People worry about invasive weeds, but most never consider the useful qualities of these plants. Whether you're weeding your own garden, working a community plot, or even hiking, there are delicious weeds all around you. Since you're going to pull them out anyway, why not bring them back to the kitchen and get creative?
Here are five of the most common edible, invasive weeds. They’re tastiest and most tender in spring, so get out there and look for them now. And the best part is, they’re so abundant that you can harvest to your heart’s content.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
If you’ve spent any time in the spring woods, you’ve probably seen garlic mustard. It’s a biennial weed with vaguely heart-shaped leaves and notched leaf margins. The first year growth forms a basal rosette – that’s the stage you’re looking for. Sample a raw leaf and you’ll see why: The flavor is sharp and garlicky, although it actually isn’t related to garlic at all. Garlic mustard is great raw, in sandwiches or salads, as well as cooked in pesto or as a pasta filling. You can even infuse vodka with garlic mustard for a savory martini. Garlic mustard often crowds out neighboring plants, and many native plant societies across the country sponsor spring outings focused on pulling up this robust and very tasty weed.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
Many people think that Japanese knotweed is a type of bamboo because of its jointed stems, upright growth habit, and the dense clumps it forms when given the chance. Young Japanese knotweed stems can be used as a rhubarb substitute in desserts or as a sorrel substitute in vegetable dishes. It also makes a very tasty soup. Harvest the stems when they’re easy to snap off with your bare hands. Once you have to cut knotweed stems, you’ll find them fibrous and unpleasant to chew. Remove the leaves and sautée the stems in stir fries, or roast them in a hot oven and toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. The flavor is quite tart with a slightly grassy edge. If the grassiness doesn’t appeal to you, peal off the outer layer of the stem before cooking for a milder taste.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelions deserve your respect. Despite the hours and dollars that most people spend trying to eradicate this perennial vegetable, they persist. Dandelions have multiple edible parts (unopened flower buds, crowns, flower petals, roots), but in spring, their leaves are the part you want to harvest. Pick individual leaves from the base of the plant or, if you’re on a weeding spree, cut off the leaves after you’ve pulled up the roots. (Side note: Don’t think that dandelions won’t come back if you pull them from the roots, because if you left the tiniest bits of root behind, they will.) In cool weather, the raw leaves add a pleasant kind of bitterness to salads and sandwiches. If you’re not a fan of bitter flavors, give dandelion greens a quick blanch and then sautée them with olive oil, garlic, and a squeeze of lemon juice. The next time you see cultivated dandelion greens for sale at the grocery store, just keep walkin’.
Curly dock (Rumex crispus)
Dock is a persistent, perennial weed with a thick taproot (like a carrot) that allows it to thrive, even in desert climates. It’s one of the earliest spring greens to show up every year, and it’s tastiest in cool weather. (Hot weather tends to toughen the leaves.) Raw dock stems have a mucilaginous (sticky) quality like okra, so if you’d like to use it raw, such as in salads, use just the leaves. Try harvesting the youngest, most tender leaves at the center of the plant. You can also chop up the leaves and stems together then add them to egg dishes (quiches, frittatas, and omelets), stews, or stir fries. A simple preparation with olive oil and a little goat cheese highlights the lemony flavor of this weedy green.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica)
Don’t let the name dissuade you! A quick blanch in boiling water (60 seconds is plenty) is all it takes to completely disarm this wild weed’s stingers. Do, however, be careful when picking them. While some people claim the ability to harvest nettles without being stung, we don’t advise you to try it; always wear gloves when dealing with nettles. Nettles should be harvested before they flower. That probably means early spring, or, if you pinch the top several inches off of your nettle plants every two to three weeks, you can the harvest for months. Stinging nettles are a perennial vegetable and a mild green with a flavor similar to that of baby spinach, and they can easily be used in place of spinach in a variety of dishes. Try a rich, deep green soup or nettle gnocchi.
If you’re someone who loves both the outdoors and experimenting in the kitchen, foraging for wild edibles is appealing on several levels. Harvesting weeds, plants that most people wouldn’t think twice about throwing away, is the perfect way to make something out of nothing. A very tasty something, too.