Winter Rains Bring Edible "Weeds" to Arizona
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.