By Amos Miller
Photograph by Claud Mann

With all the recent winter rains, our creeks and rivers are flowing. Aquifers are being replenished and the soil is being activated. Seeds are popping to life. In the process, our gardens may appear to have been invaded by unwelcome visitors, and yanking all those weeds is an arduous task. But I suggest taking a closer look at what is labeled a “weed,” and consider that it might actually be a gift. In fact, some of the plants we perceive as not belonging to a picture-perfect landscape are a free meal awaiting discovery.

Miner’s lettuce is often found in wild margins throughout California. Its saucer-shaped cup is easy to identify. I find it to be one of the tastiest raw salad greens. The cup part is tender, succulent and mild flavored; the long stem is juicy and sweet, kind of like a sprout. My 4-year-old daughter, who’s not a big fan of vegetables, enjoys these and other wild foods. Somehow the act of gathering her food from the heart of nature makes things more enticing.

Chickweed is extremely common in many suburban backyards. It can add a gourmet touch to a mixed salad, but its indistinct growth form can be confused with some other look-alikes so you may need to have it identified by someone who is knowledgeable. It grows in large patches, often intermingling with miner’s lettuce. It can also be used to treat minor skin irritations such as diaper rash.

Stinging nettle takes some motivation to harvest, but with its high mineral content and medicinal value it is well worth the effort. A thick pair of gloves, long sleeves and a pair of hand pruners will suffice. Stands of nettle often grow in areas that have rich soil high in organic matter. They can be dried for making teas, and it’s delicious fresh as a cooked vegetable. Prepare as you would spinach or similar green. Either process will take away the stinging effects.

The dandelion is an easily recognized plant. Often looked upon with scorn, it has much to offer those naysayers. Dandelion forms a rosette of toothed leaves and pushes forth a single stalked bright golden flower, which climaxes as a seed puffball. The leaves taste best when picked young and before flowering; otherwise they are quite bitter. The flower petals, combined with other ingredients, are used to make dandelion wine, and the roots are excellent for helping to detoxify the liver. Making wishes on the mature flower heads is great fun for kids of all ages.

Mallow has adapted quite well to this climate and seems to come up wherever it can. It has a pretty deep taproot that, in heavier soils, can be difficult to yank out. So why not let it grow? The flavor is pretty mild. It blends well with other salad greens that have a little more pep to them. I prefer to eat the smaller younger leaves raw since the little fuzzy hairs on the larger leaves tickle the throat. More mature leaves can be used as a cooked vegetable. Their mucilaginous quality, similar to okra, adds a thickening effect to soups and sauces. Purslane is a low-growing succulent groundcover with fleshy oval leaf pads that rarely grow more than a few inches tall. It contains high levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which makes it a great food supplement for quality egg production in chickens. Cut the tender tips off and add to salads, lightly sauté, or even try making purslane pickles. Purslane can be used as a healing food for asthma sufferers for its bronchia-dilatory effect.

Blooming stands of yellow mustard flowers are a beautiful sight to behold in the California springtime. This nonnative plant, which has permanently invaded the landscape, is thought to have been introduced by the early Spanish settlers. It has no problem growing in some of the densest of hardpan, which is why some farmers employ it as a cover crop to help to break up tough soil. Its flavor alone can be intense, but the younger leaves cooked down with other more mildly flavored greens can help balance their bite.

If you are a fan of the peppery kick that cultivated arugula brings to your salad, then you might appreciate the slightly more exotic and intensified flavor of wild arugula. If you discover a patch, try collecting some seeds to spread in your home garden. Like regular arugula, use it raw or lightly wilted. Lamb’s quarters are related to amaranth, spinach, beets and Swiss chard, and are equally tasty. The tender tips and undeveloped seed heads, mature leaves and whole young plants can be steamed or sautéed. They cook down quite a bit, so for a generous helping pick a substantial amount. As with the rest of these weeds, it is in the service of future harvests to leave a number of plants to proliferate as they go to seed.

Plantain is commonly found in lawns. There are two varieties that grow here that can be distinguished by leaf shape: one narrow and one broad. Both can be used in the same way. Plantain can be used topically to treat inflammation and heal skin lesions. The leaves are best taken from the youngest plants for eating since they develop long, tough fibers as they mature.

Yellow dock is a perennial herb, also related to chard and beets, and its leaves can be used in the same way. Members of this family have a high oxalic acid content, which can aggravate kidney stone conditions or hyperacidity. However, the oxalic acid content can be greatly reduced by thorough cooking. The roots of yellow dock with their high iron content are excellent for treating anemia and other depleted blood conditions.

We are blessed to have such a diverse array of wild foods here in the springtime. As we venture outdoors following our winter hibernation, we can seize this opportunity to reconnect with nature in a new way. By developing more knowledge and awareness of wild foods we can take advantage of nature’s generosity.

This might require some mental adaptation to accommodate a more diverse experience of flavor and texture that may not come cleanly packaged in plastic. But integrating this knowledge can greatly benefit our health since many weeds contain more essential nutrients than the vegetables we commonly consume.

The joy of foraging is also food for the soul, which offers a way to more fully inhabit our bodies and senses. I find it easier to maintain a state of gratitude when I’m gleaning my nourishment directly from the offerings of the earth.

Amos Miller has traveled from New York to New Zealand dedicating the past 12 years to cultivating the earth with sacred intentions. He now resides in Ojai with his family, running his business Elemental Landscapes, which is committed to creating environments that nourish body and soul. Visit his website: artofecology.com

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