Edible weeds are abundant throughout the Bay Area, but identifying them isn’t easy. Neither is avoiding potentially contaminated urban soil and fragile ecosystems. That’s where some unconventional farming approaches come into the picture. Take Nancy Gammons, of Four Sisters Farm, who gathers wild stinging nettles along the banks of her farm’s creek. It’s an arduous process, and not something she has time for all year, but the product is clean, flavorful and sought-after. “Public waterways can be so contaminated these days,” she says, “so it’s important to know that we’re gathering on our own [certified organic] land.”
The idea of a weed is a human construction; a plant becomes a weed when it grows where it’s not needed. Weeds that compete with the desired crop present a challenge, but farmers who encourage and harvest edible weeds transform that challenge into an opportunity. “If there are edible things that we can harvest and sell, then it just makes sense to do that,” says Grant Brians from Heirloom Organics. Grant sells purslane (a increasingly popular wild succulent) and lambsquarter (a pungent spinach-like green), along with the wild sugar beet greens that spring up uninvited. While he doesn’t exactly cultivate them, he says he does watch to find out where these edible weeds grow best and then makes room. Or he finds another cultivated crop to share the garden bed.
Four Sisters also brings purslane to the market and Nancy says that while she doesn’t have to plant it, she is glad to “give up a few beds to it.”
The tiny Healdsburg-based White Crane Springs Ranch is also known for growing wild greens and edible weeds. The farmer, Joseph Minocchi, cultivates a number of herbs and greens that might normally be found in the wild for his famous salad mix, including watercress, chickweed, purslane, and salad burnet. He forages for miner’s lettuce and redwood sorrel from the nearly 80 acres of land that he owns but leaves uncultivated.
“Customers say they like wild greens because they’re packed with nutrients,” says Joseph. “They tell me it fills them with energy.”
Grant Brians agrees that incorporating wild greens into your diet can make an important difference nutritionally. That’s because “some wild plants have a tendency to pick up minerals that might not be as commonly picked up by most cultivated plants,” he says.
Purslane has more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green vegetable, and has been shown to be a potent source of several key vitamins and minerals. Lambsquarter is richer in calcium, protein and B vitamins than spinach and most other greens. Nettles, meanwhile, are very rich in iron. Why exactly wild foods are so good for us is hard to pin down, but Nancy Gammons has a theory. “I believe that the longer a seed is hybridized, the more likely it might be to lose some nutritional value,” she says. Then there’s the matter of the taste. “When something is wild, the flavor is so strong and savory,” she adds. “It’s like an animal that hasn’t been domesticated.”
Pictured on the right, from top: lambsquarter, purslane, nettles, miner’s lettuce
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »