Consider the poor, unloved weed: the scourge of gardeners, that reliable representative of unchecked growth, the rangy opportunist peeking from cracks in the sidewalks.
Now consider eating it.
Consider the wild, bitter flavor that's common to many undomesticated edible greens. Consider eating these plants as part of a holiday celebration, as one may do in Japan, or eating them slow-cooked in a stew with pork and chiles, as is commonly done in Mexico. Weeds aren't factory-farmed; they're optimized to the conditions of wherever they happen to be growing; they are, by definition, a local food. Plus—cheap as hell.
Speaking of definitions: What do we mean when we talk about weeds? There are some characteristics that may attach to the concept—exuberant growth, a certain quality of nuisance. But according to the dictionary itself the (sort of sad) truth is this: A weed is a "plant that is not valued where it is growing."
So there you have it. Weeds are not a class of vegetable. They're not an inherent threat to successful gardens, nor some broad category of indigestible plant. They're simply something that, according to the judgment of a broader cuisine or a culture, is unwanted.
But what if that judgment is wrong?
What makes wild plants nutritious is the same thing that has, historically in the U.S., made them undesirable. "A lot of wild plants that aren't popular have bitter qualities that we've over time bred out of a lot of our plants," Kristen Rasmussen, a nutritionist, cook, forager, and co-investigator at the Berkeley Open Food Source (BOFS), told me.
In fact, there's plenty of grocery-store fare that's less nutritious than its wild relatives, including fennel and lettuce. That's because wild greens tend to be specifically heavy in phytonutrients, a kind of antioxidant that's thought to help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease. Wild dandelion, for instance, contains seven times more phytonutrients than spinach. Tests conducted by the BOFS found that wild dandelions also contain about twice as much fiber and iron, and more calcium, than their domesticated counterparts.
"The bitter compounds [in weeds] can signal something that we're not supposed to eat," Rasmussen said. Aversion to bitterness has an evolutionary component, helping humans avoid toxic plants, like rhubarb leaves. But bitterness is a flavor imparted by many phytonutrients, which also contribute bitterness to chocolate, red wine, and green tea, the taste of which you don't tend to hear a lot of complaints about. It's possible we've overreacted, and farmers over generations have selected plants that are sweeter, milder, you could even say blander—and, accordingly, far less nutritious.
In truth, in the U.S., wild greens never went away altogether, though they're rare at the supermarket. As Ronni Lundy writes in her forthcoming book, Victuals, a volume of Appalachian recipes and history, people in the mountains have long eaten wild greens—pokeweed, dock, purslane, lamb's quarters, and upland cress, locally called creasy greens. When she was young, Lundy's parents moved out of Appalachia in search of jobs. "When my parents lived in Detroit during World War II so my daddy could work in the factories, my mother gathered dandelion and other wild greens from the median of a boulevard," Lundy writes. "She told me she couldn't find kale or mustard in the grocery, but the tender greens cooked with bacon provided a taste of home."
Outside of the states, weeds are even more embraced. In January in Japan, people celebrate the Festival of Seven Herbs by eating a porridge made with seven wild herbs of spring. And Mexican cuisine has a name for a whole class of wild greens called quelites—"basically an umbrella term for any type of green grown in Mexico that has small edible leaves," such as amaranth, malva, and epazote, said Lesley Tellez, the author of the cookbook Eat Mexico: Recipes From Mexico City's Streets, Markets and Fondas, and the proprietor of the blog The Mija Chronicles. On that blog, Tellez has written repeatedly about quelites, with recipes for guisado de quelite—stewed greens—and purslane in salsa verde.
Though quelites have traditionally been thought of in Mexico more as peasant food, Tellez said, "I think that perception is changing. More and more people are realizing that they're packed with nutrients, they're delicious, and they're relatively inexpensive." She attributes the changing attitudes to an embrace of Mexican cooking. "For a long time in Mexico it was considered more fashionable to look outward, and to look at European cuisines, and to look at the United States. In the past 20 to 30 years, there were chefs who really started to plant the seeds of looking inward, reexamining the cuisine, looking at the rich tradition that Mexican food really has, and for the first time saying, hey, this is awesome."
In the U.S. there is at least one foraged plant that garners attention: ramps, the wild-growing allium that, come spring, is the hottest wild food on the block. But the popularity of ramps isn't unproblematic. Overharvesting can damage the plant's long-term prospects and threaten the health of its surrounding habitat. In Quebec, as Epicurious explained last year, the commercial sale of ramps has been illegal since 1995, owing to concerns about overharvesting.
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It's not just ramps; other wild plants are at similar risk. In their 2012 cookbook Foraged Flavor, for instance, authors Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux organized wild plants into groups of green, yellow, and red, the first comprising species that should be picked with abandoned—mostly invasive, aggressive plants like garlic mustard. Yellow denoted plants that should be harvested advisedly, like ramps, elderflower, and cattails; the authors say a good rule of thumb is to take only 20 percent of what you find. Red plants, such as anise hyssop, should be picked only from your garden.
In California, the Berkeley Open Food Source is trying to spread the word on weeds—specifically wild foods that are available in urban areas. In the Bay Area these include nasturtium leaves, wild mustard and radish, and nuts from the California bay laurel tree, which Kristen Rasmussen says taste like "coffee and chocolate combined" when they're toasted. (She provides further information, and suggestions for further use, on her website.)
The organization has sponsored wild-food walks and wild-food weeks at local restaurants, and BOFS advocates for forager-friendly public policy, like reduced herbicide use. But the group is also thinking more creatively about what wild foods can do. For instance, trying to encourage farmers to sell weeds rather than discard them. And BOFS has mapped three areas in Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond with limited access to groceries and fresh produce, and where wild foods might provide easily accessible, affordable nutrition.
Part of the process involves soil testing to allay concerns over toxins. (And over other stuff: The first question in an FAQ on the organization's website is "What about dog pee?") And part of it is just about public education—teaching people to identify what's edible and what's not. This is probably easier in verdant Northern California than it might be in less temperate climes, but Rasmussen recommended getting a book or two—there's plenty out there—and asking around about local experts and foraging tours. "There's a lot of cool social networking happening in the wild-food world," she said.