Weeds

Sheryl:  This talk was taped by member Ted Newton who attended Nimbin’s Open House and Garden back in 2013. Led by wild food expert Peter Hardwick, this tour took you around the back streets of Nimbin. Many thanks to Annette McFarlane for typing it up. Edited by Peter and myself.

Peter   Many modern illnesses are often a problem because of modern diet and if we get wild food phytochemicals back into our diet we may be able to treat chronic illness like high blood pressure, inflammation and cholesterol.

The enemy of the urban food forager is the whipper snipper! An unmown path is a bountiful thing with the biggest range of wild foods! One of my favourite tricks when I was young was picking hibiscus and nasturtium flowers when wandering the streets and eating them to shock my friends.

Vary your diet
It’s interesting to look at the diet of some of the preserved bodies of people who have been dug up (eg the Bog man of Denmark - 5000 years old). His last meal was a mixture of 46 different food ingredients. One of the strategies that people can take from this is to eat a range of different things rather than big helpings of one thing. Feasts did occur seasonally (if they came across a bountiful mulberry tree for example), but the range of wild greens that they ate, were often very mixed and not just a single ingredient.

Some were eaten raw and also cooked as stews and wild seeds were mixed into breads. The boiling process with cooking greens often helps to lower toxin levels to a tolerable/safe level.  As a back-up, we also we have the liver to detoxify plant toxins.

Some vegetables can be eaten raw like milk thistle. With boiling, toxins go into the water and you discard the water. Steaming does not reduce the toxin in the same way as boiling, so if instructions say boil, make sure you boil.

Boiling reduces alkaloid levels (especially in black nightshades). Black nightshade in Europe is used to make a cooked salad, but you need to know what you are doing. No one has really investigated them here. I do not recommend eating any black nightshade plants unless you have specific cultural knowledge (like people from Cypress or Greece) on preparation and consumption of this wild green. This is critical with toxic greens such as these.

Black Nightshade
The shoots of black nightshade can be eaten if boiled to remove alkaloids, but please note that steaming would not achieve the same effect. If references suggest to boil a particular wild food, be sure to boil it and do not substitute steaming.

Carrot weed or Wild Celery
Carrot weed has a really good flavour, but like all weeds it can be bitter following long periods of dry weather.  Harsh growing conditions can make the flavour a little bit stronger.  It is really rich in flavour and nutrients. This introduced weed is rich in good phyto-chemicals and has anti-cancer properties. You can eat the roots, flowers and seed heads of carrot weed. Chop it up in scrambled eggs or add it to salads as an alternative to parsley.

Chickweed
Chickweed is tenacious and I love it. I use it in salad and also cook with it. Environment will affect how it grows. There are three types of chickweed, Tropical chickweed (glaucous green) is poisonous, but medicinal. Mouse-eared and common chickweed are edible.  Scarlet pimpernel looks like chickweed but is poisonous.

Clover
Nice to add to a salad, (flowers and leaves), with sour thistle and celery and nasturtiums and chickweed. But look out and avoid any black mould on leaves when you are harvest.

Dandelion
Dandelion has anticancer properties. There is sound scientific research to support this. It is a fantastic medicinal herb. It is a bit bitter, but you can eat them raw. You can also cook it. Dandelion has a single flower stem and the cat’s ear has multiple flower heads. Cat’s ear leaf is also more coarse and hairy. That is how you can tell the difference between them.

Dock
Yellow curled dock is a great plant. The seed heads are like little hearts. Swamp dock is lower growing. All docks are edible, but all contain soluble oxalates, so boil them up and the oxalates will go into the water. They have found the seed of docks in prehistoric man. Was it just contaminated in their spelt or other grains?  Some people seem to think that it was deliberately included. The seeds are very high in tannins - including quercitin that you buy from the chemist as a supplement. It is probably in the leaves as well.

Docks have three uses – roots used as medicine, leaves as a spinach (boiled for about 5 minutes) and the seed/seed heads you can mix with your bread or in a pancake. It gives astringency to the bread. It reduces your blood sugar spikes. If you are oxalate sensitive do not eat docks. The other way of counter this is to eat oxalate containing foods in combination with dairy (for example weed spinach rolls with cheese).

Throw dock seeds into a coffee grinder and it grinds it into a fine brown flour. It is more husk than seed, but it is more of what we need and a really good food source.

Yellow dock root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.

