper Manganese Carotenoids.
Pumpkin stem salad is something I learnt to make a few years ago and now it is a favourite. String the stalks as described before, then slice into penne size and shaped pieces. Toss in your favourite vinaigrette dressing or a chopped tomato and herb sauce (like you would pasta). No need to cook. It is crunchy, juicy and delicious.
Every garden should have a pumpkin wandering about. Even if you don’t get any big pumpkins, you will get masses of tasty greens.
Two indigenous South African plants that grow easily (do NOT pick in the wild) and that we should all make more use of:
Eriocephalus africanus, Kapokbos, Wilderoosmaryn
This small evergreen shrub has needle-like silvery grey leaves. I prefer it to traditional rosemary, as the leaves are softer, the taste is milder with a slight lemon flavour. Its leaves can be added to pasta sauces, soups, roast vegetables, anywhere you would use rosemary. I like to flavour vinegars with a few sprigs and to use it in pickle mixes. This plant is traditionally used to treat coughs, colds, colic and as a diuretic.
Tulbaghia violacea, Iswele lezinyoka, Society garlic
This member of the Allium family is commonly planted around homesteads to keep snakes at bay. The garlic flavoured leaves can be used to flavour stews, chopped up like chives to dress a salad, added to pesto or to make a flavoured oil. I often scatter the pretty mauve flowers onto salads and was interested to see how often is was used by the contestants of this season’s Australian Masterchef series. I believe that one can roast and eat the bulbs,but I have never tried that. Tea made from the leaves is good for coughs, colds and sinus headaches.
Today is World Disco Soup Day. This is a Slow Food event that focusses on food waste. About one-third of the food produced for our consumption is wasted. The idea is to fill bellies, instead of bins! Usually people get together to make meals from the vegetables that are deemed not good enough for supermarket standards, or those past their prime, and have a fun time. This year, there will be no gathering, but you can still dance in your own kitchen. I thought I would focus on the parts of familiar vegetables that often are tossed into the compost bin, when they can, and should, be used.
Leek roots – wash well and add to soups for interesting texture. I have a friend who fools her kids into thinking they are getting noodles in their soup, sneakily getting them to eat an extra vegetable.
Leek flowers – pretty colour and onion flavour that works brilliantly on salads.
Carrot tops – make great pesto with sunflower seeds, can be chopped up and added to stews and raw, young leaves are lovely on top of cooked carrots.
Coriander roots – have heaps of flavour. Wash them well and pound them up with all the stalks when making a curry sauce.
Beetroot leaves – heaps of nutrients and good flavour. Cook as you would spinach or chard.
Radish tops – add to soups and stews or cook as you would other greens. Very subtle radish flavour.
Chard stalks – cut into even lengths (usually about 10cm) and braise gently in olive oil until soft. Absolutely delicious.
Fennel fronds – make a brilliant pesto – with nuts or seeds. Also perfect for making fennel omlettes which make a few eggs go incredible far! Beat 4 eggs lightly. Dilute 1 Tblsp flour with ½ cup water/milk and combine with eggs. Add ½ cup chopped fennel fronds, 1 chopped spring onion, salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in frying pan and pour in small pancake size dollops. Cook until golden, flip over and cook the other side.
Fennel flowers – so delicious. I add them to salads a lot. Also great with roast onions or braised carrots.
What other delicious parts of vegetables do you use? Cauliflower leaves? Broccoli stems?
Intshungu, Momordica foetida
I learnt about this leaf many years ago from my friend Ntombenhle Mtambo, who has it growing in her amazing permaculture garden created on a township dumping site. She is concerned that it is under-appreciated (and often ignored) by the younger generation and is at risk of disappearing from diets altogether.
