Edible plants are plentiful — even in urban settings
Medford — In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss Evergreen staves her hunger by eating nature’s ignored bounty: dandelion greens, wild onions, and the potato-like tuber roots from her namesake Katniss plant. The ability of weeds to supplement diets is a skill Katniss also shares with the less fortunate in “The Hunger Games” books and movies.
Her popularity — evidenced by the record-breaking $110 million Thanksgiving weekend box office haul of the new “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” — is one reason Alana Siegner is foraging for peppergrass in a Tufts University alley recently. Peppergrass is a weed in the mustard family and Siegner is offering it to some eighth-grade students from McCormack Middle School in Dorchester. “You can use it as a spice,” says Siegner, who is their teacher, crouching on a grassy knoll and foraging for more.
Ashli Harris, 13, nibbles slowly on the delicate green, which is high in Vitamins A and C. Her eyes grow wide. “The more you chew the more it tastes peppery,” she says. “It’s actually pretty good.”
What looks like a field ready for mowing, is, in fact, a garden of edible plants. George S. Ellmore, a biology professor at Tufts, is a fan of these tiny greens, which grow in some unlikely places. “Weeds are a resource that have been overlooked by society,” says Ellmore. “I’ve been eating weeds for decades.”
Another weed champion is Eva Sommaripa, owner of Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth, who grows organic specialty greens and herbs for local restaurants; she also sells the weeds. Sommaripa used to worry that “my thyme is being invaded by dandelions.” Now she picks the dandelions to eat and sell.
Among the tender edible weeds on this foraging walk are chickweed, goosefoot, purslane, and Queen Anne’s Lace. In restaurant kitchens they’re tossed in salads, sauteed, braised, and used to infuse stocks. Diners at Evoo, The Gallows, Clio, Washington Square Tavern, Bondir, and Menton, among other restaurants, have been eating weeds for years.
“There’s a stigma about the word ‘weeds,’ ” says Asia Mei, chef of Sam’s, the eatery inside Louis Boston. “You think of it as a trashy by-product, but that’s not what it is.” Mei says the difference between weeds and herbs is semantics. “It’s really not anything other than marketing.”
Some of Mei’s dishes use upward of a dozen different weeds. James Mercer, chef of the Bay Club in Dartmouth and former chef and owner of Mex in the South End, incorporates Japanese knotweed, chickweed, and nettles into a range of dishes, including gnocchi and squash. He recently made a sorbet with the autumn-olive, a red wild berry seen on highway shrubbery. “They’re off the charts in lycopene,” Mercer says. Lycopene is being studied for its potential antioxidant benefits. When spying weeds in their food, he says, “Half the audience gets it and half hates it.”
There’s a growing community of weed lovers and a large number of books and websites devoted to the subject. The “Eat the Weeds and other things, too” website (www.eattheweeds.com) offers a list of instructors and their classes available by state, including in Massachusetts. In Texas, a high school science teacher offered a horticulture course last spring on identifying edible weeds because of teenage interest that arose from “The Hunger Games.”
Siegner, who took Ellmore’s Tufts course as an undergraduate two years ago, now teaches extended classes as part of the national organization Citizen Schools. She thought “The Hunger Games” and “Game of Thrones” TV show, where characters eat weeds, might resonate with her students. “We have to be more creative and thoughtful about what we eat,” Siegner says. “Looking at a field you’ll find enough greens for a salad.”
Advocates for eating weeds strongly advise newcomers to take a course with a professional (no one should eat weeds based on self-education). “Learn to identify six common families,” says Ellmore. “The carrot family contains deadly hemlock while the mint family has 1,000 members and none are lethal. Basically, if a weed tastes bad, it’s not going to be good for you.” In an urban setting, Ellmore won’t eat weeds that grow along a wall because dogs typically walk there.
The tenderness of the plant and quality of soil are also critical. Sommaripa grows her 200-plus specialties in pesticide-free soil near Buzzards Bay, and manages the weed growth. She prefers to identify weeds by their Latin names. “We do a balancing act,” she says as she clips some goosefoot and pops it in her mouth. “We try to have things like Stellaria” (chickweed), says the grower, but she prunes it so it won’t overwhelm other plants.
At Tufts, Siegner ends her weeds tour at a yew berry bush that has red fruit tasting of strawberries, and black seeds that are poisonous. One late joiner asks the plant’s name.
Kemi Queen, 13, retorts: “It’s a you-gonna-die berry.” The class moves on.