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• Edible weeds

 and Self-propagators       by Oliver Brown  

With gardens come weeds, we all know it; some of us know that a great many of them are edible and the rest of us can easily learn. Yet very few of us do eat them, even when we are gardening specifically for the purpose of raising food. We ponder and we wonder what we could do with them, but more than anything else we baulk as if hard-wired to be reluctant to try. This is because we are indeed hard-wired as animals to separate, in Marvin Harris’ words, between ‘good to eat’ and ‘bad to eat’. It is a fundamental way that we learn to engage successfully with our environment.
As infants we stick almost anything in our mouth but rather than learn all our good from bad by trial and error we also take cues from others in building up these categories. We learn easily not to eat cotoneaster berries and oleander leaves without having to get sick first because we are told not to and somewhere in our brain we stick the label ‘dangerous’ on these.
As Australians we also tend to be told not to eat weeds. Weeds are ‘bad to eat’; and we keep this concept strongly even after we learn that only some weeds are bad. Unlearning comes harder than learning. So when we start we should do so with small steps. Learning a new food like a weed is ‘good to eat’ needs the eating to get it there – it is only natural.

Eating wild greens is an age old practice where gardening and foraging meet simply, efficiently and healthfully. In Greece and Crete they call them horta, and the consumption of dozens of different species is part of a diet credited with high life expectancy. The Cretans in particular are famous for it, claiming that no meal is complete without horta and being subject to jokes by their neighbours that you are safer with a goat invading your field than a Cretan. A typical and versatile way to use them is to gather what is at its best while aiming for variety at the same time. They are then cooked like spinach and served with olive oil and lemon juice (horta vrasta) or in savoury pastries known as hortopites, of which spanakopita is simply a well known spinach version (sometimes with silverbeet in Australia). And this is one of the best ways to deal with plethora of wild greens available to us, along with a French or English style potage that is as much stew as soup. Some (e.g. purslane, nasturtium) can be eaten raw, but for others the high levels of oxalic acid (e.g. native spinach, fat hen) or formic acid (stinging nettles) are sufficiently denatured by cooking to recommend it as the simplest method. Some get a little ugly and slimy with boiling (e.g. purslane) and can be better more gently steamed or being hidden in sauce, potage or the more robust texture of something like amaranthus, native spinach or some of your traditional intentionally grown greens like silverbeet, English spinach, kale or various Asian greens.


A lot of weeds can be found in urban areas where we may think twice about eating them more because of where they are than what they are. Growing on a busy footpath one might quite reasonable have concerns about soil toxins, polluted air and run-off water and dog urine. This makes the confines of RCOG a great place to give them a go. Dozens of people working hard to keep fertility and water to an otherwise sandy patch makes for good weed growth. Most weeds (or wild greens and a lot of our deliberate crops) are fast growing colonisers of open ground. When we make open ground, we invite weeds, it is that simple. At any time throughout the year there are enough weeds growing on our communal grounds to reward a couple of hours of picking and processing. The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ was originally coined to describe a sociopathic descent that begins with the use of too much of the commons by too many to be sustainable; but when those commons are the weeds we are in the clear. The worst that could happen is a weed free garden. That said, edible weeds should probably have a place in a diverse and sustainable food system and there are some weeds for which total eradication would be a shame. As soon as a weed become welcome it becomes no longer a weed. We may not start to cultivate it but it is at least wild food.

Green amaranth (Amaranthus spp.)


Sources: Blanco 1880 (copyright expired); RCOG

Among the Greeks’ wild greens or horta is a plant known to them as vlita (Amaranthus blitum) that has been praised as far back as Homer. The glory days of amaranths were however in Pre-Columbian Mexico and the Inca Empire in South America where it was a staple ranked up there with corn and beans and still retains a traditional place that is regaining importance. In the United States it is being reborn as a leafy green targeted by a growing urban foraging movement under a variety of additional names including ‘pigweed’; by which it is also sometimes known in Britain, New Zealand and Australia. In the Philippines it is reportedly called calalloo, while half a world away in the West Indies this is also the word of a stew comprised mostly of amaranth leaf (see Davidson 1999). A leaf cropping variety (A. gangeticus) called ­tampala in India is also apparently grown in New Zealand under that name (Seed Savers Handbook). It is also a popular subsistence vegetable in tropical African countries like Nigeria and Benin.

There are varieties that are traditionally grown for leaves, seeds or both; and others like ‘love lies bleeding’ purely as an ornamental. In India, grain producing amaranth is known as rajgira ("king seed") and ramdana ("seed sent by God"), and it is there that it now has it most intense cultivation and use.  The seed cropping varieties have received quite a bit of attention since it was discovered that not only are the seeds high in protein but contain a better mix of amino acids like lysine and methionine for human dietary needs that any traditional cereal (as similarly claimed for buckwheat and quinoa). Being easy to grow from the tropics to frost-bitten lands with a short summer and producing large quantities of vegetable and grain, amaranths are one of those crops that many have nominated as a future super crop (NRC 1984). Seed cropping varieties are not common in Australia (although the Mexican A. hypochondriacus may be sourced online through Greenpatch Seeds). The common weedy types that proliferate here (mostly A. viridis and A. retroflexus) are noted as being difficult to harvest for seed because seed heads appear in smaller amounts all over the plant and at different times. They are reported to have arrived in Australia soon after Europeans although apparently as a weed rather than a crop and to have found a place in the occasionally desperate kitchens of early colonists before fading from use, if not from view (Low 1988). Others note that Chinese cooks on country properties across northern Australia also moved green amaranth varieties around with them and some persist in unusual places and that Greek Australians have long grown it in their gardens here (Seed Savers Handbook).

Amaranthus leaves can be picked at any time although certainly appear more appetizing when relatively young, tender and slightly lime green. Amaranth greens are classified by the Greeks as sweet (as opposed to bitter) but are usually considered mild to the point of being criticised as bland, which some have praised for providing a stage for seasoning (Gibbons 1962: 14). They can be found throughout the Garden for the eager weed gatherer. If harvesting from your own plot it is better to take it all out by the roots as cutting the top off will encourage a spreading habit that uses limited space badly. If you can boil water you can cook green amaranth. Use as you would any other cooked leaf green or look for recipes for horta vlasta.


Gibbons, E. 1962. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Pp 14-16. Chambersburg (PA): Alan C. Hood & Co.
Crib & Cribb. Wild Food in Australia. P. 115.
Mabey, R. 1972. Food for Free. P. 104. London: Collins
Seed Savers Handbook
Davidson, A. 1999. Oxford Companion to Food.
National Research Council (USA). 1984. Amaranth: Modern prospects for an Ancient Crop. Washington (DC): National Academy Press (available as free download via GoogleBooks)