Weed eaters

Get wild with your food

A weed, many will tell you, is simply whatever you don’t want in your garden. By that logic, a rogue strawberry plant could be considered a weed. Stronger cases for the four-letter word, however, can be made when it comes to particularly aggressive plants that spread their roots, drop their seeds and thwart your attempts to grow something more appealing, like grass, perhaps, or lettuce.

Like lettuce, however, a number of plants we commonly curse and pull up by the roots—only to find them spring back, seemingly in our faces—can also be tossed into a salad to nourish our bodies. They’re also cheap, as in free, and could come in handy if you’re ever having an Into the Wild moment.

“Everyone’s been focusing on having an edible landscape,” says Wendy Hanson Mazet, Master Gardener coordinator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. “You don’t realize you probably already do, but most of them are weeds.”

Hanson Mazet recalls a stinging nettle souffle served to her at a gourmet restaurant in Portland, Ore. “It was actually very good,” she says.

Some other, edible weeds you can find in Northern Nevada include:

Dandelions. Edible raw or cooked, these pesky beauties can be thrown into a salad, or lightly sautéed with olive oil, salt and pepper. Find them March through September. The leaves are less bitter when they’re small in the springtime and before their flowers bloom. You can also eat the flower. The root can be chopped, dried and steeped in hot water to make “dandelion coffee,” which is more like a tea but has a coffee taste without the caffeine.

Chicory. This plant is found in local pastures and its root, when dried and ground, has also long been used in the South to replace coffee. With no caffeine, it’s often still blended with coffee for an acquired, earthy taste.

Purslane. This succulent plant, so ubiquitous in sidewalk cracks and abandoned lots, is high in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins A, C and E. Add it to soups, salads or sandwiches, raw or cooked. “One of our Master Gardeners tried to convince people to leave it [in their gardens] because it could be harvested, and they were like, ‘Absolutely not. That thing’s a weed,’” says Hanson Mazet.

Red clover, white clover. High in protein, both types of clover can be thrown into salads or cooked as greens. They can even be dried and ground into a flour.

Bull thistle. If you can get past its intimidating armor, the leaves and stems, once stripped of its spines, can be eaten cooked or raw. You go first.

Sow thistle. This one looks a lot like a dandelion, with a similar yellow flower and arrow-tipped leaves, but a broken stem reveals a milky sap inside. And like dandelion, it tastes better in the springtime—like lettuce when raw, similar to chard when cooked. High in omega-3s, try it in a quiche, frittata or gratin. (As with most vegetables, when in doubt, cover with cheese, butter and eggs.)

A word to the wise from Hanson Mazet: “Always make sure you’ve identified the plant properly, and that it’s on your property so you know no chemicals or pesticides have been applied to it.”