Weeds Or Vegetables? That's the Question!

by Peter A. Gail, Ph.D

Weeds! Humankinds mortal enemy, right? Then how do you explain a window display in the most prominent bookstore in York, England devoted entirely to very attractive books about eating weeds?

The answer, as many of you know from memories of Grandma's dandelion salads, elderberry blow fritters or groundcherry pies and Grandpa's dandelion wine, is that most weeds aren't weeds at all, but legitimate vegetables and fruits. In many cases, they were brought here by wave after wave of immigrants who valued their flavors, nutritional values and medicinal properties.

Several of these "weeds" still show up in produce markets and on grocers shelves. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), for example, is available throughout the winter and spring in grocery stores all over Greater Cleveland. Commercial growing of dandelion greens is a $10,000,000 annual business, and the dandelions sold in Cleveland are imported from Texas, California, Arizona, Florida and New Jersey! Recent research has shown the dandelion to be nature's richest vegetable source of cancer-fighting beta-carotene. It is also richer in potassium than bananas, in iron than spinach and the flowers are richer in lecithin than soybeans. On top of all that, we now learn that dandelions contain all the trace minerals the body needs for good health. You can either go out and spend $20 on a bottle of colloidal trace minerals, or eat a dandelion! And eating the dandelion is better for you.

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), one of a gardener's biggest nusiance weeds, is really wild spinach, and according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Agricultural Bulletin #8, Composition of Foods, the most nutritious green leafy vegetable around.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), that low growing succulent weed with the red stems and wedge-shaped leaves which is such a noxious pest to most of us, is a very popular vegetable in Mexico and in many other countries. In Mexico it is called Verdolago and is sold in the open markets. It has been in use as a food for so long that by 1535 there were three hybrid varieties available in Medieval seed catalogs! Scientists have found purslane to be filled with Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) which is an effective cholesterol fighter.

This is just a small sampling of the smorgasboard that awaits you in your backyard. Much more is available in books on edible wild plants, including the Goosefoot Acres Volunteer Vegetable Sampler, which profiles 26 common backyard weeds and provides information on both culinary and medicinal uses.

With all this gustatory wealth available for free directly underfoot, it is tragic that we insist on killing these "weeds." The great irony is that we go to the garden center and buy spray to kill these plants, and then go to the health food store and buy them back in powdered form. There are, for example, over 200 products for weight loss, control of PMS, detoxification of the blood and liver, and skin cleansing which contain dandelions. Next time you visit your favorite natural food store, read the labels on those bottles which sell for $10 to $20. Many contain "weeds!"

The thing keeping most people from experimenting with their backyard vegetables is the fear of getting the wrong plant and being poisoned. If you garden, you already know most of these vegetables. All you need is for someone to put names on them and show you how to use them. And once you know a plant, it is yours for life!

Unfortunately, no book on edible wild plants can do this for you. Most people need some help at first. The most accessible sources in the Cleveland area are the staff botanists at Shaker Lake Regional Nature Center, the Holden Arboretum, the Cleveland Botanic Garden and the local Extension Service office. Garden center weed specialists can also help you. Take sample plants to them either pressed between sheets of moist paper towel or potted so that they look like they do in the backyard.

Classes and lectures on identifying and using backyard weeds for food will be offered throughout the Greater Cleveland area this spring and summer by Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living. Goosefoot Acres has also produced a directory of other edible wild plant educators who can help you. For a copy of this directory and/or a schedule of upcoming classes, send $2 and a self-addressed stamped envelope to Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living, P.O. Box 18016, Cleveland, OH 44118. To order the Goosefoot Acres Volunteer Vegetable Sampler, send $14.20 to the same address, or call (216) 932-2145 to charge it to your credit card.

Dr. Peter A. Gail holds a Ph.D. in botany from Rutgers University and has spent the last 35 years studying how ethnics use backyard weeds for food and medicine. He is the author of thirteen books and has also authored over 150 articles. Gail is founder and president of Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living in Cleveland Heights, through which he operates The Defenders of Dandelions, a national support organization for dandelion lovers who want to educate their friends about the remarkable virtues of this plant, and the annual National Dandelion Cookoff. He publishes Dandelion Doings, a quarterly newsletter for the Defenders of Dandelions, which is available separately for $15 per year.

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