Eat your weedies is not only the title of a cookbook by the Wild Ones that volunteer at the Burr Oak Woods Conservation Department but is also a concept for enjoying the taste and value of native foods. What a delectable sampling of recipes are available using all sorts of Missouri native plants. What we see as a natural landscape, Native Americans saw as a bounty of useful plants for food, medicine and fiber. Learning to identify and cook some regionally native plants makes eating local foods about as local and seasonal as it gets.
There are basic rules to live by when foraging for Missouri’s native edible plants. First and foremost, always properly identify a plant before you eat it. Many edible plants have look-alikes that can fool you. There are many great resource books on identification of edible native plants—use them along with a good field guide to Missouri native plants. Another way to avoid misidentification is to buy already identified edible native plants to include in your landscape. Here are other rules worth mentioning. Always ask permission before collecting plants on private property and do not collect plants from conservation areas. Avoid collecting plants from areas where they may have been sprayed with pesticides (i.e. roadways, along the edge of agricultural fields etc) and always wash the plant parts prior to preparing them for a meal.
Know which part of the plant is edible and how to prepare it properly. Eat small amounts the first time you eat a new plant to be sure you are not sensitive to it. Recipes abound in various books so have some fun trying different ones. Each season offers different plants to harvest so an awareness of what and when a plant is ripe or ready keeps your seasonal kitchen full.
Many highly nutritious native plants rank among those deemed as “weeds”. What makes it a weed? Some say a weed is a plant out of place or a plant without value or use. My favorite definition comes from the late and great J.C. Raulston—“A weed is a plant that has to deal with an unhappy human”. A case in point is the stinging nettle that grows in moist, low woodlands. This plant is loaded with high levels of minerals, vitamins and even protein. Perhaps because it is highly valued as food, medicine and fiber, it evolved with stinging hairs on its stems and leaves to survive heavy foraging. Wear long sleeves and gloves when collecting and preparing it to avoid its sting. Yes, it is worth it. Prickly pear cactus, also known as nopale, is another plant that fiercely protects itself, yet once the spines are gone, its leaf ‘pads’ are quite popular in Mexican cooking. Delicious red fruit ripens in late summer and is used for juice and jellies.
Other weeds that are easier to harvest and also highly nutritious include lambsquarters, purslane and plantain. Lambsquarters, when cooked, has a taste reminiscent of spinach. Purslane contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. How often have you hear “how do I get rid of violets”? You can eat them! The leaves are high in vitamin C, A and E and the flowers are a delightful addition of color to salads, muffins, pancakes and desserts. Other plants with edible flowers include redbud, the native yucca and wild rose.
Some curiously tasty recipes in my favorite wild food cookbook include young cattail shoot stir fry, chickweed salad, dandelion wine, and red clover fritters. It doesn’t take much to encourage the growth of most of these edibles—mostly it takes some knowledge and tolerance of “weeds”. The reward is a free harvest of nutritious plants that can enhance your diet and surprise your guests.
by Cindy Gilberg