16 Edible Weeds: Dandelions, Purslane, and More

creative ways to eat common garden weeds illustration

Treehugger / Catherine Song

Weeds are widely believed to be a gardener's arch-enemy. They stifle crops, steal water, hog sunlight, and create what some deem an eyesore in otherwise impeccably groomed flowerbeds and lawns. They're not all bad, though: Edible weeds, it turns out, are exceedingly useful.

Instead of burning your abundance of dandelions, chickweed, or wild amaranth—or worse, spraying them with toxic weedkiller—take the zero-waste approach and repurpose them into dandelion tea, amaranth seed polenta, or chickweed pesto.

Here are 16 edible weeds and how to incorporate them into your diet.

Warning

Do not eat any plant unless you have identified it with certainty. Steer clear of plants that grow near roads and railroad tracks and of those that could have been sprayed with garden chemicals.

Understanding Weeds

Though they can ruthlessly invade flower beds and vegetable gardens, weeds are wonderful in other ways. They can be remarkably attractive—particularly the chipper yellow pom-pom blooms of the dandelion and the dainty, daisylike flowers of chickweed—and you have to commend them for their tenacity, as they seem to thrive even in the least hospitable places.

What Are Weeds?

A weed is any wild plant that's undesirable in its setting—usually a human-controlled setting—whether that be a garden, lawn, farm, or park.

The term "weed" is in itself so relative that its definition is ever-changing. Historically, weeds have been associated with invasive plants, but research within the past couple decades has revealed that many species regarded as weeds today evolved from domestic (i.e., native) ancestors. Their defining quality is, therefore, undesirability: They're either unpleasant to look at or pose some sort of biological threat.

1. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Low-angle view of dandelion meadow against blue sky
Martin Ruegner / Getty Images

The quintessential weed, dandelions are rich in vitamins A, C, and K. They also contain vitamin E, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins. Every part of this flowery herb, from the roots to the bright-yellow blossoms, can be eaten raw or cooked.

Dandelion leaves can be harvested at any point in the growing season, and while the youngest leaves are considered to be less bitter and more palatable raw, the bigger leaves make delightful salad additions. If raw dandelion leaves don't appeal to you, they can also be steamed or added to a stir-fry or soup, which can make them taste less bitter. The sweet and crunchy flowers can be eaten raw or breaded and fried. Use them to make dandelion wine or syrup. The root of the dandelion can be dried and roasted and used as a coffee substitute or added to any recipe that calls for root vegetables.

2. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Purslane growing as a weed in field
yuelan / Getty Images

Purslane is a heat-loving succulent that has fleshy, jadelike leaves and grows in small clusters low to the ground. It thrives in harsh environments, like in sidewalk cracks and in gravel driveways. The humble garden weed is a nutritional powerhouse, outrageously rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.

Purslane has a sour, salt-and-peppery taste similar to spinach, and it can be used in much the same way as the more mainstream leafy green. Add it to salads, sandwiches, and stir-fry, or use it as a thickener for soups and stews. It has a crispy texture, and the leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked. When cooking purslane, be sure to sauté it gently and not for long, as overcooking it can create an unappetizing slimy texture.

3. Clover (Trifolium)

Close-up of bright green clover patch
Marco Dubrick / EyeEm / Getty Images

Clover's spherical flowers and supposedly lucky leaves are a common food source for honeybees and bumblebees, but they make great additions to human meals, too. There are several types of clover, the most common being red clover (which grows tall) and white clover (which spreads outward). Both are rich in protein, minerals, and carbohydrates.

Small amounts of raw clover leaves can be chopped into salads or sautéed and added to dishes for a green accent. The flowers of both red and white clover can be eaten raw or cooked, or dried for clover tea.

4. Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium album)

Close-up of lamb's quarter plants growing as weeds
seven75 / Getty Images

Lamb's quarters, also known as goosefoot, is loaded with fiber, protein, and vitamins A and C. The plant can grow up to 10 feet—although it normally doesn't—and produces oval or triangular leaves with serrated edges. One of its most identifiable features is the pop of blue-green at the top of the plant.

Though it has a cabbagelike taste, this weed is commonly used as a replacement for spinach. Its young shoots and leaves can be eaten raw in any vegetable dish, or it can be sautéed or steamed and used anywhere spinach would be used. Its seeds, which resemble quinoa, can be harvested and eaten, although it takes a lot of patience to gather enough to make it worthwhile as a main dish.

