When you tell people you forage for wild edible plants, one of the first questions you often get is, “What can you actually cook with this stuff?” The general impression is that, while technically edible, most wild plants can’t possibly be particularly tasty. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
A choice specimen picked at the right time will be at least, if not more, flavorful and delicious than your favorite store-bought vegetables. And since there are a number of common wild plants that taste very similar to spinach, so when it comes to the practical question of cooking what you gather, these spinach-like plants are a good place to start.
This article will give a few different plants that can be substituted in any recipe that calls for spinach, with delicious results. Better yet, each of these is nutritional powerhouses that are even more packed with vitamins and minerals than any spinach you can buy from the grocery store or pluck from your garden.
Below I’ll go through where you can find these spinach alternatives along with how to identify them. One, in particular, has important notes on safe harvesting and preparation, so I’ll go through that as well.
For each of these plants, in case it wasn’t obvious, the leaves are the part you want to harvest if you are looking for a spinach substitute. Always wash them well in cold water before cooking. Each of them should be harvested young, as younger leaves will contain more nutrition and have a preferable texture and flavor than older ones. As a general rule, the younger, the better!
Lamb’s Quarters/Goosefoot Group (Chenopodium album), (Chenopodium berlandieri), Others
This plant is easy to identify, the only other plants that look similar are in the same family—and are edible and taste like spinach as well! Lamb’s quarters can often be found in urban areas, so even if you live in a big city, you can learn to identify it (although I wouldn’t harvest anything in an urban setting that’s right by a busy road).
Lamb’s Quarters Habitat
This plant grows like a weed. It loves disturbed areas like old lots and construction sites, but is also commonly found in wooded clearings or fields and along riversides.
Identifying Lamb’s Quarters
Lamb’s quarters’ leaves are differentiated by their unique shape and the powdery white coating on them, often making the plant appear from a distance to be covered in dust. This coating causes water to bead off the leaves.
The leaves are relatively small with slightly toothed edges, shaped more or less like little triangular goose feet. This is why plants in the family are often referred to as goosefoot. Different types of goosefoot can have narrower and different-shaped leaves, but the powdery coating is a good giveaway that you have one of the choice edible varieties. The first pair of leaves on lamb’s quarters is opposite, and other leaf pairs are alternate on the stems. Leaves have tiny white hairs on them.
Flowers are tiny, green, and have no petals. The plant can get very bushy, but very rarely grows more than a couple of yards tall.
Eating & Cooking Lamb’s Quarters
In addition to the leaves, the flowers, shoots, and roots are also edible. Once you harvest the young leaves, cook them as you would spinach in your dish—no adjustments necessary! You can also dehydrate the leaves for long-term storage.
Like spinach, lamb’s quarters contains a high level of oxalic acid. This is mostly destroyed by cooking, but keep in mind if you’re enjoying it raw in a salad raw lamb’s quarters salad. This is particularly true for people who are prone to kidney stones.
Personally, I don’t worry too much about this warning. Keep your diet varied, and never eat excessive amounts of any single plant. After all, you don’t see warnings on bags of spinach (which contains high levels of the same compounds), but when it comes to foraged greens, a warning feels appropriate.
Palmer’s Amaranth (Amaranthus palmieri)
This plant is related to the goosefoot group of plants of which lamb’s quarters is a member. Certain types of amaranth are popular garden ornamentals, prized for their dramatic, colorful leaves and flowers. Amaranth seeds are also a popular health food. What many don’t realize is, the leaves of amaranth are a delightful leafy green that makes for a wholesome and delicious stand-in for spinach.
Palmer’s amaranth is considered invasive in most of the United States outside the southwest, so you can forage as much as you want and not worry about environmental damage. However, the plant accumulates chemicals such as those found in herbicide and fertilizer, so be very cautious if harvesting it anywhere near construction sites or farms that may use these substances.
Palmer Amaranth Habitat
Palmer amaranth loves waste zones and disturbed areas like the edges of farms, railroad tracks, and construction sites—just the types of habitats where you want to avoid harvesting it, due to the use of harmful chemicals the plant will absorb.
Mercifully, Palmer amaranth can also be found along trails, sometimes sprouting up along the trampled routes where deer, moose, or other game pass through.
