Image: Hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata), also known as false dandelion.
When we purchased our property, we knew that it had a history of human use – hand logging and pioneer homesteading around the turn of the century, then more recently, clear-cut logging. So we expected weeds. Weeds and humans go hand-in-hand. Some weeds, such as ivy, can be just plain irritating. Other weeds, such as dandelions, are good edible species.
So early this spring, I was watching to see what sorts of weeds sprouted up. I was hoping that some of them might be useful. At first, our only weeds were English ivy (Hedera helix) and Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), both plants that under other circumstances I have nurtured as part of my garden, but here, they are persistent and difficult to control invasives. The next weed crop consisted of foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), which is poisonous, and hemp nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit), which is potentially poisonous and capable of causing paralysis. So far, we weren’t doing so well with edible weeds. How I missed my dandelion, especially early in the spring when there are few greens from the garden.
Image: Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) growing in patches around the yard.
Finally, I spotted some tiny patches of sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella). Sheep sorrel leaves (in small quantities) can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves have a lemony, tangy, or nicely tart flavor. However, the acidity is due to the presence of oxalic acid, which, if eaten in excess, may be detrimental (although there is significant controversy over the definition of excess and the degree to which oxalic acid is actually toxic – see Eat That Weed). Sheep sorrel can be used as a garnish, an unusual seasoning for fish, rice, or potatoes, a salad green, a curdling agent for milk in cheese-making, and as a thickener in soups. The leaves can be dried and ground into a powder to use as a flour or to make into noodles. The seeds can be eaten raw or cooked. Sheep sorrel has been considered a rich source of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and other carotenoids, and is a potent antioxidant herb. For us, it was the first fresh green that we could nibble on from our yard.
Image: Hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata).
By mid-summer, we were starting to eat mustard, radish, and turnip greens from our garden, but still no signs of dandelions. However, we were starting to get rosettes of “dandelion-like” leaves which produced forked stems with yellow flowers. The leaves were hairy, and clearly not dandelions, but was this plant useful to us? It turns out that this plant was indeed called “false dandelion”, or, more commonly, “hairy cat’s ear”. Although apparently toxic to horses, all parts of the cat’s ear plant are edible for humans. Cat’s ear leaves are not so bitter as dandelion leaves, and are more readily accepted in salads, stews, and soups. In fact, some consider the leaves somewhat bland in taste, and thus can easily be eaten raw in salads, steamed, or used in stir-fries. Older leaves can become tough and fibrous, so the younger leaves are more suitable for consumption. The root of this plant can be roasted and used to make a coffee, in the same way as it is done with dandelion roots. Interestingly, hairy cat’s ear, originally from the Mediterranean, where it is considered a valuable edible, is a serious invasive species in some parts of BC. However, to us, it is a great dandelion substitute. Even better, this is one of those plants that can be harvested as food throughout the whole year. Its healthily green leaves can sometimes be found even under a heavy layer of snow.
Image: Chickweed (Stellaria media).
Later in the summer, another weedy friend emerged. We had been given some strawberry runners to start our strawberry patch. Mixed in with these runners were more sheep sorrel, and something new – chickweed (Stellaria media). Chickweed is edible and nutritious, and is used as a leaf vegetable, often raw in salads. It can also be tossed into soups and stews. When added to a cooked dish, the stems and flowers can be used. Chickweed has a long history as a medicinal herb, and has been used to treat a number of ailments.
Another weed that I have learned to appreciate somewhat more is goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria). In Prince Rupert, I battled goutweed, as it is another terrible invasive that is extremely difficult to eradicate from gardens and yards. Luckily, none has shown up at our site. However, the neighbouring homestead at the end of Collingwood Bay has a serious case of goutweed invasion. We’ve been careful not to encourage it to spread when we have gone foraging. Further study of this plant has shown that it is both a medicinal herb and a prime salad ingredient and pot herb in Europe. The young leaves and stems of the goutweed are tender and aromatic, and make excellent additions to salads. When older, the leaves are often cooked with cheese. They have been added to fritters as well. In northwest Germany goutweed is made into grune suppe, green soup. I took the plunge and nibbled a few leaves, and indeed, they are surprisingly tasty. While I hope to never see this invasive on our property, I certainly know where there is a patch from which I can gather a plentiful harvest.
At the end of the summer, we had another surprise … dandelions were starting to sprout in the yard. A couple of the plants that we had brought from Prince Rupert apparently had some dandelions hanging out in their pots. These have happily spread, as the opportunistic and adaptive invasives that they are. Next spring, we will be cheered by their bright yellow flowers. But beware, dandelions, we eat our weeds!