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While we may be preparing and planting a variety of vegetables this year in our gardens, there are quite a few common edible plants that could be already growing there. Some of these are often considered weeds, but can be a great source of nutrients, especially in the cold winter months.
Experiment by adding these wild vegetables to salads, cook them into soups or saute with butter and garlic for a healthy no-cost addition to your diet.
Of course, it is important to be sure that the variety you pick is edible. Some plants have look-alike species that can be poisonous, so if in doubt, leave it out. When collecting wild plants to eat, it is best to pick from an area away from roads and traffic to reduce the amount of pollutants on and in the plant.
It is also not a good idea to pick from places that have been sprayed with weed or pest killer.
We haven’t included any varieties of mushroom here because they are considerably harder to identify. If the wrong varieties are ingested, they can be very poisonous and even lethal.
If you find a good crop of a certain plant, be sure to leave some for local wildlife that they may depend on for food in the colder months. That being said, let’s continue.
If you have a garden, it is quite likely that you have dandelions growing somewhere. They are a good edible weed to forage and are very easy to recognize. They have significant levels of vitamins A, K, C and E, as well as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Nearly all of the dandelion plant is edible. The petals, flowers and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and the roots can be roasted. The dried roots can also be used as a substitute for coffee or tea.
The younger leaves are sweeter than the older ones, which grow more bitter with age, so early spring is the best time to pick them.
Dandelions contain the antioxidant beta-carotene which the body converts into vitamin A. Beta-carotene can be beneficial to the immune system and aid cognitive function and memory.
Stinging nettles have a similar nutritional profile to dandelions and are particularly rich in vitamins A, K, C and B. The leaves also contain minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium.
Nettles are often made into a tea which have been used to treat urinary tract infections, arthritis and as a way to manage blood sugar levels. They can also be added to stews, pestos and omelettes as a spinach substitute.
When steeped in boiling water, the leaves lose their stinging properties but be sure to use gloves when foraging for these prickly customers.
Cattails grow freely in marshy areas and are a great source of carbohydrates, vitamins A, B and C, and minerals such as phosphorus and potassium. The root, when cleaned and boiled or roasted, is similar to artichoke in texture and taste.
The new shoots and stems can be harvested in spring and eaten like asparagus. When trimming the roots, be sure to take only the side shoots and not the main stem to ensure the plant can continue growing.
Lamb's-quarters are known by a variety of different names, including fat hen, wild spinach, pigweed and bacon weed. It grows from early summer into the fall and can often be found alongside stinging nettles in nitrogen-rich soils.
It contains vitamins A and C, as well as minerals such as manganese, calcium and copper. It is rich in fiber and is a source of Omega 3 and 6. Lamb’s-quarters can be eaten raw but steaming or sauteing improves the edibility and makes the nutrients easier to digest.
Lamb’s-quarters are considered an invasive species in some places, so by eating it, you are not only gaining free nutritious food, but also doing an environmental service. Good for you.
Wild asparagus is a rare treat if you can find some. It can most often be found near, but not right beside, marshlands or bodies of water, and at the sides of drainage ditches. It is best foraged in the early spring when the shoots are still young and tender.
In the United States, wild asparagus is the same variety as the kind you would buy from the store. It is not native to the US and wild varieties are descendants of ones that have escaped from gardens. When foraging, be sure to leave some spears from each plant uncut, as harvesting all of them can kill the plant.
Asparagus can grow multiple crops over a season and harvesting a few shoots will prompt the plant to send up new ones.
It is a good source of vitamins A, C, K and B, as well as minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus and iron.
Wild Onions, Garlic, Leeks
Ramps, wild onions and wild garlic are known collectively as alliums. For anyone not familiar with ramps, they are a type of wild leek and grow primarily in the eastern states. All three wild alliums have a strong garlic-onion flavor and odor. They are some of the first edible plants to shoot up in spring.
They are most often found on forest floors and in meadowland and pasture. When picking them, be sure to leave small clusters alone, as certain varieties are under threat of extinction in some areas due to over harvesting. If there are hundreds of plants, pick a few large ones sporadically, so as not to disturb the growth of the group.
Additionally, rather than pulling up the bulbs, you can trim the leaves to eat instead. The leaves are edible and also very tasty. This ensures the bulbs will grow on next year.
Be aware of some look-alikes that can be toxic, so make sure whatever you pick has that familiar onion smell.
Bamboo is widely considered an invasive species and once planted, can run amok, popping up in the most unexpected places. If you can find a patch growing near you, you can make use of it in many ways. The tender young shoots of the bamboo plant can be boiled and eaten if picked early enough. They have a slightly sweet flavor unlike asparagus.
Bamboo is rich in protein, amino acids and carbohydrates, as well as significant levels of vitamins A, B6, E, thiamine and niacin.
Bamboo is edible, but when raw, contains a type of toxic natural cyanide. It requires boiling multiple times in fresh water to break down the chemical, remove the bitter taste and make it more easily digestible.