In a city with many wild-growing plants, you begin to wonder if some might be useful. When I weed my 10 square meters at the community garden, carting piles of unknown plants to the compost heap and leaving just a few lonely vegetables amidst bare dirt, it seems ridiculous to dismiss so many robust green plants just because they are weeds, i.e. just because I didn’t plant them. But beyond young dandelions, which I’ve started taking home and sautéeing, what other wild plants are good to eat?
Thanks to a tip from Berlin Reified, I got the chance to find out more. I signed up for a Kräuterwanderung (herb walk) led by the very knowleadgeable and enthusiastic Elizabeth Westphal of the Berlin Grüne Liga, an environmental non-profit. Last Friday, she led about thirty urban plant enthusiasts through the beds, fields and woods of the botanical park in Berlin-Blankenfelde. Here are some of the plants we tasted.
Elizabeth raved about the stinging nettle (German Brennessel), her favorite wild plant. In Germany, it’s actually fairly well known for being edible – you can buy nettle cheese in a regular supermarket. But I hadn’t known how to harvest it and eat it without being stung. The trick is to break the stem off near the base of the plant, hold it upside-down in one hand, form a tight fist below this hand with your other hand, and stroke your fist downward towards the tip of the plant. Since the stinging hairs are all on the undersides of the leaves and point somewhat outwards, this gets rid of them without stinging you much.
Elizabeth said the beauty of stinging nettle is that it can tolerate high levels of urea and ammonium, growing where other plants wouldn’t survive. It breaks these harsh substances down and turns them into proteins that are healthy for plants and people. You can make a tea of its leaves, which is good for drinking and for fertilizing your garden, or you can eat the plant directly. The plant has a pleasant, somewhat sour flavor and is rich in protein and vitamins.
Young nettle plants and the tops of older, non-blooming plants can be eaten after the de-stinging process above. For salad, Elizabeth recommends putting them in your empty salad bowl with the oil and vinegar and letting them wilt for a few minutes before adding the other ingredients – this neutralizes any remaining stinging hairs. You can also dip the young leaves in a thin batter and fry them (tempura style) or mix them with spinach and prepare them as you would normal spinach (a quick boil or sautee).
Next, we met some plants that I knew only as weeds from my garden. Above is the weiße Malve, a type of orache, which pops up almost immediately in Germany whenever new soil is turned over, and looks like it’s been dusted with white powder in the center. I had always been annoyed by this weed and slightly creeped out by the white powder (I had thought it might be mold or some other pest), so I was surprised to learn that orache was historically grown for food! Elizabeth said it’s been mostly forgotten, but is a great spinach substitute. I am quite pleased with this new knowledge and plan to try cooking orache soon.
Finding out what these cute “baby pine trees” really are was also very satisfying. They, too, have popped up unwanted in my garden and I thought they must be young conifers of some sort. In reality, they are a type of Horsetail, an ancient genus of fern that are considered living fossils because all the other plants in their family, which covered the Paleozoic forest, are now extinct.
This kind is called field horsetail or common horsetail in English. In German, it is called Achterschachtel, Zinnkraut (zinc greens) and Scheuerkraut (scouring greens) because it was used to be used for polishing metal! The Wikipedia entry on field horsetail even says they were used to clean Hurdy-Gurdys, an entertaining bit of trivia.
But here’s the best part: it turns out that horsetail is the source of the mysterious “tiny flowers” which Marko found outside the synchotron in Hamburg! Here’s Marko’s photo again, which you can compare to the German Wikipedia entry on field horsetail:
The flowers are actually the strobili (spore-bearing bodies) of the horsetail, which sends them up early in spring, long before forming the green summer growth seen here. Elizabeth said the strobili taste sweet and asparagus-like. Some sources online said they should be cooked before being eaten, and in Japan they are cooked with soy sauce and then dried, as I learned from this great picture and explanation on Flickr:
More delicious plants from the walk – woodruff, bear’s garlic, mushrooms and more – later this week!