If you think everything in your yard that isn't grass must be a nuisance, you're missing out—on a free lunch. Those pesky weeds invading your lush green patch of paradise are actually valuable foods, loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and protein, sometimes even more nutritious than what you'll find at the grocery store. Things like dandelions and clovers are commonly found in American lawns, and if you pick them early, you'll get an incredibly sweet, nutritious addition to your next meal.
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Here are some suggestions for finding free munchies in your backyard. Just remember to ID them with a credible source if you’re not plant-savvy—there's even an app for that! If you've got a smart phone, download the Wild Edibles app created by Steve Brill, a botanist known for giving edible-plant tours of New York City's Central Park. Also, wash your harvest thoroughly before consuming, and steer clear of areas that may have been treated with chemicals or pesticides.
Perhaps the most familiar lawn weed of them all, the dandelion may also be the weed that’s most known to be edible. In fact, the reason it exists in the U.S. is that European settlers introduced it as a salad green. You can buy dandelion greens at some specialty food markets, but odds are, there are some growing for free a whole lot closer to you.
They have a slightly bitter taste when they mature, so harvest the tender leaves that appear in early spring and in late fall, when they're sweetest. The flowers are edible too and have a mildly bittersweet flavor. And eat them up! Dandelions have more beta-carotene than carrots.
This plant has rounded, succulent, leaves and a reddish stem and grows everywhere, so it's very likely that you'll find a purslane plant somewhere in your neighborhood. Notoriously difficult to kill as a weed, purslane is probably better suited to your dinner plate anyway. It's loaded with antioxidant vitamins like vitamins A and C, and also contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids. You can eat the stems and leaves fresh—try them in salads or sandwiches—or use them in soups or in recipes that call for spinach (they’re related and have a similar taste).
This familiar plant has been made into everything from floorboards to pajamas. It's actually a type of grass. And though it's grown by U.S. farmers in warm climates and even as far north as New England, you're probably aware that as a weed, bamboo can be very invasive and hard to control. You can, however Learn How To Grow Noninvasive Bamboo at home.
Bamboo shoots are full of fiber, and are sometimes described as tasting like corn. Should any pop up in your vicinity, harvest shoots that are less than two weeks old and under 1 foot tall. Bamboo shoots have to be cooked before you eat them: Peel the outer leaves away and remove any tough flesh. Cut across the grain into one-eighth-inch slices, and boil in an uncovered pan for 20 minutes (or longer, if there’s still a bitter taste to them). After they’re prepared in this way, you can eat them with some soy sauce, add to salads, or use them in stir-fries.
Gardeners, homeowners, landscapers and foodies south of the Mason-Dixon line, take heed: Kudzu, the "weed that ate the South," can actually be eaten itself. This highly invasive weed, introduced from Japan in the late 1800s, now covers over 7 million acres of the Southern U.S. and is nearly impossible to kill.
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Thus, you have an unending supply with which to experiment in the kitchen. Southerners have found dozens of ways to eat kudzu, including making jams and jellies, and pickling the flowers that appear in late summer. For your first efforts at cooking it, try steaming or boiling the roots until they're tender and adding soy sauce or miso, as is often done in Asian cooking. The plant is also used in Chinese medicine for treating allergies, colds, fevers and as a digestive aid. Brew a kudzu tea by chopping up a cup of leaves and boiling them for about 30 minutes to treat what ails you.
Another weed you'll see all over the U.S., red clover has been used for ages as a folk remedy for cancer. It contains the phytoestrogen genistein, which, although controversial, has been found to have a protective effect against colon and prostate cancers. However, because there's some evidence that phytoestrogens can have the opposite effect on breast cancer, go easy on it. But if you have some growing in your yard, an occasional meal of the flowers sprinkled over rice or cooked in soy sauce can be tasty and a good way to clean up your yard.
In addition to being potential cancer-fighters, clover flowers are high in protein. You can also eat white clover, but it's not as nutritious or flavorful as red.