That plant you despised could become your dinner
ADAM Grubb makes a beeline for a plant clumping in the mulch, behind a park bench, next to the barbeque area.
“This is mallow,” he explains, “which is related to the marshmallow plant and to okra. You can eat the leaves, the seeds and the flowers. It’s eaten widely around the world, especially in the Middle-East.”
We’re in a small, typical park in Brunswick. Mr Grubb, from Very Edible Gardens, runs regular edible weeds walks, in which he traces an extraordinary, wholly overlooked fact.
“The vast majority of herbaceous annual weeds – the most common plants that pop up without invitation – are edible. And a lot of them are medicinal,” he says.
Most can act as substitutes for our normal leafy greens. Mr Grubb also suggests blending them with fruit to make green smoothies.
But it so happens that today in the park, we find mallow, with its seeds, and salsify, a starchy root that looks like a white carrot. “They could be the foundational parts of a meal,” he explains. Nearby we identify five more edibles, side-by-side: milk thistle, dock, dandelion, wild lettuce and cleavers.
At the moment, Mr Grubb is up to his elbows researching edible weeds for a book he’s writing with Annie Raser-Rowland, who teaches workshops on the subject at CERES Environment Park. (While you wait for theirs, see this booklet by Pat Collins.)
Facts about all kinds of plants roll off his tongue – like these about cleavers: “Also known as sticky-weed or goosegrass, it’s in a lot of ancient medicinal books as a lymphatic stimulator. Pliny the Elder said it’s good to improve one’s lankness and to keep from fatness,” he says. “You can also make a coffee substitute out of it.”
If that sounds obscure, here’s something more straightforward. “Remarkably, a large percentage of these wild plants are more nutritious than spinach,” he says. “They’re higher in vitamins A, C and E, higher in omega-3, and much higher in anti-oxidants.”
Aside from the nutritional benefits, there’s a practical plus to all this weed-eating. “Learning to see the benefits of these plants is revelatory, because it means you have to do less work in the garden. The only definition for a weed is a plant out of place. We can do the weeding in our minds,” he says.
Mr Grubb offers a word of caution, however: some are poisonous. The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking a cup of hemlock, which is common around Melbourne. “Don’t go eating anything you haven’t identified beyond doubt,” he says.
Ms Raser-Rowland says that from an ecological perspective, many weeds help repair damaged land. “They can stabilise and rebuild topsoil, trap nutrients and slow water movement,” she says. “In doing that, they create homes and food for birds, insects and other animals.”
She says the good things about backyard vegie patches, such as reducing transport and packaging, are magnified in the case of weeds.
“If these plants can produce food in our urban areas, with no need for labour or inputs pillaged from other ecosystems, it seems worth asking whether they have a role here – not an unchecked role, but a role.”
“There’s also something very, very reassuring in walking your territory and picking food. It has been the dominant activity of most of our human history, so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising.”