Book Review: A Feast of Weeds

Since I am planning on eating more weeds, it seems appropriate that I review this book. Not to be confused with Feast of Weeds, a series of apocalyptic novels about a world-ending plague, A Feast of Weeds, by Luigi Ballerini is tangentially about foraging and cooking wild, edible plants. I say “tangentially” because it’s not like other foraging guides. This is a “literary guide,” as the subtitle states, so in the place of plant descriptions and harvesting tips, etc. are verbose and erudite essays summarizing the various literary references that each of the species profiled has accumulated from antiquity to the modern era. Apart from dozens of recipes, the information presented in this book is more entertaining than it is practical; however, when telling the stories of plants, the human element is an important facet – particularly in the stories of edible and medicinal plants – and it is the human element that this book is concerned with.

Ballerini is an Italian poet, a cooking historian, and a professor of Italian literature at UCLA. The 31 plant species he chose to profile can all be foraged in Italy (most of them in one specific region), and all except for maybe capers can be found somewhere in the United States. The majority of the plants in this book are commonly cultivated as crops, ornamentals, or landscape plants – few are truly weeds – but all of them can be found growing wild somewhere. And that’s one of Ballerini’s main points – wild food and the act of foraging is a very different experience from farmed food and the act of buying it at the grocery store. Take arugula for example:

Try making a salad with arugula that you have gathered yourself in a field and compare its taste with what you have made a hundred times with pre-washed and sterilized arugula bought at the supermarket or even at a farmers’ market. It’s easy to predict the comment that will immediately come to your lips: ‘There’s no comparison.’

A selection of recipes accompanies each of the plants that Ballerini writes about. These recipes were “invented or elaborated” by Ada De Santis, who lives on a farm in the “heel of Italy” and who “enthusiastically agreed to divulge the secrets of her kitchen.” Ballerini partnered with De Santis because of her Italian ancestry and her vast experience with both wild and cultivated plants.

Each chapter in the book follows the same basic format: a discussion of the myriad references a certain plant has received in various writings throughout human history, an overview of the (often bizarre) medicinal uses the plant has had throughout the centuries, and a brief statement on when to harvest the plant. References include plays, poems, songs, myths, fiction and non-fiction, religious and sacred texts, medicinal plant guides, and even artwork. Reading through the book, my interest and attention waned often, partly due to Ballerini’s way of writing and also due to my lack of familiarity (and lack of interest, frankly) with the references. But there were enough interesting bits here and there that made it worth the effort.

common mallow (Malva neglecta )

Of course, my interest was mainly held by the chapters about the weeds. Apparently, mallow (Malva spp.) has been written about prolifically, leading Ballerini to write, “the history of mallow is complex and contradictory, rich in illustrious testimony but, given its effects, not always very noble.” Like other plants in the book, the medicinal uses for mallow have been so numerous that it could be considered “a true cure-all,” if in fact it truly treated all the things it has been claimed to treat. On a humorous note, Ballerini writes in the chapter on wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), “we have come to understand … if a plant is good for you, it is good for nearly everything – but particularly for snakebite.”

Ballerini especially enjoys sharing odd medical claims, like in the chapter about sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), in which Nicholas Culpepper promoted some interesting uses for its juice. Purportedly, bringing it to a boil or “warming it in some bitter almond oil inside the skin of a pomegranate is a sure remedy for deafness and tinnitus.” The medicinal uses of wild chicory (Cichorium intybus) are “as old as the hills,” with a medical papyri from ancient Egypt (circa 1550 B.C.) referencing its medicinal uses among “magic formulas and spells for driving away evil-intentioned demons.”

sow thistle (Sonchus sp.)

A couple of paragraphs about dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into the chapter about wild chicory. The rosettes of these two plants look similar, and the roots of both, when “roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee.” Dandelion is also known to be a diuretic, and is thus referred to as pisciailetto in Italy, pissenlit in France, and piss-a-beds in England.

Speaking of the names of things, how things came to be called what they are is a topic that Ballerini addresses frequently throughout the book. However, such origins aren’t always clear. In the chapter on wild raspberries (Rubus idaeus), Ballerini reflects on the “general uncertainty regarding the origin of the English term raspberry.” Does it originate from the Old French word rasper, the Spanish word raspar, and the Italian word raspare, all of which mean to rasp or to scrape? Ballerini laments, “this introduces very unpleasant connotations for such a delicate fruit (yet there are those who, when faced with roses always think of thorns).”

