Eat Those Weeds

By Douglas Boudreau

Photo by Dmitry Tkachev

Most people don’t know much about wild plants --- much less about the wild plants that they call "weeds" --- and just ignore them. The weekend survivalist assumes that all they need are guns, shelter and a water source. My partner in grime Mykel Hawke and I knew that a book was needed which details many edible plants with hundreds of photos and every warning included that we could think of combined into the study of survival.

Wild plants that are edible to humans tend to contain more beneficial nutrients like vitamins and minerals than cultivated foods. All cultivated foods originated as wild plants, and over the long history of agriculture. Likely starting around 12,000 years ago, humans have saved seeds and hybridized plants to genetically select larger, easy-to-grow varieties. Such plants make for greater crop yields but tend to contain fewer nutrients than their wild counterparts. Add to that the fact that most cultivated food sold in stores and restaurants is produced on soil so depleted of minerals that they require artificial fertilization, unless grown organically, this leaves them even more lacking in nutrition than those wild weeds growing around the home or in that empty unused vacant lot down the road. I cannot tell you whether or not it’s legal to forage for food away from your own home, especially on someone's private property, or in the woods, but in that famine, doomsday or survival situation legality would be the least of your worries.

According to Katrina Blair, in her book The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival, "Wild edible foods tend to grow within biodiverse communities, enabling them to garner nutrients from the richer soil conditions supported by this biodiversity. Additionally, fresh wild foods can be eaten on the day of harvest, whereas cultivated foods often lose nutrients during transportation and storage."

When you build a garden, you are wise to pull up other plants that sprout up around your cultivated species, but you probably don't know that much of the plants referred to as "weeds" are actually species of wild food plants that were purposely bred by our ancestors to be invasive and noxious. In some places the majority of the "weeds" that sprout up wherever you turn the soil for gardening and landscaping either has edible and nutritious parts, medicinal uses, or both. Yes, I said most of those weeds! Learn what they are and leave room in your garden for some wild food like the nutritious dandelion, wild spinach (Lamb's Quarters), dock, burdock, milkweed, minor's lettuce, fireweed, chickweed (your chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, etc. will love it), peppergrass, and many other species. In fact, every corner of America and every region of the world has wild food of some kind if you know what to look for and how to use it.

Know your plant species! Positive identification is the Rule #1 priority in my opinion. Rule #2 is do not try to eat something that your tastebuds find disgusting. If your reaction to chewing something is to spit it out it will be wise to spit it out. Particularly if there's any question of its edibility and especially if it is a survival situation when you are already very hungry and maybe already very weak so anything that could cause you to get sick could be the very last thing that you eat.

There are many species of plants that are edible in varying degrees. There are choice (the best) edibles that include delicious berries, starchy roots and tubers, ground up seeds removed of chaff, stalks, leaves and gourds that can be boiled and eaten as is or in a stew and there is also what I consider "famine food" wild edibles which have varying degrees of palatability and practicality. Beware, there can be toxic lookalikes to edible species. Also, be sure of which parts of a species are edible, which are not, and how to properly prepare each when necessary. When researching, I have seen bad information being posted online. Always verify information on the edibility of anything with multiple sources. Especially look for accredited experts like Green Deane of, myself and a variety of books available.

Rule #3 is too much traffic near potential wild edibles is contaminating to them with the heavy metals and chemicals of engine exhaust, oil, gas, and rubber. Downhill embankments from roads are not safe either because of the runoffs from rain carrying those same heavy metals and chemicals downhill. For this reason, look uphill from roads and as far away from the curb as possible, depending on how much traffic uses the road. In all survival foraging, weigh the risk versus the reward.

Why would you look near roads then? The further away from human activity, the less species of edible plants you will see. Many species were bred to invade disturbed ground and are usually listed as "introduced" and "invasive" species. What is generally described as "weeds" are mostly edible and medicinal species that humanity has been using for survival purposes for many generations --- perhaps thousands of years.

One example is the humble wild onion. Lots of wild onion species grow throughout North America. All species of garlic and onion come in the same scientific, botanical genera (genus) called "Allium." One that grows in Florida is called, "Wild Garlic, Allium canadense. While the taste and aroma of this Allium is like an onion and garlic mix, it grows seeds at the top of the flower stalks that resemble cloves. This specific species has a range here from central Florida west to east Texas, northward from there along the continental divide to the Canadian border and across the entire eastern US. These bulbs are very hard raw so I like to chop them up for salads and cook with my soups, stews, and stir fry. Any part of an onion that is soft enough to chew or chop is good to eat. Garlic and onion species are a particularly healthy species to consume on a regular basis.

There are many other varieties, including:

"Prairie Onion, Allium stellatum" across parts of the central plains states.

"Nodding Wild Onion, A. cernum" only found along Rocky Mountain states and mountainous regions of eastern US.

"Textile Onion, A. textile" in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and North & South Dakota.

"Tall Swamp Onion, A. validum", aka "Swamp Onion", along the Pacific states.

"Plains Onion, A. perdulce," in western and northern Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

"Taper-Tip Onion, A. acuminatum," across western states except California, Utah, east Wyoming, and Montana.

"Ramp, A. tricoccum," --- and others elsewhere --- which ranges throughout the northern half of eastern US and can be found in woods, floodplains, and ravines. The leaves are broad that appear in the spring and then die back as the leaf-less flowering stalks emerge.

However, there are also toxic lookalikes that have no aroma or onion-like odor or flavor. Some are called "False Garlic" that include the "Nothoscordum" and "Muilla" genera (genus). I have accidentally dug up these species and transplanted them around my trailer. So, with wild onions the basic rule for identification is simple, "If it looks and smells like an onion, like this wild garlic, you can practically bet your life it is. But it must be both, looks and smells!

I suggest learning as much as you can about edible wild plants like these before some disaster occurs and forces you to guess at what kind of wild food is available around you and do your children and grandchildren a favor and teach them this. I greatly suspect that they will need to know it someday.