by Philippa Wood
What are Weeds, Really?
We’ve all heard the term weeds before. They take over garden spaces, compete with our vegetables and can be very difficult to get out. Weeding can take hours and is often people’s least favourite part of gardening.
Did you know that there is no agreed list of which plants are weeds? A weed is simply a general term for “a plant that is not valued where it is growing.” This means that a weed on my balcony can be completely different from a weed in my neighbour’s garden! That’s right! Take lambs-quarters for example: lambs-quarters grows everywhere in Toronto and is treated as a weed here, but is cultivated in India, and parts of East Asia. And how about burdock? Burdock is associated with annoying burrs that get caught on clothes and hair, but it can also be found in stir-fries across Asia, and has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine.
Why We Should All Eat ‘Weeds’
Diversify your Diet– Scientists estimate that of some 400 000 species on earth, at least 200 000 are edible; whereas only 200 of these species are cultivated. If this doesn’t sound limited enough, 3 crops; wheat, maize and rice account for more than 50% of calories we consume, derived from plants.
They are Nutritious– Purslane has been called one of the most nutrient dense foods in the world! While this may sound a bit dramatic, it is no doubt packed with Omega 3, Vitamin C and Potassium!
They are Accessible-You can find weeds in the cracks of garden beds, sidewalks, in parks and in ravines. In areas where these plants have spread, harvesting a few can give space for other species to flourish. Done right, it is a local and sustainable diet choice!
They are Delicious– Many ‘weeds’ have been naturalized in our climate and have been around for thousands of years. We recommend reading about these ‘weeds’ in their native region to find recipes and historical uses.
‘Weeds’ at the Farmers Market!?
Over the past few years, different community members and staff have pointed out foods in our gardens that would have otherwise been weeded. Every year, unexpected plants will pop up in garden beds, paths and everywhere in between. This year we have been intentional in not weeding good food. Over the past 4 months we have been cultivating several common ‘weeds’ from our gardens: Purslane, Callaloo, Burdock and Lambsquarters. These plants are included in our weekly harvests and given back to the community.
You can also find these plants showcased at our market stand at the Cabbagetown market, every Tuesday from 3:00pm-7:00pm until October. By selling these weeds with more recognizable vegetables we hope to break down stigmas of eating these plants, diversify food expectations at farmers markets and encourage sustainable consumption of these excellent foods. We have been delighted to see how many people recognize these greens and share their knowledge! Come stop by to learn more about the wonders of these edible weeds!
Philippa (L) and Ohemaa at Cabbagetown Market
Finding Edible ‘Weeds’
Many edible ‘weeds’ can be found just outside your doors. Don’t believe me? Try this edible weeds scavenger hunt in your neighbourhood to learn about common weeds and their many uses:
Purslane grows well in poor soil and can survive long periods of drought. It is an excellent houseplant and can also be used as a companion plant in gardens. Purslane provides groundcover to create a humid and cooling microclimate. Plant with cabbage, lettuce, beets, radish, corn or carrots. Its deep roots break up soil and lead root vegetables, corn and other plants to deeper nutrients. It is also delicious, consumed raw in salads, added to smoothies, topped onto a kid’s meal or cooked down like spinach.
Nutrition Facts (per 100g) Rich in Omega 3 Vitamin C 35% DV Vitamin A 26% DV Magnesium 17% DV Potassium 14% DV
Callaloo, also known as Malang and Xanthosoma Rosem is a common green in the Carribean, across East Asia and North Africa. It can be harvested for young leaves in salads, or cooked larger leaves. Seeds are also harvested for grain. This hardy plant is easy to grow, with lots of health benefits.
Nutrition Facts (per ½ cup of cooked leaves): 6.5 mg of fiber 300 mg of calcium 500 mg of potassium 3 mg of iron – 2x that of broccoli 3.5 mg of protein – 4x that of broccoli
Lambs-quarter is native to Europe, but common in many temperate climates. Though sometimes considered a weed, it is cultivated in North India and has been used for food and medicine globally. It can be used to treat eczema, rheumatic pains, gout, colic, insect stings and bites. Leaves can be consumed raw or added to stews/soups. Seeds are an excellent source of protein.
Nutrition Facts (per 100g): Vitamin C 96% DV Vitamin A Equiv 73% DV Riboflavin (B2) 37% DV Vitamin B6 21% DV Calcium 31% DV Manganese 37% DV
Burdock, also known as u-eong (우엉) is native to Europe and Asia but has been naturalized throughout North America. Burdock is popularly found in dishes across Asia. Dried Burdock has also been used to treat liver damage in Chinese Medicine. Burdock burrs even inspired the invention of Velcro!
Nutrition Facts (per 125g): Potassium 13% DV Magnesium 17% DV Phosphorus 12% DV Copper 6% DV Vitamin B6 17% DV
These are only 4 of an endless list of edible weeds. Other edible ‘weeds’ include Dandelions, Plantain, Japanese Knotweed and more. If you notice a weed in your area, ask around about its history and uses. You may be surprised with just how many plants we walk right over everyday!