FoodPrint team member Kristen Link recently moved upstate, to a house with a 2,700 square-foot backyard, complete with fruit trees, raised garden beds and lots of weeds. An expert gardener, Link was excited to navigate this new world of wild foods, and tame some of the weeds that threatened to overtake her garden, so she enlisted help from a friend, Sarah Carlisle, who consults on landscaping, foraging and wildlife through her project A Rascal Relish, to help explore her backyard.
"I've had garden space for years, but it's been city garden space and it's been a long time since I've had open space to kind of work with," says Link. "Not knowing the area or knowing the backyard — I don't know what our landlords have put in — it was just growing and basically becoming overwhelming very quickly."
Interest in foraging often centers around popular foods like ramps or morels — foods that grow wild, are native to the area and key to the ecosystem, supporting other plant or animal life. Native plants are naturally found and specially adapted to their particular ecosystem, vital to the continuation of the health and diversity of that ecosystem. This means foragers of those foods need to be mindful of over-harvesting.
Invasive species, aka true weeds, are non-native species that alter and threaten the environment of native species, competing and often taking over space, thus reducing biodiversity. By focusing on edible weeds, foragers can actually benefit the environment. As we've previously reported, there are many edible weeds that can be eaten and are great to harvest with abandon. "There are many wonderful edible or medicinal plants that are considered invasive weeds," Leda Meredith, who leads foraging tours in New York City, told us. "Things like dandelion, burdock and Japanese knotweed tend to be bullies that crowd out other plants, so you can harvest them freely without doing any damage to the native ecosystem; in fact, you are helping native plants."
During my coworker's backyard educational journey, which took place in early May, Link wanted to learn what she could pick to eat, what she should leave on its own and how she could manage weeds that were overtaking her backyard. "I knew the dandelion leaves and I was using some of those, but I knew that there had to be more," she says. "I didn't want to be driving myself crazy all summer trying to keep these weeds or plants from taking over everything, because they will, but also if I could get use out of them, I wanted to make sure I was doing that as well."
A big fear for newbie foragers, and one Link had as well, is not knowing what is edible and what is not, since poisoning yourself is a legitimate concern. Alexis Nikole Nelson, also known as Black Girl Forager, has become a foraging superstar thanks to her popular TikTok account, where she shares her food-finding wisdom. Making use of resources like Nelson's videos, Meredith's tours or Carlisle's backyard consulting can really help, and they all provide additional ideas for checking plants in the wild. On CBS science correspondent Allie Ward's Ologies podcast, Nelson says "That little layer of anxiety is something that keeps you safe. But I can't even fully communicate how you are truly using all of your senses for IDing." She suggests using the iNaturalist app, which crowdsources plant and animal observations and data, as well as a regional field guidebook. Meredith has written several books on foraging, and we have more suggestions here. And for Link, having a (virtual) tour of her garden with Carlisle, along with a follow-up report, gave her all the information she needed.
"I felt after the call like 'I can go out there and go grab all these things and use them without fearing that I'm going to kill myself,'" Link says. "And to find out the variety of what we had was really great."
Ready to go searching for your own edible weeds? Here are some of the more common, and safe, edible weeds to look for. And as with any foraging, be mindful of pesticides by avoiding areas that you know are sprayed.
You may be more familiar with dandelion's bright yellow flowers, but don't forget about the plant's deeply toothed leaves. Speaking on the Ologies podcast, Nelson suggests dandelions as an excellent entry-level edible weed. "Not just because they are almost universally recognizable, but because every single part of the plant is useful," she explains. "You can eat the flowers; you can pickle the flower stems. You can eat the greens. You can ferment the greens, making a sauerkraut with dandelion . . . The taproot, you can go ahead and eat it like a root veggie, though it's a little bit bitter . . . The whole plant is useful. I feel like that's a great gateway plant because if you have fun with that, odds are you will have fun with more of them."
The bright green dandelion leaves pop up in early spring and are great for eating in salads, soups, with eggs or braised as a side dish. The flowers are used raw in salads, can be pickled, used in baking, and are often lightly battered and fried. The dandelion buds are often pickled similarly to capers. And those bitter roots that Nelson mentioned can be roasted into a coffee substitute, or macerated in alcohol for bitters that you can use in cocktails.
While Link was already familiar with dandelions, she's happy to have them so easily accessible now. She sautés the leaves in oil and garlic for a simple side dish and adds handfuls to soup. "I've always loved using dandelion greens, something about the bitterness really appeals to me," she says "but it's much more rewarding when I can just grab some from my backyard."
Learn more about dandelions on FoodPrint.
Another spring favorite, chickweed is a quick-growing weed with small oval leaves and white star-shaped flowers. "The most delicious spring herb, in my opinion," Carlise told my coworker Link after their backyard exploration. "So minerally and juicy and verdant in flavor and scent!" She suggests eating it out of hand, adding it to salads and smoothies or infusing it into vinegar for a tonic.
As "Eat Wildly" author Ava Chin writes in The New York Times, chickweed is a tenacious plant that will choke out other plants trying to pop up during spring, which makes it fair game for plucking up. She had luck finding it in "large open spaces that get plenty of sun" such as public planters or raised garden beds, where it can quickly take over space. Link found this out first hand, and used the chickweed — which Chin says tastes like corn — fresh in salads throughout the spring. She also dried some ("there was so much!" she says), planning to add it to soups throughout the fall and winter.
