Eating Local Species

If you have ever had a garden, or landscaped a front yard, you know that weeds sprout up everywhere, and it takes a good deal of work to remove them. Some of these unwanted plants, such as the goathead, are a real pain (literally), and not nice to have around. However, some of these “weeds” that are deemed “bad” and sprayed with herbicides, can actually be incorporated into our diets. Some are held sacred by other cultures, but unknown to us. Why do we pull out amaranth plants from around the Swiss chard in our gardens, when both are edible and can make similar dishes? In a time of growing food insecurity, and rethinking of our food systems, it makes sense to learn more about the plants of our bioregion, the desert Southwest. So, without further ado:

3 “Weeds” that are edible and delicious:

  1. Verdolaga, aka Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

This plant is very common in the Southwest and grows in sandy, marginal, and disturbed soil. It has a creeping form, with leafy tendrils lying on the ground, outward from a central point. Its stems are brown to maroon, leaves are oblong to egg shaped. The plant produces uncharismatic yellow flowers, and tiny black seeds. Verdolaga’s leaves and stems are succulent, meaning they have a hard waxy surface and a fleshy watery inside. The plant’s fleshiness makes it great for sautéing with onions, garlic, and other vegetables, and adds a lemony flavor to any dish, such as a fresh Greek salad with verdolagas and tomatoes. Verdolagas contain various nutrients similar to eating other leafy green vegetables such as spinach or arugula, but also contain a high amount of Omega-3 fatty acids.

  1. Lambsquarters, Goosefoot, quelites (Chenopodium album):

Another delicious green, lambsquarters, is an upright annual herb, that has one central stalk with whorled branches, and pointed leaves somewhat resembling… you guessed it: a goose’s foot. Leaves have a silvery whitish look, especially when young. Tufts of white seeds form at the top of the plant, and at the end of its prominent branches.

Lambsquarter is in the same genus as quinoa, the sacred grain of the Incan empire, and is related to beets and spinach. It is best harvested young, before the leaves get too tough. The stems and branches are woody and tough, and are somewhat bitter. One of my favorite ways to cook goosefoot is to sauté it with other greens in olive oil, and a splash of balsamic vinegar, or you could even eat it for breakfast.

  1. Amaranth, aka pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus, possibly other Amaranthus species):

Amaranth is a large genus native to several continents, with numerous cultivars and domesticated varieties. Amaranth was a sacred grain to the Aztecs of Mexico, but was banned by the conquistadores because of its association with pagan rituals.

One of the common species growing as a weed around town is Amaranthus retroflexus, which has small spiky flowers and sometimes red lines on the stems. It has a similar growth pattern to goosefoot with an upright central stem, and a large prominent seed plume at the top, which sometimes flops over on itself. Its leaves are narrow and pointed at the tip, usually have prominent veins.

Culinary recommendations are almost identical to goosefoot. Stems are too woody, so young plants are tastier than old plants. Seeds are edible, but a lot of work to harvest. Some plants I have eaten have a very bitter flavor, so add a little bit to a dish, or use lots of seasoning, such as in this traditional curry recipe from India.

By choosing to incorporate plants that are not found in the grocery store into your diet, there is personal responsibility with finding and eating these weeds. Here are a few words of caution:

  • The above listed plants are often unwanted by property owners and thus could be sprayed with herbicides.
  • Plants growing on the edges of major roads or railroad tracks could have pollution and dust on them.
  • The use of inorganic fertilizers has caused some of these plants to uptake harmful levels of nitrates if grown an area affected by fertilizer runoff.
  • Properly identify plants, and do not eat unknown plants.

My advice would be to not collect from a place you don’t know the history of, and don’t collect sickly plants. Better yet, collect seeds of these plants and grown them in your own backyard.

Even if you never get enthusiastic enough over eating local plants to sow your own verdolaga patch, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. So next time you are noticing the baby goosefoot sprouting along your driveway, at least have a little sympathy for these uninvited guests; they’re not as malicious as you think!

For further reading, check out:
Cajete, Gregory (1999). A People’s Ecology: Explorations in Sustainable Living. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishing.

Emery, Carla. “The Goosefoot Greens”. Encyclopedia of County Living Weblog.

Special thanks to UNM’s Cheo Torres for corroborating information as well!

-Posted by Tom

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