WEEDS YOU CAN EAT

Published in The Nimbin Good Times, June 2005.

Nimbin Plant Selection Guide

David McMinn


After reading my previous NGT articles on weeds, a gardener could become quite depressed thinking that all they have to look forward to is years of weeding. However, on the positive side, some weeds can provide a bountiful harvest of food. Why bother going to the trouble of cultivating, irrigating and caring for your vegetable garden, when you can go out and pick nature's bounty for free. A proportion of your greens can be easily provided from wild weeds. The following covers some of the edible weeds growing in our area, which are mainly suitable for adding to salads or using as a boiled vegetable. Numerous weed recipes are available on the internet. A few key points need to be made.

As for commercial vegetables, pick the leaves when they are young and tender.

When harvesting weeds, always leave some plants to set seed for next year's crop.

Edible weeds are much higher in vitamins and minerals than supermarket vegetables. 

Make sure that the area where you are collecting weeds has not been sprayed with chemicals.

There are about 50,000 edible plant species worldwide, but only about 150 can be found in supermarkets. Most people would regularly eat the produce of only about 30 species. 

CAUTION: Make sure that you identify the plant species correctly. An error can result in serious illness or even death. One woman picked some leaves off a shrub, made a herb tea and died. The plant was the highly toxic Oleander. A good background knowledge is required to harvest and cook weeds properly. An excellent reference is Wild Herbs of Australia by Tim Low, which gives an informative coverage with many botanical illustrations. This is out of print, but may be available on the internet or in public libraries. If there is any doubt identifying a particular weed species, do not eat it. As for bush fungii, it is wise to be very careful.

Peter Hardwick, the local bush food expert, may conduct workshops on edible weeds, if there is enough interest. Phone: 66890304. Email: hardwickpl@hotmail.com

A Bountiful Weed Harvest

Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium album). Also known as Fat Hen. It is a shrubby, annual plant growing about 0.5 to 1.5m tall, with leaves that are green above and mealy white below. I like to serve this as a soup to my vegetarian friends. Half way through the course, I ask them how they liked the lamb's quarters soup. There is stone cold silence and a look of horror crosses their face.  

Cobbler's Pegs (Bidens pilosa). It is a widespread, untidy plant growing 0.5 to 1.0m. It is most easily recognised by its black seeds, which are about 1cm long and have a few barbs at one end that attach to passing animals or humans. People are often seen with the irritating seeds clinging to their clothing after walking through paddocks or the garden. The leaves are bitter to taste and not very palatable, but it is still widely eaten in Africa as a pot herb. It can be used in small amounts in cooked foods, with the bitterness being disguised by other foods. The plant's only real virtue is that it is so plentiful. 

Indian Strawberry (Duchesnea indica) is cultivated for spring greens in the mid west of the USA. It looks similar to commercial strawberry, except it has yellow flowers. The leaves can be added to salads and the ripe fruit eaten even though it tastes rather insipid. Alas, it is now rarely encountered, as it was displaced by the invasive Tropical Chickweed in the mid 1990's.

Purslane (Portulacca oleracea) is low lying, spreading small plant, with triangular leaves, thick succulent stems and small yellow flowers. Its use as a vegetable can be traced back at least 2000 years in India and Iran. Purslane may be utilised raw in salads or any recipe requiring a green vegetable.  

Watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) is found along creeks in sunny positions. The leaves are bright green and the stems are hollow and brittle. The petite white flowers produce small elongated pods containing the seeds. Watercress establishes itself every few years, when there is ample water flowing in the creeks but with no flooding to wash away the plants. Make sure you cook the leaves thoroughly. Snails on wild watercress may carry parasitic liver fluke that can infect humans.  

Dock (Rumex species) is commonly found growing in damp areas. The various species appear during wet periods and may be harvested frequently. For dinner parties, I have made a delicious mulligatawny (curry soup), using dock leaves as the main ingredient.

Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a small herb with soft leaves and small white flowers, usually found in shady moist sites. When cut, the stems do not ooze white sap. Cut your Chick Weed with scissors every 4 to 7 days and it will produce tender leaves all spring, which may be used in salads. Do not confuse with Tropical Chickweed. 

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a weed of pastures and gardens, most commonly distinguished by its yellow flowers and fluffy seed heads. All parts of the plant are edible, apart from the flower stalk and the seed. The leaves may be added to salads, although they may be a little bitter for some palates. The roots can be cooked and eaten, while the young, unopened flower buds may be used as a salad green. The plant may be easily confused with Catsears (Hypochoeris species), which is also edible. Catsears has a flower stem which forks to produce several yellow flowers, while the Dandelion only has one flower per stalk. 

Many other edible weeds can be seen around the Nimbin area  - Amaranths (Amaranthus species), Wandering Jew (Commelina species), Peppercress (Lepidium species), Cape Gooseberries (Physalis species), Nettles (Urtica species) and many others. Unfortunately with the drier weather over the past decade, the weed harvest has been noticeably reduced. Some species which were quite common in the 1980's have become rare or even locally extinct.

All the best eating and enjoying your dock curry soup and purslane salad greens.

         
Copyright.   2005. David McMinn. All rights reserved.