Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Foraging Lambsquarters or Goosefoot- Edible Wild Plants

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It's been really beautiful weather in my area the past little while, which makes me very torn. I want to go out and do fun things with the kids, but then by the time I get home, I don't have much energy left for the things I have to do inside the house, like keep up with the housework and writing. So I have to decide- should I go out with the kids on a trip and have fun for a while, should I stay home and get work done, or should I go out for just a little and be home for just a little.
So then I had an epiphany- do work while I'm outside my house- take the kids to the park and get work done while my kids are playing happily on the swings and slide and monkey bars, so it doesn't have to be one or the other.
So here I am sitting in the park writing (in between getting up to push the swing every few minutes- makes for very slow writing-haha) while my kids are enjoying the beautiful weather. Perfect.

I had fully planned on writing this post about sow thistle, the dandelion cousin that is one of my favorite plants to forage, but then when I was on the way to the park, I passed by a bunch of lambsquarters, yet another one of my favorite plants, and decided to write about that one instead.

I have to say that if there is one thing I am bad at, it is remembering names of things. History was one of the classes I did most terribly at in high school (and ended up hating) because while I remembered the stories and the concepts, for the life of me I couldn't remember which was the 10th Amendment vs the 7th, and what happened to who. These all get into such a jumble in my head.
But when it comes to foraging, names are very important. Especially their Latin/scientific name. Because names of plants can be misleading. You see, often there is one plant, like this one, for example, with multiple “common names”, so for simplicity's sake just calling it by its scientific name leads to greater clarity. And other times there are different plants entirely with the same name, which would lead to confusion, especially when there is one plant that is edible and one that is poisonous, both with the same name (poison sumac vs edible sumac come to mind, as do the various types of pink peppercorns).

So why am I bringing this up now?
Because lamb's quarters is one of those plants with more names than I can even count. Goosefoot, lambsquarters, melde, fat hen, wild spinach, and pigweed are just some of the many names that this plant has. In Latin, it is chenopodium, which literally means foot of the goose (in my local language it is called the foot of the goose as well). This name actually is the reason that this is one scientific name I have an easier time remembering- since the leaves of the plant literally look like the webbed foot of a goose, but more on that later.

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Webbed foot look of lambsquarters leaves
The species I tend to pick is chenopodium album which, while native to Europe, now grows all over the world; chenopodium murale and chenopodium berlandieri can be found in many parts of the world as well. What I'm writing about is mainly chenopodium album, since that is what I have experience with. (I only became heavily into foraging after I moved away from the US.) Lambsquarters is very closely related to quinoa, and as such, has some similar uses... which I'll touch on in a few paragraphs.

Lambsquarters is one of those plants that I highly recommend to people that are interested in foraging but are short on time.

Picking Lambsquarters
First of all, I recommend lambsquarters because of how it grows. You'll find one stalk growing upward with many branches branching off of it, containing lots of diamond shaped leaves with edges that look webbed, like a goose's foot. While I sometimes find a plant that is about a foot tall, I've seen lambsquarters plants that are 3-4 feet tall, so large that when I try to break it into smaller pieces so that I can carry it home in a shopping bag, one plant often is even too large for a shopping bag. Because of this, lambsquarters are super quick to pick, since one snip at the base of the plant (OK, granted- you will probably need something heavier duty like bringing shears to pick a large lambsquarter plant because the base of the plant is pretty tough) will give you enough greens for many meals for a small family, or one or two meals for a large family. Those things are loaded with goodness!

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This is just one plant- you see how large it is?

If you don't have pruning shears with you when foraging a very large plant of lambsquarters, you can break off each branch, one at a time, and put them in your bag that way. Or you can just twist and twist and bend and twist until you manage to break the super fibrous stem. Smaller lambsquarters plants can easily be picked by hand, its just the massive one that need this extra effort.
I often find many plants of lambsquarters growing near each other, so even if the plants is smaller, I can easily still pick a lot in a small amount of time.

I live in an area with hot and dry summers, so there isn't much by way of foraging available here in the summer other than fruit. Lambsquarters are one of those few vegetables, along with purslane and cactus paddles that I can forage in the summer. I start finding it occasionally in February, but really start finding it in larger quantities in May and June, and then find the seed heads ripe in June and July.

Versatility and Ease of Usage in the Kitchen
The second reason I find lambsquarters a great plant for foragers is because its flavor is pretty good and its uses are therefore near limitless. Some foraged plants are bitter, some are sour, some need cooking to be edible or taste good. None of that is true with lambsquarters. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are pretty mild tasting- however, they can taste nasty- which I'll get to in a few minutes.
You can use lambsquarters pretty much anywhere you would use spinach- raw in salads is a great one, or cooked in various dishes- off the top of my head I'd use lambsquarters in soups, in dips (in lieu of spinach), in lasagna, stuffed shells, ravioli, and other pasta dishes, in stir fries, in patties, in spanikopita (Greek spinach pie), in saag paneer (Indian spinach curry), etc...

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Lambsquarter based salad with citronette dressing
You can even use it in sweet foods- I've put them in green smoothies, and you can even make desserts with them- try them in this ice cream recipe in place of the spinach, in this cookie recipe, in this cake recipe, etc...
In short- any recipe you find for spinach, just substitute lambsquarters in its place and it'll be awesome.
Just strip the leaves off the stem and use them as is- the very tops of the stems are sometimes soft enough to eat when cooked, but the rest of the stem is too tough.

Lambsquarters Instead of Quinoa
Remember I said before that lambsquarters is related to quinoa?
Well, it can be used similarly to quinoa as well!
I'm hearing some confusion. Because quinoa is seeds, and lambsquarters are leaves, no?
Well, actually, quinoa also has edible leaves... that's just not what we end up generally seeing in the grocery store, but they look similar to the other edible chenopodium/lambsquarter leaves...
Lambsquarter leaves are actually similar to quinoa- they can be cooked up as a grain, or pseudo-grain, that is, much like quinoa!

