What’s the definition of a weed? According to Merriam-Webster, it is “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth.” In that sense, what I about to discuss would be more accurately categorized (in my opinion) as wild winter edibles. But if they are growing in someone else’s yard and not valued for their edibility, then they certainly may be called weeds.
Below I discuss some of my favorites wild winter weeds. I also note whether they are palatable to our animals because I know chickens are popular with backyard gardeners. Some of our readers have other animals such as goats, horses, rabbits, and ducks.
My favorite winter “weed” is Sisymbrium irio, commonly called London Rocket, wild mustard or wild arugula. These plants pop up everywhere with the winter rains. The delightful leaves are edible, with a spicy horseradish-mustard flavor and terrific in salads, dishes, and Jugo Verde (green juice). London rocket is still regularly consumed as a wild plant food in Sicily. The people prepare it as a boiled green or add it to dishes uncooked. The leaves, flowers, and seeds are all edible, and the seeds do not have the spicy flavor of the leaves. If you like a spicy green such as Arugula, give London Rocket greens a try. I enjoy this plant so much that I will cultivate it in my container garden.
London rocket initially displays serrated (very jagged) dark green leaves and sprawls close to the ground like a dandelion. As winter progresses towards spring, the plant will send up fast-growing shoots and yellow flowers. At this point, the remaining leaves will turn more pungent and somewhat bitter. The plant can get several feet tall before dying back when the heat returns. If you (or your HOA) can tolerate letting it grow, consider harvesting the flowers and seeds.
Some chickens, horses, rabbits, and goats enjoy rocket. I use the word "some," because as with humans, some animals and poultry are not fond of the spicy flavor while others enjoy it.
Nutritionally, the leaves of the plant are very rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, all the B vitamins, and vitamin C.
Here is a simple recipe for London Rocket Pesto from Desert Tortoise Botanicals (1)
4 handfuls of fresh, young London rocket leaves
3 small garlic cloves
@ 1/4 cup olive oil (or other oil of your liking)
@ 2 Tbsp walnuts
1/2 tsp sea salt
Use a food processor or mortar and pestle to crush and mix. Enjoy with your favorite foods.
Another of my favorite edible winter weeds is common mallow, also called cheeseweed (Malva neglecta). This mallow is distinctive due to its large, round leaves, unusual for many desert plants. It has a smaller white or light pink flower. Other types of mallow, such as globemallow, do not have the large round leaves are appreciated more for their showy orange and red flowers, rather than for their edibility.
Common mallow has a very mild flavor that works to its advantage. Like tofu, it takes on the taste of everything else in your dish. Mallow has a mucilaginous quality, like okra, and can be used to thicken soups and stews. The entire plant is edible, including the roots. Mallow is a plant that some cultures consider a problematic weed while others cultivate.
According to Linda Ly, author of the Garden Betty website and blog, “When using the leaves raw, I like to mix mallow into a bed of other salad greens to counter that slight viscous texture. You can't tell once it's dressed and tossed with your favorite salad accouterments — or you might even like it as-is in its raw, natural state.” (2)
There are recipes online for dolma made with mallow, and dishes prepared by sauteeing mallow with onions. Mallow is rich in vitamins A, B, and C, along with calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The tender young leaves have one of the highest amounts of vitamin A in any vegetable.
All the animals and fowl on my farm enjoy mallow. I have included a photo of new mallow seedlings sprouting in early December. We get a lot of mallow growing on the farm and do nothing to discourage it. Free food for all of us!
The Amaranthaceae (amaranth) family has over 60 edible species, some more palatable than others. Some of the weedy-types that we often see in our yards go by the common name pigweed. Amaranthus retroflexus is just one of the varieties known as pigweed or red-root amaranth, and I have found it growing in my yard here in central Arizona.
Many countries grow amaranth varieties primarily for the seed; this seed is an important food staple that has been eaten for thousands of years. It is not an actual grain, but a pseudo-cereal, and is gluten-free. The leaves of this plant, of course, are also edible. The leaves are very rich in iron and a good source of vitamins A and C.
The plant is an erect, branching, leafy-bushy annual with dense, stiff terminal clusters of inconspicuous green flowers. The plant is named for its pinkish to red taproot. It can grow to 6 feet. (3)
As we know, common names can be problematic because some common names are used for multiple plants, which adds confusion to plant identification. To add more confusion, some plants also have multiple common names! For example, the common names pigweed and lambsquarters can be used interchangeably for several different plants.
Lambsquarters (also called goosefoot because the leaf resembles, obviously, a goose's foot) is scientifically Chenopodium album. Fortunately, it is also in the Amaranthaceae family, and edible as well. Lambsquarters is erect to sprawling, simple to much-branched plant with spikes of minute flowers. A white, mealy powder covers the plant; larger leaves are irregularly toothed and non-aromatic. It thrives in disturbed soil but will grow anywhere. (6)
Amaranth (both pigweed and lambsquarters) can be found on disturbed habitats, agricultural fields, railroads, roadsides, waste areas, and the banks of rivers, lakes, and streams. It tolerates heat well so it may last into summer, but generally sprouts with winter rains.
Next up is common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), which may pop up in your yard or garden. Although it likes warmer weather, it can be found year-round in protected and mulched garden areas. I find this plant very palatable and have even removed some from the Maricopa County Extension demonstration garden – with Pam the garden manager’s blessing – and replanted them in containers at my home. The humans in our house enjoy it as well as our fowl and rabbits.
When foraging for purslane, ensure that you have found common purslane, as opposed to horse purslane or desert purslane (Trianthema portulacastrum). Common purslane has elongated leaves broadest at the tip, like a boat oar, and yellow flowers. Variation exists and leave size is larger with more watered plants and some have a small notch in the tip of the leaf. Horse purslane has larger, rounded leaves, similar to coins. (5) Although horse purslane can also be eaten – and was gathered as a food source by the Tohono O'odham people – common purslane is the more typical garden “weed” and the only one I have eaten. If you prefer to experiment, try them both.
Common purslane has been grown for more than 4,000 years as a food and medicinal plant and is still cultivated in many places today. Purslane is considered quite nutritious because it is unusually high in omega-3 fatty acids (found mostly in fish and flax seeds) and contains significant amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium and antioxidants. It also contains high amounts of oxalates (just as spinach does), so it should not be consumed excessively by those susceptible to forming kidney stones. It is sometimes used as fodder and is fed to poultry to reduce egg cholesterol and was used traditionally as an ointment for burns. Some other common names include garden purslane, little hogweed, pusley, and wild portulaca. (6)
Finally, there is the ubiquitous common dandelion - Taraxacum officinale. The entire plant is edible, from the flower to the root. The stem, however, can be quite bitter.
When selecting the flowers, choose large heads that are entirely in flower. Gently pull the petals away from the green base. Picking dandelion flowers is a fun activity for kids who want to help in the kitchen. The flowers are a good source of antioxidants as well as vitamins A and B12.
Young greens picked before the plant develops flowers are the best tasting, but the greens can be harvested and eaten year-round. Young, more tender greens can be used fresh in salads, or chopped and used in place of chives on top of mashed or baked potatoes. They can also be cooked and used in similar ways as spinach. (6) Dandelion greens are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K. They also contain vitamin E, folate, and small amounts of other B vitamins.
Dandelion root is edible and nutritious but is usually cooked to reduce bitterness. The root of the dandelion can be dried and roasted and used as a coffee substitute or added to any recipe that calls for root vegetables. It contains calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, and choline. (7)
Besides their edibility, another good reason not to pull or spray the dandelions is that honeybees love them. Try that explanation on your HOA. :-)
There are other edible weeds to be found in our area such as sow thistles (Sonchus oleraceus and Sonchus asper), wild or prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola), bowlesia (Bowlesia incana), and several types of clover. All of these have volunteered in my large yard and garden, so I am familiar with them. I just did not find them palatable enough to make my top five. There may be other edible weeds in your area. My advice is to identify everything that comes up in your yard, as it is an interesting learning experience. Use the Maricopa County Plant Help Desk as necessary. Another excellent resource is the Facebook group Organic Desert Gardeners of Maricopa County.
Wild edible trees and shrubs are also prevalent everywhere; that will be a subject of a future article.
Safety notes for consuming “non-standard” foods.
- Ensure you have correctly identified the plant. If in doubt, contact the Arizona Master Gardener plant help desk for free assistance.
- Consume a small amount at first to determine possible allergies or digestive problems. Sometimes very little public and accurate information is available on wild plants and weeds as edibles. Also, while some edible plants are tolerated by humans, they may be toxic to pets or horses.
- Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking medications for possible drug interactions. For example, prickly pear fruit has known interactions with some diabetes drugs.
- Know what the plant has contacted before eating it (chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides). Some backyard plants and weeds may have been exposed to chemicals, and plants found along roadsides may be contaminated by heavy metal from car exhaust or by pesticides.
Enjoy your free food!
1. Slattery, J. (2016, February 29). Urban Foraging for London Rocket. Retrieved December 7, 2019 from https://www.desertortoisebotanicals.com/blogs/news/urban-foraging-for-london-rocket
2. Ly, L. (nd). MALLOW: THE EVERYWHERE EDIBLE WEED [Web log post at Garden Betty] Retrieved December 7, 2019 from https://www.gardenbetty.com/mallow-the-everywhere-edible-weed/#aCTFkoYQrDUmK3w5.99
3. University of Arizona, Yavapai Extension. (nd). Yavapai County Native & Naturalized Plants - Amaranthus retroflexus - redroot amaranth. Retrieved December 9, 2019 from https://cals.arizona.edu/yavapaiplants/SpeciesDetailForb.php?genus=Amaranthus&species=retroflexus
4. University of Arizona, Yavapai Extension. (nd). Yavapai County Native & Naturalized Plants - Chenopodium album – lambsquarters. Retrieved December 9, 2019 from https://cals.arizona.edu/yavapaiplants/SpeciesDetailForb.php?genus=Chenopodium&species=album
5. Kruse-Peeples, M. (2017, July 21). Monsoon "Weeds" [Web Log Post at Native Seeds/SEARCH]. Retrieved December 9, 2019 from https://www.nativeseeds.org/blogs/blog-news/monsoon-weeds#
6. Mahr, S. (2001, Aug 22). Common Purslane, Portulaca oleracea. University of Wisconsin – Madison, Extension Master Gardener Program. Retrieved December 8, 2019 from https://wimastergardener.org/article/common-purslane-portulaca-oleracea/
7. Jarvie, M. (2015, May 29). Dandelions for food: Eating dandelions can be delicious and nutritious. Michigan State University, MSU Extension. Retrieved December 9, 2019 from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/dandelions_for_food