Eight Edible Invasive Weeds That We Could Be Eating

When it comes to healthy eating here in Southern California, we’re all about our superfoods and leafy greens. Salad bars are all the rage these days, but what if I told you that leafy greens grow wildly all around Los Angeles, that they are invasive, abundant and delicious? And that by eating them, you are helping the environment?

I’ve been taking urban foraging courses in Los Angeles County with Christopher Nygeres and Pascal Baudar. Both of them have written the books on foraging Southern California. They lead weekly workshops and from them, I’ve learned that there’s an cornucopia of edibles out there, full of nutrients and just as tasty (in some case, tastier) than what you can get at your local grocery store.

The best part is that there are weeds that we can be eating that are both invasive and nutritious. Invasive plants, by definition, are non-native species that can thrive in areas beyond their natural range of dispersal. They are adaptable, aggressive, and have a high reproductive capacity. They have the potential to destroy wildlife habitat (that depend on native plants), displace endangered species, and reduce plant and animal diversity.  

“Ninety to 95% of what I forage is invasive,” Baudar says. “I think foraging can be done in a way that can help the environment. Plant native plants at home and forage weeds.”

Foraged Green Bundle
Foraged green bundle. | Photo: Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

After a couple courses with both Nyerges and Baudar, I have vowed never to buy salad greens in the grocery store again. The recent rains means that there’s now an abundance of chickweeds, dandelion greens, and my personal favorite — spicy mustards. All of the above are fantastic in a light salad dressing and the wasabi-like taste of black mustard is absolutely stunning.

Most of these plants were brought over by the European colonists. Legend has it that the Spanish missionaries had sprinkled mustard seeds along trails linking California missions so that the path would be marked with bright yellow flowers. Today, the remnants of those trail markers grow wildly around our urban landscape.

Eating weeds isn’t just about free food either; it’s a way to connect to our landscape. I have never been able to look at my front lawn the same again and a walk through my neighborhood is a lot more exciting now that I know what’s edible.

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“If people learn what nature can offer, then they will respect it,” Baudar says. 

When it comes to foraging for food, it’s very important to know what you’re looking for. That means knowing the difference between an invasive species and a native one. Certain native plants are edible as well and plants like sage, for example, can be used for medicinal purposes and tea. But they have a low germination rate compared to non-natives and are a vital part of our Southern Californian ecosystem.

The most important aspect of foraging is obvious: being able to discern between an edible and poisonous plant. Water hemlock is a prolific weed I’ve seen nearly everywhere, interspersed with yummy chickweed and flowering mustards. It’s also considered the most violently toxic plant in North America; a handful can kill you. Also, make sure you’re in an area that hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides. I highly recommend in-person foraging courses with either Nyerges or Baudar. They’ve been doing this for decades and can point out all the important subtleties.

Wood Sorrel
Wood sorrel. | Photo: Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

With that said, here’s a rough guide to edible weeds:

Wood Sorrel: Also known as sour grass, wood sorrel looks a lot like clover. It’s identified by its heart-shaped leaves that grow in groups of three. It has a wonderful sour taste, like lemon, which comes from oxalic acid. Consume in moderation; high amounts of oxalic acid (which can be found in spinach and broccoli) can be toxic because it inhibits the absorption of calcium. Historically, wood sorrel was used to treat scurvy, urinary infections, nausea, fevers, and sore throats.

Mallow: I love mallow for its texture. It’s mucilaginous, which means that it is reminiscent of okra. The plant is easily recognized by its geranium-like leaves with five or seven lobes. It is beautiful in salad and is rich in vitamin A and C. Fun fact: you can make a thick mucus with its roots by boiling it in water. That can be beaten to make a meringue-like substance. Hence, marshmallows.

Dandelion. | Photo: Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

Dandelion: Dandelion, that pesky weed that’s on everyone’s front lawn, especially after the heavy rains, contains more beta-carotene than carrots, more potassium than bananas, more lecithin than soybean, and more iron than spinach. The entire plant, from the leaves to the roots to the flower, is edible. The leaves are best when young and the roots can be made into a lovely tea.

Mustards (Edge, Black, and Mediterranean): There are many different types of mustards out there and you can spot them by looking for yellow flowers. My personal favorite is black mustard, defined by its prickly leaves and stems. This one taste the most like wasabi.

Wild Radish: Wild radish tastes more or less like radish you get at the grocery store but instead of eating the roots, you consume the leaves, stems, and flowers. The vibrant purple flowers also makes for a beautiful plating ingredient.

Wild Radish
Wild radish. | Photo: Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

Chickweed: Chickweed is a superfood, known for its ability to purify the blood and the lymphatic system. It’s is one of the most abundant greens I’ve seen out in urban Los Angeles, distinguished by its tear-drop leaves and white flowers. It doesn’t have much of a taste but works as a great vehicle for the dressing of your choice.

Horehound: Don’t eat this as a salad ingredient. Horehound is one of the most bitter substances out there. Baudar likes to use it as a replacement for hops in his homemade beers. It is also a common ingredient in cough drops.

Stinging Nettle: Be careful with this plant. True to its name, it stings. The irritation goes away when you blanch or cook the plant and it can be boiled into a hearty soup or tea. Nettle can also be used for green smoothies or made into a pesto.

Additional resources:
Foraging California: Finding, Identifying, and Preparing Edible Wild Foods in California by Christopher Nyerges
The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir by Pascal Baudar

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