Backyard Medicine: Eating Weeds

The Wild Spinach Edition

Budget eating, with all the locavore/organic/foodie brownie points you care to collect.

Do People Know About This??

wildspinach2I just discovered that one of the most common garden weeds is also known as Wild Spinach, and indeed, it is edible and delicious. With a deeper & more robust flavor than spinach, and without that squeaky teeth feeling, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this before. I figured if I, as a weed-loving naturopathic doctor didn’t know about this weed, you might not, either.

So, introducing Chenopodium album – Lambs quarters, aka Pigweed aka Wild Spinach. Why the multiple names? Well, more than one plant is referred to as both lamb’s quarters and as pigweed, and this one is actually related to spinach, so the latter name is more functional. The former name is more common, however, so I am presenting you with options.

Nutritional information: good for you! Rich in magnesium and potassium, more fibre, beta carotene (pro-vitamin A), vitamin C, riboflavin, calcium, zinc, copper and manganese than domestic spinach. Domestic spinach has more iron and folic acid. (From Edible Wild Plants”: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate, by John Kallas, PhD)

In my garden, wild spinach colonized the garlic patch and was happily taking up all the space between the garlic plants. I was waiting for them to get big, and then one day I realized they were starting to shade my garlic. This won’t do, I thought. I must weed. And then I must be an adventurous weed-lover, and cook the weeds for dinner!

I pulled the wild spinach out by the roots, as I couldn’t have it shading my garlic, but you can also selectively harvest to allow your plants to keep producing throughout the summer.

Top reasons to eat weeds:

1)    They are free

2)    They are nutrient dense

3)    They are tasty

4)    You get points for being a locavore and slow foodist

5)    You feel virtuous for being a locavore & slow foodist, as well as for eating really healthy food for cheap.

6)    You get to meet the neighbors (when they ask you what you are doing over in the abandoned lot with your kitchen scissors and colander)


1)    Step away from your screens, and go outside.

2)    Bring scissors and a large bowl/basket/bag for collecting your greens.

3)    Let go of getting things done. Harvesting and prepping plants for dinner is contemplative and slow.

4)    Always first confirm the identity of the plants you are planning to eat! Consult books and people who know these things.

5)    Make sure the patch you are harvesting from is growing in uncontaminated soil. Ideally, this means it is in your yard, or your friend’s yard, or a green space whose history you know (ie, not a green space that was created over a massive garbage dump or industrial waste site!)

6)    If it is sunny, wear a hat. And sunglasses. Best sun protection there is.

7)    Harvest your greens. If the weed patch is on your property, it is up to you whether you level the whole patch for spanakopita, or save some for sesame-greens next week. If it is a public patch, the general rule for wildcrafting is never remove more than 30% of an area’s growth of that plant. This is a super-common weed, so you shouldn’t have any trouble abiding by these happy harvesting guidelines.

8)    You can cut individual stems, pile them up and do the prep (of removing leaves from stems and setting aside stems for composting) in the kitchen, or you can snip leaves off individually and leave the stems growing.

Now what??

Here’s a simple greens recipe to get you going:

Garlicky-Sesame Greens

One overflowing colander full of wild spinach, washed, big stems removed (or any other greens)

1-4 cloves garlic, minced or chopped

1-3 tbsp Toasted sesame oil

1-3 tbsp Tamari (wheat-free natural soy sauce)

1-2 tbsp Olive oil

3 tbsp Sesame seeds, toasted in a hot, dry pan

½ tsp Sea Salt, or to taste

Water for sautéing

Heat olive oil in a sauté pan, add garlic and stir for a minute or so. Add greens, stirring as you can. Sprinkle with sea salt, and sauté, adding water and putting a lid on the pan if necessary to wilt & cook the greens. Just before they seem done, add tamari and stir to mix through. Remove from heat. Garnish with toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds. Serve with grilled fish/tempeh/chicken etc.

Feel smug and healthy.

The Original Brands

Nature-literacy, Backyard Medicine

There is an infographic going around on social media that is telling:

*Key at end

We are becoming nature-illiterate, and the consequences reach beyond not being able to identify the trees around us. It is telling that we can identify brands and not leaves. It speaks volumes about the values in modern, so-called ‘Western’ culture. And yet, we know that being outside, being near trees, gardening, being in green spaces are all good for us. There are even studies! (For more on the health benefits of being outside, see for instance).

Clearly, there is a crisis of disconnection.

Luckily, the solution is right outside our doors: right there, in the crack at the edge of the road. Right there in the untended yard. Right here on the café patio where I am writing. Literally.

By not having language for the plants around us, by not being able to name nor sometimes even SEE the individual species, we lose our access to the medicine the plants offer.

I don’t just mean seeing Hawthorn and knowing it is medicine for the heart, though this is valuable if you are into studying herbal medicine. I mean that, by noticing the plants growing around us we can benefit from the OTHER medicine they offer: the calming, uplifting presence of mature trees; the lesser known edible fruit delights that summer offers (mulberries! Service berries! Hackberries!); the subtle medicinal information for a plant that is determined by WHERE it grows, HOW it grows.

