Getting to know and use edible weeds

Weeds are generally regarded as plants to despise and pull out of the garden.

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 For many years, in countries that have enjoyed prosperity and plenty, people have overlooked the importance of weeds as food. In many third-world countries, the gathering of weeds and wild food plants is essential to their survival, especially in times of drought or other catastrophes, when regular (often, meagre) food sources are scarce.

In times of food shortage, such as during the two World Wars, the virtues of weeds were rediscovered. At the Herb Farm, I have had a number of senior citizens tell me, when visiting, of eating weeds to survive as young children during World War II.

Today, in our peaceful country and comfortable lives, we cannot possibly imagine the suffering, terror and destruction of war. But I am encouraging every fellow Australian to ‘be prepared’. There may be a time when we do not have peace and prosperity; so, discover edible weeds and familiarise yourselves with these, now.

Until now, many weeds in your garden have been regarded as unwelcome pests, due to the work that is required to eradicate them.

Weeds have many characteristics:
• They appear where man has disturbed the soil.
• Fast growing weeds often smother and deplete the fertility of the soil from our garden plants.
• Many weeds act as natural ploughs, bringing up beneficial nutrients that would never, otherwise, surface.
• Readily self-seed, producing large quantities of more weeds.
• Difficult to control. Some weeds are so hardy they can sprout in rock walls, shoot between pavement cracks, and grow on rooftops. They are truly exceptional plants.

I am not suggesting that the weeds be allowed to take over the garden; but that, as you pull young edible weeds, make use of some of them as a food, as many have a higher nutrient content than commercially grown greens we buy. And many of these weeds are endowed with remarkable healing properties.

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Before eating weeds, it is your responsibility to positively identify any plant material. Not all weeds are edible, and careless experimentation by eating, could be dangerous. There are numerous edible weeds that have a similar appearance to poisonous plants; so, accurate identification is essential. For example, edible Chickweed Stellaria media, is similar to Petty spurge Euphorbia peplus, (which should never be eaten as it has a milky latex sap in the stems and leaves). Plants containing milky latex should be regarded with caution, as many are known to be toxic; however, not all white-sapped plants are poisonous (eg dandelion, chicory, fig). If animals are seen eating plants this does not, necessarily, mean it is a reliable indication that they are suitable for human consumption. Birds may provide a better indication, but are by no means infallible, as poisonous seeds may pass through a bird without absorption. Certainly, do not look to insects for endorsement as to what may be edible for us humans. The larva of the common crow butterfly spends its life munching through oleander leaves, while just one leaf of oleander has been known to kill a human.

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Ways to eat weeds:
• Many weed leaves can be eaten raw. Nibble on leaves when in the garden or add to a tossed salad, tuck in a sandwich, or use as a garnish on a meal.
• Add leaves to a cup of boiling water in a teapot, and add other herbs to give aroma and flavouring, like lemon grass or spearmint. Stir, steep a few minutes, drink, and enjoy the health promoting benefits.
• Place leaves in a blender with fruit juices (I like using orange or pineapple) and blend to make a nutrient-rich smoothie.
• Pickle the fresh leaves in apple cider vinegar, adding garlic, onions and herbs for flavouring. ” Use as a potherb like our ancestors did, by adding handfuls of fresh leaves to soups, stews, steamed vegetables, curries, starchy grains or rice dishes.
• Incorporate leaves in recipes like quiche, pesto, stir-fries, fritters, casseroles, sauces, spreads and dips.
• Dry the leaves, then crush to a fine powder with your hands. Put in containers for a stored survival food to add to soups, stews, etc.
• Add some dried powdered leaves to dried herbs in a saltshaker to use for flavouring meals, as a nutrient-rich salt substitute.
• Mix all ingredients well … to give your dog a healthy, balanced diet.

Since ‘survival’ in the broadest sense, suggests we may need to be able to live outside the system of supermarkets, our knowledge of edible weeds must be acquired now. Many kinds of edible weeds can be found over a wide area in Australia, while some are found in more precise areas or various climatic conditions.

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The plants listed below are not in any particular order of usefulness, but, given in order of more commonly seen, throughout Australia.


