Thursday, September 03, 2020

Eat those Weeds

Chickweed - Stellaria media tastes pleasant and green but has twice the iron of spinach, plus Vitamins A and C

Don’t toss those weeds unless it’s into a salad!

I’ve just come across a really interesting story about a man in North West Tasmania, Bruce French, who has been collecting data on the nutritional aspects of weeds in many countries with the aim of “helping the hungry to feed themselves.”

While the main purpose of Bruce’s work and the organisation he works with has been to catalogue information about traditional sources of food in poorer countries and to examine their nutritional value, it also has lessons for people in wealthy countries.  As he said in his Henry Somerset Reserve Lecture*

“What we have been busily, and I think unwisely doing over recent years, is reducing the range of plants that we grow and use as food. I think it leads to poor diets, poor ecology and unsustainable agriculture. The tide is turning fairly fast and instead of filling up bellies with the same bland few species and varieties, many people are again looking at ecologically sound, diverse food crop production. We have just about used up enough chemicals and sprays and water trying to prop up our narrow range of varieties, and the time has come for a fresh agro -ecological approach to food production.

In a small section of the world where this narrow diet range is producing unprecedented obesity while the other half of the world dies of under-nutrition, it is time for us to show a social conscience. One child dying of malnutrition every 4-5 seconds is an obscenity. It is also unnecessary. Malnutrition of both the obesity and under-nutrition varieties is limiting lifestyles as well as life-spans. In terms of human dignity and human potential that is tragic.”

 And let’s not forget those poor people in wealthy countries either, whose diet is often less than optimal too. Not everyone can afford to be a locavore, shopat farmer's markets or buy expensive organics.

 

Sow Thistle - Soncheus Oleraceous - Young leaves are good in salads and soups. they contain iron, calcium and vitamins

I am not going to suggest using native plants because we have too few of those already, only those European plants which have become naturalised here. Nor am I going to suggest foraging, especially not from roadsides or waste ground, because you don’t know if they’ve been sprayed or affected by other contaminants such as lead, heavy metals or animal waste. It’s much better to leave a little wild space somewhere in your garden or even a planter box into which you can sprinkle a few seeds.  Nor should you eat anything you don’t know. Ask a nursery or your local Botanic Garden if you aren’t sure. Some plants though not poisonous, naturally contain chemicals such as oxalates to which some people may be allergic. Always try a small quantity first and always wash them well too. No responsibility or liability is accepted for any ill effects.

 

Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale - A tenacious dandelion struggled up through dead vegetation.Young leaves are good in salads, the root is often roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. It is rich in iron and calcium and has many Vitamins including A, B6, E and K.

 

In Germany people used to have a green soup in early spring to cleanse the body after the heavy food of winter – the salt meats and rich cakes. My favourites for that are nettles, chickweed, sorrel and young sow thistles. Most of these greens also work well in smoothies or omelettes or just as an addition or replacement for silver beet and lettuce which usually aren’t abundant yet. The French have long used tender shoots of dandelion as a staple in their salads and cultivate them especially for that. In other words, they treat them as we do celery and cover them to keep them pale and tender.  Sometimes scorned as “bed wetters’ in Australia, the onion smelling weed with triangular leaves and green striped white bell flowers, not to be confused with snowdrops, are highly sought after in Denmark as wild garlic. Please check with someone first though as many bulbs are toxic. Sorrel adds a sharp lemony tang to potato soup or something bland like cottage cheese, but use sparingly as too much oxalate isn’t that good for you. Nasturtium leaves add a fresh peppery flavour to salads and are excellent on egg sandwiches. Fennel seed can be used in place of caraway particularly in pickles and the green fronds are delicious with fish. They are said to hold the scales together as well as making it easy to digest. Be careful with the seeds.  Although bees love it, fennel is regarded as a pest so don’t let them fall to the ground.

Wood Sorrel has a sour taste and lots of Vitamin C. It was widely used in England before much larger French Sorrel became available

 

It’s true that some weeds can become pests or out -compete the cultivated plants we try to grow, but to my mind, that means we aren’t eating them fast enough. If we can make use of them we not only add new flavours and some variety to our diet, but keep their populations in check. Some are now being specifically grown for the supermarket and restaurant trade. Think of Mesclun salad for example, what is it but a mixture of assorted leaves and sometimes flowers? 

 

Nasturtium - Tropaleum Majus. Both leaves and flowers add peppery zing to salads and egg dishes and the flowers can also be stuffed with cream cheese for a colourful appetiser and one that's packed with vitamins too

 

I have always been a weed lover, and not just because I am a lazy gardener. Where the ground is loose, they bind the soil and retain water. Where it’s heavy or hard -packed clay, weeds will send their roots down and break up the soil for other plants. They also draw up nutrients and provide shelter from wind and sun for young seedlings. They attract bees and other pollinators and some weeds can even repel insects or attract them so that they leave other crops alone.  A mosaic of plants also tends to discourage the spread of disease and pests. Though it does make harvesting more difficult and lowers crop yields, it is much better than no crop at all.  The fact that weeds also have nutritional and even medicinal benefits is a bonus. 

 

Pot Marigold or Calendula - Calendula officinalis- makes a lovely addition to the garden or a salad. In England before the arrival of saffron, the petals were used to colour cakes so they would look as if they had been made with a lot of eggs.  

 For many more non -native suggestions for Australia see "The Forager's Handbook," by  Adam Grubb and Annie Raser -Rowland, Hyland House, 2012, 2013, 2014

 


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