Edible Weeds Rival Kale for Nutrition

Just because chickweed has 'weed' in its name, doesn't mean it's not useful. (Photo: avoferten/Shutterstock)

When you think of foraging, what image comes to mind? Do you imagine hipsters on a professionally led foraging tour of the local park? Farm-to-table chefs waking early to head into the woods to forage for today's menu items? Yourself, grabbing the dandelion leaves from your yard?

What you probably don't imagine are residents of poor urban areas searching for edible weeds. But a new study suggests there's a wealth of nutritious food in such urban food deserts that gets overlooked, and that wealth comes in the form of weeds.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, collected wild, edible greens from three poor, urban areas of San Francisco, according to Cosmos magazine. Each of the areas was the equivalent of nine city blocks and surrounded by busy roads and industrial zones. Each area was farther than one mile from the nearest store selling fresh produce.

Putting weeds to the test

dock weed
If you ran across this weed called dock, would you know it's edible and even nutritious?. (Photo: MaryAnne Campbell/Shutterstock)

What researchers found were several edible weeds that rivaled the nutrition of kale. They harvested chickweed, dandelion, dock, mallow and nasturtium, and each of the wild edibles had more "dietary fibre, protein, vitamin A, sodium, calcium, iron and vitamin K, and provided more energy" than kale. (Kale did win out when it came to vitamin C.)

The researchers identified and documented a total of 52 wild edibles, many of them able to survive drought conditions. It would seem the weeds' proximity to busy streets and industrial buildings would mean they would be full of toxins like pesticides and heavy metals, but once the weeds were washed, they showed no detectable levels of the toxins they were tested for. You can read the full results of their work at BioRxiv.

These wild flowers aren't dandelions, they're catsear, and they are edible, nutritious and one of the 52 varieties of edible weeds found in urban food deserts in San Francisco. (Photo: Przemyslaw Muszynski/Shutterstock)

In areas like the ones researchers studied, there aren't enough vegetables available for everyone to get the recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals. These wild edibles could fill some of that nutrition gap — but only if people knew to harvest them.

The key, of course, is education. Fortunately there are books, websites and videos dedicated to identifying wild edibles and offering recipes to utilize them. The Plant Portrait channel on YouTube gives detailed information about many wild edibles, like the video below about chickweed.

For anyone looking for a physical guide, "Nature's Garden, A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Wild Edible Plants" covers over 120 wild edibles, many of them found in urban areas.