Purslane also called Munyeroo and Pigweed Portulaca oleracea, p 53. A number of other Portulaca species are found worldwide in tropical to temperate climates and have been a food source for large populations of people. Purslane was growing in Australia before white man came. Early explorers observed Indigenous Australians collecting the tiny black seeds to mix with water and cook in hot ashes. The flavour of the seed is much like linseed. An annual plant and extremely hardy, purslane grows as a thick, mat-like ground cover with succulent stems, often with a red tinge; oval, succulent leaves, 1-3cm long, develop in clusters at stem nodes; small yellow flowers set at the nodes and ends of stems. Seed capsules are small, peaked cones, full of tiny black seeds, the size of fine sand. Each plant has potential to produce thousands of seeds and it is said that their germination power can last seven years, plus.

Purslane grows without any help in sun or shade, in any soil and climate, without fertiliser or water. On our trip around Australia, we saw it growing in the harshest desert conditions of Central Australia (and ‘nature’s big garden’ provided us with fresh green leaves, a real treasure for us from the heart of Australia).

Leaves are mild in flavour, slightly sour, mucilaginous, and an excellent source of vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Eating 5 sprigs 10cm long of purslane daily, provides over 550mg of calcium: a great nutritional benefit to the bones for anyone from toddler to later years. (From the website of the Association of Women for the Advancement of Research and Education.)

The scientific discovery, in 1980, by Dr Artemis Siopoulious, that purslane leaves are a rich source of alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), the omega-3 form, highlights how valuable the plant can be in our daily lives. This plant can supply us with a backyard source of omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFAs) to add to our daily diet. Researchers have found that omega-3 helps provide protection from cancers and regulates the metabolism: correcting blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides. A recent TV presentation on the EFAs highlighted purslane, and the benefits of EFAs to the cardiac, immune and nervous systems; also for the brain, and for memory recall. EFAs nourish the body at the very foundation of health, the cellular level. EFAs strengthen cell membranes and help fortify against the invasion of harmful micro-organisms. EFAs also help dissolve body fat, reduce cravings for sweet and fatty foods.

Purslane has a cooling effect on the body, and its high alkalinity is helpful in alleviating acidic stomachs and various other ailments stemming from acidic or toxic conditions.

Use leaves fresh, added to salads, stir-fries, quiche, egg dishes, soups, and pickled. For relieving thirst, purslane leaves are held under the tongue.

Most references say that the weed can be eaten freely, and I know of people who have eaten it by the large handful, daily. However, keep in mind that leaves do contain oxalic acid & about the same as spinach, although the young leaves would be less concentrated in oxalic acid than the older leaves. The general assumption is that the sourer the leaves, the higher the oxalic acid. The relationship between calcium and vitamin D deficiencies and oxalate-related health problems, have been reported by a number of researchers. Note: a high oxalic acid intake is not considered to be a problem if foods rich in calcium (vegetables, greens and dairy products), as well as daily sunshine for vitamin D synthesis, are also typical in everyday life. An American study found that 120g of purslane, eaten daily, did not pose any problems to health. For further information on oxalic acid, see under the sheep sorrel listing in my book, ‘How can I use herbs in my daily life?’

Dr A.S. Czechowicz and S. Talalaj in their book, ‘Herbal remedies harmful and beneficial effects’, list purslane as, ‘a harmless medicinal plant with no adverse effects being reported’.

Purslane is sometimes called pigweed; no doubt, because it has been fed to stock, particularly pigs. Poultry also enjoy it. Fed to goats and cows, it is reputed to increase their milk production, and it may assist, similarly, for women. It has been found that cattle can travel long distances when fed on the plant.

Purslane has a long history of therapeutic uses. Valued as a tonic to the liver, the intestines and the whole body, it is an ancient Chinese herb for longevity. The plant contains dopamine, which has been found of real advantage for strengthening the pituitary gland and treating Parkinson s Disease and other shaking disorders.

Many people esteem and eat purslane for the powerful antioxidant properties and its alkalising benefits. Don’t underestimate the healing properties of purslane; even King Henry VIII (1491-1547) esteemed purslane. Known for his famous gluttony and the number of wives he violently dispatched into the next world when they ceased to please him; lesser known, though, was his interest in botanical medicine and collection of over 100 favourite recipes archived in the British Museum. One remedy, using purslane, caught my attention: To coole and comfort the Kinges member hee pissethe.  Today, anyone could try purslane for kidney, bladder, urethra and (for men) prostate problems & quite probably, King Henry had an enlarged prostate, causing pain with slow and difficult discharge. The King s recipe: take 1 cupful chopped purslane leaves and cover with 3 cups boiling water steeped 30 minutes, strain, and take warm, several cupfuls at a time & and the results? The Kinges highness had his payne and heat taken awaye  whenever he urinated.