Swamp dock is the native dock. It is easy to see the difference between the leaves. The seed heads on this attach to your clothing when they are mature. Yellow dock seeds do not stick to your clothing. This plant contains an anticancer compound in both the leaves and the roots called musizin. The roots of swamp dock are yellow. It seems to have a lower oxalic acid compound, but do not eat a lot of it raw (it can give you nausea). Boil or blanch the leaves.  Use the roots as a medicinal.

Farmer’s Friend
Some people say this is edible but research from early last year indicates it may contain a nasty alkaloid toxin – we are waiting for follow-up research to clarify this. Farmer’s friend does not have a huge history as a food plant. It is used in South America as a medicinal. Comfrey has a similar toxin and should not be eaten. Some things are toxic no matter how little you eat ( comfrey and bracken shoots). As we learn more about phyto-chemistry in wild foods, we discover more about these plants and our ideas of on what can be eaten will change.

Madiera Vine
It is a local weed and you can eat it. It is related to Ceylon spinach. It is a garden escapee. Be careful when harvesting, never spread it around or it may escape into your garden or the surrounding environment. That is a risk with some of these weeds.

It is said to have been used as a laxative. Cook it up/boil to prepare. As a general practice I don’t like to eat huge quantities of a single wild green species. My strategy is to eat a mixture, so that you do not get too much of any one thing. Eat a range of things not big helpings of one ingredient.

I don’t eat Madiera vine raw. I boil it lightly, drain away the liquid and eat it as spinach. There is recent research from Indonesia indicating that Madiera vine is safe.

Paddy’s lucerne or Sida
This plant has medicinal properties and mallow-like qualities (it comes from the mallow family). It stops dysentery. It is strong and bitter in the dry weather and has a yellow flower. You can eat the leaves raw in salads. Most of the sida species are safe to eat.

Shamrock (Oxalis)  It is sour. You may have eaten them as kids. They contain oxalis acid. Just do not eat too much because of the soluble oxalate levels.

Sow thistle
One of my favourites.  You see this around a lot and it is common in gardens. It is a great plant and really nice in salads. The taste is similar to chicory or lettuce. When it is younger the leaves are quite big and lush. It has a yellow flower. It is a really good candidate for domestication (perhaps better than lettuce). It can be a bit bitter, but it is nice mixed in with other salad greens. Be careful with the daisy family, it’s notorious for having sneaky toxins. Do not eat thick head weed. Bracken fern was once thought to be edible. Then they found out that consumption of bracken fern fiddle was carcinogenic, even though this was a traditional part of the Japanese diet. That is why you need to be cautious. Some of the references on what is safe to eat from 20 years ago and now out of date.

Wild mustard/wild brassica
You can eat the yellow flowers on wild brassicas. Wild radish is strongly flavoured. They grow wild in some areas and become naturalised on roadsides. They are full of glucosinolates. Wild brassicas have these compounds in much higher amounts than cultivated greens. It is best to boil brassicas really well.

Nasturtium
Nasturtium has a multitude of uses and is a great garden escapee. Throw it in salads. Seeds can be pickled as capers. They are yummy. I like pickling them in bush lemon juice and salt and some spices (like Dorrigo pepper)

Shepards Purse – This is in the brassica family. It is a small, subtle herb and comes up a lot in cooking in Celtic/European history along with yarrow. It is used for food and medicine. You can eat the leaves and the seeds. I have not tried the seeds.

Lots of the weed seeds were distributed via ballast bags filled and pack into boats. The soil was tipped out at the docks and that is how the weeds were spread.

Plaintain
There is a broad leaf plantain and a narrow leaf one. They are both edible anti-inflammatories.  They were a staple of Celtic people. They have a mushroom flavour and a slight bitterness. I chop it up mix it with the leaves of clover and dock, boil them put them into a pie or a stew. The younger leaves are more tender. Just use a small amount. They are said to lower cholesterol. Psyllium husks comes from a type of plantain. Comment from participant – ‘The narrow leaf plantain is traditionally used as a poultice’.

Weeds to avoid
Morning glory is toxic (even though wallabies do eat it). Be cautious about bindii – I do not know precisely the toxicologically, but it is related to things like hemlock, so be cautious.  Watch out for fungus on grasses. Wheat grass is edible, but not all grasses are edible. Be careful with jute and do not eat kale every day, especially in drinks. The availability of phytochemicals is much higher in a green smoothie. Try sow thistle in a green smoothie but do not use yellow dock. It is too high in phytochemicals. The potency is so high.