Eat Your Weeds

Fri, 20/03/2009 – Jude Fanton

Westerners tend to look to the garden as their only source of fresh and home-grown produce, ignoring harvests from the wild and semi-cultivated areas. It is like looking at the Gross National Production as the sum total of what a nation produces, whereas non-traded items, such as home-grown fresh produce, are not counted. Similarly reserving and protecting wild and semi-wild areas greatly enhances the quantity and diversity of your diet.

Travelling and filming in Third World countries, I have observed that peasants harvest significant items of their diet from semi-cultivated areas. From these they gather culinary and medicinal herbs, fruits, nuts, mushrooms, vegetables and forage for their animals.
These semi-cultivated areas may occasionally be weeded, cleared and deliberately re-seeded.
Their locations include:
• between rows of crops
• under and around orchard trees
• around gardens, flower beds, fields and forests
• along roadways, pathways and fence lines
• near wells and dams
• in other no-man’s land areas
• in fallowed fields

Wild and Semi-cultivated = Seasonal and Dense
When you eat from wild and semi-cultivated areas, you are guaranteed of food that is both seasonal and dense in flavour. Weeds and self-sown food plants by their very nature germinate when soil temperature and moisture is ideal and grow in their optimum season. That is the reason weeds perform so well!
Wild and semi-cultivated food has denser flavour and more anti-oxidants than cultivated. This is for two reasons. Firstly these species and varieties are genetically complex, unlike cultivated plants that have been selected for yield. See ‘Traditional Apples Keep Doctor Away’ on wild and traditional versus cultivated apples varieties in Seed Savers issue 38.
Secondly there is more density of flavour and nutrition in these plants because they are given neither extra water nor fertiliser and they are not protected from competition so they must struggle to survive. The struggle makes them strong.

Management for Maximum Production
There are several books, and lots of grandmas and grandpas, that can help you recognise which weeds are useful and encourage those species by clearing the rest. Throughout the Third World the favourite tool will be a version of the machete., Third World peasants cut off weeds at ground level so the roots remain and rot to fertilise the soil, rather than pulling them up. In Japan there is a whole movement called Natural Farming that goes beyond organics in that there are no inputs, not even manure. Natural Farmers produce food without digging and uprooting weeds, rather using them as indicators and fertiliser.
You can also enhance semi-cultivated areas by sprinkling on them seeds from plants you favour. By a combination of neglect, luck and design, there are many such areas here at the Seed Centre Gardens. Our most common semi-cultivated species thus far are Cherry Tomatoes, Italian Parsley, French Fennel, Mustards, Endive, Daikon and other radishes and five types of each of Chicory and Lettuce.
We do some selection, such as pulling out or cutting off small individuals at all stages of growth – when the plants are immature, mature, as they flower and as they go to seed. This way we select for larger and more vigorous plants.

We introduce the seeds to new areas by whacking mature seed-heads onto them, at any season and waiting for up to six months for them to emerge naturally. This last year we have concentrated along the newly de-grassed edges between the lawns and garden beds. Although these areas of former lawn have just been mulched, not dug, strong-rooted vegetables such as parsley and chicory thrive as they prefer compacted soil.

Recognise Edible Weeds
Besides recognised vegetables and herbs, the harvest from semi-cultivated areas can include edible weeds. Apart from being palatable, weeds can also be medicinal foods, for example, leaves of farmers’ friends (Bidens pilosa) are reputed to help the body avoid cancer and of black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) are eaten to control diabetes.
Some people make a habit of eating a plate of weeds one day a week, say Wednesday ‘weedy Wednesday’. Most weed leaves are best boiled for one to five minutes, drained then dressed with oil and vinegar or citrus juice, salt and pepper. We sometimes re-fry them, after boiling, with flavourings such as garlic, onion, leek, ginger and soy sauce.

Practise Foraging
Different cultures value and practise varying degrees of wild and semi-cultivated harvesting. In the last ten years we have had over twenty young Japanese as interns here at Seed Savers staying for an average of three months each. We have gardened, harvested, cooked and eaten together. Typically they have been schooled by their parents and grandparents to eat a wide range of foods. One described to us that she was told to ensure that she could count at least thirty different ingredients per day. They have described regularly eating wild harvested foods as ferns, weeds and mushrooms.
To make their spanikopita or any other dish from what Australians call ‘spinach’, Greeks traditionally collect what they call ‘horta’. You can see the origin of the word horticulture. Horta consists of what edible leaves you can find in the garden, semi-cultivated and wild areas and may include leaves of beetroot, chicory, dandelion, farmers’ friends (Bidens pilosa), dock (Rumex crispus and R. obtusifolius) and sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus). Maoris love to eat enormous quantities of what they call ‘pu ha’, a large leaved cultivar of the sow thistle.
Throughout central and southern Africa cooked greens are eaten daily, and they are not restricted to the species Westerners use in this way. I have seen in a wholesale market in Nairobi, Kenya, huge piles of the leaves of these species sold for eating: comfrey Symphytum officinalis, spider plant (Cleome spp), molokhia (Corchorus olitorius), black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata).