Traditionally, leaves are included with other leafy greens (imifino) and cooked like spinach. Young leaves and tendrils are harvested in spring and summer and added to dishes. The leaves smell unpleasant and are very bitter but much favoured to make isijabane (greens cooked with maize meal). I believe that the best combination is fresh imbuya (amaranth) and msobo (Solanum nigrum) leaves with a spoon of dried intshungu. The bitter flavour of the leaves stimulates hydrochloric acid production so aids digestion and has a soothing effect on the stomach.
Leaves are air dried – leave outside during the day but bring indoors at night so it does not get damp from dew. Crumble when crisp and store for use over the colder months. I have a jarful which I add to soups and stews. A tea infusion of leaves is used traditionally to treat high blood pressure and diabetes.
The plant is perennial, occurring naturally on the edges of woodland. The fruit is striking, turning bright orange before bursting open. The aril of the seeds are eaten by birds – I often see bulbuls feasting on mine.
I am passionate about eating the parts of plants that are often discarded, as you have probably worked out by now. Radish leaves are delicious. The leaves of Jap Radish are a popular vegetable known as amangoza which you can buy from street vendors and at farmers markets. If you do leave the plants to go to seed, you are in for an extra treat – the pods (known as rat-tailed radishes) are yummy! Eat them raw in salads, stir-fried, tossed onto potatoes, or pickled. I love them pickled. They are a great replacement for capers – I like them with an egg on toast.
Chickweed, Stellaria media
Growing in damp and shady places now. This plant is anti-inflammatory and soothes digestion, good source of boron and calcium so brilliant in smoothies. Perfect for salads, 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 a quick growing cover crop that is often fed to chickens to make their eggs bright yellow. Adore the star like flowers.
There are lots and lots of flowers that one can eat. Don’t be too greedy though, leave plenty for the butterflies, bees and beetles. I use calendula, violets, oxalis and nasturtium flowers a lot. The blossoms on veggie plants are fantastic for adding a pop of colour and flavour to salads – radish, rocket, beans, mustard, pak choi. Herb flowers are obvious choices – borage, rosemary, sage, thyme, pineapple sage, basil, coriander, fennel, marjoram, mint and lemon verbena. Also try elderflowers, honeysuckle, cornflowers and weeds of course, like dandelion, allium and sow thistle. Don’t eat flowers of the nightshade family – tomatoes, brinjals and chillies. While many flowers taste like one would expect, there are some that have completely surprising flavours. Like primula for example – those pretty pink fairy flowers – they taste like fish!
Day lily buds are edible, and very tasty too. They are commonly eaten in Asia. After reading many different reports about them, I decided to try some. Soaked a few buds in cold water for a few hours, blanched in boiling water and then sautéed in butter. Delicious. The next time, I was a bit over enthusiastic and picked a big bowl of them for lunch. I was quite ill for a day, I think I ate too many. Since then I have read how differently people react to them – some get ill and some don’t. Also perhaps some cultivars are different from the original species and contain different properties? The moral of the story is moderation. Try just a few of anything to start and see how you go.
Lambs Quarters, Fat hen, Chenopodium album, Imbililikicane
I have heard that this drought and pest resistant plant sells for $8 a bunch in American markets! It is rampant here and grows to shoulder height in my gardens. One of our favourite leaves. Gather in early summer when fresh leaves are tender. Sometimes the leaves have a pinkish tinge. The smell of the leaves disappears when it is cooked. This leaf is nutrient dense, contains Vitamin B, lots of Vitamin A and protein. Boiled young flowers taste like a combination of broccoli and asparagus, I think. I love to make a nest of them with an egg in the middle for breakfast. Great with sugar beans too. Delicious.
All the plants in my garden has gone to seed now. The seeds are also rich in protein and can be ground into flour to make bread or porridge, or sprouted for salads. I just toss them into soups. The leaves and seeds can be dried for later use. Try crushing the crisp stems into biscuits.
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 and cucumber. They can also be lightly steamed or stir-fried. Purslane’s high level of pectin (known to lower cholesterol) thickens soups and stews and makes it perfect for a low-fat pesto.
