For this report, my husband and I traveled just a few miles from home. We went to a free seminar recently in Mt Vernon, Kentucky, titled Eating Wild, presented by ASPI (Appalachia – Science in the Public Interest.) The approximately twenty people in attendance learned about many common edible plants that grow in Southeast Kentucky and were treated to some very tasty recipes containing these plants.
You may not think of weeds as a food source, but our ancestors survived on these “weeds” until only a few generations ago. Back in the days when folks valued good nutrition above a manicured lawn, these weeds were common table fare. I have fond memories of collecting “greens” from the yard with my grandmother.
When you weigh the dozens of varieties of edible weeds against the very limited variety of vegetables in grocery stores, and consider that those vegetables were hybridized to produce bigger and faster crops with subsequently lower nutrition, the reasons to eat wild become obvious. Due to hybridization and genetic modification of crops, the nutritional value of our grandparents’ veggies was greater than our modern varieties. The lower nutrition and uncertain side effects of GMO foods have prompted many people to use only Heirloom plants in their vegetable gardens.
At the A-SPI seminar, the Purslane salad was most interesting — a fresh mixture of onion, tomato, summer squash, cucumber, beans, and purslane (a.k.a. pigweed) in a light vinaigrette.
Hubby’s favorite was the Lamb’s Quarters Quiche — simply Quiche Florentine using Lamb’s Quarters instead of spinach. As a matter of fact, Lamb’s Quarters is sometimes called Wild Spinach. My favorite treat of the evening was the Lamb’s Quarters fritters — a fried pancake.
We also had fresh pawpaws, a favorite of my youth.
I remember eating them every summer at my Mamaw’s house. I hadn’t eaten one in years. The good ladies at the A-SPI seminar also made a pawpaw cake with homemade cream cheese frosting, which my husband particularly enjoyed. The cook said she simply substituted pawpaw in a banana cake recipe.
map of Southeast Kentucky counties
If you like Fruit Roll-Ups then you probably would have enjoyed the homemade Autumn Olive fruit leather: tart and flavorful, and packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants, containing much more lycopene than tomatoes. Although Autumn Olive originated in Asia, it was brought to the US in the early 1800s, and is considered an invasive plant today. Therefore I wouldn’t recommend planting it. There are many places it grows in the wild throughout Kentucky, especially in the Southeastern counties.
All the yummy food we had at the seminar was accompanied by Sassafras Tea and Nettle Tea. Sassafras Tea is another yummy memory from my childhood. I remember the days when Sassafras Tea was a treat that we looked forward to each year. Again, I wasn’t disappointed. The Nettle Tea was a new experience for me. I was pleasantly surprised at its delicate flavor. I even had seconds!
We also learned about other Kentucky edible weeds–
Cattail (a.k.a. Bullrush): All parts of this plant are edible. Even the pollen can be used as flour in pancakes.
Clover: This plant is found in virtually every lawn and grassy field around. The white and red varieties are both edible. Roots and rhizomes can be eaten raw or boiled. Dried flower heads make a tasty tea.
field of thistles
Thistle: The young stalks can be boiled and eaten. Thistle root can be eaten raw or cooked.
Plantain: A common weed in lawns, the young leaves can be used raw in salads, or cooked as part of a recipe.
narrow leaf plantain
The seeds can also be dried and ground for use as flour. I have both the broad leaf and the narrow leaf varieties in my yard.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the mountain of edible plants in our beautiful, bountiful state of Kentucky. I simply want to introduce you to eating wild, and the abundant resource that awaits you right out your back door. By no means should you read this article and think you are ready to eat wild. Be an informed forager!
Some plants can make you sick or even kill you. Some poisonous plants mimic the edible ones. One example is Wild Carrot (a.k.a. Queen Anne’s Lace) and Poison Hemlock, which has purple-spotted hairless stems, unlike wild carrot stems which are hairy with no purple spots. Some plants have both edible and poisonous varieties in their family tree. Also, consider that you might have allergies to unfamiliar foods, so eat only small quantities at first. Get help from a knowledgeable forager, or buy a reputable book that can teach you how to recognize safe edible plants. Many universities have reliable information on the web.
*Do I really have to tell you to beware of “experts” on the internet?*
Some reliable books to get you started are–
‘Stalking the Wild Asparagus’ by Euell Gibbons.
‘The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts’ by Katie Letcher Lyle.
‘Feasting Free on Wild Edibles’ by Bradford Angier.
Although this article is about the value of weeds as food, I want to mention that many edible weeds also have medicinal properties. Yet another reason to love weeds!