For a taste of spring, look no further than your own backyard, where edible plants often considered weeds or pretty ornamentals offer palate-pleasing possibilities.
The first rule of foraging for edible plants is never, ever, eat anything you’re not 100 percent sure of. This applies whether you’re picking in the wild or in your own backyard.
“Foraging in your own backyard!” you say. “I thought you had to wander the fields and woods to forage.” Nope. Truth is, many of our favorite garden plants have edible parts that have simply been overlooked. And since many of us already know what we’re growing in our own backyards, identification there is a lot easier than it would be in the wild. It’s a great way to start foraging and to introduce new edible plants to your menu.
By actually planting your garden with edible ornamentals, you can make the most out of your space, even if it’s very small. Historically, gardeners have considered ornamental plants (trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and annuals) as separate from edible plants (fruits, vegetables, and herbs) and have planted them in different locations. Do you have the time and energy to plant separate kitchen and ornamental gardens, replete with stylish tuteurs and weeded paths? Do you have enough space to plant two different kinds of gardens? I don’t.
I look at ornamental plants with edible parts as the superheroes of the modern garden. They feed body and soul (with their deliciousness and beauty, respectively) and cut back on gardening chores by letting you focus your precious time on a single space.
“But,” you argue, “a quick trip to the supermarket is so fast and easy, why take time to walk around the backyard, looking for food?” Because it’s there. Because it’s free. And because it’s fun. The thrill of discovery (you can eat that?) is intoxicating!
Fallopia japonica, a.k.a. Polygonum cuspidatum
What it is: an aggressive weed or a garden perennial, depending on the cultivar and your point of view
Where to find it: gardens, roadsides, riverbanks
Edible parts: young stems
Japanese knotweed grows in sun or shade, in roadside ditches, on steep embankments, in wet soils, and in city parks. Introduced to Victorian England as an ornamental plant, it became popular and spread to the United States, where in the 1970s and, ’80s it was touted as a quick-growing plant, useful for stabilizing eroding roadsides and creating windbreaks and living fences. Too late, environmentalists realized that this aggressive plant was difficult to control. In the United Kingdom, it’s now illegal to plant knotweed anywhere, and parts of the United States are following suit. Knotweed produces thousands of seeds per plant, and it also spreads by underground stolons.
In Darwinian terms, it’s a very fit plant. Ornamental cultivars (F. japonica ‘Variagata’) are less aggressive, but if one is growing in your yard, you’ll still want to keep an eye on it.
How to Harvest
As Japanese knotweed matures, it gets tough and fibrous and requires peeling. Why make extra work for yourself? Harvest when the stalks are young and tender.
Choose unbranched spears, between 8 and 16 inches tall. They may be as thick as your thumb or as slim as a pencil. Yank them up by the roots if you’re on a crusade, or snap them off at ground level for an easier harvest. In less than half an hour you can easily pick 5 or 6 pounds of knotweed, enough for a batch of wine, some soup, and a couple of stir-fries.
How to Eat It
There are so many things you can make with knotweed, you’ll have no trouble using as much as you harvest. It keeps for months in the freezer, without blanching. Knotweed wine is one of my favorite homebrews; it takes less time to finish fermenting than many other wines and has a rich, tawny color. Knotweed can be substituted for rhubarb in pies, jams, and jellies; it combines well with strawberries, blueberries, and apples. Or you can use knotweed as a vegetable; it’s tart and crunchy in stir-fries and lemony delicious under hollandaise. My favorite way to eat knotweed: knotweed soup. It’s creamalicious. Besides, eating it turns lunch into environmental activism.
It’s also good for you. Knotweed contains large amounts of resveratrol, a chemical compound that some scientists believe has beneficial effects as an antioxidant. Active research is ongoing to confirm claims that resveratrol lowers blood sugar and slows the aging process, but no peer-reviewed scientific studies have been published to date. Most commercial resveratrol supplements are made from Japanese knotweed.
Try Quick-Pickled Japanese Knotweed Stems! Find the recipe here.
Prickly Pear Pads
What it is: a cactus
Where to find it: gardens, roadsides, not just in the desert!