We can observe this. Some herbal traditions advocate choosing one single plant to work with for an entire year. One observes the plant through its different stages of growth, touches and tastes the plant’s different parts, talks to the plant, and listens for what the plant wants to say.

There is immense wisdom and value in this approach, and I have seen profound results when I have gotten to know herbs in this way.

And, the funny thing about herbs is that as you learn their names, and what they look like, you will start to notice them everywhere. They were there all along, but we humans make sense of all the sensory input we receive by limiting what we ‘see’.

We only ‘see’ what we can name.

And if we don’t ‘see’ the plants, we can’t connect to their medicine.

Just as it is much harder to have a meaningful conversation with someone new when you don’t remember their name – ahem, when you weren’t present when they told you their name – it is harder to engage with plants when you don’t know one from the other.

Luckily, we can remedy this situation. Easily, and for free.

My reconnection prescription is simple.

  1. Go outside. Stay a while.
  2. Be present (Ahem… look up from your phone. Or, pause the dialogue you are having in your head as you walk down the street.)
  3. Observe with an open mind & heart
  4. Ask questions (of the plants, of yourself, of others)
  5. Interact with the plants: use your senses to see, smell, touch; eat weeds (once you have safely confirmed their identity), make tea, make bouquets for your kitchen table.
  6. Watch what happens to the quality of your lived experience as you walk from house to car, from car to office – noticing and greeting these new friends growing everywhere in this city.
  7. Notice how you notice life differently as you observe its vitality emerging even from between the cracks in the pavement.

First steps:


(Verbascum thapsus)

Choose one plant.

Make it one that you just keep noticing, everywhere you go, or one that has some medicine that is relevant for you, or one that you learn to be edible and tasty. Eg, red raspberry leaf, a well-known women’s tonic herb; or Dandelion, ubiquitous medicinal friend of mine. (for a snippet more on dandelion, see

Get to know it. If it’s edible, like dandelion leaf or burdock root, try it.

If it is a tree that you choose, hang out underneath it. Meditate, journal, daydream with it. Take notes. Watch the plant grow, watch how it responds to sunlight, wind, rain, temperature changes. Smell it, touch it. Share what you learn.

Want more steps, more info? Learn about harvesting and eating wild spinach.


Try here  for online tree & shrub identification if you are in Ontario or somewhere with a similar range of ecological zones.

Here are some books I like, and find useful either for field identification or learning more about a plant:

  • Edible wild plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate by John Kallas, PhD . More.
  • Backyard medicine: Harvest & Make Your Own Herbal Remedies by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal. More
  • Wildflowers of Riverwood: Field Guide to wildflowers of Mississauga’s garden park and the Greater Toronto Area by Nina Karalin Barabas, PhD, and Eva Sabrina Bruni.
  • Lone pine series:
  • Ontario Wildflowers by Linda Kershaw
  • Trees of Ontario by Linda Kershaw

Image key:

Trees: (from left to right, top to bottom): maple, ash, pine with cone, oak, poplar & white birch

(*note that leaves are best used to identify a tree in context – bark matters, how the leaves are arranged matters, how serrated a leaf is matters, shape of catkins or seeds matters, and so on, thus, some of these identifications from the sketches are up for debate)

Brands: facebook, volkswagon, mcdonalds, lacoste, apple, & nike

Happy Soup (aka Nettle & Fiddlehead Soup)

Happy Soup

Seriously, this is the happiest soup I’ve ever made or had the pleasure of consuming. There is no other way to describe it. Perhaps it is partially the virtuousness I feel, eating local, wildcrafted herbs & greens in season. Mostly, though, it is just a great, simple soup. Click here to learn more about nettles (and allergies), and here for more about fiddleheads.


(Based on the suggestion of the Friendly Happy Guy from Forbes Wild Foods at Dufferin Grove Farmer’s Market)


  • 1/2 pound fresh local fiddleheads, soaked and rinsed in a bowl of water several times, ends cut off.
  • 1 heaping, packed colander full of fresh wild stinging nettles, stems removed (remember to wear your gloves to avoid the sting!). (Sorry, didn’t weigh the nettles)
  • 2 onions, chopped (plus green onion, or the green shoots growing off an old onion if that happens in your house)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 2-4 cups stock (I used veggie stock)
  • Water
  • Sea Salt
  • Pepper


Saute onions & garlic in olive oil until tender. Add water if necessary to prevent sticking. Add cleaned fiddleheads and continue sauteing. Add a bit of stock. Wait a minute or few. Add nettles. Pour stock over nettles, and add water to just barely cover the greens. Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 15 minutes, swirling/stirring to make sure nettles get wilted. About 10 minutes in, add the green onion. Add sea salt and maybe pepper. Blend. (I use a handblender, right into the hot soup in the pot).

Enjoy Happy Soup!

PS: some internet recipes for nettle soup swirl in cream at the end, but i really think this soup needs no enhancement.