Now that we’re at the tail end of winter, the end of the rainy season is near, and your yard is undoubtedly full of weeds. Most gardeners look at the weeds in their gardens as their arch nemeses. They are constantly pulled out and cursed, to be tossed aside to make way for our tomatoes and zucchini and cucumbers. Unfortunately, we are tossing out perfectly good food!
Let’s go over a few common weeds we find in Southern California and explore how we can incorporate them into our culinary endeavors. A few simple weeds plucked from the garden can make for a delicious pesto or a beautiful flower garnish.
These are five of the most common weeds found in Southern California and are probably most of what you have in your garden. There are many other edible weeds, but we will focus on these for today. Learning to forage in your garden for edible weeds not only helps keep your garden from being overgrown but adds a little extra flavor and color, for free, to your family meals. Let’s destigmatize our weeds and learn to make the most of them.
1. Dandelion (Taraxucum officinale)
For the most part, dandelions can be used like any other bitter green. Just like kale, mustard greens, and collards, dandelion greens provide an earthy flavor with a bitter finish. Dandelion will stand up to moderate cooking, goes well in many types of stews and soups, and can be eaten raw, although cooking them can significantly reduce the level of bitterness in them. The flowers provide a beautiful garnish and can have a range of flavors from slightly sweet to a heavy floral, honey flavor. Remember, just as with grapes, environmental factors such as the soil composition, neighboring plants, and mineral elements in the water can drastically change the level of flavor and bitterness.
2. Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetocella)
Wood sorrel is often a childhood favorite. You might remember running around as children with long sour yellow flowers hanging out of your mouth. The flowers are often playfully referred to as sour grass or sour weed. With its delicate yellow flowers, tall stalks, and tart punch, this common weed can really kick up a salad or add a nice level of brightness to an otherwise heavy dish. Both the greens and the flower stalks have very similar flavors of citrus and pepper. However, the flower stalks contain much more water and provide a satisfying crunch. Since it does not stand up well to cooking, using wood sorrel raw tends to be its best application. Just remember to always wash your greens especially when you’re eating them raw.
3. Common Mallow (Malva neglecta)
Maybe the most prolific weed in your garden, mallow can provide a steady stream of hearty greens in your diet. Mallow is not going to be the most exciting flavor in your garden but it is one of the most nutritious. High in vitamins and minerals, it could be classified as a ¨superfood¨ in some circles. Mallow and kale share many similarities. Both are nutritious and should be incorporated as often as possible into our diets, but are best mixed with other items as they take on the flavor of whatever else you are cooking. Mallow has beautiful, variegated flowers that add a nice touch of color to any plate. The leaves, flowers and stems have a very mild, slightly earthy flavor that plays well in a mixed green salad or as a bed of buttered greens under a nice ribeye. The root of the mallow can provide a nice crunchy texture, similar to radish to add some dimension in your next dinner salad.
4. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
This local native, common to the desert Southwest has been a necessary dietary staple for millennia. It is still common in Northern Mexican cuisine and is slowly working its way into the local restaurant scene here in the U.S. This versatile little succulent provides a mild, clean flavor both in its raw and cooked state. In the past, purslane provided much of the dietary water for people in an otherwise parched area of the country. You can use purslane in nearly anything such as tacos, salads, smoothies, sauteed with the rest of your garden veggies, or in place of lettuce on your sandwich.
5. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Nasturtium is a culinary favorite among chefs. With its bright peppery flavor, reminiscent of arugula or mustard seed, this prolific plant provides a wonderful flavor in nearly any dish. The flowers of the nasturtium are some of the most beautiful of all the weeds. With colors ranging from vibrant orange, to fire engine red, to delicate yellows and pinks, these flowers are often found on many a high-priced plate. As far as flavor goes, nasturtiums are in the big leagues. The intense, peppery flavor can be a nice contrast otherwise rich dish like risotto or sausage and peppers and can really add an exciting dimension to your morning smoothie. Try out our recipe for Nasturtium goat cheese.
Instead of looking at the weeds in our gardens as our enemy we can begin to see them as a culinary asset. Not only are these weeds highly nutritious and easily accessible, but they’re also quite tasty. With a bit of education and the desire to make the most of our gardens, we can incorporate these weeds into our daily meals. Maybe now you can enjoy weeding your garden just a little bit more. Cheers and happy gardening!