Back Yard Foraging: Where the Wild Things Are

By / Photography By Ellen Petry Whalen | July 13, 2010
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A rose by any other name is still a rose, but what about a weed?

A weed is an unwanted plant that appears in inconvenient places.  However, once botanically identified, with an official name, a weed can have a surprising number of therapeutic and edible uses.

In light of the local food movement, it is amazing how big the lawn maintenance industry has become. Many of us spend valuable time and money on our lawns, when the end product is not edible. In turn, we unknowingly weed out native and healthful plants, all in the name of keeping order in our yard and showing off our flower beds.

Last summer, I attended a wild herb walk with Claudia Keel, an Herbalist and Flower Essence Therapist with a private practice in Manhattan and now Eastham. During the stroll around the grounds of Great Cape Herbs in Brewster, I recognized every edible, health-benefitting plant she pointed out. However, I only knew them as weeds that I have repeatedly tried to extricate from my yard. I was familiar with all their common names—lamb’s quarters, purslane, amaranth, chickweed and sheep sorrel—but I never connected these names with the plants in my yard. Needless to say, I felt rather foolish, and realized the beauty of a weed is in the eye of the beholder.

In Claudia’s handout she cautions, “It is critically important to correctly identify plants before harvesting.  Pictures and descriptions are not a substitute for a knowledgeable person showing you how to identify the plants growing in their natural habitat.” When hunting for wild edibles Claudia discourages people from harvesting all the plants in an area. To ensure their presence, spread the plant’s seeds if possible. More common sense advice is to choose plants 100 feet away from a busy road and ones that have not been exposed to chemicals. After “the hunt,” you will realize wild greens’ benefits are plentiful: a wide variety of fresh, free food, concentrated nutrients, medicinal remedies and connecting with the earth and her seasons.

As we poked around, Claudia easily pointed out ten wild edibles in a quarter-acre space. She explained that there is a growing movement of people who want to become proficient in lost arts like wild herb harvesting, also known as wild crafting. She illuminated, “Wild plants became our cultivated plants.” It all comes down to selection and with plants there is often more than meets the eye.

As a landscaper and nursery owner, Stephan Brown used to be only interested in the aesthetics of plants. But after he got “bored” with the plants’ superficial qualities, he became “entranced” by the Native Americans’ medicinal and edible use of plants. He noted, “Herbs go back to the dawn of time.” Ahead of the organic, locally grown trend, Brown opened his shop Great Cape Herbs in Brewster on the summer solstice of 1991, and has been educating people about herbs ever since.

The first time I walked into Stephan’s shop three years ago, I needed help with a skin problem my youngest daughter was having. He suggested plantain and asked me if I knew what the commonly available plant looked like. Upon my negative response, he unexpectedly, but not uncharacteristically, jumped out of his chair, leaving me to follow. He went to a grassy spot behind his store and pointed to a flat-leafed plant, with vertical veining, growing low to the ground like a dandelion. He picked a plantain leaf and told me to chew it to a pulp, explaining it can be used as a poultice for a bee sting, taking away the poison. Additionally, I found out the edible leaves can be put in a salad or sautéed and also made into a tea to drink or use as an astringent for skin irritations. With that simple introduction, I realized that plantain grows everywhere, including my yard. It made me feel good to know that without any help from me (in fact, in spite of me and my weeding), this beneficial plant was readily available when needed.

Stephan not only freely shares his knowledge with his customers, but he and his co-herbalist Eliza Travisano can be heard on 92.1 WOMR giving advice on their weekly show, “Herb Talk.” This summer, Stephan plans on running an evening farmers’ market once a week next to his shop, where his free-range chickens like to wander.

With a focus on education, Great Cape Herbs gives “Weed Walks” every Saturday at 9:00 A.M. from June to September (call for reservations). “We take people out and show them what to eat in the wild,” Stephan explained. Whether you attend a weed walk or not, Stephan recommends two Peterson Field Guides: Edible Wild Plants and Medicinal Plants and Herbs, both of which he sells at his shop.

Darwin’s survival of the fittest must be playing a part in the high nutrient content of these undomesticated herbs that not only survive, but thrive, without any assistance from us. The potency of our coddled vegetable plants seems to be diluted by all of our nurturing. Claudia proudly shared, “The nutrient content of these wild plants is four to ten times greater than cultivated vegetables like kale and spinach, so a little goes a long way!”

