Our farm worker Mee Young was out in the field later than usual, pulling up weeds and collecting them in a basket. “Mee Young, it’s after 5,” I said. “Time to quit.” But it turned out she was harvesting supper, her basket filled with redroot pigweed.
This wasn’t the first time someone at our farm had foraged for wild greens. In spring our neighbors and several of our crew members had feasted on stinging nettles, an unlikely sounding but tasty ingredient in soups and rice dishes. I’ve fed us on dandelion greens and, better yet, the crowns of the plants, dipped in batter and fried crisp. I’ve added many wild plants to salads, such as tart, lemony wild sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and sour grass (Oxalis stricta), and the plump leaves of purslane (Portulaca oleracea). I’ve even cooked up a mess of nutty-tasting lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), a close relative of Mee Young’s prized pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus).
What’s fascinating about these plants is that they’re all weeds that plague us one minute, then satisfy our appetites the next. Opportunistic species that take advantage of disturbed garden soil, most are nonnative invaders that have colonized much of the inhabited world. Some regions, of course, have edible weeds peculiar to their climate. And so often we’ve stopped, while traveling, to see what a forager is picking and what he or she plans to do with it.
So naturally I asked Mee Young how she would prepare her greens. “With sesame oil, garlic, chopped scallions and miso paste,” she replied. And when shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) was promiscuously dotting our farm with its pesky little rosettes, Mee Young was out gathering them, too, to be served “the Korean way, with chopped green onions, finely minced garlic, rice vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds and chili powder.” Plantain leaves, seemingly too fibrous too enjoy, she somehow tamed with blanching. All of these, she explained, were seasonal treats in her home country, sold at their tender best. Suddenly there would be plantains in all the markets, often sold by “old grandmothers with baskets.”
Look up some common edible weeds in an authoritative text such as J.A. Duke and A.A. Atchley’s “CRC Handbook of Proximate Analysis Tables of Higher Plants,” and if you thought foragers were quaint and funny people, you’ll eat your words. Growing right under everyone’s noses, all over the world, are plants that are powerhouses of nutrients, often superior to the cultivated greens that farmers are paid to grow. Many are rich in beta carotene, which the body turns into Vitamin A, a nutrient in which much of the world is deficient.
Mee Young’s pigweed turned up at a community potluck the day after I spotted her picking. She had decorated it with yellow blossoms from a row of broccoli we’d let go to seed. We all luxuriated in the flavor of the dish, its tonic powers and its beauty.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and author of The Garden Primer .
Read more about growing your own food at washingtonpost.com/vegetablegardens.