While the early spring weed called stinging nettles are popular, harvesting and cooking with them includes facing their stinging hairs, which can cause irritation and a rash on the skin if not handled properly. Most of the nettles in North America are of the stinging variety, but there are a few, including the red dead nettles (also called the purple dead nettle) which Link found in her backyard, that are stingless. Although nettles are in the mint family, with similar shaped leaf and flower shape, they are not fragrant or minty.
Once cleaned and blanched (to remove the stings), nettles are often cooked like spinach, and used in a myriad of ways; nettle soup, sauce and pesto are popular, and you can also throw it into a frittata, use it to top off a pizza or stuff it in ravioli. Indigenous peoples have used nettles for both food and medicinal purposes for centuries, and historically also made use of the plant as a textile. Closely related to woven flax and stronger than cotton, nettle has been used to make twine, fishing nets and rope.
Read more about nettles on FoodPrint.
"This is the plant all the ramp foragers need to get hip to," Carlisle told my coworker Link. "Bitter and garlicky for sure, this is a super pernicious non-native with a negatively allelopathic trait that interferes with other more sensitive plants in its habitat, so feel free to harvest with abandon."
Basically, that means the invasive plant is a very prolific spreader, so you're better off foraging this than the often overpicked native ramp. Carlisle suggests harvesting the entire plant, as the taproot is also edible and tastes similar to horseradish. Her favorite way to use the green tops is in making kimchi, but they can also be added to pesto, salads, sautes or as a replacement for spring onion, scallion or garlic. The stems can be pickled and the flowers can also be eaten. Link used the garlic mustard she found for pesto, adding in some kale to help temper the weed's bite. "I'd say it was more earthy in flavor compared to traditional sweet basil pesto, " she says, "but it tasted very fresh!"
Another very invasive weed that is prevalent throughout the US is Japanese Knotweed. (According to Ologies' podcast host Ward, it runs rampant in every state except North Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and Hawai'i.) Often called American bamboo, the plant has large green leaves; bunched, small white flowers; and bamboo-like stems. During spring, the sprouts look similar to red asparagus and have a sour, rhubarb-like flavor. Japanese knotweed is so invasive, it's heavily sprayed with herbicides, but if you find an area that definitely hasn't been sprayed, dig in; Nelson says it's delicious.
"It's very rhubarb-esque, but slightly more vegetal than rhubarb. It does lend itself [to] both sweet and savory so well," she told Ward, sharing that she has used the weed in sweet sorbets and savory sautés and has friends who enjoy them in omelets. "When the shoots are young and you cook them just right, they get kind of melt-in-your-mouth when you cook them. They're delicious, and what a joy it would be if we just suddenly had cities with armfuls, truckfulls, of free, lemony, Japanese knotweed shoots instead of just dousing them in herbicides."
Narrow Leaf Plantain
One of Link's most interesting and useful finds in her backyard exploration was the plantain weed. Sometimes called the "white man's footprint" because of how quickly and wide it spread its growth, this common herb can be found on lawns, parks, sidewalks and more; you've more than likely seen it in parks or sidewalks dozens of times. There is a native variety (broadleaf), but the native and invasive varieties are relatively indistinguishable. The narrow-leaf plantain has narrow, long leaves with deep grooves and a tall seeded-stalk spiking from the center of the leaves, surrounded by a halo of petals. The leaves can be eaten in salads, dried for tea or used medicinally, topically, either directly or after being infused in oil. The seeds from the stalks can be dried, ground and used as an egg substitute.
Although lamb's quarters is occasionally cultivated on farms and in gardens, thanks to a rising interest in the nutritious plant, it grows most commonly as a weed in fields, along roadsides and in vacant lots. The plant has toothed leaves, which can be white, pink or red underneath as well as on the stems. Look for younger, smaller leaves if you want to eat them raw. The flowers, seeds, shoots and leaves are all edible. The plant is commonly cooked like spinach and used frequently in Indian cuisine (especially North Indian dishes) in raitas and daals. It is also a popular "wild green" in China and Korea.
"Lambsquarters out-spinaches spinach, in terms of pure greeny flavor," writes Chin in "Eating Wildly." "It's a much-desired vegetable in Bangladeshi and Persian cuisine, but here [in the US] it's considered a weed — even otherwise open-minded urban farmers I've met tend to treat it with disdain."
Read more about lamb's quarters on FoodPrint.
While beautiful, the iconic purple, blue and white flowers and heart-shaped leaves of wild violets are also an aggressive and invasive weed. Link found out she has these flowers growing under the fruit trees in her backyard, and while they look nice, she doesn't want the weeds to take over the ground beneath them. Luckily, both the leaves and blossoms are edible, both raw and cooked.
"The flowers of Viola odorata and some other species are fragrant and sweet, making them popular in desserts or syrups, but they're also a great edible flower to put in salads or dry for tea!" Carlisle told Link. She suggests making a violet leaf infusion or poultice for soothing an eye irritation or injury. The leaves and flowers can be eaten raw in salads, and the flowers can be used for baking and in infusions like syrups, jellies and vinegars.
Read more about edible flowers on FoodPrint.