It seems like no matter what your gardening style is, or where you garden, there will be a time when you have to remove the weeds. A weed by definition is a plant growing in the wrong location. This means nearly any plant, no matter how beautiful or useful, has the potential to become a weed. Many gardeners never learn the name of the plant they are removing and most could care less. Many of these so called weeds have large root systems, seemingly reaching to China. This makes them even more annoying to many because of the soil they take with them upon removal from THEIR chosen spot. It’s sadly entertaining for me to watch serious gardeners deliberately destroy young volunteer plants that cost them literally nothing, including time, only to replace them with purchased cultivated seeds or plants that are harder to grow, less nutritious, and not as tasty.
The most common of these garden weeds just happens to be one of the most nutritious. In the USDA Handbook #8 Composition of Food, Chenopodium album (generally called lambsquarters in the United States) is listed as the most nutritious leafy green vegetable. The nutrition quality of this plant, followed closely by dandelions and amaranth, reads like a living, growing one-a-day vitamin pill. The leaves have more vitamin C than citrus fruits and more vitamin A than carrots. They are the richest leafy green vegetable source of calcium and are also rich in B vitamins, protein and phosphorus.
It has been used extensively throughout history in Britain and has over 50 local names there. It is also called Belgian Spinach, Fat Hen, Goosefoot, Wild Spinach and Pigweed. It belongs to the Goosefoot family, Chenopodiaceae, from which we get Swiss chard, beets, spinach, and a number of other lesser known gourmet spices, vegetables, herbs and grains such as orache, quinoa, and epazote. Since at least Neolithic times, the seeds and leaves of lambsquarters and its relatives have been used as a staple in the diet of mankind, losing favor only after spinach was introduced from Asia sometime in the 16th Century. Mexican and Southwest Indian tribes used and cultivated lambsquarters for seeds and leaves.
The key to identifying lambsquarters is the leaves which are shaped like little Christmas trees or the webbed feet of geese, hence the name, “goosefoot.” The leaves are opposite. Lambsquarters will grow about anywhere the soil has been disturbed, even in harsh urban conditions. It is believed that the seeds can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years. The seeds grow best, however, on rich, sweet soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.5. Grown in preferred soil, the plants are a deep, blue-green to gray-green with “white” blooms in the center of the young expanding leaf clusters and on the bottom of the leaves. The leaves have a mild, delicious spinach flavor. If grown in poorer or acidic soil, the leaves will be paler green with a yellowish tinge on the slightly bitter leaves; and the stems will be outlined in red.
The seeds can be harvested in the fall (or when a plant matures). This can be easily done by sticking the seed head in a brown paper bag and simply shake. The seeds then fall into the bag. Soak overnight and rinse. They can be used in a variety of ways, from breads to casseroles and soups.
The tender young leaves of the lambsquarters can be used raw or cooked. I like to just pinch the tops out as you would harvest basil and other herbs. They can be substituted as equal measure in any recipe calling for spinach. When the plants are small, you can harvest the whole plant, using cooked or raw stems and leaves. As the plant matures, it offers up tender side shoots as well as the tops. No need to cut the plant down unless it too tall – then just cut it back and continue to harvest the tender tips all season long.
Next time you “weed” this plant from your garden, why not try it in a salad, casserole, fruit (green) smoothie (YES REALLY!) or in the following quesadilla recipe:
Wild Spinach (lambsquarters) and Mushroom Quesadillas
2 10-inch flour tortillas
3 cups lambsquarter leaves, cleaned and chopped
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms (your choice of variety)
⅔ cup shredded cheese (your choice of variety)
1 green onion and I garlic clove, chopped (optional)
Melt a few teaspoons of butter in a large skillet. Add the onion, garlic and mushrooms. Cook over medium heat until the onion is soft and the mushrooms are softened. Be careful not to burn. Add lambsquarter leaves and cover pan. Allow the leaves to wilt and cook down. Uncover and continue cooking until the juices in the pan are gone and all is well cooked.
To assemble quesadilla, butter one side of a tortilla. It could also just be sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Lay buttered side down in a large skillet (I prefer cast-iron). Top with ½ of the shredded cheese. Sprinkle the cooked mushroom mix on top of the cheese. Top with the rest of the cheese. Butter the other tortilla and lay it butter side up on the other tortilla and filling. Heat over medium high heat until the cheese on the bottom starts to melt and the bottom tortilla is browned. Carefully turn over and continue cooking until the second side is golden brown. Remove to a plate. Cut into wedges and serve with cilantro sprigs, sour cream, salsa, or your favorite toppings. Enjoy!