Marie Viljoen suggests a raw purslane and yoghurt soup, with cucumber and garlic. I haven’t tried it but do plan to. I did make delicious gazpacho using purslane though. I have planted it among my broad beans and hope to have a good harvest on hand next summer.
Ribwort, Plantago lanceolata and Broad leaf Plantain, Plantago major.
Ribwort is known as white man’s footprints – because wherever settlers went, they disturbed the land and ribwort soon followed. The leaves are useful for stings, scratches and blisters – a natural plaster. Flower buds have a mushroom-like flavour when sautéed, scrumptious. Adding a few leaves to a soup or stew adds depth and earthiness. 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.
Broad leaf variety also has a mushroom like flavour. I like them crisped up with a quick fry – like kale chips. Small, young leaves are tasty raw. Older leaves get a bit more bitter and if you have the patience, it is best to remove the fibrous strand that are in the flower stalk.
Many Plantago species are used in traditional medicine all over the world.
Oxalis, sorrel, suurings, isimunyane, bolila
As the name suggests, these plants contain a lot of oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans if consumed in large quantities as it inhibits the absorption of calcium. Many vegetables, including spinach, amaranthus, lambs quarters, sweet potato leaves and broccoli, also contain oxalic acid. However, I think that is unlikely to have a harmful effect when you add a few to your salad. The leaves are such a beautiful shape and immediately add glamour (and a tart lemony zing) to your plate. I use the flowers often too. Oxalis also contains Vitamins A and C. The leaves are a great thirst quencher and soothe digestion. Traditionally a handful of leaves are added to Waterblommetjie bredie in place of lemon juice.
In my garden, I have Oxalis latifolia or red garden sorrel which is Mexican and grows about 25cm tall with big leaves. Oxalis pre-caprae or yellow sorrel (indigenous to the Cape) is much shorter (leaves about 10cm tall) and forms a mat in shady areas. It is at its best now in Autumn.
Oxalis flowers are used for natural yellow, orange, and brown dyes.
Nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus
Pretty much everyone knows that firey nasturtium leaves and flowers are just the thing to nibble when you feel a sore throat, cough, or cold coming on. The plant has properties that are both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, also good amounts of iron, manganese beta carotene.
They taste delicious used in cooking too. It’s very cool to add little leaves to salads and other dishes now – seems all the chefs are doing this. I particularly love them served with dragonfruit. The flowers add splashes of vibrant colour, so are ideal additions to winter salads. When wilted, the peppery, watercress-like flavour is lost, so do try them cooked like spinach. They are great to line muffin tins filled with an eggy mixture, or on top of a quiche.
I make pesto with nasturtium leaves quite a lot. So simple. Blitz 4 cups nasturtium leaves, 1 garlic clove, Half a cup sunflower seeds, 1 cup olive oil. Add a little water if it is too thick.
I also make caper replacements with the seeds. Capers in jars are all imported, so really not what we should be buying. These make a great substitute. Pick the green plump seeds, not the old ones for the best results.
Nasturtium capers 2 tbls salt1 cup water1/2 cup nasturtium seedpods, 3/4 cup white wine vinegar (the better the vinegar, the nicer your pickle), 2 tsp sugar, bay leaves and/or thyme.
Bring the salt and water to a boil. Pack the nasturtium seedpods into a glass jar and pour the hot brine over them. Let them soak for 3 days at room temperature. Drain the nasturtium seedpods and put them back into the jar. Bring the vinegar, sugar, bay leaves, and thyme to a boil. Pour the boiling vinegar mixture over the seedpods and cool. Put the lid on the jar and refrigerate. They keep for ages.
Besides looking lovely in your garden (and in a vase), nasturtiums are very useful too. They attract bees and other pollinators, act as aphid traps (particularly useful around brassicas) and the strong smell confuses some bugs, so they are likely to look for a less pungent place to have lunch.
