That Funny Little Spring Weed: Lamb’s Quarter
Lambs quarter is one of the most common weeds in gardens, backyards, and fallow fields, following human habitation closely. If you add horse or cow manure to your garden you will have a steady supply of these tasty wild greens for most of spring and summer. Easy to recognize with its alternate, triangle-to-diamond shaped leaves which are coated on the underside with a whitish grey powdery meal resembling flour. This coating may sometimes possess a coppery-fuchsia sheen and is sold as a cultivar called “magenta spreen” in some garden catalogs. The coating is a natural part of the leaf and is fine to eat. Put a leaf under water and the meal will cause the water to bead up in a beautiful iridescent fashion. Lamb’s quarter grows to 3-5 feet and is a branching annual with a grooved stem which is often tinged with red, especially at the node, or leaf joint.
Chenopodium album, the scientific name of Lambs quarter, translates to white goosefoot and refers to both the white mealy covering and the leaves resemblance to the webbed foot of a goose. In the same family as quinoa, beets, spinach and chard, (the Chenopodiaceae), Lamb’s-quarter has been eaten in Europe and Asia since Neolithic times as evidenced by the seeds presence in archeological digs. Native to Eurasia, lambs quarter quickly followed the European settlers and was incorporated into the diets of the Native peoples of the Americas. Currently eaten in Japan, South Africa, Europe and the Americas, this cosmopolitan weed is appreciated by many cultures palates. Its English name, fat hen, and its country name, pigweed, both refer to its use as a food for animals. (The name pigweed is also used for wild Amaranth – another common edible garden weed) There are several explanations for the origins of lambs- quarter’s name. One hypothesis is that the shape of the leaf is reminiscent of a cut of lamb meat, the quarter. Another theory is that a close relative of Lambs quarter, orache, was an integral part of the pagan harvest celebration on the first of August -Lammas Quarter.
The tender top two inches are picked and steamed, sautéed or added to soups and have a flavor similar to its close relative, spinach. I like to make a tofu quiche every spring from the tender tops of nettles, wild amaranth, and lambs-quarters. Rich in Vitamins A, C, B1 and B2; iron and protein, this nutrient-dense green is worth letting be in the garden where it is not out-competing planted vegetables. I often let it grow in between tomatoes, okra or peppers when they are still young and don’t need as much space and pull the lambs –quarter as the veggies fill out. Lambs quarter requires no cultivation and is relatively disease and insect free. Compare this to many of our cooking greens in the mustard family such as collards and kale which require vigilant bug protection in the southeast. As I write this article my mustard family greens are riddled with holes from the flea beetle and the edible weeds such as lambs quarter are showing no signs of damage from the beetles, nor the drought. Rethinking our current cultures agriculture and culinary paradigms, we can adapt our tastes to the relative ease and nutrition of our weeds.
One last note about lambs quarter: like its close relative’s spinach and chard, it contains oxalates and should be consumed lightly if a person has kidney stones, kidney disease or gout. If the diet is varied with many different vegetables, the oxalates are not a problem. Also, remember to never pick any wild greens close to a road or in heavily sprayed fields as the plants may accumulate heavy metals or toxic amounts of nitrates in these situations.
Some years ago I thought to bring some of my favorite wild edibles to the farmers market where we were selling organically grown vegetables. I set out pretty baskets filled with tidy bundles of pigweed (Amaranthus sp.), purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and Lambs quarter accompanied by little signs explaining the preparation and nutritional value of these tasty greens. I also thought a yummy sample of the greens would inspire people to move beyond any fears of eating an unknown vegetable, especially a “weed”. As it turns out we did not develop a wild following or even a tiny demand for our weeds, but people went crazy for the sample – wild greens pate. We ended up selling just as much wild greens pate as fresh salsa and pesto. Wild greens pate freezes well and works well where ever you would use pesto – tossed over veggies and pasta, as a base to a green or white pizza (no marinara) or as a dip for crackers, raw carrots, and celery. Last week I made delicious green lasagna with wild greens pate and added more steamed lambs quarters instead of the traditional spinach.
Happy foraging and may your gardens be bountiful!
Wild Greens Pate
- Sautee 3 chopped cloves of garlic in extra virgin olive oil for a few minutes in a deep pot
- Add the washed tender tops of purslane, lamb’s quarters and pigweed (about 7 big handfuls)
- Saute until tender and add tamari or soy sauce to taste
- Blend in a blender or food processor with more olive oil, nutritional yeast and your choice of raw nuts
- Be creative with your ingredients – miso, freshly grated parmesan cheese and raw garlic are just some of the many ways you can put a little twist on this recipe.
- Note: This recipe is still delicious even if you only have one of these wild greens. Nettles and lady’s thumbs are other wild greens which blend well with lambs quarters.