I am lucky, I grew up in a farm in northern Italy and at the time it was still common practice to send the kids out in the fields or the local forests to collect wild greens, berries and mushrooms. At the time it was just another of the chores entrusted to us as I never knew the term foraging, I only knew the plants, the seasons and the locations where to get wild foods from.
2. Did you have a mentor to teach you the subtleties of different weeds, plants and fungi? Or are you self-taught?
As kids, we were taught by our parents, uncles and unties. It was a slow and constant learning process, as we walked in the fields we were taught the names of the plants, what to harvest, when, how, what to wait for and what to leave alone.
When I moved to Australia 25 years ago I found out that many of the plants I knew also grow here, people call them weeds. Since then, after many years working in orchards and garden centres, I accumulate knowledge of indigenous plants, learned from books and by talking to elders and old migrants. You never stop learning. By now I teach how to take advantage of edible plants to the public full time, running workshops for schools, councils and the hospitality industry.
3. What are the five most common backyard weeds that we can eat? And how do we identify them?
There are lots of useful plants in everyone’s garden. Five of the most common are:
Dandelion. Much celebrated food and medicine all over the world. Distinguishing features are the leaves, shaped like lion’s teeth (hence the name, dandelion, from the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth). You know it already as you picked the clock of seeds and blew them in the wind since a young child, and by the bright yellow flowers dotting your lawn.
Purslane. An excellent and nutritious native plant, much appreciated for the high level of Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Easy to identify with the fleshy leaves, see the image. This plant has been used for food from Mexico (verdolaga) to the arid zones of Australia where Aboriginal people used to collect and use the highly nutritious seeds.
Chickweed. Popping up all over your garden, under your bushes and in wet corners. Very high in vitamins, this common sprawler is easy to identify by paying attention to two distinctive features: a single line of hair runs up the stalks, like the crest of a chicken, and a core string, visible if you gently pull apart the stalks, resembling a chicken bone.
Amaranth. Indeed, the superfood amaranth grows in your garden. This amazing plant is loved in central and south America as much as India. The distinctive feature is the seed head, resembling a cat tail when fully ripened and heavy with seeds.
Mallow. Absolutely everywhere. This tough plant survives serious neglect and makes it the perfect weed. This amazing pant is also beautiful food and loved in the Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern cuisine. The distinctive feature is the flower with five petals, white to pink to purple in colour. The seed pods then are also very distinctive, see the image, and resemble little cheese wheels.
4. This seems like an exercise that would be fun for the whole family, what are some easy identifiers that kids can look out for when foraging for edible treasures in their yard?
The best things kids can do is to familiarise themselves with shapes and features. Start small, like go out and collect different leaves from different plants, and notice how shapes change. Start a flowers collection, press the flowers and learn about features: commonalities and differences, patterns and colours, all-important visual tools to cultivate ( pun intended).
When you start to see similarities and start to recognise shapes in the landscape, you start to name things. From there is an endless journey of discovery. You will never stop learning.
A great way to get kids familiar with the different weeds is doing press prints and personal notes as you forage.
5. What are the best ways to consume common backyard weeds? Do you have any favourite recipes?
Probably the best way would be in a pie, where you can have several different plants, all contributing with peculiar flavours to an overall delicious and super healthy meal.
Another great way to combine different flavour is Salsa Verde, a typical dipping sauce from where I’m from, traditionally served with root vegetables, or boiled meat. The base is parsley, but it can accommodate for any amount of wild weeds from your garden. The recipe below is the result of adapting my mum’s method with some home kitchen experiments by my partner Marnee.
1/2 cup Dandelion leaves
1/2 cup of Mallow leaves
1 cup parsley
1 garlic clove crushed
2 teaspoons capers drained
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Dash of red wine vinegar
½ tsp dijon mustard
Sea salt to taste
- Place Sow thistle, Mallow, parsley, garlic and capers in a food processor. Process until finely chopped.
- With the motor running, add oil, vinegar, mustard and lemon juice to the mixture. Process until well combined.
- Season with sea salt and pepper. Stand for 10 minutes.
- Serve as a dipping sauce or use as a marinade.
Happy foraging and cooking!
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