I love this pretty plant that flourishes in my garden, never thinking for a moment that it might be edible. Kim Longhurst pointed this out to me when I shared a photo of the flower, so I simply had to try some. Yum! It’s delicious. Now, thanks to the internet, I have learned a lot more about it too.
Crassocephalum crepidioides, also known as Okinawa Spinach, originates in Africa, but is now naturalized throughout South-East Asia and Australia. The plants are 1m tall. The hairy leaves are thick and soft, delicious fried in a little oil. Often eaten with groundnuts in East Africa. The roots are eaten with chilli sauce in Thailand. Leaves are useful as fodder for chickens and other livestock.
Apparently, it is traditionally used to treat many ailments. In Africa, fresh leaves as an analgesic to treat headache and epilepsy, and powdered leaves as a snuff to stop nosebleeds, and smoked to treat sleeping sickness. In Papua New Guinea leaves are used externally to treat sores. C. crepidioides has been used successfully as a trap plant to collect adult corm weevils in banana plantations.
Most plants in my garden have succumbed to the frost now, but I am certain there will be masses in spring as the fluffy seeds have been flying everywhere.
Sow Thistle, Sonchus oleraceus, ihlaba
While the recent frosty weather has turned many plants black, some weeds seem to love the cold. Chickweed – although it looked frozen, is lush and green again, Ribwort wasn’t affected at all and Sow Thistle appears to be thriving – particularly after the little bit of rain as it does like moisture. This plant is the same family as dandelion, the stem contains milky latex, it grows to about 80 cm tall with the deeply serrated leaves folded around the stem. Flowers are yellow and the seed heads have long hairs to aid dispersal by wind. I often pick the stems to add to flower arrangements.
Once upon a time plant was cultivated in Europe, but now it is usually collected from the wild. Young leaves can be added to smoothies (as I did this morning), or salads, but mostly it is cooked and served as a relish. I mix it with other greens rather than eating it on its own. The leaves are a good antioxidant and contain lots of vitamin C and iron – just what we need during winter. Other minerals include calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and zinc and B vitamins. I have pickled the young buds and they are very tasty. Pick them while they have an indentation in the top, before they become bud shaped, pack them in a jar and cover with your favourite pickle liquid. Last for ages in the fridge and add caper-like zing to salads.
According to the fabulous Imifino Guide to Edble Weeds of the Eastern Cape compiled by: Madeleen Husselman and Nomtunzi Sizane of Rhodes University “A tea from the leaves is said to be beneficial for cancer patients. Ihlaba 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 and help remove warts. The early Cape settlers applied the juice of ihlaba on wounds and ulcers. In Tanzania the root is eaten raw or boiled with banana to treat worms, especially roundworm. Dabbing the milk on a sunburnt nose will speed up the healing. Ihlaba is a favourite food for poultry, rabbits and cattle, but the milky juice is slightly poisonous for lambs and horses.”
I am delighted at how many people have been trying new food and eating weeds during Lockdown! Many of the ideas I have shared are in the book I compiled Mnandi – a taste of Mpophomeni. This is a cookbook that celebrates the cooks and gardeners of Mpophomeni Township near where I live in KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Besides having simple, delicious recipes that showcase seasonal produce, there are interesting stories, gardening and seed saving tips, and a section devoted to edible weeds. The imifino section lists the most commonly eaten wild food with photos to help you identify the plants. Funds raised by sales of the book go to supporting the Slow Food Community of Mpophomeni and small-scale farmers in the area – with workshops, seedlings, tools and plenty of inspiration. For the past few years, proceeds have also paid for free Wi-Fi in the vicinity of the Mpophomeni Library on Mandela Drive. Anyone can access this, without a password – students, farmers, grandmothers and hawkers.
Should you wish to be part of the magic Mnandi family, I will happily send you a copy just as soon as it is possible. R200 for the book plus R100 for Postnet or R50 for PAXI (via Pep). Small farmers and keen gardeners are just what we need right now, so every bit of support goes to building more resilient and food secure communities.