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Abby Quillen: How to Identify Wild Greens in your Backyard

If weeds are cropping up in your lawn, it may be time to get revenge by harvesting some of them for your dinner table. You may ask yourself, why eat weeds when there’s a garden or 24-hour supermarket nearby? There are many good reasons! Weeds, otherwise known as wild plants, are nearly always more nutritious than cultivated vegetables. That’s because farmers bred the bitterness out of most commonly consumed plants, and many nutrients (which have a sour, bitter, or astringent taste) were stripped away in the process.

Moreover, plants that thrive in bad conditions, such as driveway cracks or barren soil, are loaded with phytonutrients and phytochemicals such as carotenoids and flavonoids. Plants produce these chemicals to protect themselves from insects, disease, ultraviolet light, bad weather, and animals. And wild plants need more protection than the domestic plants humans carefully tend and protect. Weeds send strong taproots deep into the soil to draw minerals into their leaves, so they’re also packed with calcium, magnesium, iron, and trace minerals. Lamb’s quarters, for instance, have three times as much calcium per serving as spinach.

Are you ready to take advantage of the bounty of highly nutritious, free food that’s available steps from your back door? First, you must learn to identify plants with absolute certainty. Get started with the handy chart below that helps you identify common edible plants that grow nearly everywhere, perhaps even in your own backyard.

Unlike our ancestors, most of us did not grow up picking and eating wild greens. If it feels daunting to differentiate between dozens of common weeds, remember that you’re learning a new skill, and it will take some time. The payoff? A bounty of fresh, nutritious food.

The first step to identifying plants is to use your senses to examine them. But don’t taste anything yet. How do different plants look, feel, and smell? Are they large or small, hairy or hairless? What color and shape are the flower petals? How are the leaves shaped? Small details are important when identifying edible plants.

Start by picking one of the common edible wild plants listed below, and read everything you can about it. Here are a few excellent field guides to help you:

Identifying and Harvesting Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants by Steve Brill
Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest by Janice Schofield
Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman
A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Peterson

Scout your yard, garden, or neighborhood for the plant. It probably won’t be difficult to find. These plants are called weeds because they grow and flourish nearly everywhere. However, some have poisonous (or safe but less tasty) doppelgangers, so you’ll need to be absolutely sure you identify the correct plant.

Nothing beats a real-life expert guide. Check online and local bulletin boards for foraging classes, workshops, and plant walks in your area. Contact your local extension service, community college, botanical garden, and garden centers: sometimes these organizations sponsor classes. If none are available locally, consider an online course. A number of apps are also available to help people identify wild edible plants. Always consult more than one source before tasting anything.

Abby Quillen is a writer and gardener who lives in Oregon. The graphics for this article were designed by Ghergich and Co. for  FIX.com.

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