Weeds as Food

There are hundreds of ‘weeds’ commonly used as food in many countries and indeed, many were traditionally used in Europe or North America before the rise of Corporation control of food and agriculture. In the Asian-Pacific region, more than 150 ‘weed’ species are considered edible. The ‘weeds’ locally available for you to try will vary with climate – wet, dry, cold, hot.

The first thing to do is to successfully identify your weed. Some plants are toxic and careless experimentation could be dangerous. Fortunately, there are many excellent reference books available and websites also provide identification help. Ideally you have a local expert.

The nutritional values of many weeds compare well with those of cultivated vegetables. Transient species do not develop the tough fibrous leaves of longer-lived species. They expend most of their energy on rapid growth and very little on production of unpalatable plant toxins so they are less likely to be poisonous than most kinds of plants. The few toxins found in weeds are usually countered by cooking. Boiling leaches out many poisons, and destroys or deactivates others.

Adam Grubb and Annie Rasser-Rowland (1) give the following rules for harvesting:

  • Identify your plant beyond a shadow of a doubt
  • Be mindful of the possibility of herbicides having been used
  • Be mindful of pollutants – traffic fumes, industrial pollutants, polluted water bodies
  • Pick young leaves as older leaves can become tough, bitter and fibrous
  • Pick tender
  • Pick greens before flowering
  • Avoid stems

Isobell Shippard (2) provides useful information on ways to eat weeds:

  • Many weed leaves can be eaten raw. Nibble on leaves when in the garden or add to a tossed salad, tuck in a sandwich, or use as a garnish on a meal.
  • Add leaves to a cup of boiling water in a teapot, and add other herbs to give aroma and flavouring, like lemon grass or spearmint. Stir, steep a few minutes, drink, and enjoy the health promoting benefits.
  • Place leaves in a blender with fruit juices (I like using orange or pineapple) and blend to make a nutrient-rich smoothie.
  • Pickle the fresh leaves in apple cider vinegar, adding garlic, onions and herbs for flavouring. Use as a potherb like our ancestors did, by adding handfuls of fresh leaves to soups, stews, steamed vegetables, curries, starchy grains or rice dishes.
  • Incorporate leaves in recipes like quiche, pesto, stir-fries, fritters, casseroles, sauces, spreads and dips.
  • Dry the leaves, then crush to a fine powder with your hands. Put in containers for a stored survival food to add to soups, stews, etc.
  • Add some dried powdered leaves to dried herbs in a saltshaker to use for flavouring meals, as a nutrient-rich salt substitute.

Betsy Jackes (3) gives some general precautions:

  • Do not taste unknown plants
  • When using sticks to stir tea or cook food, make sure that they are from non-poisonous plants.
  • Plants are not necessarily safe because animals are able to eat them
  • Do not allow children to suck nectar from flowers or make ‘tea’ from any part of an unknown plant
  • The presence of a bitter taste or a milky sap implies caution if the plant is unknown.
  • As a general rule avoid eating unripe fruit

For Sydneysiders, naturalist Diego Bonetto can introduce you to the wonders and possibilities of edible weeds on a two-hour urban tour. His web site also has an excellent database assessing the food and medicinal value of plants considered weeds.

In Melbourne, Edible Weeds Walks are given regularly by Adam Grubb of Eat that Weed

There are so many edible ‘weeds’ that we cannot list them here, but here are a few of those you are very likely to see:

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelions are well known, their yellow heads standing tall in lawns. They are highly nutritious plants, high in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.  All parts are edible – the young leaves can be cooked, or added raw to salads. The root can be slow roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Dandelions can be mistaken for Catsears (Hypochaeris radicata) but dandelions bear their flowers on a single stalk whereas Catsears have flowers on a branched stalk. All parts of the Catsear plant are also edible; in contrast to the edible leaves of dandelion, Catsear leaves only rarely have some bitterness.

 Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite food. Purslane is a hardy annual plant growing as a thick, mat-like ground cover. It has succulent stems and leaves and small yellow flowers nestled at the nodes. The leaves have a crisp, tart flavour and can be eaten raw but because they contain oxalic acid, it is preferable to cook them. The sourer the leaves the more acid but yoghurt can neutralise this if they are eaten raw. The tiny black seeds are also eaten and taste like linseed.

 Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Correctly identifying this plant can be tricky – there are a number of very similar species. Common Chickweed has a single row of hairs between the leaf nodes and may have hairs on the leaf margins. The native Tropical Chickweed (Drymaria cordata) of tropical and subtropical moist Australia is hairless and has small round or heart-shaped leaves. While some foragers recommend it, it has two toxic relatives in America so perhaps don’t overdo it. There are also other look-a-likes – Mouse-eared Chickweeds (Cerastium spp) which are hairy on stems and leaves. In northern NSW and southern Queensland, the three genera are likely to occur together.

Common Chickweed will appear at cooler times as an annual on rich soils; in your gardens or lawns.  It is highly nutritious, with a protein content of 15-20%. Leaves are rich in iron, and a good source of calcium, chromium, cobalt, molybdenum, magnesium, manganese, silicon, zinc, and vitamins C and A. Leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The taste is very mild, and it is highly nutritious, being particularly high in iron, vitamins A and C and antioxidants. 

 Slender Celery: (Cyclospermum leptophyllum)

Slender Celery is an attractive fine feathery-leaved plant which takes up little space in your garden. It has small clusters of tiny white flowers. It is a winter weed of gardens, and rainforest margins. In pastures, it may taint milk. The flavour is similar to its relative, Celery. Its decorative leaves are ideal for garnishing and flavouring salads, sandwiches, soups and casseroles.

 Plantain: (Plantago spp.)

The leaves of different Plantain species may be broad or narrow but have a narrow part near the stem. They have three or five parallel veins that diverge in the wider part of the leaf. The tiny wind-pollinated flowers are borne in a short cone or a long spike on tall stalks. Children play shooting the seed heads off their long stalks.

The young leaves are edible raw in salad or cooked. They are very rich in vitamin B1 and riboflavin. If you have bought psyllium husks to sprinkle on your muesli at your local shop, you are eating Plantain seeds.

 Spear Thistle ( Cirsium vulgare)

This is the national flower of Scotland. It is a tall biennial with a winged stem and a deep taproot. The leaves are grey-green, spiny and deeply lobed. It often colonises highly disturbed areas or heavily grazed lands. The peeled stems are a fine vegetable, similar to choko. Stalks are harvested in early summer when flowering has just begun. Remove the outer fibrous layer; steam or boil; add to stews or curries. The thick roots may be eaten raw or cooked, before the plant has flowered.


  1. Grubb, Adam & Annie Raser-Rowland, 2012. The Weed Forager’s Handbook: A guide to Edible and Medicinal Weeds in Australia. Hyland House Publishing, Melbourne.
  2. Isabell Shipard, 2008. How can I be prepared with Self-Sufficiency and Survival Foods. http://herbsarespecial.com.au/books_and_dvds/about-isabells-self-sufficiency-book.html
  3. Jackes, Betsy R. 1992. Poisonous Plants in Northern Australian Gardens. James Cook University, North Queensland.

The following books also have excellent information on both culinary and medicinal uses and some interesting recipes to try:

  • Low, Tim, 1985. Wild Herbs of Australia & New Zealand. Angus Robertson, North Ryde, NSW.
  • Collins, Judith, 2008. Companion Gardening in Australia. Hachette Australia.

More information on poisonous plants from: Everist, Selwyn L., 1979, Poisonous Plants of Australia. Angus & Robertson, 2nd ed.

Some website resources:

Comments are closed.