Catrina Adams, who teaches a class in the Master Naturalist Program on the Meramec campus of St. Louis Community College in Kirkwood, has a timely message for you: “It’s OK to eat the weeds!”
In fact, that’s the actual name for her college continuing education class: “It’s OK to Eat the Weeds: Wild Edible Plants of Spring.” This past Saturday (5/4/18), she was hunting for weeds on campus with a dozen students who enrolled in the course.
“Plants I focus on in my Meramec class this time of year are the ones that people are pulling out of their yards and out of the garden,” said Adams.
By Don Corrigan (Webster-Kirkwood Times)
Adams said she winces a little when she sees people pulling and bagging up chickweed or purslane for the trash or for compost. People need to know that they could be eating good, in the neighborhood – from the backyard.
“Chickweed is great for a salad,” said Adams. “It cooks down a lot if you are going to serve it as a spinach-like vegetable. You want to get it while the leaves are still large – and that will usually be early in the spring.
“Purslane is a succulent that grows close to the ground,” explained Adams. “It has yellow flowers and little capsules. I use my purslane for an Armenian green bean stew. The stems aren’t as thick as a green bean, but they are sturdy and crunchy.”
Saturday, May 5, Adams and her students talked about purslane, rose hips, nettles, purple passion flowers and much more. They also will go foraging on the campus – a kind of scavenger hunt to find wild edibles that may be growing in your own yard right now.”
Foraging may seem a bit exotic or weird to present-day Americans, but culturally and historically, the idea of not eating wild plants is probably the really strange phenomenon. Eating weeds is as American as a fresh batch of rose hip jam.
Adams said she especially enjoys international students, because they “get it” when it comes to eating weeds. In fact, she got the recipe for Armenian green bean stew from a such a student in her course.
“We get a range of students in my class,” said Adams. “Gardeners and naturalists and we have had some survivalists who want to know what you can and cannot eat. We also get nutritionists who want to know what plants are best for your health.”
Adams is a paleoethnobotanist. She is dedicated to the study of plants and how plants have been used throughout history. She is the education director for the Botanical Society of America, which is under the umbrella of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
She has taught many classes at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Shaw Nature Reserve and Meramec. She also coordinates an online mentor program for teachers, a project in which middle schools and high schools are paired up with the appropriate scientists for their interests in the plant world.
“At this point, we have some 600 scientists who are volunteering their time to work with teachers, who then pass on the plant knowledge to their students,” said Adams. “The scientists also help out with research and school projects involving plants.”
Adams herself has an interest in urban plants that are tough, smart and seem to grow anywhere. They are not as vulnerable and threatened by harsh environments.
“There’s a nickname for these urban plants and that’s ‘smarty plants.’ They grow in cracks in the concrete in some of the worst environments,” explained Adams. “Scientists are studying their genetics to see just what makes them so tough and smart.”
Adams was kind of a smarty pants about eating wild plants from an early age. She grew up in Maryland and when she was in middle school, she went on wild-plant walks with the Girl Scouts. That kind of sparked – or should we say sprouted – her interest.
“I came home and started putting together edible weed dishes. That scared my mother, but I learned what was edible and what was not,” recalled Adams. “Then my younger brother went out and ate some daffodils.
“That got me in trouble,” Adams said. “We had to call poison control. But all this pointed me in the direction of plants and the history of plants, which I then studied in college.”
Adams said her plant hobby turned into an avocation, and she found a great place to do her work in St. Louis at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Dog Parks & Pesticides
Adams stresses in her classes that there are places you just do not want to forage. They include dog parks and very green lawns that could be saturated with herbicides and pesticides. She also advises to stay far away from polluted creeks and streams.
“Safety is a primary concern and we talk about that,” said Adams. “Cattails are good eating, the shoots are like cucumbers in the spring. But cattails are sometimes planted in places for remediation of toxic heavy metals in the water, so care has to be taken.
“And you should avoid poison ivy at all costs, even if you are not allergic and it is just in the vicinity of other edibles,” Adams added. “If it causes you problems externally, it also will cause you problems if you ingest it.”
Adams speaks highly of wild onions, dandelions and rose hips. The aroma of wild onions cannot be missed, and they are the bane of lawn care folks. But Adams said they are tasty, nutritious and a favorite of foragers.
Dandelions are safe, good as young greens in salads, and can be made into dandelion wine. Roots can be roasted and ground for teas.
Rose hips contain more vitamin C than oranges, but are considered an invasive in Missouri. Rosehip jam can be found in Europe and in French shops where it is known as confiture de gratte cul, which basically means “itchy butt jam” in translation.
“If you slice a rose hip open, the seeds will have a bunch of hairs, so when they pass through the digestive system, they can be a little itchy,” said Adams. “It’s not a major problem.”
Adams plans to offer another class in the fall with an eye to harvesting autumn wild edibles.