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We all know how important it is to eat dark, leafy greens. Compared to the cultivated leafy greens we buy from the supermarket, wild greens contain exponentially more nutrients than their domestically grown counterparts, even if they are organically grown. Most of the vegetables we eat today have been bred to be sweeter and more palatable. As a result, we are missing out on vital nutrients and flavor. Plus, plants in the wild experience stress like intense weather, insects, and animal nibbles, resulting in more rare and extremely beneficial phytonutrients. The following plant superstars are commonly found in gardens, lawns, and fields.
Plants are resilient and can grow in toxic areas. Remember when harvesting to only work with plants living in clean environments. Steer clear of plants growing next to roadways, in areas sprayed with herbicides, and in unclean environments such as a backyard with multiple dogs.
After harvesting the herbs you are working with, soak them in cold water for a few minutes before spinning dry. This helps rinse away grit, insects and other impurities.
All plants below, with the exception of dandelion, contain small amounts oxalic acid like other dark leafy greens. If you are sensitive to raw spinach, greens should be cooked rather than eaten raw.
Native to India, Purslane is used as food in many cultures. It is a natural, protecting ground cover and is cultivated in some gardens in France. Distinct for its smooth, succulent leaves, purslane grows low to the ground and is fairly easy to identify. Purslane contains a good amount of magnesium, potassium, and Omega-3s, which is much higher than most other greens.
With a slightly sour, lemony taste, purslane is best eaten raw and is a great addition to salads and sandwiches. To let this superstar shine, try out this recipe for Tomato, Cucumber & Purslane Salad.
One of my favorite plants to see in the spring, chickweed is not only a valuable food but a fantastic topical anti-inflammatory for bites and stings.* Chickweed has been consumed for hundreds of years, common in ancient Ireland. High in antioxidants and other powerful compounds, some studies have supported claims of chickweed aiding in weight loss, especially in post-menopausal women. The high vitamin and mineral content has also been shown to support the liver and kidneys, as well as support those with ovarian cysts.
*Traditionally chickweed was used topically as a leaf poultice. Simply chew up a few fresh leaves and place it directly on bite or sting. Do not place in deep, open wounds.
Chickweed can be used raw as a garnish or as an addition to salads. It can also be cooked as a spinach replacement. As the name implies, chickens also enjoy chickweed!
Coming from the early French name “dent de leon,” meaning “lion’s tooth,” dandelion is traced back 30 million years to Eurasia. Before the 1800s people dug up grasses in their lawns and gardens in order to make more room for dandelion. Travelers on the Mayflower brought dandelion seeds to America.
Arguably the most recognizable weed, dandelion is a powerhouse of nutrients. Dandelion is high in potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium. Plus, it’s mildly bitter which stimulates digestion and helps stabilize blood sugar levels. Unlike lamb’s quarters, chickweed, and purslane, dandelion has a low oxalic acid profile, supporting calcium absorption even in raw leaves. There are a few non-poisonous lookalikes, so make sure to review the photo below for leaf texture and shape, especially when there are no flower heads to aid in identification.
As dandelion leaves get bigger, they become more bitter. Opt for leaves that are only 2-4 inches long for best taste and combine with other salad greens. Greens can also be steamed and used to replace kale, chard, or spinach in recipes. The petals can be pulled off flower heads and sprinkled over dishes, and the roots can be roasted and added to coffee for a liver-loving boost. Fresh flower heads can also be infused in honey for a glowing, healing treat. The recipe below is a great one to make with kids, as it is sweet and the bitterness is disguised surprisingly well. I will admit the first time I tried dandelion fritters I was skeptical, but they became a fast favorite.
Dating back over 3,500 years according to archeologists, the cultivation of lamb’s quarters predated corn. The name is believed to come from “Lammas Quarter,” the celebration of the first yearly grain harvest on the first of August. Traditionally, a lamb was sacrificed during Lammas to bless the grain for the remainder of the season and lamb’s quarters was the vegetable making up the bulk of the food at that time of year.
Lamb’s quarters is a cousin to quinoa, and although it’s possible to harvest the seeds for grain, it is quite labor-intensive. The young greens on this plant are delicious and nutrient-dense. Containing potassium, iron, and copper, leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves are coated in a fine white or pink powder, which is a wax the plant produces to keep it protected from moisture and bugs.
Lamb’s quarter can be used as a spinach replacement. Leaves are a delicious addition to salads or can be sautéed into a grain such as farro. As with most wild greens, the young plants are more tender and less bitter.
Unrelated to the banana-like fruit, common plantain is a member of the Plantago family. Plantain keeps low to the ground and can be noticed by its spikes growing straight up. Another healing powerhouse, plantain is often used externally for cuts, scrapes, and infections. Plantago is an excellent plant to work with for those with food allergies and chronic inflammation, especially in combination with calendula.
When leaves are young, they are tender and can be added to cabbage slaws. Once leaves mature, they become stringy and less tasty. The seeds can also be harvested and sprinkled onto meals.