5. Plantain (Plantago)

Side view of a group of plantain weeds
seven75 / Getty Images

Not to be confused with the tropical fruit of the same name, this common weed is made up of a nutritious mix of minerals, fatty acids, vitamin C, carotenes (antioxidants), nitrate, and oxalic acid. Plantain can be identified by its large, oval leaves that surround tall spikes sometimes covered in white flowers.

The young leaves of plantain can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, or sautéed, and while the older leaves can be a bit tough, they can also be cooked and eaten. The seeds of the plantain, which are produced on the distinctive flower spike, can be cooked like a grain or ground into flour. Check with your doctor before consuming plantain while pregnant.

6. Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Close-up of chickweed in the soft spring sun
Anatoliy Berislavskiy / Getty Images

Chickweed is a broadleaf weed belonging to the carnation family. It has small, white flowers, each containing five split petals (appearing as 10 petals), and it grows in clusters on hairy stalks. Chickweed is a resilient plant that may appear on roadsides or riverbanks and can thrive in just about any soil type. It's rich in vitamins A and C and contains about as much calcium as dandelions.

Chickweed leaves, stems, and flowers can all be eaten either raw—added to sandwiches and salads or ground into a pesto—or cooked. The plant has a grassy, spinachlike taste.

Warning

Chickweed can look very similar to radium weed, a poisonous plant that grows in similar conditions, so consult an experienced forager before picking and consuming chickweed.

7. Mallow (Malva)

Close-up of purple flowers of wild mallow
Werner Meidinger / Getty Images

Mallow, or malva, is also known as cheeseweed because its seed pods resemble a wheel of cheese. It shares a family with cotton, okra, and hibiscus, and apart from its distinguishing seed pods—also called "nutlets"—you can identify it by its funnel-shaped flowers, each with five petals and a column of stamens surrounding a pistil. This hardy plant can grow almost anywhere—even in harsh, dry soil conditions.

Mallow's leaves, flowers, and seed pods can be eaten raw or cooked. Both the leaves and flowers have a very mild taste that's often more tender and palatable in juvenile plants. Older leaves and flowers are best steamed, boiled, or sautéed. Mallow is high in vitamins A and C, protein, and carotenoids.

8. Wild Amaranth (Amaranthus)

Pink wild amaranth growing in the garden
Linda Blazic-Mirosevic / Getty Images

Wild amaranth—or "pigweed"—leaves are another great addition to any dish that calls for leafy greens. While the younger leaves are softer and tastier, the older leaves can also be cooked like spinach.

Displaying either green or red leaves and small, green flowers in dense clusters at the top of the plant, wild amaranth has been cultivated since ancient times. The Romans and Aztecs reportedly regarded it as a staple food.

Wild amaranth seeds can also be gathered and cooked just like store-bought amaranth, either as a cooked whole grain or as a ground meal. It does take a bit of time to gather enough seeds to make a meal of them, but it's worth the work, as they're packed with 16% protein.

9. Curly Dock (Rumex crispus)

Curly dock growing horizontally above the ground
Alain de Maximy / Getty Images

Curly dock is an oft-overlooked plant that has slender, rigid leaves and tall flower spikes packed with flowers and seeds. The plant contains more vitamin C than oranges, which means it's also high in oxalic acid. Consuming more than 200 milligrams of vitamin C per day could lead to a buildup of oxalate in your kidneys.

The leaves can be eaten raw when young, or cooked and added to soups when older. In younger plants, foliage is less curly and leaves are round and broad. Mature plants develop stems whereas leaves emerge right from the root when young.

The leaves taste tart and spinachlike. Because of their high oxalic acid content, it's often recommended to change the water several times during cooking. Newly-emerged stems can be peeled and eaten either cooked or raw, and the mature seeds can be boiled, eaten raw, or roasted to make a coffee substitute.

10. Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum)

Field of wild garlic with signature white flowers in bloom
Tony Bayliss / EyeEm / Getty Images

Wild garlic is ubiquitous throughout Europe, but this favorite foraging find is also widespread among the damp woodlands of the eastern U.S. and Canada. It's so abundant, in fact, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers it a "noxious weed," or one that could be harmful to the environment or animals. It's not, however, harmful to humans, who typically love stumbling upon a blanket of its signature long, pointed leaves and white flowers sprawled beneath the trees.

Wild garlic tastes like garlic, of course, only grassier. The flavor is milder than the pungent aroma these plants put off (you'll probably smell them before you see them). Every part of the plant is edible, from the bulbs to the seed heads. You can grind it into a pesto, add it raw to salads and sandwiches for a tangy kick, or sauté it and eat it plain. Wild garlic is higher in magnesium, manganese, and iron than bulb garlic.

