How I started eating weeds
It all started with dandelion flowers.
I thought it could be quite pretty to decorate a plate of early spring risotto with dandelion flowers, using the natural sun-yellow to liven up the dish.
I thought it could act a bit like saffron. It had a nutty flavour as well. I took photos and proudly brag-blogged about my creativity.
The guy I was dating at the time was dismissive. “No one would be interested in eating weeds,” he said.
Perhaps he was scarred by his English flower-power parents, who took him along on Sunday picnic drives into the country to harvest wild dandelions for their home-made wine. (Another use for weeds I am yet to explore.)
Undaunted, I decided that foraging for weeds was going to be my next big thing.
I was lucky that my then suburban backyard was a bountiful source of edible weeds. I discovered an active Facebook group that helps people identify local edible weeds.
I noticed the Australian Botanic Garden offered tours to help people identify edible weeds.
And a local food blogging friend, Susan Hutchinson from Susan’s Sumptuous Suppers, who leads semi-regular foraging trips through the Canberra Environment Centre, provided me with advice and inspired recipes.
What is a weed?
A weed is basically a plant that isn’t growing where you want it to be.
It is easy to think of weeds as just being green things you don’t like in the garden but it is broader than that.
Many invasive species have taken off in Australia due to ideal conditions and lack of competition.
Some have been classified as noxious weeds and are subject to environmental measures to contain their spread. Local farmers battle to contain blackberries and in rural communities around Canberra briar roses and hawthorn trees are also a tad too prolific.
Most of our lettuce varieties and herbs started life as weeds but over time the seeds were collected and propagated.
The history of eating weeds
Our ancestors would have regularly eaten weeds to supplement their diet and in some communities people still collect weeds to eat.
Many people have told me how their parents or grandparents used to embarrass them by stopping to forage for weeds by the side of the road.
I wish I knew what they collected and how they were cooked. I’m sure there is an amazing unwritten culinary history.
Eating weeds is cheap because you can pick them for free. It is also environmentally friendly because you don’t need to water the crops or use pesticide, and if you pick close to home no carbon is produced to transport it to you, either.
Weeds are also nutritionally good for you, especially when eaten in tune with the seasons.
Many early spring weeds, such as thistles and dandelion, are high in antioxidants and have liver-cleansing properties – perfect for detoxing after hearty winter meals and great for promoting longevity.
Many Aussie gardens are profuse in the succulent purslane plant in summer; this super food has the highest concentration of omega-3 of any land-based vegetable and is delicious in salads or Indian-style curries.
Those dreaded blackberries are good for heart health and are also an aphrodisiac. Apples harvested from trees grown wild by the side of the road are not as perfect as polished shop-bought ones but the tart fruit makes excellent apple sauce.
And in late autumn/early winter, vitamin-C packed rosehips help build immunity ahead of the flu season.
My new husband and I celebrated Valentine’s Day this year harvesting blackberries at a secret location. He knows the way to this frugalista’s heart!
Here are some common questions I get asked about eating weeds:
How do you know if blackberries or other weeds have been sprayed?
In areas such as NSW and the ACT, blackberries are noxious and are semi-regularly sprayed with poison.
They are rarely, if ever, sprayed when fruiting and rarely sprayed close to bodies of water (in Canberra they employed goats to eat blackberries around Lake Burley-Griffin).
There are usually signs displayed to warn people that areas have been sprayed, and pink dye is added to the poison. In general, if a blackberry patch looks lush and healthy then it is probably OK.
Are weeds poisonous?
Most green, leafy weeds are lettuce varieties and are not poisonous. But some weeds are.
It is important to be especially cautious about berries and mushrooms – people have died from eating death cap mushrooms found in Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle and some berries are highly toxic.
The good news is that most weeds can be easily identified.
Ask for advice: research online, post a picture in a Facebook group, borrow a book from the library, phone a friend or join a weed foraging tour. If in doubt don’t try something unless you know what it is.
Where can I go foraging?
When you know where to look, edible weeds are everywhere!
Some communities have resources available to advise people about where to go foraging for things like fruit trees growing in public places.
The Queanbeyan-Pelerang council, for instance, has a useful interactive map. But once you start foraging, your walk in a park will never be the same again.