Next time you want to get rid of the pesky dandelions in your yard, don’t use herbicide. Use vinegar and oil.
Before the advent of lawns, dandelions were a source of fresh spring greens after a winter of preserved produce. They’re common in North America and throughout the world in part, suggested H.D. Harrington in Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains, because people deliberately carried their seeds to cultivate. (Don’t look so surprised. Ana Nez Heatherley said in her book, Healing Plants, that native Americans in Mexico cultivated ragweed for food.)
Dandelions and other yard weeds can be tasty, versatile additions to regular cooking, as well as an emergency source of fresh spring greens. Now, when they’re just coming out, is the best time to gather many of them, because they’re tender and not so bitter.
Let’s look at some common weeds and how to use them. You’ve definitely seen them in your yard.
Although dandelion isn’t the tastiest wild plant, it’s ubiquitous. And cultivated. You can even buy dandelion seeds at Mountain Valley Seed Co., in Salt Lake City. Every part of the plant is edible. People put raw leaves in salad, dry the sap for chewing gum, deep fry the flowers, and make dandelion wine from the flowers. Apparently dandelion coffee, from the plant’s roots, is a hip drink.
The leaves quickly get bitter, so if possible harvest them before the flowers appear and, preferably, in a shadier part of a yard. The tips are less bitter, as are the leaves nearer to the center of the plant.
In his book Edible Wild Plants, John Kallas recommends putting dandelion greens into a bag cut end first, so the milky sap doesn’t stain the leaves. When you get them home, Kallas suggests, wash them then soak them in cold water for five to 10 minutes to crisp them. They will keep fresh for a week.
If you want to keep the plant from growing back for a few weeks, harvest the dandelion root crown – the top of the root to the here the leaves start greening, according to Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Grab the leaves and pull upward, then cut the root just below the ground, Kallas suggests. Cut off leaves and flower stems then soak the root crown. Pull off leaf bases and stems and remove dirt. You can boil the root crown, sauté it, bake it or, if you’re not picky, eat it raw, he said.
I’ve decided to love mallow because it’s a pain in the neck to eradicate. I once pulled out a plant whose taproot was three feet long. But it’s a great edible plant anyway. It’s got a mellow flavor throughout the year. My mother told stories of eating its little round fruit, nicknamed “cheeses,” because its appearance slightly resembles a tiny cheese wheel. The fruits contain a thickening agent you can use in soups or to make a meringue, according to Kallas. Seriously, is it stranger to make a meringue from weeds than from canned bean juice? Kallas has recipes for mallow in his book, Edible Wild Plants.
Many other weeds from your yard are edible, including all in the mustard family – tansy mustard, tumble mustard, whitetop, and purple mustard, just to name a few. Get some books or apps (look up edible plants or wild edibles in the app stores) and start looking for edible weeds. You’ll be amazed how much your fresh food storage expands.
When you’re out gathering edible weeds, remember these warnings.
Be positive about your weed identification. Poison Hemlock – possibly the plant that killed Socrates – looks like many edible weeds, especially when it’s immature, according to Cattail Bob Seebeck in his book, Best-Tasting Wild Plants of Colorado and the Rockies.
When I take children out weed collecting, we carry plastic baggies and put them on our hands inside-out. After we pick the weeds, we turn the baggies right side out to carry them. Wear something on your hands. I once wasn’t paying attention and picked poison ivy barehanded.
Be careful where you pick. Ask permission before you pick in someone else’s yard. (Strangely enough, no one has ever refused when I asked if I could pick their weeds.) Make sure they don’t use chemicals on their weeds. Avoid weeds next to roads. Chemicals from the road and runoff can pollute them.
Don’t eat too many at once, even if you know what they are. Another favorite weed, Lambs Quarter, is a relative of cultivated spinach. Both contain oxalates that can cause stomachache if you eat too many. The same goes for all the plants in the mustard family.
Gibbons, Euell, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. 1962, Alan C. Hood & Company, Inc., USA.
Heatherley, Ana Nez, Healing Plants. 1998, Lyons Press, USA.
Harrington, H.D., Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains. 1967, The University of New Mexico Press, New Mexico.
Kallas, John, Edible Wild Plants. 2010, Gibbs Smith, Layton, UT.
Seebeck, Cattail Bob, Best-Tasting Wild Plants of Colorado and the Rockies. 1998, Westcliffe Publishers, Englewood, CO.