11. Violet (Viola sororia)

Violet flowers covering the forest floor
seven75 / Getty Images

Known for their heart-shaped leaves and delightful purple flowers that cover forest floors and stream banks come spring, wild violets are also called "sweet violets" on account of their sugary flavor. They're often candied and used to decorate baked goods, turned into jam, made into syrups, brewed as a tea, or used as a garnish in salads. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and rich in vitamin C, but the roots and seeds are poisonous.

12. Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Hairy bittercress plant sprouting from moist ground
Ian_Redding / Getty Images

A common winter weed in warm and mild regions of the U.S., hairy bittercress is a low-growing rosette that produces white, four-petaled spring flowers on a tall stem. The plant is part of the mustard family and has a sharp, peppery flavor similar to mustard greens or arugula.

It's best eaten raw, either as a salad green or mixed into salsas and pestos, because cooking it can remove much of its flavor. Hairy bittercress's leaves, seeds, and delicate spring flowers can all be eaten, but the leaves are said to be the tastiest.

Hairy bittercress, like other plants in the mustard family, is high in antioxidants, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and beta-carotene.

13. Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Cluster of garlic mustard with white flowers in bloom
seven75 / Getty Images

Garlic mustard is a highly invasive herb that has spread throughout much of North America since being introduced by European settlers in the 1800s. Every part of the plant—leaves, flowers, seeds, and stems—can be eaten, but harvesting them can be tricky.

Garlic mustard should be harvested while young because the shoots harden after a couple of years. They should be avoided in the summer, too, as the heat makes them taste bitter. Any other time, it has a spicy flavor similar to horseradish. It's great as a chimichurri or a pesto—and it's abundant in nutritional value. It's high in fiber, vitamins A and C, potassium, calcium, magnesium, selenium, copper, iron, manganese, and omega-3 fatty acids.

14. Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica)

Japanese knotweed growing densely like a large bush
BZH22 / Getty Images

This highly invasive terrorizer of homes and gardens can be found throughout the Northeast and parts of the Northwest. It has heart-shaped leaves and produces little, white flower tassels in the summertime. It's often compared to bamboo—partly because of its hollow shoots and partly because it, too, can grow up to 10 feet tall.

Despite its unfavorable reputation, it's quite nutritious and tasty. The tart, crunchy, and juicy stems are often compared to rhubarb and turned into pie or chutney. Japanese knotweed is rich in antioxidants, vitamins A and C, manganese, zinc, and potassium.

This plant should be harvested while young, when the leaves are slightly rolled up and have red veins as opposed to being flat and green. Knotweed near roads should be avoided as it is often covered in herbicides. It would also be wise to incinerate scraps rather than composting them to prevent them from sprouting.

15. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Close up of stinging nettle leaves
Christophe Lehenaff / Getty Images

Stinging nettle, as its name suggests, "stings" by piercing skin with its hollow, needlelike hairs. As it makes contact, those hairs transmit chemicals to skin, causing an uncomfortable sensation and sometimes a rash. In other words, it's not the first plant you'd think to reach for if you were hungry.

Nonetheless, stinging nettle is not only edible but also nutritious and tasty. It must be cooked or dried first—don't attempt to eat the "stinging" leaves raw—but when prepared, it's entirely harmless and tastes like tangy spinach. You can sauté stinging nettles, blend them into a soup, throw them on a pizza, or incorporate them into a dip. Stinging nettles, identifiable by their aggressive-looking hairs, are a great source of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, sodium, and fatty acids. They should be harvested before they flower in late spring.

16. Sourgrass (Oxalis stricta)

Sourgrass growing from sidewalk crack with yellow flowers blooming
seven75 / Getty Images

Sourgrass is sometimes called lemon clover because it boasts a refreshing citrusy flavor. It's commonly found growing in open meadows, lawns, and fields, or occasionally sprouting from sidewalk cracks. Sourgrass's most distinguishing feature is its three-season display of dainty, yellow blooms.

Without its signature sunshiny flowers, it looks a lot like clover. The difference is in the shape of the leaves: clover is oval-shaped and sourgrass is heart-shaped.

Lemon clover tastes sour and tart. It's primarily eaten raw as an addition to salads, salsas, ceviche, sauces, and seasonings. It also makes a pretty and delicious seafood garnish. Sourgrass is high in vitamin C and oxalic acid, both of which could disrupt digestion if consumed in high doses, so this plant should be eaten only in small amounts.

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