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‘If you can’t beat them, eat them’ has become quite a common saying with reference to the many plants that gardeners classify as weeds but are often in fact a nutritious food source. Gathering wild food has actually become rather fashionable and some of the top London restaurants currently employ foragers to bring them in wild, edible plants.

Not only are these foods free but often have a much higher nutritional value than cultivated species. Nutrients often become diluted or even eradicated with commercial crops which are forced for maximum yield.

Many of the wild plants or weeds have traditionally been used in folk medicine for their medicinal properties. In fact many of those labelled witches in the Middle Ages were in fact just talented herbalists who knew how to unlock the ‘magic’ in the plants. There are a wealth of resources on the Internet for exploring the subject of using plants for health purposes. These include the charitable organisation known as Plants for the Future who have many online leaflets detailing the various medicinal properties of different plants at www.pfaf.org

The following five plants, usually called weeds, can all be found growing wild in gardens, in hedgerows or by the roadside and are easily identified.

– Dandelion –

There are very few people who are not familiar with this plant and, although many are aware that it can be used for culinary purposes, it is still not widely utilised in this way. Dandelion is an extremely versatile weed as the entire plant – flowers, stalks, leaves and roots – can all be eaten.

The leaves of the dandelion can be used as a salad green although many people find their taste too bitter even when they are picked young in early spring. The factors which increase the bitterness of the plant are lessened where the dandelion is growing in moist, shady soil.

Some people recommend boiling the leaves for about 3 minutes to reduce the bitterness while others will mix with other salad greens to reduce its harsh effect.

Dandelion vinegar can be made from stuffing a jar as full as possible with chopped leaves and covering with cider vinegar and then leaving to steep for 6 weeks.

Dandelions can also be used to make honey, wine or the roots can be roasted in an oven to make coffee.

– Alexanders –

This plant grows in great abundance in parts of Britain and most people are unaware of this plant’s versatile culinary uses. As with the dandelion, all parts can be consumed including the seeds which can be used very much like cardomom to add aromatic flavourings to cooking.

Alexanders can be used fresh as a salad leaf or the stems can be cooked as a green by boiling for 5 minutes and adding butter and lime juice. Alternatively the unopened flower buds can be added to salads. The flavour of Alexanders is said to be somewhere between that of parsley and celery.

Alexanders can become bitter as it ages so young shoots and leaves are often prized over more established plant growth.

– Garlic mustard –

This widely found plant is easily identified as the leaves and flowers give off a strong garlic smell when crushed between the fingers. Also commonly known as Jack-by-the-hedge, Garlic mustard will be one of the first plants to show itself in spring and is best gathered during its early growth to avoid the bitterness that can develop with older plants.

Both the flowers and leaves, when added to a salad, will add pungency while chopped roots are reminiscent of horseradish flavouring. The roots can also be used to make a spicy condiment when left to soak in cider vinegar. Furthermore, the seeds of this plant are edible and when added to cooking or salads give a strong mustard flavour.

– Chickweed –

Chickweed is another weed which most people are familiar with and is the bane of many a gardener’s life as it grows so rapidly. Chickweed has a sweet flavour and its green parts are often mixed with dandelion greens to neutralise the latter’s bitterness.

Rich in many vitamins and minerals including A, B group and C, chickweed can be added to almost any dish such as soup, casseroles and curries to add flavour.

– Fat Hen –

Also known as Goosefoot, this large leafed weed is a good spinach substitute and as with so many of the wild plants it is edible in its entirety. Fat Hen can be used fresh in salads or lightly boiled as a green.  It is best to use the youngest top shoots, stalks and flower heads for the most palatable flavours. Once the plant has finished flowering the seeds can be gathered and eaten too.

It is of course advisable to make yourself very familiar with the various means of plant identification to avoid picking and using the wrong plant. Some of the edible weeds have similarities with other species that are either unpalatable or can have adverse health effects when consumed.

It is also as well to be aware that any food gathered from the wild may have been subjected to animal contamination so thorough cleaning of plants after they have been gathered is recommended.

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Source:

  1. Eatweeds – Wild Food Guide to the Edible Plants of Britain
  2. Wild Food School – Urban Foraging Guide and Foraging eBooks