You don’t need to live in the woods to enjoy wild foods. Edible and medicinal plants thrive in urban areas, though we often think of them as weeds to be discarded rather than harvested.
Dandelions are now marketed as gourmet greens. There are many other weeds that are both easy to spot and delicious. Some can be used medicinally. These plants can also give you clues about the soils where they grow.
A few common weeds
Chickweed (Stellaria media) — Young plants have a fresh, sweet scent and mild flavor. Snip bite-size stems with leaves with a pair of scissors and put in a salad, braise, stir-fry or use for tea.
The older stems closer to the center of the plant are tougher.
Chickweed is often found growing in fertile soil in open and disturbed areas.
It has anti-inflammatory and laxative properties.
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) — The leaves have a nutty flavor that can be used in place of spinach. Harvest the young shoots and leaves and eat raw, steamed or boiled. The high-protein seeds are also edible.
Lamb’s quarters will pop up in vacant lots, as well as in fertile garden beds.
Plantain (Plantago spp.) — There are broad and thin-leafed varieties. The young leaves can be eaten raw or steamed; mature leaves should be cooked. They can also be made into a poultice for insect bites, rashes or cuts or prepared as a tea for coughs and bronchitis.
Plantain is often found in compacted soil such as lawns and sidewalk cracks.
Plantain is also a food source for some species of butterflies and moths.
Shotweed (Cardamine oligosperma) — Also known as bittercress, this little plant grows everywhere in the spring, causing many a gardener to get busy pulling before it goes to seed. When seeded and then barely touched, the seeds are tossed a distance from the plant, ensuring survival.
Take advantage of its bounty by gathering the plants in their tender pre-seeded stage and tossing them into a spring salad, with plantain, lamb’s quarters and chickweed. Its sweet, fresh taste will be welcome after a long winter.
Shotweed is a member of the brassica family, which includes broccoli, cabbage and kale, to name a few.
There are many more edible weeds to be found. Be on the lookout for fireweed, early spring nettles, burdock, sour dock, purslane, sorrel, thistles, violets and wild onions, just to name a few.
Rules for safe foraging
Only harvest plants that you can identify and know are edible.
Harvest healthy, pesticide-free plants from uncontaminated areas.
Clean and prepare just as you would store-bought produce.
Eat small quantities at first and see how it goes.
Only take what you can use, and do not harvest without permission.
SUE HARTMAN is an environmental educator for the Garden Hotline at Seattle Tilth (seattletilth.org).