The ability of pigweed to grow cannot be denied. It grows just about anywhere and may grow to be six feet tall. Last May we discovered it in our community garden plot at the Farm Institute, which is not too surprising since it is a common garden weed.
And common it was. Even abundant. Last year was the first year for the community garden, so we were converting former pasture into vegetable garden by removing all the turf grasses. Sure, the turf had been plowed under, but let’s just say the roots were still there. And we had to get rid of them. And then there was this other plant, pigweed, that seemed to grow more quickly than anything else. We had to get rid of that, too. Its abundant seeds were germinating like mad since we were creating lots of bare ground with no other plants to shade it out — ideal growing conditions for any weed. Looking back at our small efforts last year suggests how much work it was for the pioneers to convert the native woodlands and grasslands (prairies) into land that could be farmed.
This plant is anything but conspicuous, except perhaps when it reaches its full six feet of height. The flowers are tiny and grow in spikes from where the leaf grows out of the stem. Its leaves are one to four inches long, somewhat egg-shaped, irregularly toothed, and have a broad V-shaped base. There is also a dusting of white on the underside of the leaves. The scientists that named this plant thought the leaf reminded them of a goose’s foot (go figure), hence the Latin name of Chenopodium album, which roughly translates into white goosefoot. Other common names include pigweed, dungweed, fat hen, lamb’s quarters or wild spinach.
The common names of goosefoot, pigweed and dungweed make this plant sound completely inedible. But multiple sources claim the contrary: that it is quite edible and that the leaves can be used as greens or cooked like spinach. Some sources say that only the young plants less than one foot tall are edible, and that such small plants are abundant from mid-spring until frost. But last year we discovered that even older plants are quite tasty; we harvested three-foot tall plants, removed the leaves from the stems and cooked them like spinach. They were quite tasty.
This culinary treat is not as widely consumed by Americans as it is in other parts of the world. Perhaps this is because it is a lot of work to prepare; the leaves are small and need to be stripped from the stems, at least for the older plants. And washing to remove dust and dirt from the leaves is necessary. But please do not repeat our mistake of harvesting the entire plant, roots and all. Cutting off the plant a few inches above the ground, or pulling up the plant and immediately discarding the roots, will leave less dirt to clean off.
And seeds from the mature lamb’s quarters (definitely a more appetizing name) are also edible. Each plant produces tens of thousands of black seeds that are high in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. In Euell Gibbons’ 1962 book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, he recommends making buckwheat pancakes, muffins or biscuits by gathering the seeds in early winter after stems have dried, grinding up the seeds and mixing them one to one with wheat flour.
We can only wonder why this plant has not been utilized more frequently, especially since it is so easy to grow. It is a weed after all. There could be multiple harvests of tender greens before the plant is left to mature for seed harvest in the early winter.
There may be some consequences for planting lamb’s quarters. They are vulnerable to leaf miners, which are plant pests. This is an advantage if it is a companion planting that attracts leaf miners away from the more desirable crop. It is a disadvantage if it attracts plant pests that would not have been there otherwise. Lamb’s quarters and beets are not good companions since beet leafhoppers are attracted to lamb’s quarters and then may transmit the curly top virus they carry to the beets.
Last summer we found lamb’s quarters growing along Kennebec avenue in Oak Bluffs. Look around — it can grow just about anywhere. Maybe this weedy plant will be eaten more frequently now that rapidly rising gasoline prices are driving up the cost of food.
Robert Culbert is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.