If all this wild plant talk has inspired you to forage, here are some local, nutrient-dense, uncultivated herbs and vegetables that can easily go from your backyard to your dinner plate tonight:

Lamb’s quarters’ muted sage-green, arrowhead-shaped leaves are a great substitute for spinach. The annual can become quite tall—up to four feet—and the leaves can be pinched off to be added to a salad or sautéed in some olive oil and garlic. It is rich in calcium, iron and beta carotene. In ancient times this herb was called “all good,” since the ancient people considered it good for whatever ailed them.

Purslane, which is a thick and succulent, low-growing plant, is very high in omega-3 fatty acids. Its leaves and stem can be eaten raw, sautéed in some oil or used as a “potherb” in a stew. With local farmers realizing the growing demand for wild foods, I have seen both lambs quarters and purslane for sale at the Orleans Farmers’ Market.

Nettles can be hard to pick with their stinging leaves, so you might need to use gloves. Herbalists consider it “nature’s vitamin pill,” with its high amount of minerals, vitamins and, surprisingly, protein. Its nutritious properties can be gained through teas, as a potherb or blended into a pesto with or without a basil base.

Chickweed is a low-growing annual with a small white flower commonly found in lawns. It prefers the cooler months of spring and fall. The leaves are high in iron, zinc and manganese, and can be added to a salad, pesto or stew.

Sheep sorrel and wood sorrel (two different species, both called sorrels), are low-growing salad plants and fare well in the Cape’s sandy soil. High in vitamin C, they both have a slight lemony flavor.  Claudia recommends adding sorrel to a salad or cook it lightly with fish or eggs.

Burdock is a common, large-leafed biennial that shoots up a tall flower stalk in its second year. Many of us have noticed this plant as its flower burrs stick to clothing and was the inspiration behind Velcro. The root is very popular in Japan in a pickled form and is known as gobo. Sliced and fried “the root is pretty delicious,” Stephan’s co-herbalist Liza noted. However, if you are trying it for the first time, you might want to mix it with other vegetables, like carrots. The root can be found in some grocery stores. It is mineraland inulin rich.

Dandelions are very versatile as a food and are high in vitamin A and K. Stephan routinely adds wild greens like young dandelion leaves to his salad, since “any bitter food helps to stimulate digestion.” In our sweet-obsessed society, he gives this rule of thumb, “Bitter is better.” The dandelion flowers make a tasty fritter appetizer and the roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.

Violets’ spring flowers are not only edible, but also their leaves, both making a nice addition to a salad. The leaves, high in vitamin C and beta carotene, can also be used in a soup or stew as a thickener.

“A tea is a time-honored way to have herbs,” Claudia encouraged.  Many of these wild herbs can be made into a tea, easily imparting their beneficial properties. Steeping them covered for as little as a half hour or as much as half a day concentrates the flavor and constituents. Herb or flower butter can be a nice addition to a special meal. Sheep sorrel’s lemony flavor with wild chives is a nice combination or crabapple blossoms with violets. Fold the flower petals or finely chopped herbs into a softened butter and serve in a ramekin.

If you want the many benefits of wild herbs without the hunt, you can cultivate them in the garden, guaranteeing access to your favorites. You can spread their seeds yourself or purchase some. For plants ready-to-go, Great Cape Herbs sells potted nettles and comfrey.

With the local food movement strongly taking hold, wild herbs are an often over-looked option, especially when considered a pesky weed. However, they not only increase the nutrient content of any meal, but are free, fresh, no-fuss and right outside your door. Always quick with a witticism, Stephan quipped, “Picking wild herbs is like taking an egg out from under a chicken. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.”


Claudia Keel, Herbalist and Flower Essence Therapist offering consultations and herb walks.
For more info: 917-723-2309 or Earth Flower

Great Cape Herbs, 2624 Main Street, Brewster
For more info: 508-896-5900

Ellen Petry Whalen is a freelance writer. She grew up spending her summers in Orleans and has been calling it home for eight years, with her husband and their two organically homeschooled daughters. Before children she worked in sales and marketing in the medical nutrition industry and the wine industry. A supporter of traditional foods, she is a local Weston A. Price Chapter Leader ( She holds a B.A. in Economics and Spanish from Wellesley College.

Article from Edible Cape Cod at
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