A benefit of having diversity in your semi-cultivated areas is that you have more predators on pests there.
There are many other examples in the diets of the more intact cultures. Some of the people harvesting in semi-cultivated areas that we have documented on film:
• A peasant collecting blueberries in the forest (in Les Vosges, Lorraine, France)
• A Bunun tribal woman collecting a large number of soft thistles and transporting them on her motorbike back to her rabbits (near Taitung, in Taiwan)
• Women collecting weeds and grass for their cattle and carrying it in large baskets on their backs (near Lijiang, China)
• Hâ’mong women with baskets of bamboo and wild honeycomb from the forest (near Moc Chau, Vietnam)
• An old woman collecting frogs and fish in rice paddy runnels (near Mai Chau, Vietnam)


Don’t Round Up This Valuable Harvest
A massive danger to this harvest is spraying with herbicide. Herbicide is routinely sprayed along roadways by councils, in parks by National Parks, on ‘weedy’ species by bush regenerators and even more alarmingly around suburban parks, schools and home gardens. Besides the well-documented severe health side-effects of the globally predominant herbicide, glyphosate (see, theses areas offer the possibility of a valuable harvest.
See also run by Sunny Savage in Oregon, who came here in 2004 as a course participant and intern for a short time. There are short film clips from Peru and Hawaii and several recipes for Prickly Pear for example.

Official Seal of Approval for Wild Plants
From Plants in Human Health and Nutrition Policy in Nutrition and Dietetics, Vol.91. Series Editor: Artemis P. Simopoulos, The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, Washington, D.C., USA.
Because wild plants supply a significant portion of micronutrients to the diet and exhibit higher mineral values than more accessible, cultivated alternatives, substantial — nutritional gains could be achieved by increasing dietary utilisation of edible wild plants. The nutritional quality of diet may decline with agricultural development unless edible wild species that provide essential micronutrients to the diet are considered part of the total food system.

Micronutrients in Wild and Semi-wild Plants
The beneficial effect of a high intake of fruits and vegetables on the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer may rely not on the well-known nutrients, such as vitamins, but rather on antioxidants or other phytochemicals. In addition to their antioxidant activities, wild plants are also storehouses of essential fatty acids especially linolenic acid and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc, copper and iron.

There is also the potential of the cocktail effect of interactions between these and different compounds present in fresh foods such as linolenic acid, various phenolic compounds and fibre. Such phenolic compounds have already been implicated in the protective role that fruits and vegetables play against chronic diseases.

Value Edible Wild Plants
Edible wild plants are part of agricultural systems in all areas of the world. Agricultural development should not be at the expense of nutritional quality of the human diet where edible wild species play critical roles. We and others have documented that some edible wild plants not only augment the human diet, but that the nutritional content of some wild species is superior in vitamin and mineral content to domesticated field crops. Furthermore, edible wild plants are regular components of the diets of millions of people and scientists over the past 50 years have continued to stress the importance of edible wild plants as part of the human diet.
It is important to identify vegetable foods of high value such as leafy greens that are native to a region and establish their nutritional profile.

Case Study: The Ivy Gourd
In Thailand, ivy gourd, Coccinia indica, is a common vegetable in the village setting, whereas in Western Australia, the Pacific Islands and Hawaii, ivy gourd is labelled as a common weed or invasive weed, which is destroyed. Ivy gourd is rich in -carotene, a major precursor of vitamin A from plant sources, also a good source of protein, fiber and a moderate source of calcium, and compares well to other commonly eaten vegetables, i.e., Chinese cabbage, amaranth, kale, pumpkin leaves and chayote leaves. In many developing countries where vitamin A deficiency is prevalent, the population depends primarily on plant sources to obtain vitamin A from their diet. In Thailand, because ivy gourd is rich in carotene, readily acceptable for consumption by all age groups, inexpensive as well as accessible to the village households, this plant was selected in several studies to demonstrate an effect of dietary intervention to improve vitamin A nutrition. Additionally, according to, it is an efficacious plant for diabetics.