I have a lot of friends who like to spend their free time out foraging wild edibles in the New England woods. To be honest, I haven’t done a lot of this (although I might tomorrow!) because I already spend so much of my time passively foraging. The agricultural landscape, while most often immediately next door to the forested landscape in this part of the country, is ecologically a world away. Never minding intended crops, the flora that occupy these two spaces ranges dramatically. Agricultural soil is a disturbed environment, dominated by colonizing, annual plant species, whereas the forested landscape is largely settled, dominated by deep-rooted, perennial and woody plant species. Thus, the environment I work in provides the unique opportunity to go farm foraging, and get a little weeding done while I’m at it. One important similarity between forest and farm foraging? Springtime is the best time. Everything is tender and new; it’s like the ground is your plate. So, here are some of my favorite weeds (or, we could call them “wicked easy crops”) to munch on in the field as the ground warms and the seeds unfurl:
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album):
I like to eat lamb’s quarters whole. I’ll pull the small plants out of the ground and chow down on the whole thing, minus roots. Anyone who has weeded more than a few gardens knows and hates this plant, so you might as well take the chance to enjoy it! It’s tasty and very nutritious, although sometimes it has a white powder on it that can ruin the texture a bit. Apparently you can also cook it, and the seeds are also supposed to be tasty but tedious to harvest.
Oxalis, false shamrock or wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta):
Tangy and juicy, oxalis shows up all over the place. This isn’t exactly a noxious weed but you’ll find it in somewhat less-disturbed or newly-disturbed parts of the farm, and also in lawns, gardens and the wood’s edge. Also edible at any size, but another one that is great to munch when it’s tiny.
Pigweed or calaloo (Amaranathus spp):
There are several species of pigweed (I usually refer to it as amaranth since I’ve heard pigweed used to refer to a few other plants, including lamb’s quarters) out there but I believe all of them are edible. As a weed, this is another I like to eat the whole plant while small or eat the leaves later (though they do tend to get tough). I don’t eat huge amounts of it but apparently there are high amounts of oxalic acid (which can interfere with absorption of calcium) and cooking it like spinach is recommended. You can also harvest the seeds for flour. In fact, in Africa and the Caribbean pigweed (or sometimes, “calaloo”, a much more fun name) is cultivated as both a leafy vegetable and a grain, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to buy amaranth flour in the States.
Wild sorrel, or about a hundred other variations on that name (Rumex acetosella):
This weed doesn’t offer a whole lot to actually eat but while it’s a bit of a tough texture, its small leaves and sour, tangy flavor (a weaker version of cultivated sorrel) make it one of my favorite to grab (even a few weeks ago, as we were in the act of transplanting the farm’s sorrel plants and it was right under my knees).
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea):
Not that there’s anything wrong with it (in fact, it’s pretty savvy), but I’ve definitely seen farmers selling this at markets before. While you can buy seeds for cultivated varieties of this, I don’t notice a remarkable taste difference between the cultivated and “wild” type and in any case, I don’t know any farmer who would willingly bring more of this onto their property. I’m about 99% positive that the farmers I saw selling this had just weeded it the night before and said “ah what the hell, let’s see if we can get anyone to buy it”.
Johnny jump-ups (Viola cornuta):
These certainly aren’t present on every farm, nor do many farms consider them a huge problem, but some places are just saturated with them. Some people call them pansies but really, they’re very tough plants. The part I like to eat are the buds and the flowers. They are light and a little sweet, and there is also an aesthetic joy to chowing down on gorgeous flowers.
Burdock or gobo (Arctium lappa):
This isn’t something you’d munch out on the field (I’ve never tried, but I imagine burdock leaves to be impossible to chew) but if you have to be digging it out anyway, the large taproots of burdock make a delicious, green-colored and very nutritious tea. Apparently it can help restore skin damage, cleanse the blood, act as a diuretic, and is high in vitamin C. In fact, many people cultivate it for those purposes and is a staple of many traditional medicines (though again, not something that I would expect many farmers in this region to be adding to their perennial gardens as it is a wicked annoying plant).