With all of our winter rains, our landscape no longer looks like a desert, but rather a verdant wilderness garden. Wild plants have sprung up prolifically in yards and alleys and open fields. Most of these are great foods and medicines, disguised as “weeds.”
Here are a few that are abundant right now. Many others will appear later in the year.
MALLOW (Malva neglecta)
Mallow is a European native which is found all over the U.S. and it’s currently seen growing in yards and fields and vacant lots. It’s recognized by its round leaves with fine teeth on the edges, and most people think it’s an ornamental geranium. The leaves are mild and can be added to salads, or any cooked dish, such as soup, or stews. The little fruits – sometimes called “cheeses” – can also be picked and eaten fresh, or they can be picked when mature and cooked to create a sort of “poor man’s rice.” Common mallow is related to another European plant, the marsh mallow. In the past, marsh mallow roots were boiled to create an egg white substance, then whipped to get an old-fashioned cough remedy. In Mexican herb shops, the dried mallow leaves, called “malva,” are sold so you can make a tea to treat coughs and sore throats. The fresh leaves are an excellent source of iron, calcium, and vitamin A.
SOW THISTLE (Sonchus oleraceus)
When most folks see a sow thistle, they think it’s a tall dandelion, since the flowers are nearly identical to dandelion. Sow thistle is from Europe, and it grows everywhere. It gets typically a few feet high, with clusters of the yellow dandelion-like flowers. The leaves of sow thistle are tender and palatable in salad (unlike dandelion, whose leaves must be cooked). Sow thistle leaves are also great in stews, egg dishes, soups, etc. Besides being a mild and tasty green, it’s a good source of vitamin A and calcium.
CHICKWEED (Stellaria media)
Chickweed is an annual plant from Europe which sprouts up after the rains, so we’re now seeing it “everywhere.” This is the time to enjoy this tender plant in salads. I make salads from chickweed whenever I can, adding dressing, tomatoes, olives. Yes, you can cook it in soup, or with eggs, but it’s really best raw. It has tender stems, with a fine line of white hairs along one side of the stem. Leaves are opposite and they come to a tip. There are five deeply cleft petals on each little flower. It’s very common. Interestingly, chickweed is also sold at health food stores in tea bags, as a diuretic.
STINGING NETTLE (Urtica dioica)
This plant seems to prefer wet areas, yet it does just as well in backyard urban gardens and little patches of soil downtown. During this wet winter, I have seen large patches of this European native sprouting up in residential gardens and along mountain streams and trails.
Yes, there’s that word “stinging” in its name, and if you brush up against it, lots of tiny hairs release their formic acid onto your skin, causing a stinging sensation that might last an hour or longer. This one doesn’t go into salad. However, the young tender tops of nettle can be cooked into soups and stews, eliminating the sting, and resulting in a delicious and very nutritious broth. It goes great with many dishes. The broth from cooking the nettle leaves, or just a tea made from the leaves, is full of nutritional and medicinal properties, as outlined by Dr. James Adams in his Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West.
THE WILD SELF-SUSTAINING GARDEN
Yes, lots of good, wild edibles are always sprouting up on their own. You can and should use them in your diet. In addition, you can try planting a garden that more or less takes care of itself, a self-sustaining garden. The key to this type of garden is to have good soil, and to constantly improve it with compost and a mulch.
What are some of the food plants that require little work, and nearly seem to take care of themselves?
Here are a few:
I have long marveled at how easy it is to grow potatoes. I simply plant potatoes that have sprouted, and I make sure they are in rich, loamy soil. The plant grows up, flowers, and after a few months when the leaves have died back, you can dig fresh potatoes out of your garden. If you just constantly leave a few in the ground, you’ll have a “forever” potato patch.
There are many species of Amaranth, and all are edible and beautiful. They can grow tall and they make great edible landscaping. The leaves of all have long been used in cooked green dishes, and in various Mexican dishes such as tamales. The seeds are a high-protein addition to soups and bread batter. If you let a few seeds scatter at the end of each season, you’ll always have some amaranth in your garden.
New Zealand Spinach
This is a perennial spinach which is native to the west coast of South America. It is easy to grow, and you’ll have spinach “forever.” I have a patch still going strong after more than 20 years. Just pinch some new leaves when you want a salad or soup, and you’ll never plant annual spinach again.
[Nyerges is an ethnobotanist and teacher who has led plant walks since 1974. He is the author of Guide to Wild food and Useful Plants, Foraging California, and other books on wild foods and survival. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]
This article is a part of the April / May 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.