Foraging for edible herbs, as our ancestors did, is not just an interesting activity. It provides you with free food, nutritious and untainted by artificial methods of cultivation. Although it is nearly impossible to find any place on earth completely free of pollutants, wild plants are still better off than commercially cultivated crops. Moreover, you get a wide variety of plant nutrients that are generally lacking in our staple diet.
Here are some of the edible herbs you can look for in and around your property:
1. Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
This all-pervasive weed doesn’t need any introduction, it’s nearly impossible to miss the familiar golden blooms anywhere. However, the ones growing in your lawn or backyard may not be fit for consumption if you’ve been unleashing chemical warfare on them, however unsuccessfully. The flowers, leaves and the root are all edible. Sauté the leaves or cook it like spinach, add it fresh to salads and sandwiches. You can batter-fry the flowers or make jelly or tea with them.
Rich in beta-carotene, Vitamin C, calcium, and potassium, Dandelion is a good antioxidant and mineral source. As an excellent diuretic and mild laxative, it helps clean out the liver, kidneys, and the urinary bladder.
2. Purslane – Portulaca oleracea
Purslane is a ground hugging herb that is easily missed, unless you’re looking for it, but then you notice it growing almost everywhere, especially in exposed areas where nothing much grows. The tiny succulent leaves, yellow flowers and the pink, fleshy stems are all edible. They have a nice bite and a slight sour taste that will invite you to nibble on them as you gather them.
Purslane has a history of being used as a culinary herb. You can eat it raw or cooked. The mucilaginous stems help thicken gravies and soups. Purslane contains Vitamin A, C and E and a number of minerals. It is an excellent vegetable source of Omega–3 fatty acids.
3. Lemon balm – Melissa officinalis
Among the many mint-family herbs you will come across in the wild, lemon balm is easily recognizable by its lemony fragrance when you crush the leaves. You can eat them raw or cooked. A tea made of lemon balm leaves is soothing and relaxing. It is a traditional herbal remedy for digestive problems, even in small children and the elderly.
You can make lemon flavored vinegar and herb butter with lemon balm or just chop up the leaves and add to salads and meat dishes. Dry the surplus leaves in the shade and store in airtight jars. Lemon balm is known to have a negative effect on thyroid function, so it should be used with caution.
4. Garden cress – Lepidium sativum
Garden cress is commonly found in gardens and backyard. Although it is considered a weed in most places, it is commercially cultivated in many European countries, including England. The spicy, peppery taste of garden cress makes it popular in salads and sandwiches.
Garden cress is rich in carotenoids and vitamin C. In laboratory studies, it is shown to have anticancer properties similar to those exhibited by other plants of the cabbage family. Garden cress contains high amounts of vitamin K too.
5. Watercress – Nasturtium officinale
This relative of garden cress has a wide distribution throughout the world. As the name indicates, it is an aquatic/semi aquatic plant that you will probably see growing near the ponds and lakes in your neighborhood. And wherever it grows, it grows in abundance, so there’s little danger of the wild stock running out. As a matter of fact, watercress is grown on commercial scale in many parts of the world.
Watercress contains appreciable amounts of vitamins A, C and a few of the B-complex group of vitamins, including folate. You can add raw watercress leaves to salads or sauté or stir fry them like other greens. Wash them thoroughly to remove dirt and other contaminants that find their way into water bodies.
6. Wild garlic – Allium ursinum
Wild garlic, is another onion family member that you might come across as you forage for edibles. Widely distributed in USDA Zone 4-9, it is considered an invasive plant in many areas, so you will be doing a favor by digging some up. However, they don’t have much of a bulb. The broad leaves and the tender flower buds on long stalks are what you should be after; they are aplenty in April-June.
You can cook the leaves like spinach or make a pesto with it. Add the flower buds to soups, salads, and omelet. The leaves tend to be bitter once the white flower clusters open, but they are edible still. Check for the garlicky smell to ensure you have the right plant.
7. Daylilies – Hemerocallis fulva
The tawny daylily is often seen growing in moist soil along ditches, roads and railway lines, hence it has earned several names such as ditch lily and railroad lily. The large, showy flowers and their buds can be cooked and eaten like any vegetable. The dried flower buds used in Chinese cooking are called golden needles. The thick, fleshy roots can be boiled and eaten, but it has a very mild, watery taste.
8. Garlic mustard – Alliaria petiolata
Garlic mustard is a cabbage family member that is completely edible. The characteristic garlic smell helps identify this plant, especially when this biannual remains just a tuft of leaves in the first year. A long stalk carrying white flowers arises in the second year. Add these flowers to salads. Cook the leaves like a vegetable, although they may become rather bitter when mature. You can dig up the root and eat it too.
9. Wild strawberry – Fragaria vesca
Wild strawberries are much smaller than the cultivated varieties, but they are so dainty and flavorful, it is a pleasure to gather them in summer. If you manage to pick enough from these ground hugging plants, you can make jams and jellies out of them, but they usually get eaten fresh. They help you get rid of the tartar on your teeth.
The leaves have medicinal properties. They are said to flush out uric acid from the body, making them useful to people with gout.
10. Yellow rocket – Barbarea vulgaris
This mustard family member is an American native with a wide distribution across the country. Easily identified by the bright yellow bunch of flowers that shoots up from a rosette of basal leaves in early spring, yellow rocket makes an excellent salad green. They can be cooked like a vegetable, but are best when tender.
Yellow rocket can be distinguished from other mustard family plants like black mustard and wild mustard by its smooth, non-hairy leaves. It is also called winter cress because it is one of the first salad green to emerge. The plant is rich in vitamin C and minerals. A poultice of the leaves is an herbal remedy for wounds.
11. Plantain – Plantago major
The large leaves of plantain ensure that you don’t miss this edible plant. If it grows all over your property and you consider it a weed, take sweet revenge by eating them. The leaves are tough, but you can soften them by blanching in boiling water and then sautéing.
Historically, plantain has been used to treat gastrointestinal and respiratory problems. It is particularly good for relieving dry cough.
12. Lamb’s Quarters – Chenopodium alba
Lamb’s quarters is a close relative of quinoa, and has a history of being cultivated for its seeds. Known by common names such as white goosefoot and pigweed, you can find it growing as a weed in cultivated gardens or in wild patches. The young leaves are fuzzy, and sometimes tinged with pink. They can be eaten raw along with the tender stems, but preferably eaten cooked like spinach.
Lamb’s quarters is nutritious, rich in vitamins and minerals, especially Vitamins A, K and C. In traditional Indian herbal medicine, it is used as a laxative and a remedy against roundworms and hookworms. A paste of the leaves is applied to burns and sun burnt skin for its cooling and healing effect.
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