Identifying Palmer Amaranth
Palmer Amaranth grows large and bushy, growing up to a yard or so tall. Stems are smooth and can be green but often are red, especially as the plant ages. Stems often with small hairs, and the ovate to diamond-shaped leaves grow in a symmetrical rosette pattern around the central stem.
Leaves are more ovate in younger specimens and can be fuzzy or hairless depending on the type of amaranth you have found. Check the bottoms of leaves for prominent veins. Sometimes, but not always, leaves carry a V-shaped watermark. Leaves also develop wavy edges as they mature.
The flowers are long can be bristly or soft and fuzzy, and from whitish-green to red. They look like long, fuzzy caterpillars.
Stems and cotyledons (the “stem” connecting the leaf to the stalk) can be reddish, and cotyledons are thin and very long. Unlike wild palmer amaranth, varieties grown for garden ornamental purposes almost always have the watermark on the leaves, along with red leaves and flowers.
Eating & Cooking Palmer Amaranth
Whether you eat the leaves or the seeds, Palmer amaranth is a nutritional superfood. Eat the leaves raw or cook them as you would spinach, and toss them into your recipe! Think quiche, omelets, sautéed, steamed…if you can do it with spinach, you can do it similarly with amaranth.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
Pokeweed is a very special plant—so special, in fact, I almost didn’t include it on this list. If you harvest pokeweed leaves at the wrong time or don’t process them correctly, you can become poisoned after eating it.
The key with pokeweed is to harvest it young. All leafy greens are tastiest and most nutritious in their young phase, but with pokeweed, it’s a matter of obtaining the leaves before the concentrations of toxic compounds become too high.
Different foragers use different rules of thumb for when it’s “too late” to harvest from any given pokeweed plant. Some say it’s fine to pluck the leaves as long as the berries haven’t appeared, while others advise against harvesting any plant taller than about six inches. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum. I’ve harvested plants that were a foot or taller with no problems, but any taller than that and I’d shy away.
Also, some resources recommend wearing gloves to harvest pokeweed leaves, though the likelihood of getting a reaction from touching the leaves are low. The roots are a different story, however, and should never be handled without gloves. Thankfully, to harvest the leaves, you never have to dig up a plant.
Eating pokeweed leaves involve a boiling process that you must complete before cooking, in order to remove toxic compounds from the leaves. We’ll get into this more below.
Pokeweed likes disturbed areas like trail sides, building sites, and abandoned lots. You can also find it in wooded meadows with wet soil. Because it thrives in disturbed areas, you might see it popping up after a strong storm knocks down lots of trees.
Pokeweed is most easily learned by memorizing its dramatic blackberries that appear during the summer, but pokeweed has other characteristics you can use as well. Growing on grape-like strands, the berries start out white, and then become black or dark purple. Pokeweed stems are red or have red streaks, especially older specimens.
Leaves are alternate. In young pokeweed plants, leaves are somewhat egg-shaped, but become lance-shaped and ruffled as they mature. Flowers are white to green and form on long clusters. Pokeweed plants can quite large and bushy—up to ten feet, in some cases.
Eating & Cooking Pokeweed
With pokeweed, only ever eat the young leaves and young shoots. Eating other parts, or any part of the plant at a mature stage, isn’t worth the risk.
Once you have your young pokeweed leaves, you need to process out the toxins before cooking them with. First, rinse them in a sieve, then bring a pot of water to boil. Add the leaves and boil them for twenty minutes.
Remove the leaves and rinse under cold water (they will be extremely soft.) Rinse the pot, bring a new pot to boil, and boil again for twenty more minutes. Repeat a third time, and now your leaves are safe to eat and ready to use in recipes.
It’s a bit of a labor-intensive process, but pokeweed tends to grow in great quantities in areas where it can be found. It is such a culturally-important food to the American south that entire festivals are held to celebrate it, complete with cook-offs. Poke sallet, a traditional southern side dish consisting of sautéed pokeweed, is popular enough that it was once sold in cans at grocery stores.
With knowledge of how to cook with a few common wild plants, you can spruce up much more than just your recipes. Wild varieties pretty much universally exceed their store-bought counterparts in terms of nutritional content and often taste richer—if only because they’re so much fresher.
They’re also a lot of fun to look for, and very rewarding to find. This is doubly true when you have a delicious recipe just waiting to be cooked!
Author Bio: Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
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