Talk by Peter Hardwick on Edible Weeds & other Forage Foods

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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 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.

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 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.

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.

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)

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.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Other Forage Foods

Davidson Plum (fruit)
Davidson plum blooms come out of the trunk. This tree is 12 years old. It is going to be a great crop this year. Parrots do love the seed. Put bags over the fruit down the trunk when they start to develop. They are rich in polyphenols just like blueberries and are great antioxidants and lower blood sugar levels. They are very sour, but they make great jam and wine. They can be preserved just like Japanese plums in brine. Also use it in drinks to take the edge off sweet juice or use it in salad dressing.

I have some reservations about Dianella, because of the toxicologically the seed. From a traditional point of view there is a lot of history, but I think there may be a lot of variation between species. Aboriginal people do relish it as a traditional food but you cannot say all Dianella are safe.

Illawarra flame tree (seeds)
Illawarra flame tree the pods contain a mass of bristle covered coating around the seeds. Do not plant these where children play as the bristles can get into their eyes. Handle them with care. The seed is edible when roasted. Some people make a substitute coffee or pop it like popcorn then grind and use it as flour. Roasting destroys the toxins in the seed.

You can eat the seed of the Lomandra as a grain. Mix it with flour to make pancakes. you can also eat the leaves (you chew it and they are quite crunchy), You can eat the base of the flower stalks and the base of the leaves.  This applies to Lomandra longifolia, it may apply to some other species.

This macadamia or bush nut (M. tetraphylla) is one 100 years old. They have a sweeter flavour than commercial ones, but the nut does not keep as long. The shell is also thicker. Never pick them from the tree, wait for them to drop.  The bauple nut has the red husk around the outside and has a fibrous seed coat. The seed is not as oily and very high in calcium. You can eat it. Let them fall to the ground and fully ripen. They can be high in a cyanide compound if they are not fully ripe. Give them a light roasting.

Monstera deliciosa
You can eat the fruit of the garden ornamental. Wait for the outer layer of green to peel of the fruit. It has a lovely fruit salad flavour. It has calcium oxalate crystals in unripe fruit and is very unforgiving if you eat it too early.

Mulberry (leaves)
Mulberry are great cattle fodder and humans can them. Dolmates (grape vine leaves) can be made using mulberry leaves. Roll them in bundles of 10 leaves, tie them with fibre from a cordyline or banana, put them in boiling water for a five minutes and then put them in jars of bush lemon juice. Put the hole jar in boiling water to sterilize and preserve it after sealing. They are easier to roll than grapevines (minimal tearing). Use the young leaves. In China they use these as a tea to regulate blood sugar levels (a great counter balance to our western diet). I cut up the leaves, blanch them and eat them. They are strong in flavour, but they are full of nutrients. I love them with sweet potato.

Riberry and Brush Cherry
Riberry tree crop in about December. A lot of the native local fruit trees time their flowering for our dry springs and subsequent fruit set to coincide with summer rain. Brush cherry is also edible and grows into a tree.

Sandpaper Fig
I love Sandpaper figs. They can fruit several times of the year. Summer fruit is often the sweetest. The fruit from a good tree in January is delicious. You can also cook it up or put it in brandy to make a liqueur.

Native Grape
There are about half a dozen native grapes, but only one of them is sweet, so to make them tasty you have to mix them with sugar or brine. They are high in goodies that lower blood sugar levels.  They grow on the edge of the rainforest. Go on-line and do a search on kangaroo vine. They were fruiting a few months ago. Mix fruit with brandy or ferment it.

Other bush foods
Wombat berries have an edible tuber, but it also has an pulp around the seed. Members of the proteaceae family (macadamia and grevillea) can have very high cyanide levels. The characteristics of some members of a family tend to tell you to be careful about related plants. Just because one member of a family may be non-toxic, does not mean that others are non-toxic. This is the case with grevillea nectar/juice. Some Grevillea’s have a compound like poison ivy and can cause a severe allergy reaction.

Spray Zones
One of the things to look out for in urban foraging is spray zones. You cannot anticipate all areas that have been sprayed, but look for dead zones along fence lines and around trees. Do not harvest from these areas as the residues are too high. Also do not harvest wild greens from old building sites due to asbestos and lead paint. Look for plants in areas that have not been sprayed.

Do your research. Take your toxicology seriously. Look for people who are obsessed with the quality of their wild harvest when searching information. Get a mixture of information from different sources.

Weeds can be bio-accumulators. So if there is pollution, they have the ability to pull up more pollution that other plants.

In undisturbed areas, foraged plants can be very clean because they are not fertilized at all. Even with organic food you have bio–fertilisers which may contain pollutants.

Remember that some chronic toxins in plants that they may take years to show up as necrotic lesions in your body (this is why I would not eat comfrey). Don’t make the assumption that you can eat the seeds of a plant on the basis that the roots or leaves are edible.

Final comment from participant: Years ago I once gathered broom flowers and followed a recipe in a book for a dinner. Twenty minutes after eating it everyone became sick. They started throwing up. Some people continued for 2 days.  I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it was poisonous to horses. Yet it was still written in a book.

Final comment from Tim. Forget the idea of trying edibility testing that appears in lots of books (including Tim Low). Lots of the stuff about edible weeds comes from army survival training and is just bad folklore.

Notes on the author:  Peter Hardwick is widely known as a bush regenerator, bush food expert and environmentalist, but now he has another string to his bow – award-winning filmmaker. Peter’s first short film The Bouquet won the jury award at the Byron All Shorts Film Festival. It’s the story of a smitten young man who offers an expression of his love – a bunch of edible weeds that are then artfully transformed by the woman of his dreams. The idea sprang from a ‘weed walk’ Peter did last year at the Aquarius Festival anniversary celebrations. “I was thinking of trying to make a film about all the weeds you can eat that are under our feet and we don’t even know. But rather than some dry technical documentary with all those droll experts and talking heads, we came up with the idea of putting it into fiction and blending the technical information with something that was creative as well,” he said. It turns out that Peter’s co-director and main collaborator on the film, Pancho Colladetti, was on the weed walk, as were the two lead actors, Carla Muhling and Johnny Everson, though they hadn’t all linked up at that point. Peter, who works as an advisor to bush food restaurants, says he regularly harvests and cooks weeds to eat “but most of the leafy edible weeds are out in winter and early spring, whereas now I’m feasting on native fruits,” he said. There is no dialogue in the film and all the music was provided by Nimbin street musos Leif Larkin and Donato Rosella, who actually performed live as the actors were doing their scenes. “It was hard work for the musicians who were improvising   but it gave us such wonderful layers. I feel like we were foraging the streets of Nimbin for weeds and foraging street performers – who I think are one of the most wonderful things about the Northern Rivers.” They hope to have the film screened at other film festivals throughout the country.
Ref:  The Northern Star newspaper