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Lambsquarter seed heads/flowers
Once lambsquarters mature, they send up what looks like clumps of little balls at the very top of the plant- these are their flowers, which then get polinated and turn into seeds. The seeds are super tiny and black, similar to the shape of quinoa, only smaller. Honestly, I don't know how to tell if the seeds are ready other than to take some of the flowers in my hands, rub them back and forth, and see if I see black seeds. If I do, they're ready, and you pick off the tops to use.
Alternatively, you can wait until they are all dried up, and then pick them then.

Once you have your seeds heads, you have to decide if you want to have them "pure" or with green on them. If you want pure seeds and no green, you have to wait until they are completely dry, and then thresh and winnow them. I haven't bothered doing this- I just crumbled up the seed heads, then rinsed them very well, then boiled them up. Rinsing them very well is important, as quinoa and lambsquarters are both coated in saponins, and not rinsing them off will lead to upset stomachs.
Once I boiled up my lambsquarter seeds, I mixed them with mashed potatoes and a binder and made them into delicious croquettes.

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Lambsquarter croquettes.

Look Alikes?
So, how do you know if the plants you think you're seeing is really lambsquarters? Are there any poisonous look alikes?
Let me stop and tell you yes.
There are.
Just today I was looking at the lambsquarters growing, and not two feet away from them was another plant that had a similar general look. A poisonous plant, a member of the nightshade family.

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Poisonous nightshade
And there's another plant that also grows nearby, that at first I thought was related to lambsquarters, and then I found out it was a member of the spurge family, completely poisonous.

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Poisonous spurge
So- how do you actually know if what you're looking at is lambsquarters?
The biggest factor, as I said above, is the webbed foot looking leaves.

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The next key feature is that the underside of the leaves are lighter than the top, and they have a shiny silvery whitish sheen to them (see above set of pictures). When you rub it, the sheen goes away temporarily, then comes back. I think this is unique to chenopodium album though, not sure it applies to other lambsquarters varieties.

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You can see where the color changed a bit 

When you drop water onto lambsquarters, it seems to just roll off quickly because of this sheen- they don't seem to get wet at all.

Another thing to look for is that lambsquarters are not fuzzy- if you see a fuzzy plant, its not lambsquarters. The nightshade that was growing near the lambsquarters, in addition to not having the white on the bottom of their leaves, also was fuzzy. Dead giveaway.

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Fuzzy nightshade. Also no lighter colored bottom of the leaf.

Then of course there is the seed heads/flowers, if the plant is that mature. As you can see, the spurge does have similar flowers, but their leaves are not webbed looking, and the bottom of their leaf is not lighter in color. And the nightshade doesn't have the same type of flowers at all.

Lambsquarters is mainly a blue/silver hued green, with light green stems. Occasionally you'll also find a reddish purple/brown on the stem and the leaves.

The last marker I find very notable on lambsquarters is that they tend to have a strong smell. Not a bad smell, but they smell very "green", almost like the smell of freshly cut grass, in my opinion.

Health Aspects of Eating Lambsquarters
One thing that is important to know about eating lambsquarters is that they really absorb what is in the soil in which they are growing. I was giving someone some private foraging lessons, and I had him taste the lambsquarters growing in a certain part of the farm. It was extremely bitter and unpleasant tasting, which shocked me, since I was used to it tasting good. But then we picked some a few feet away and it tasted nice and pleasant. That was just about the best example I've ever had of the same exact plant tasting different depending on its growing conditions.
But its not just taste- its also health. If the land your lambsquarters is growing on is toxin filled, your lambsquarters will be toxic as well. But honestly, this goes for all plants, but I guess lambsquarters doubly so? I don't know...
As do almost all greens, including spinach, lambsquarters have oxalic acid, which means that  it isn't good to have too much of them raw- it is better to cook them if you're going to be eating a whole lot, and if you're on a low oxalate diet, this is something to keep in mind.

Now what about nutritional benefits? Well, lambsquarters have Vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, protein, iron, and calcium, so they're pretty good for you.

Lambsquarters. They're good stuff.

And if you have a garden- try to plant these there. They'll proliferate like you can't imagine, without any work, and you'll have an abundant supply of this super tasty green!

Have you ever heard of lambsquarters before or eaten then? What is the common name for them where you live- what do you call them? What is your favorite way to prepare them?
If you've never foraged lambsquarters before, do you recognize this plant- have you ever seen it growing near you? Does this look like something you'd try to forage?


  1. Hmm, I wonder if these grow in Arizona?

    1. Yes, I live 20 miles east of Kingman, Az, and it grows wild here. Actually, if given the opportunity, it would take over the garden. I am constantly pulling it out.

  2. WOW, I have ripped these out of our garden for the past 4 years!! How ironic!! Now I am dehydrating plantain & dandelions (& roots), next I will be eating this stuff! Go figure.

    ~ WiseMama~ (daddyswisecrew - I am using "anonymous" to post instead after having issues trying to post via Google, etc... this is faster & saves me the aggravation of it not working -- just wanted to mention that I am continuing to enjoy your blog & am still out here reading your posts, but posting under anonymous now - keep up the great work! :)

  3. Thanks so much for the great recipes, I featured them on my blog! :)

  4. I recently tried red quinoa. I actually made tabbouleh from it. This spring I planted a small patch of quinoa. But noticed a few wild plants next to my plants. They are greenish/white. Mine are purplish. The wild plant is lambquarters!! They grow all over the place :).

  5. I've eaten lambs quarters since I was a wee child. We rarely ate them later in the year, but now I think I'll try it!


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