Another of King Henry’s own formulas was, To ease the payne and swelling about the ankles  because his excessive eating and drinking had resulted in gout. He found great relief by drinking tea made by combining equal parts of purslane and chickweed, ½ cup of chopped leaves of each, steeped in 3 cups of boiling water. King Henry would drink several cups of this tea, about an hour after one of his traditionally heavy meals. Plantains: Broad leafed plantain Plantago major, p 67, perennial 30-60cm tall, a rosette of wide leaves 4-10cm long, with prominent longitudinal veins. Plants send up a number of fine leafless stems, each with a terminal spike of small, inconspicuous, green-white flowers, followed by small seed capsules containing hundreds of very fine brown seeds. Narrow leafed plantain, also known as Ribwort P. lanceolata, a perennial, similar to broad leafed plantain in form, but with narrow leaves 1-3cm wide and 5 prominent veins; flower heads have fluffy yellow pollen sacs. Buckshorn plantain P. coronopus, has very narrow leaves, 1cm wide, 5-20cm long, lobed margins that look similar to horn-like spurs, hence the name buckshorn plantain. Plantain has had a long history as a potherb in Europe, Asia, and North America. It is best to use the young leaves, as older leaves tend to be rather fibrous. Eat leaves raw and add to cooked dishes. Taste is slightly bitter, with a mild mushroom flavour. Buckshorn plantain leaves are very palatable and look very attractive as a garnish. Plantain seeds and husks may be added to meals for benefits of fibre and nutrients. Some people like the seeds sprinkled on top of muesli for breakfast. If plantain seeds are soaked in hot water they will form a thick, jelly-like consistency, which indicates the mucilage content. If left to cool and added to fruit juice, an enjoyable smoothie can be drunk, which can help to stimulate the reflex action of the bowel. Mucilage is found in many plants and eating edible plants with mucilage is most beneficial, as mucin lines the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, protecting from irritation, acidity and inflammation. This mucin also benefits the mucous membranes of the throat, lungs, kidneys and urinary tubes. Plantain is valuable for any bleeding, internal and external. Use this on scratches and severe cuts, as the plant accelerates clotting and scab formation, and promotes skin growth. Allantoin is the substance in the leaves that helps knit the cells back together and reduce inflammation. Plantain is antiseptic, and also an astringent (an action that pulls tissues together). Use the leaves as a wash, as a poultice and, internally, as a tea or edible leafy greens. Other therapeutic uses include: to correct high cholesterol and blood pressure, candida, thrush, diarrhoea, digestive conditions and gastrointestinal ulcers, constipation, cancer, haemorrhoids; glandular complaints, spleen, bladder, kidney, liver and lung disorders; skin conditions, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and as a tonic for the blood. Next time you are afflicted with a sore throat, use plantain tea as a gargle, and drink it as a tea for its immune boosting benefits. When bitten by ants, bees, white-tailed spider, mosquitoes or sandflies, crush a plantain leaf in the hands (or chew the leaf) and rub the crushed leaf on the bite. Plantain has also had use for addictions: eg tobacco.

Throughout history, plantain has been a valuable healing herb. My herbal mentor always said, Wherever white man goes, there goes plantain . This saying could be explained: firstly, that white man discovered and revered the many healing properties of the plant and always took seed with him when settling in new areas. Secondly, relating to the fact that the seeds swell up when damp and stick to the clothes, and thus could have been spread widely – and indeed, plantain is a common weed of great value.

Chickweed Stellaria media, p 54, a common annual weed in gardens, roadsides and parks. Thrives in the cooler months and in shade, as a sprawling ground cover with soft 1cm long, ovate-shaped, lime green leaves; a line of tiny white hairs runs down the opposing sides of each stem, between each pair of leaves; star- like, tiny white flowers form at stem terminals. In some areas of Europe, chickweed is encouraged in orchards, as it is believed to increase yields of fruit. For this reason, it was planted in vineyards on the Rhine.

The flavour of young leaves could be considered as a cross between comfrey and lettuce; so, perhaps we could say it is a chlorophyll fix! Chickweed has a protein content of 15-20%. Leaves are rich in iron, and a good source of calcium, chromium, cobalt, molybdenum, magnesium, manganese, silicon, zinc, and vitamin C (analysis has found between 150-350mg per 100g of leaves).

