If you’re into growing your own food, you may already be aware of the plants that thrive in our area, such as okra and watermelon, but did you know that there are several beneficial native plants that most people just call weeds?
By definition, a weed is a plant that grows in an unwanted location. The scientific meaning may be a bit more involved than that, but when you break it down, that’s all it is. We tend to think of a weed as something bad, maybe toxic, but that’s not always true. Sure, there are weeds out there that will make you seriously ill if you eat them, so I don’t recommend chowing down on every leaf or berry you find. But there are some native plants to our area that are nutritious and delicious.
The dandelion has many beneficial parts, including the leaves, stem, root and that yellow flower itself. One cup of raw dandelion greens gives you 112 percent of your daily vitamin A and 535 percent of vitamin K. You can add the raw leaves to a salad or cook them up for a snack. The root can be made into a tea, and the whole plant can be frozen or dried. You can also create a yummy jelly from the flowers.
Fans of spinach or swiss chard would enjoy the taste of lamb’s quarters in its raw state. The weed is high in vitamins A and C and grows just about anywhere. In fact, if you see it growing well in one spot where nothing else is growing, that dirt might actually be contaminated. Lamb’s quarters thrives in contaminated soil as nature’s way to reintroduce beneficial nutrients and rebuild the soil. The most distinguishable feature of this tall plant is the white mildewy residue on the leaves. Stay away from the seeds, though, as they contain saponins that can be toxic in high doses.
Folks around here are serious about their poke sallet (often mistakenly called “poke salad”). The scary thing about pokeweed is thatit can kill youif not prepared correctly, but the delicious pokeweed leaves and stems have been part of Southern cuisine for generations. While the berries make a potent ink and dye, they are the one part of the plant that you can’t eat.
Also known as amaranth, pigweed is a hardy plant that can take over recently plowed fields and gardens quickly and easily. You’ll know pigweed when you try to pull it out because its spiky thorns can hurt. But wear thick gloves, because pigweed leaves are actually quite nutritious. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, but the highest nutrition is found in the seeds, which can be roasted to heighten flavor.
Bamboo is the one plant on this list that you may not even consider a weed, but its ability to quickly thrive in our climate makes it extremely invasive if not maintained properly. Bamboo shoots are high in vitamin B-6, fiber, potassium and many necessary minerals such as copper and manganese. The shoots are considered a delicacy in many Asian countries and should be thoroughly cooked before eating.
If you have a driveway, you’ve probably seen plantain growing in the cracks. This hardy broadleaf plant (not to be confused with the banana-like plantain fruit) grows particularly well in rocky soil and can provide relief from diarrhea, digestive problems, and even cuts and bug bites. Every part of the plant is edible in either a raw or cooked state. As with a few of the other plants on this list (like bamboo and kudzu), plantain isn’t native to North America and was once known as “white man’s footprint” because of its tendency to grow in well-trampled areas and pop up wherever the European settlers set foot.
More of a superfood than a weed, watercress is high in vitamins K, C and A, and is well-regarded for its zesty, radish-like flavor. In some parts of the world, watercress is considered a rare delicacy, but in the Southeast, it grows wild in many aquatic locations. In fact, nearby Huntsville, Alabama, was once known as the Watercress Capital of the World.
The “vine that ate the South” is actually good for more than just covering the side of Missionary Ridge. This extremely persistent and fast-growing vine is one of the most sustainable plants known to man with its ability to grow up to a foot a day in our climate. The plant has been used in China to treat cardiovascular disorders, and kudzu jelly is said to taste very similar to grape jelly. The plant fibers can be used to create everything from baskets to clothes to paper.
This common groundcover is known for its power as an herbal remedy to treat respiratory problems, but the red clover flower is a tasty addition to any salad or tea. Be aware that some have reported excessive bloating when eating too much red clover.
Aside from the dandelion, chickweed is one of the most widely spread weeds you’ll find in a typical lawn. It’s a hardy plant that can spread quickly, and its raw leaves are delicious when added to soup or salad. The stems and flowers can also be cooked and used in many dishes, as they don’t have a strong taste.
What amazes me the most about wild onion is that so many people see it as a nuisance plant in their lawns but then grow larger onions in their gardens. Wild onions grow all over our area when the weather starts turning cooler, and they can be used as you’d use any other onion. While they may be smaller than your garden onion, the taste is very similar. Just be cautious of a lookalike plant that lacks that oniony smell and is actually a poisonous plant called star of Bethlehem.
Again, I stress that you shouldn’t eat any plant unless you can positively identify it as edible. Many invasive native plants are not harmful, but the ones that are can cause serious illness or even death in large doses. Be sure to check out helpful websites like Edible Wild Food and Eat the Weeds for detailed pictures. Forage with caution!