One day, my husband came home with a big bag of “weeds” and a big smile on his face. He explained that what looked to me like weeds was actually a vegetable. He had volunteered to help in the garden at the Zen Center and they wanted to throw them away. Back home, he explained, they use it in salads, sauté it with tomato and onions, or make a soup. The name he gave in Arabic was “barbeen” (which sounded a little like “berbeen”). We tried cooking it as a soup with tomato sauce and fried onions, and it was delicious. I was hooked. “Weeds” could be very tasty. We later found the very same green for sale at the market with the Spanish name “verdolaga” ("purslane" in English and pictured right), but it was always expensive. I later learned that Henry Thoreau swore by purslane as a nutritious, filling meal.
The next wild green he brought home is called “mallow” or "cheeseweed” in English. He called it by its Turkish name, “penjer”. This is an exquisite leafy plant that can be used in the same way as purslane, but I prefer to sauté it with onions and tomatoes or to make it into a soup. I have never seen mallow in the grocery stores, so I considered this a rare commodity. One Saturday after several days of rain, we left the car with the mechanic and walked to a library to spend the hour reading. On the way to the library there is a nice park where the grass had grown almost a half-foot due to the rain. Also growing among the grass in a big patch was some nice, tender mallow. We came back the next morning with some plastic bags and filled them. (Click "read more" for the rest of the article.)
A few years later the apartment complex next to us was demolished. The bulldozer completely razed the foundation, and scrap metal, wood, and concrete were carried away. In its wake was left an empty field, which, upon arrival of the rainy season, erupted in wild vegetation. (By then, I no longer used the term “weeds” so freely.) At one point the fence surrounding it was removed. Some older Korean women and men began coming daily to dig up some of the plants (some type of wild lettuce they use in salads) by the root. We found mallow (pictured left) and cleaned, boiled and froze what we couldn’t cook immediately, and I became curious about the plants I couldn’t identify.
Thus began my search for the identity of wild plants, or “edible wild plants” as they are called. My research brought me back to another curiosity of mine: the medicinal uses of plants, wild or otherwise. A lot has been written on both of these subjects, mostly starting in the 1970s. Some of the authors continued researching and have updated their material. The public library has some good books, old and new, on such topics (or you can click on the Amazon store link on the right and search for them there).
Here are a few titles I've discovered over the years:
Edible Wild Plants
1. Guide to Wild Foods (In the Footsteps…), by Christopher Nyerges, 1995 [Focus on Southern California plants]
2. Edible and Useful Plants of California, by Charlotte Bringle Clark, 1977 [Plants are organized by urban, desert, and other locations. Recipes, and useful indexes included.]
3. Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by Bradford Angier, 2nd Ed., 2008
4. Handbook of Edible Weeds, by James A. Duke, 1993
5. A City Herbal, by Maida Silverman, 1977
6. Euell Gibbons’ Handbook of Edible Wild Plants, Euell Gibbons, 1979
7. Wild About Herbs, by Roger Tabor
The Medicinal Uses of Plants and Herbs
1. Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss
2. A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs (Peterson Field Guide Series), by Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs, 2002
The best places to find these wild herbs and plants is in empty lots, yards, gardens, really anywhere plants can grow, well, wild. The best time of the year is usually early spring, especially after the rains, but don’t wait until then. The younger the plant, the more tender it will be, and some of the broad-leaf “weeds” that sprout up in lawns and gardens are only palatable when they are young.
Here is some iinformation on the medicinal uses and edibility of purslane and mallow:
Purslane (Verdolaga, Barbeen)
Medicinal Uses: An ancient European and Asian remedy for many ailments. Used among North American Indians for a variety of ailments including: earache (leaf juice), bruises and burns (leaf poultice), pain, stomachache, and scarlet fever (lotion.) Hawaiians used the juice as a tonic for general debility. In European folk tradition, fresh juice is used for slow and painful urination, liver heat with headaches, insomnia, gout, and sore gums. The crushed seeds were taken to kill intestinal worms.
Edibility: Among one of the most versatile and well liked weeds commonly available. The plant can be eaten raw, lightly cooked, pickled, fried in soup and stews, and the seeds can be ground into flour. In salads, use all the plant but the root.
Mallow (Cheeseweed, Penjer)
Medicinal Uses: Herbalists use this mucilaginous herb as a demulcent and emollient. An infusion of its leaves is used for coughs. In Mexico, the raw leaves are chewed to alleviate sore throats. The leaves were used externally by North American Indians as a poultice on sores and swellings.
Edibility: There are no poisonous malvas. Mallow leaves are edible raw in salads, but are more commonly cooked and eaten like spinach, they can also be added to soup. The leaves can be dried and infused into tea, and although bland, it is high in vitamin C. The raw round fruits can be eaten “as is”, having a nutty flavor. The mature fruits can be gathered, dried, and then the seeds separated from the chaff and other debris by winnowing it through a soft breeze. Then wash the seeds, dry them, and grind them for flour. The seeds can also be simmered in water until they swell up. Then they are lightly cooked and eaten like rice. Mature mallow plants can be gathered in abundance in some areas, and the seeds easily harvested.
Where located: Found mostly around “civilization” (missing from rural areas)
And, finally, here's a great quote from James Duke in his Handbook of Edible Weeds:
“One common definition of a weed is a plant growing where it is not wanted. Thus the corn that volunteers in a soybean field is a weed, and vice versa. The dandelion, anathema to lovers of monocultural lawns, is much sought after by wine and potberb connoisseurs, not to mention goldfinches. Suburban gardeners and lawn cultists often battle many native American broadleaf species that invade their lawn, famous for its lack of biological diversity. Clearly more than half of Whitey Holm’s ‘World’s Worst 18 Weeds’ (Holm et al., 1977) are edible, many treated here in this CRC Handbook of Edible Weeds. If you can’t beat them, eat them!”