While the bulk of this book is of little use to me – I guess I’m just not that interested in classic literature or mythology – it’s worth keeping around for the recipes alone, several of which I am anxious to try. If the idea of an unconventional field guide appeals to you, this book might be up your alley, just as it apparently was for this reviewer.

Additional Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

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Eating Weeds: Lambsquarters

Last year during the Summer of Weeds I inadvertently wrote about several edible weeds, one of which I even ate. It’s not surprising that so many weeds are edible; there are plenty of plants out there – both native and introduced – that are, despite the fact that most of us stick with whatever is made available at the grocery store. Some edible weeds, dandelion included, were once commonly grown for food, while other weeds are close relatives of present day agricultural crops. The more I read about these things and the more my weeds obsession grows, the more I feel compelled to eat them (the edible ones, at least). Hence, a new series of posts: Eating Weeds.

I might as well start with an easy one. Chenopodium album, or lambsquarters, which I wrote about last summer, is a close relative of a number of common crops and a spitting image of quinoa. It happily grows alongside other plants in our vegetable gardens without even being asked to. It is highly nutritious and palatable – particularly the young leaves – and can be eaten raw or cooked. It is often compared to spinach and can be prepared and used in similar ways.

lambsquarters seedling (Chenopodium album)

For the purposes of this post, I decided to try lambsquarters pesto. While pesto is traditionally made using basil leaves, all kinds of other leaves – or combinations thereof – can be substituted. I have made pesto with parsley, which was interesting, as well as watercress, which was delicious. The possibilities are endless. So, why not lambsquarters?

Making pesto is incredibly simple. Blend together a combination of leaves, garlic, nuts or seeds, Parmesan cheese (or something similar), olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pine nuts are traditionally used to make pesto, but like the leaf component, a number of different nuts or seeds can be substituted. I rarely make pesto with pine nuts because, despite being delicious, they are pricey.

lambsquarters pesto

I made two batches of lambsquarters pesto. For the first I used walnuts, and for the second I used sunflower seeds. Both batches were delicious. How could they not be with all of that garlic and cheese in there? Lambsquarters is not a very bitter or strong-tasting green, so lambsquarters pesto might be perfect for anyone who is otherwise not fond of pesto (although that is a stance that I personally cannot fathom).

This is definitely something I will make again. I understand the frustration people have with lambsquarters. It can be prolific and hard to eliminate from a garden. Luckily, it makes an excellent pesto.

Resources:

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This series of posts was inspired in part by the book Dandelion Hunter, in which the author, Rebecca Lerner, attempts to go a full week eating only things she is able to forage in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. As you might imagine, many of the plants she forages are weeds.  

Concluding the Summer of Weeds

“Most weeds suffer from a bad rap. Quite a few of the weeds in your garden are probably edible or even medicinal. Some invasive plants, including horsetail and nettle, are rich in minerals and can be harvested and used as fertilizer teas. Weeds with deep taproots, such as dandelions, cultivate the soil and pull minerals up to the surface. … Weeds are nature’s way to cover bare soil. After all, weeds prevent erosion by holding soil and minerals in place. Get to know the weeds in your area so you can put them to use for rather than against you.” — Gayla Trail, You Grow Girl

Great Piece of Turf by Albrecht Dürer (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

With summer drawing to a close, it is time to conclude the Summer of Weeds. That does not mean that my interest in weeds has waned, or that posts about weeds will cease. Quite the opposite, actually. I am just as fascinated, if not more so, with the topic of weeds as I was when this whole thing started. So, for better or worse, I will much have more to say on the subject.

In fact, I am writing a book. It is something I have been considering doing for a long time now. With so many of my thoughts focused on weeds lately, it is becoming easier to envision just what a book about weeds might look like. I want to tell the story of weeds from many different angles, highlighting both their positive and negative aspects. There is much we can learn from weeds, and not just how best to eliminate them. Regardless of how you feel about weeds, I hope that by learning their story we can all become better connected with the natural world, and perhaps more appreciative of things we casually dismiss as useless, less quick to jump to conclusions or render harsh judgments about things we don’t fully understand, and more inclined to investigate more deeply the stories about nature near and far.

Of course, I can’t do this all by myself. I will need your help. If you or someone you know works for or against weeds in any capacity, please put us in touch. I am interested in talking to weed scientists, invasive species biologists, agriculturists and horticulturists, edible weed enthusiasts, plant taxonomists, natural historians, urban ecologists, gardeners of all skill levels, and anyone else who has a strong opinion about or history of working with weeds. Please get in touch with me in one of several ways: contact page, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or by commenting below.