Eat leaves raw, cooked and made as a tea. Add leaves to pesto, sandwiches, scrambled eggs, and tossed salads. The highly nourishing leaves have been used to build up undernourished children, and for people convalescing from illness.

Chickweed has been esteemed as an internal cleanser and external healer. It is a soothing and healing herb for the entire digestive system, helping to relieve conditions such as inflammation, ulceration, and bowel disorders. It is said that chickweed possesses many of the healing properties of the valued American Indian remedy, slippery elm. All respiratory complaints can benefit from chickweed. It also has been used as atea and the leaves are eaten for arthritis, rheumatism, blood poisoning, constipation, colitis, gastritis, acid indigestion, diabetes, candida, cancer, fatigue, fractures, mouth ulcers, to strengthen the heart, improve eyesight and to assist the function of the thyroid, liver, gall, kidneys, bladder and lymphatic system. Stellaria media, the plants botanical name, means little star and this plant with its star flowers, in herbal folklore is a ‘star’ at helping, when we need to gently dissolve something, or to relieve and cool inflamed tissue. As a folk remedy, taken daily over a number of months, it has been known to dissolve cysts, lumps in the breast and elsewhere in the body. Chickweed also thins the membranes of the cells, so that nutrients are more readily absorbed and utilised.

Leaves made as a poultice, wash, infusion in oil or ointment are used to give soothing relief and healing to burns, bites, heat rash, all skin conditions, haemorrhoids, painful joints, tendons and ligaments.

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Cobblers Pegs
Cobblers Pegs

Cobblers’ pegs Bindens pilosa, p 54, is an annual bush to 50-100cm; leaves with fine serrated margins form in groups of 3 -5; the 5mm diameter flowers are small daisies with yellow centres and cream-coloured petals. Of all the wild foods available in Australia, this weed, otherwise known Farmers’ friends (they love to be your friends) would have to be the most unpopular. And yet, in many parts of the world, it is considered the most widely eaten wild plant: for many people, a food for daily survival. It is recognized by its clusters of narrow, black seeds 1cm long; and 2-3 fine, barbed projections at the apex that are a very efficient means of seed dispersal, as these ‘pegs’ just love to catch on clothing and have a free ride.

Let me tell you of an experience I had with the seed. Many years ago, when looking through an overseas botanical seed catalogue, a listing caught my eye, ‘Bindens pilosa: an Aztec herb with diuretic properties’ (a diuretic may relieve fluid retention in the body). I added these to the list of seeds I ordered. To my surprise, when the seeds arrived and I opened the packet of seeds, the seeds looked very much like cobblers’ pegs. When I checked the botanical name of cobblers’ pegs: yes, what I had ordered from USA was, indeed, cobblers’ pegs! We did not really need any more cobblers’ pegs on our farm. This is where being familiar with botanical names can be a definite advantage.

Leaves are eaten raw, added to cooked dishes, made as a tea, and dried and stored for future use as a survival food. Leaves are a very good source of chlorophyll, vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. Tannin, in the plant, has made it a treatment for diarrhoea and dysentery, and for respiratory congestion.

Flowers and leaves are chewed for toothache. Research in Thailand, in 2006, found that cobblers’ pegs have strong antibacterial activity against dental caries pathogen Streptococcus mutans. This anaerobic bacterium, commonly found in the mouth, is a significant contributor to tooth decay, as it sticks to the surface of the teeth while metabolising sugar and other energy sources from the foods we eat. Then, these microbes produce large amounts of acid that cause cavities in the teeth. So, possibly, cobblers’ pegs are not so bad in our garden, after all. Perhaps, if we chew some leaves after eating, this could help prevent tooth decay, the pain of toothache and costly visits to the dentist, too. Other plants found to have this antibacterial action in this research, were Clove basil Ocimum gratissimum, and Japanese honeysuckle Lonicera japonica.

Man has found that this persistent weed has given relief from many ailments. In fact, one researcher listed over ninety, which included: allergies, angina, baldness, biliousness, cancer, candida, colitis, constipation, diabetes, fevers, food poisoning, gastroenteritis, gout, gall stones, infections, heat rash, headache, haemorrhoids, insect bites, indigestion, liver diseases, malaria, nervous problems, parasites, obesity, rheumatism, scurvy, tonsillitis, tuberculosis, ulcers, urinary infections, and vomiting & to name a few uses. It is probable that these seeds need to stick to us for good reason, so why should we despise such a useful plant!

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