Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How to identify edible weeks and what to do with them

Eating wild plants part of growing food foraging trend

You’ve spent countless hours pulling and tossing weeds into your compost bin, even cursed their existence. And you’ve racked your brain thinking of ways to keep your yard and garden weed-free.

But have you tried eating them?

Many plants considered to be weeds are actually herbs – rich in proteins, minerals and other nutrients. Most likely, some grow in your garden or yard and you don’t know it.

“We’re at the start of some serious and focused organizing around foraging in Alberta.”

Our ancestors used weeds for survival as food and medicine. In recent years, there’s been renewed and — pardon the pun — growing interest in harvesting wild plants.

“We’re at the start of some serious and focused organizing around foraging in Alberta,” says Blair Lebsack (Cook ’98), owner and chef at RGE RD restaurant in Edmonton.

Lebsack recently hosted his own forage-to-table event and notes how the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance is developing the Alberta Forager Database, which connects foragers across the province with both each other and with local chefs. The Alberta Mycological Society hosts foraging-themed events, and companies such as Full Circle Adventures and Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm lead excursions to identify and use wild edibles.

“By next year, there will be regular classes offered on foraging and using wild plants,” Lebsack says.

Collecting wild food is growing in popularity for a variety of reasons – economic (foraging food is free) and environmental (local and organic) – but also because it’s different and tasty. While dandelion and onion grass are arguably the most well-known edible weeds, Lebsack says there are other common, easy-to-identify-and-harvest plants that are just as delicious and nutritious.

Pineapple weed

pineapple weed

Often mistaken for chamomile, pineapple weed grows along roadsides or driveways where the soil is disturbed and there’s little competition from other plants. Look for it sprouting between the cracks of your driveway or sidewalks.

Lebsack says pineapple weed is tastiest in the spring, but it’s good in summer, too.

“Sautéed or pickled are best, or in salads,” he says. “Picking takes little effort — just pull them out with your hands.”

Lebsack adds pineapple weed flowers — dried or fresh — are delightful as a steeped tea.

Stinging nettle

stinging nettle

One of the more versatile wild edibles, nettles are packed with vitamins. They grow in rich, moist soil, typically near edges of cultivated gardens and fields, beside roads and trails and along streams, rivers, ditches and lakes.

Nettle leaves are delicious, whether steamed, boiled or sautéed, Lebsack says, and they are excellent in soups and stir-fries. They can also be added to smoothies.

The best time to harvest nettles is in early spring, when the leaves are most tender. Lebsack says the smaller pairs of leaves at the top are best, as they are mild – unlike the larger leaves down the stem that are bitter and fibrous, although still edible.

Before you tuck in, you’ll have to overcome one barrier: the nettle’s ferocious stings. But there’s an easy way to deal with that, Lebsack says. When collecting nettles, always wear clothing that fully covers your arms and legs, including thick gloves, or you’ll find out the hard way how this weed got its name. Keep wearing those gloves while washing the nettles and use tongs when boiling for two minutes in water or stock – a technique called blanching.

Blanching removes the stings, making them safe to use them in numerous ways. For Lebsack, that includes pureeing them to flavour gnocchi, pasta, beurre blanc and even ice-cream.

Lamb’s quarters

lamb's quartersBackyard green-thumbs can easily harvest this common weed, a close relative to spinach, as it grows in most gardens.

“It’s scrumptious steamed, sautéed or as a salad green,” Lebsack says, adding that its leaves, shoots, seeds and flowers are edible. You can also eat this plant raw, but only in limited quantities, due to its potentially heavy oxalic acid content, which can cause kidney stones or digestive issues. Cooking will destroy much of the acid, but use lemon juice as a neutralizer if using the plant raw in smoothies or juices.

You’ll want to harvest this weed early, Lebsack advises, so the roots don’t consume other plants.

“Lamb’s quarters can quickly take over your garden,” he says.

To harvest, snip the top six- to eight-inches of the plant. If the stem doesn’t break easily, it means you’ve waited too long – it will be too tough to eat.

Garlic mustard

garlic mustardThis sturdy weed grows almost anywhere. Since it’s actually an invasive species – early colonists brought this plant to North America as a medicinal and culinary herb in the 1800s – you’ll likely find more than you’ll need! In Alberta, it’s particularly common in Edmonton and St. Albert.

Garlic mustard is an aggressive plant that puts native plants at risk. According to the Alberta Invasive Species Council, Garlic mustard releases chemicals into the soil that inhibits the health and growth of native species. It’s common in forests and can quickly take over understory plants and threaten native biodiversity. For these reasons, the Government of Alberta has designated this weed as prohibited noxious, meaning all parts of the plant need to be killed.

Although a threat to native ecosystems, garlic mustard is super healthy for you, Lebsack says.

“It’s a leafy green, similar to spinach,” he explains, noting that all parts of this plant, including the roots and seeds, are edible.

The tastiest part of this plant is its stem, especially steamed or sautéed and drizzled with olive oil or butter or chopped up raw and added to soups, salads and other dishes. The leaves and flower buds can be used for pesto or hummus.

To harvest, cut the top foot of the stem, preferably once flower buds are visible on of the plant.

Tips for the first-time forager

Before heading into nature to collect wild groceries for your dinner table, Lebsack says there are a few factors to keep in mind.

Do your homework. Never pick or eat a plant you can’t identify or you’re unsure is safe to eat, he says.

Several edible weeds have ‘toxic look-alikes.’ Use a reputable foraging guidebook or plant identification app to verify a plant, and always use more than one source. Take classes or hire a professional guide to teach you what to do.  

Go organic. Be sure the plants have not been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides and are free of livestock waste or agricultural run-off. Don’t use plants from your garden or yard if you’ve recently applied weed-control products.

If you’re planning to collect wild edibles from public areas or agricultural zones, contact your local municipal authority or the property owners first to find out whether the plants have been treated with chemicals and to ensure there are no restrictions. And remember, collecting plants from protected areas, public parks or conservation zones is often prohibited.   

Pick them young. Younger plants are tender and, generally, taste better. Avoid thick stems, most of which are too tough to digest.

Cut carefully. Weeds have natural defences to ward off insects and predators.

“Some of these can make the plant not taste that great,” Lebsack says. “So, when cutting the leaves, make sure to slice carefully, so you do not trigger these defence mechanisms.”

Use a sharp utensil so you don’t bruise the plant. “Not only will this prevent the plant from acting out and ruin its flavour, it will also preserve its shelf-life.”

Sample first. Do a taste-test before you dig in.

“Once you source an edible weed, sample a small amount to make sure you like it before you spend a lot of time harvesting,” Lebsack says. Eat small quantities when introducing wild plants into your diet to ensure they agree with your system.


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