Another way you can help is by answering the following poll. If there is more than one topic you feel particularly passionate about, feel free to answer the poll as many times as you would like; just wait 24 hours between each response. Thank you for your help! And I hope you have enjoyed the Summer of Weeds.

Quick Guide to the Summer of Weeds:

Summer of Weeds: Eating Purslane

If it wasn’t so prolific and persistent, purslane would probably be a welcome guest in our vegetable gardens and edible landscapes. Easily among the most nutritious and versatile of the edible weeds, Portulaca oleracea is an annoyingly abundant annual that has inserted itself into garden beds and croplands in temperate climates across the globe. Thought to have originated in India or somewhere in Eurasia, purslane invaded North America long before Europeans did and has been naturalized across much of the continent for hundreds of years.

common purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

There are over 100 known species in the genus Portulaca, the only genus in the family Portulacaceae (otherwise known as the purslane family). Common purslane is a succulent plant with paddle- or teardrop-shaped leaves that generally grows low to the ground, forming a thick mat. It reaches for the sky when grown in shade or when competing with other plants for space. It produces little, yellow flowers that only open in bright sun and are typically self-pollinated. A small capsule containing dozens of tiny, black seeds quickly follows each flower. Each plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds, which remain viable for around 40 years.

Attempts to remove purslane by cultivation may only aid its survival. Broken pieces of the plant can take root in the soil, and uprooted plants can re-root if they are in contact with soil. Stirring up the ground brings to the surface seeds from purslane’s extensive seed bank. These freshly exposed seeds can then germinate, taking advantage of disturbance and open space. For all these reasons and more, John Eastman writes in The Book of Field and Roadside: “Purslane knows how to live and linger.”

The ever-urban and ever-common purslane.

The seeds of purslane germinate in late spring and throughout the summer when the soil has reached at least 75 – 80° Fahrenheit. It is adapted to high heat and dry soils. In order to conserve water, it switches to CAM photosynthesis when conditions are particularly hot and dry. In this photosynthetic pathway, carbon dioxide is stored as malic acid during the night and then converted back during the day. This means that, when it comes to eating purslane, the flavor changes depending on when the plant is harvested. In The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, Katrina Blair discusses this phenomenon: “In the morning purslane leaves contain as much as ten times more malic acid, making them very sour tasting. If you prefer a milder tasting purslane, harvest your greens in late afternoon and if you want more zing to your recipes, gather the leaves at dawn.”

Speaking of eating purslane, if all the claims are to be trusted, there may not be a more nutritious weed. In A Feast of Weeds, Luigi Ballerina calls it “a health bomb” because “it contains more omega-3 fatty acids than almost any other green, not to mention vitamins A, B, and C and beta carotene.” Blair calls it “one of the most nutritious plants on Earth,” and goes on to sing praises about its richness in dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein, etc. Funnily enough, in describing the health benefits of purslane, Ballerina also quotes ancient sources claiming that “purslane calms sexual excitement.” Apparently it not only “eliminate[s] sensual dreams, but if used too much, it often extinguishes all ardor and even the capacity to procreate.”

With that caveat in mind, I tried it anyway. I had eaten it before, but nothing more than a leaf here and there and once in a green salad. I picked two recipes to try: Walnut Purslane Coleslaw from The Wild Wisdom of Weeds and Potatoes and Purslane from A Feast of Weeds. I’m generally a big fan of coleslaw, but for whatever reason I found this recipe to be a little bland. It was missing something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The purslane seemed to add a vague slimy-ness to it, which it will do on account of its mucilaginous nature.

Walnut Purslane Coleslaw

The Potatoes and Purslane recipe involved cooking the purslane. I enjoyed the finished product both hot and cold. The purslane added a sort of lemon-y spinach flavor. Those who tried it with me also liked it. The potato recipe was made with purslane that had been harvested in the morning, which may explain the strong lemon-y flavor. The coleslaw was made with purslane harvested in late afternoon, which may explain its blandness. I will have to try it the other way around for comparison. Purslane recipes abound in books and on the internet; browsing through them, I am intrigued enough to consider trying others. I think I’ll start with pickled purslane, purslane pesto, and perhaps, purslane sauerkraut.

Potatoes and Purslane

More Resources:

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Do you have a favorite purslane recipe? Share it in the comment section below.

