All too often, homeowners and gardeners wage war in their lawns and gardens against the plants that grow incredibly well there, but that aren't intentionally planted, and many times, the justification for these battles all comes down to the words we use to describe them.
When we buy and plant packets of common flower, vegetable, or herb seeds, we spend a lot of time, energy, and water in our efforts to get those seeds to germinate and grow, and take pride in our green thumb and homegrown food supply.
But when a plant that we identify as being a weed is found growing in our lawn or garden, out comes the trowel and hoe (or for the ruthless and impatient gardeners, weedkillers such as RoundUp), and we may spend the entire growing season keeping these opportunistic and resilient plants at bay, in order to have neat and tidy garden beds and uniform lawns. And it's too bad, really, as many of the common garden weeds are not only edible and nutritious, but can be a great homegrown (and free) addition to our meals.
Part of the resistance to eating plants that we believe to be weeds, in my opinion, is that we are conditioned to only consider the items we find in the grocery store as food, and not things that the rest of the neighborhood sees as unwelcome invaders in lawns and gardens. And unless we've been exposed to eating plants that are seen as common garden weeds, and had them prepared for us, we're probably not likely to try to eat them on our own. Once in a while, we might come across dandelion greens or purslane for sale in the produce section of the grocery store, or the farmers market, but for the most part, many common edible garden weeds aren't available anywhere else except for our lawns or garden beds. And that's a shame.
Although the edible weeds that you can find in your yard might be different ones than the ones I find in my yard, due to weather, soil conditions, and geography, here are some of the most common garden weeds that can be used for both meals and medicine:
The quintessential garden and lawn weed, dandelions have a bad reputation among those who want grass that looks as uniform as a golf course, but every part of this common edible weed is tasty both raw and cooked, from the roots to the blossoms. Dandelion leaves can be harvested at any point in the growing season, and while the smaller leaves are considered to be less bitter and more palatable raw, the bigger leaves can be eaten as well, especially as an addition to a green salad. 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 flowers are sweet and crunchy, and can be eaten raw, or breaded and fried, or even used to make dandelion wine. 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.
Purslane can often be found in moist garden beds, lawns, and shady areas, where it lies close to the ground and often goes unnoticed. This humble garden weed, however, is a nutritional powerhouse, as it is said to contain more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, and can be a great addition to a salad or stir-fry, or used to thicken soups or stews. Purslane is a succulent, with a crispy texture, and the leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked to add a peppery flavor to any dish.
Other than the occasional four-leafed clover hunt, this common lawn weed goes mostly unnoticed, but is an important food for honeybees and bumblebees, and clover leaves and flowers can be used to add variety to meals. Small amounts of raw clover leaves can be chopped into salads, or can be sauteed and added to dishes for a green accent, and the flowers of both red and white clover can be eaten raw or cooked, or dried for tea.
4. Lamb's Quarters
The young shoots and leaves of Lamb's Quarters (also known as goosefoot) can be eaten raw in any vegetable dish, or sauteed or steamed and used anywhere spinach is called for. The seeds of the Lamb's Quarters, which resemble quinoa, can also be harvested and eaten, although it takes a lot of patience to gather enough to make it worthwhile.
This common lawn weed (not to be confused with the tropical fruit also called plantain) is not only a great medicinal plant that can be used topically to soothe burns, stings, rashes, and wounds, but is also a great edible green for the table. The young leaves of plantain can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, or sauteed, and while the older leaves can be a bit tough, they can also be cooked and eaten as well. The seeds of the plantain, which are produced on a distinctive flower spike, can be cooked like a grain or ground into a flour, and are related to the more well-known psyllium seeds, which are sold as a fiber supplement and natural laxative.
This rather unassuming garden weed can be harvested and used for both food and medicine. Chickweed leaves, stems, and flowers can all be eaten either raw or cooked, where it adds a delicate spinach-like taste to any dish. The plant can also be used as a topical poultice for minor cuts, burns, or rashes, and can be made into a tea for use as a mild diuretic.
Mallow, or malva, is also known as cheeseweed, due to the shape of its seed pods, and can be found in many lawns or garden beds across the US. The leaves and the seed pods (also called the 'fruit') are both edible, either raw or cooked, and like many greens, are often more tender and palatable when smaller and less mature. The older leaves can be used like any other cooked green after steaming, boiling, or sauteeing them.
8. Wild Amaranth
The leaves of the wild amaranth, also known as pigweed, are another great addition to any dish that calls for leafy greens, and while the younger leaves are softer and tastier, the older leaves can also be cooked like spinach. The seeds of the wild amaranth can be gathered and cooked just like store-bought amaranth, either as a cooked whole grain or as a ground meal, and while it does take a bit of time to gather enough to add to a meal, they can be a a good source of free protein.
9. Curly Dock
Curly dock (also called yellow dock) leaves can be eaten raw when young, or cooked when older, and added to salads or soups. The stems of the dock plant can be peeled and eaten either cooked or raw, and the mature seeds can be boiled, or eaten raw, or roasted to make a coffee substitute. Dock leaves are rather tart, and because of their high oxalic acid content, it's often recommended to only eat them in moderation, as well as to change the water several times during cooking.
[Disclaimer: This is not meant as a field guide, so before you start eating the weeds out of your lawn or garden, be sure that you've positively identified them as an edible plant, and know how to prepare them. Unless you know for sure, steer clear of plants that grow outside your yard, in places where they may be sprayed or treated, or in places that neighborhood dogs and cats use to do their business.]