Common garden ‘weeds’ that you didn’t know you could eat
PUBLISHED: 17:01 07 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:35 19 May 2017
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Autum is often seen as the season of most fruitful foraging as shrubs and plants produce all manner of berries and nuts that helped get generations of our forebears through the dark days of winter, writes Sheena Grant.
But, as I’ve been discovering this week, spring is a pretty good time to make use of all the free food nature has to offer too. What’s more, some of it can be found without even having to leave the confines of your own garden.
Now, I admit that some mental gymnastics can be required to get our minds away from the idea that all food, including fresh produce, has to come packaged, washed and scrubbed in a form we recognise from perusing supermarket shelves.
In addition, many of the plants that can be harvested and eaten from the countryside are commonly regarded as weeds rather than food. But if you suspend your imagination and just get stuck in, you might be surprised at how edible they are. So go on, get in touch with your inner hunter-gatherer and give it a try. At the very least it might mean a little less money spent in the supermarket, a little more time outdoors and perhaps, if you have to leave the confines of your own garden, a little more exercise too. On top of that, it’s also extremely satisfying to harvest your own fresh, organic free food from the countryside.
Here are a few to try.
1. Dandelion: Every garden has a few of these. Young leaves are said to be less bitter and can be used in salads. I’ve also used them to make dandelion and cheese scones in previous years. According to Roger Phillips, author of foraging book Wild Food, the petals can be used as a salad decoration while Carl Legge, author of The Permaculture Kitchen, says flower buds can be coated in a light batter and fried.
2. Stinging nettles are another abundant plant at this time of year and as well as being edible are great for wildlife too, being a food source for some butterfly caterpillars. Wear gloves - I use rubber kitchen ones - to harvest young leaves, wash and use in soups. I did this for the first time ever last week and can report the result was good. You can also sauté them with butter or use in risottos or pasta sauces. If your nettles get too tall and old for harvesting, cut them down and harvest the new shoots.
3. Cleavers: You might not recognise this plant by name but you’ll definitely be familiar with it. My son calls it sticky weed because of it’s velcro-like properties but apparently, it’s edible too. Carl Legge says it’s essential to take only young stems, which are tasty, not stringy and less than 10cm long with leaves 1-2cm long. According to Carl they are great steamed and buttered as a side veg, added to soups or sautéd with garlic and butter and added to spaghetti, scrambled eggs or omelettes. I have plenty of this in my garden but have some mental gymnastics to do here before taking them into the kitchen. I’d advise wearing gloves to harvest cleavers too as the ‘sticky’ hook-like hairs can irritate skin.
4. If you live close to the coast you could also try sea beet and sea kale, both of which grow on pebbly beaches.
As with any kind of foraging ensure correct identification before harvesting, don’t pick anything that could be contaminated by chemicals or passing dogs, don’t trespass and always harvest sparingly and sustainably without damaging or uprooting the plant.
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