By Linda Formichelli
What used to be reviled by many gardeners is now considered gourmet—weeds (which are actually wild greens) like dandelion, lambsquarters, and nettle are showing up on restaurant menus and at farmer's markets, and in recipes for main dishes, soups and sides.
People have always eaten wild greens and they are more common in rural areas, but now they're also catching the attention of chefs and people looking to eat locally.
And for good reason. Edible wild greens are tasty, low in calories, and high in vitamins—plus other nutrients, depending on the type of plant. They've developed natural systems to help them grow strong even in harsh environments. They are also rich in disease-fighting phytochemicals.
Wild greens are also versatile—they taste great sautéed in olive oil and in soups and casseroles, and some can be tossed raw into salads and piled on sandwiches. However, "They may be overpowering in flavor, so use them sparingly until you understand how they react in different foods," says Dee Sandquist, MS, RD, LD, CDE.
Academy Spokesperson Andrea Giancoli MPH, RD, warns against picking edible greens yourself unless you're very skilled in identifying which plants are edible—some lookalikes can be harmful—and know places to pick that haven't been treated with pesticides. You're better off buying them at a farmer's market or the supermarket, she says.
Here are some of the most common edible plants and how you can add them to a healthy diet.
One cup of cooked lambsquarters has 464 mg of calcium, compared to milk's 300 mg, and is a rich source of beta carotene and fiber as well. It also packs in 500 mg of potassium, which is a good chunk of the 4,700 mg you need per day, and over 100 percent of your vitamin C needs. You can eat the flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds—though this weed is best cooked like spinach and not raw.
Enjoy the roots, stems, leaves, and even flowers of this common weed that's hated by lawn owners and loved by cooks. Some dandelion enthusiasts even batter and fry the flowers to make fritters and dry, roast and grind the roots for a coffee substitute. Dandelions can even be used in salads and even to make wine. A cup of cooked dandelion boasts 150 mg of calcium—close to 15 percent of your daily needs—and is an excellent source of vitamins A and C.
A cup of cooked amaranth has 3 mg of iron, 275 mg of calcium, 850 mg of potassium, and almost 3 g of protein—for only 28 calories. "It's such a good bang for your calorie buck," says Giancoli. The leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked.
You can't eat nettles raw, and you need to be cautious when handling them because the raw leaves can sting the skin—but once cooked, a cup of nettles boasts 6 grams of fiber and a whopping 430 mg of calcium. It's a good source of magnesium and offers some iron and potassium as well.
This super-hardy weed grows everywhere from your garden to gravel driveways, and defies the homeowner's best attempts to eradicate it. But while this plant is despised by gardeners, it's a rich source of vitamins A and C, a good source of potassium, and has a little bit of everything else—like magnesium, calcium, folate, and iron—all for 20 calories per cup of cooked purslane. And, you can enjoy the whole plant, which tastes similar to spinach or watercress—leaves, stems, and flowers.
Tart, lemony sorrel is an excellent source of vitamins C and A, and a good source of iron, and it offers some magnesium and potassium as well. Young leaves can be used in salads and the older, larger leaves work best in soups and stews.
One caveat: Wild greens are high in vitamin K. If you're taking an anti-coagulant medication (blood-thinning drug), eat foods with vitamin K in moderation. Too much can make your blood clot faster. Check with your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist if you have questions.
Reviewed April 2013
Linda Formichelli has written on health and nutrition for Fitness, Health, Women's Health, WebMD, Alternative Medicine, Redbook, Oxygen, and other national magazines. She is based in North Carolina. Visit Linda at www.lindaformichelli.com.