Summer of Weeds: Salsify

Picking a favorite weed is challenging. If we dismiss entirely the idea that a person is not supposed to like weeds, the challenge is not that “favorite weeds” is an oxymoron; it is, instead, that it is impossibile to pick one weed among hundreds of weeds that is the most attractive, the most impressive, the most useful, the most forgiving, whatever. For me, salsify is a top contender.

Salsify and goatsbeard are two of several common names for plants in the genus Tragopogon. At least three species in this genus have been introduced to North America from Europe and Asia. All are now common weeds, widespread across the continent. All have, at some point, been cultivated intentionally for their edible roots and leaves, but Tragopogon porrifolius – commonly known as oyster plant or purple salsify – may be the only one that is intentionally grown in gardens today. Its purple flowers make it easy to determine between the other two species, which have yellow flowers.

As it turns out, I am not familiar with purple salsify. I don’t think it is as common in western North America as it is in other parts of the continent. In fact, the most common of the three in my corner of the world appears to be Tragopogon dubius, commonly known as western salsify. Tragopogon pratensis (meadow salsify) makes an appearance, but perhaps not as frequently. To complicate matters, hybridization is common in the genus, so it may be difficult to tell exactly what you are looking at.

western salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

Regardless, salsify is a fairly easy weed to identify. It is a biennial (sometimes annual, sometimes perennial) plant that starts out as a rosette of gray-green leaves that are grass-like in appearance. Eventually a flower stalk emerges, adorned with more grass-like leaves, branching out to form around a half dozen flower heads. Salsify is in the aster family, in which flower heads typically consist of a tight grouping of disc and ray florets. In this case, only ray florets are produced. The florets are yellow or lemon-yellow, and each flower head sits atop a series of pointed bracts which encase the flower (and the forming seed head) when closed. Examining the length of the bracts is one way to tell T. dubius (bracts extend beyond the petals) from T. pratensis (bracts and petals are equal in length).

Illustration of Tragopogon dubius by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

The flowers of salsify open early in the morning and face the rising sun. By noon, they have usually closed. This phenomenon is the reason behind other common names like noonflower and Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon. Salsify’s timely flowering makes an appearance in Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things: “Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five 0’clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. … At noon, the goatsbeard closed.”

The seed heads of salsify look like over-sized dandelions. Each seed (a.k.a. achene) is equipped with a formidable pappus, and with the help of a gust of wind, seeds can be dispersed hundreds of feet from the parent plant. The seeds don’t remain viable for very long, but with each plant producing a few hundred seeds and dispersing them far and wide, it is not hard to see why salsify has staying power.

Open, sunny areas are preferred by salsify, but it can grow in a variety of conditions. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman writes, “goatsbeards can establish themselves in bare soil, amid grasses and old-field vegetation, and in heavy ground litter; such adaptability permits them to thrive across a range of early plant successional stages.” Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast lists the following sites as “habitat prefrences” of meadow salsify: “abandoned grasslands, urban meadows, vacant lots, rubble dumps, and at the base of rock outcrops and stone walls.” While generally not considered a noxious weed, Tragopogon species are commonly encountered and widely naturalized. Last summer on a field trip to Mud Springs Ridge near Hells Canyon, salsify was one of only a small handful of introduced plants I observed looking right at home with the native flora.

Seed heads of western salsify (Tragopogon dubius) before opening

All that being said, why is salsify one of my favorite weeds? Its simple and elegant form appeals to me. Its gray- or blue-green stems and leaves together with its unique, yellow flowers are particularly attractive to me. And its giant, globe-shaped seed heads, which seem to glisten in the sun, captivate me. Its not a difficult weed to get rid off. It generally pulls out pretty easily, and it’s a satisfying feeling when you can get it by the root. It’s a sneaky weed, popping up full grown inside of another plant and towering above it, making you wonder how you could have missed such an intrusion. The roots are said to be the most palatable before the plant flowers, so if you can spot the young rosette – disguised as grass and also edible – consider yourself lucky. I haven’t tried them yet, but I will. [Editor’s note: Sierra tells me that I have eaten them in a salad she made, but at the time I didn’t know they were in there so I don’t remember what they tasted like.] If they are any good, that will be one more reason why salsify is one of my favorite weeds.

Bonus excerpt from Emma Cooper’s book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, regarding Tragopogon porrifolius:

Salsify is often called the vegetable oyster, because its roots are supposed to have an oyster-like flavor although I suspect nobody would be fooled. The long roots are pale and a bit like carrots – they are mild and sweet and when young can be eaten raw. Mature roots are better cooked. Traditionally a winter food, any roots left in the ground in spring will produce a flush of edible foliage.