Edible parts: fruit, pads
Note: Prickly pear fruit are called tunas. Though edible, the fruit are best harvested when ripe — usually in late summer and into the fall.When ripe they may be red, purple, orange, or yellow, and barely soft to the touch.
Yes, the prickly pear is a classic desert plant, but many species of this plant grow across the continental United States and into Canada. Not surprisingly, they grow best in full sun and sandy, fast-draining soil. Large, showy flowers may be yellow, white, or pink. In locations with cold winters, cactus pads fall to the ground and turn mushy. Let them sit; these may sprout in spring, resulting in more prickly pears for you.
How to Harvest
Do I need to say “carefully!”? Opuntia species have varying degrees of armor. Cactus pads are covered with areoles — tan-colored bumps from which grow both obvious spines and almost invisible, usually barbed glochids. Glochids detach from the plant easily, with the mere brush of a hand. They are hard to see and even harder to remove. Glochids are easy to feel, however, and it isn’t a good feeling. Prickly pear fruit is similarly well protected.
Whether you’re harvesting pads or fruit, wear leather gloves and use tongs. Fruit can be twisted off the plant. Cut pads with a sharp knife, leaving about an inch of the bottom of the pad behind. New growth will emerge from there. Spines and glochids can be scraped off with a knife or a vegetable peeler, or singed off by holding the pads or fruit over a flame. If you use the fire method, you’ll still want to peel the tough skin from the pad or fruit before cooking with it.
How to Eat It
Prickly pear pads are called nopales in Mexican cuisine, and they are delicious in a green-bean, bell-pepper kind of way. After removing the spines, glochids, and skin, slice the pads, chop, and cook with onions or garlic, then use them in egg dishes, stews, soups, or as a vegetable side dish. This is a highly mucilaginous vegetable (puts okra to shame); better to eat it cooked than raw.
What it is: a perennial weed
Where to find it: gardens, parks, fields
Edible parts: leaves, flower buds, flower petals, roots
Does anyone not recognize the dandelion? I didn’t think so. A ubiquitous denizen of sunny lawns, fields, and playgrounds, the dandelion elicits strong feelings. If its toothed leaves and fluffy yellow flowers are the bane of your existence, I’m about to suggest an excellent revenge. Or if, like me, you don’t care what plants make up your lawn as long as they’re soft underfoot, then here’s how you can enjoy one of the most versatile edible plants around.
How to Harvest
Dandelion greens are exceptionally nutritious, containing high levels of vitamin A, calcium, and potassium. They’re tastiest in early spring, before they flower. As summer continues, leaves develop a bitter taste, although plants in shade may remain palatable. Grasp the rosette of foliage at its base, as close to the ground as possible. Twist and pull.
Unopened flower buds may be fried, boiled, or pickled. Once flowers have opened, the petals can be plucked to use in any number of ways. To separate the petals from the bitter green calyx at the flower’s base, grab the base of the petals in one hand, the calyx in the other, and twist in opposite directions.
Dandelions have taproots that are best harvested in late fall to early spring. Remember that a piece left behind will produce more flowers. If you’d like to cultivate your dandelion crop, this isn’t a problem, but if you’re trying to eliminate dandelions, remove the entire root.
How to Eat It
Dandelion greens are packed with vitamins and minerals. I won’t lie to you — they’re bitter. But fresh young dandelion leaves are a good kind of bitter, the kind that gets your digestive juices flowing. They can be used raw in salads to balance mild greens like chickweed or miner’s lettuce. Taste a leaf before you pick a bunch. Dandelion foliage can go from pleasantly bitter to overpowering in just a few days. Cooking the leaves gets rid of some bitterness and extends their useful season. Blanch them in boiling water, then use them in hortopita or egg dishes, or simply sauté them with olive oil and top with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Whole dandelion buds should be rinsed, then lightly boiled for no more than a minute or two. A little butter, some salt and pepper, and you’re all set.
It takes 6 cups of dandelion petals to make a gallon of wine. That may not sound like a lot . . . until you start picking dandelion flowers and twisting off the petals. Petals have much less bulk than intact flowers do, and I usually need several days to collect enough for a batch of wine.
If that seems daunting to you, add a cup of petals to oatmeal cookies in place of raisins, or to a loaf of savory bread, for a splash of color and texture.