Lamb’s quarters is one of those so-called “weeds” that just seem to magically appear overnight in your garden. You can either pull it out or stand aside and watch it multiply. If you go with the latter choice, know that it will consumes every square inch of bare dirt in short order. But before you make a decision, take a few minutes to learn about this amazing plant. It’s one of a group of plants often referred to as “wild edibles.” It’s highly nutritious and it tastes pretty good too.
It’s been known by many names over the years, including fat hen, goosefoot, bacon weed, pig weed, dirty dick, and more. The names have emerged due to the shape of the leaves. They look like a footprint, specifically a webbed footprint, like that of a goose or duck. It was also used as sheep, chicken, and pig feed, hence the name pigweed. And no, Lamb’s quarter is not that rare hybrid plant-animal the conspiracy theorists talk about. Lambs Quarters belong to the family of Chenopodiums which also include Quinoa, Epazote, and Good King Henry.
History tells us that Lamb’s quarter was considered quite valuable both as animal feed and for humans. When spinach was introduced, it quickly leapfrogged to a spot on the dinner plate leaving animal feed as it’s main use. Early colonists brought European strains of Lamb’s quarter to North America to add to the native ones. It flourished and was widely used in early America.
Finding Lamb’s Quarter
Those who forage for wild edible herbs know that most are found in the spring and some will last into the summer. A much smaller percentage will actually reach their prime at that time and last longer. Lamb’s quarter happens to be one of those herbs. The leaves are edible from early spring and remain so through the summer until the first frost. If you are foraging in late summer or fall, harvest the younger leaves on the upper flowering stem of the plant for the best taste.
Lamb’s quarter can grow up to six feet in height with flat triangular leaves that can reach up to four inches in length. The average plant is about three feet tall with leaves that alternate up the stalk. The leaves are bluish-green and have a few teeth on the edges, which gives them the footprint appearance or resemble a small maple leaf. The flowers of the plant are green and very small, blooming from June until the frost hits, usually in October. The flowers will produce tiny black seeds, sometimes called fruit. One plant can produce up to 75,000 seeds, which explains it’s rapid coverage ability.
One of the characteristics about Lamb’s quarter that is unique is the powdery white coating found on the leaves. This is a normal characteristic. The powder is actually mineral salts from the soil. As the plant ages, it will be more noticeable on the underside of the leaves. Interestingly enough it repels water from the leaves, channeling the moisture to the stalk of the plant. You’ll be hard pressed to wash it off, but never fear, the power will dissipate when the leaves are cooked. You might also come across Lamb’s quarter plants with small purple or reddish spots on the leaves. They are harmless and can be consumed that way.
A word of caution when foraging. Be certain you know what you are picking and eating as many wild plants look similar to edible ones, but in fact are not edible. When picking wild Lamb’s quarter, crush a few leaves in your hand. If you smell a strong chemical scent much like turpentine, then do not continue, it’s not Lamb’s quarter. Also, black nightshade loosely resembles Lamb’s quarter; the difference is that nightshades produce berries and are poisonous.
Uses in the Kitchen
All parts of the plant can be consumed. the leaves can be used in place of spinach either cooked or raw. Lamb’s quarters has a taste similar to chard. If you enjoy leafy greens such as kale, spinach, or collards then Lamb’s quarter will be in your wheelhouse. They can be eaten fresh by adding to salads, juiced, or added to any cooked recipes that call for greens. The best flavor comes from the younger leaves and as they mature the flavor will change due to a greater potency of oxalic acids. Lamb’s quarter juice has a gentle detoxifying nature, but it’s recommended to give the leaves a taste test before making smoothies or juicing them. A bitter taste and perhaps a slight tingling or burning sensation is a sign that the leaves might be unsuitable for these applications. They are still fine to be cooked.
The stalks are somewhat fibrous, especially on more mature plants and have a wild taste. Its’ recommended that they are used sparingly and in cooked recipes. In the spring when the plants are very small, the stalks can be chopped and added to raw dishes along with the leaves.
The roots contain a significant amount of saponin, a naturally occurring chemical compound which has foaming characteristics. Mashed roots can be used to make a cleansing soap or as an internal cleanse (laxative effect) when consumed as tea and laxative effect in the body when drunk as a tea.
The flowers are less commonly eaten, but are edible and can be used fresh or dried and pounded into a flour. Some people use the flowers as an edible decoration to enhance plate presentation or on top of a green salad.
The tiny black (sometimes brown) seeds are a good source of protein, and have a pleasant taste. Harvest them in late fall, when the stalk of the plant becomes slightly reddish. Because they are so small, the easiest way to collect Lamb’s quarter seeds is to cut off top part of plant. Put the entire cut section in a paper bag and shake vigorously to dislodge the seeds. Some varieties are stubborn and will not easily separate from the chaff. If you have difficulties, let the cut sections dry (outside of the paper bag) for a few days to make things easier. Some varieties have elongated seeds which can be prepared like rice.
There are many recipes available on the web for Lamb’s quarter. Try this site for a few to get you started.
The real benefits come from the nutritional value found in Lamb’s quarter. Plants with a strong taproot like Lamb’s quarter are able to pull up minerals found deeper in the earth. Also it’s high in vitamins and plant proteins.
One cup of cooked Lamb’s quarter has 58 calories, 1g fat, 52mg sodium (2% RDA,) 9g Carbohydrates (3% RDA,) and 4g Dietary Fiber (15% Recommended Daily Allowance.) It also contains 6 grams of protein and eight of fourteen of the essential amino acids needed by the human body.
It gets better. Lamb’s quarter is packed with essential vitamins and minerals. That same cup of cooked leaves contains 111% of the daily allowance of Vitamin C, 46% calcium, 7% iron, and 281% of vitamin A. Other significant vitamin measurements found in Lamb’s quarter are 17% Vitamin E, 1112% Vitamin K (yes, it’s that high,) 12% Thiamin, 28% Riboflavin, 16% Vitamin B6, 8% Niacin, and 6% Folate. It’s mineral content is just as impressive. The calcium content has already been mentioned at 46% RDA. Also it has 10% Magnesium, 8% Phosphorus, 4% Zinc, 15% Potassium, 18% Copper, 2% Selenium, and 47% Manganese. If you prefer to eat Lamb’s quarter raw, the nutritional value improves. And if the vitamin and mineral content wasn’t enough, the amount of essential Amino Acids available through Lamb’s quarter is very high. Lamb’s quarter is the second highest in nutrition of all wild foods behind Amaranth.
Understanding Amino Acids and how they impact the human body is a volume of work on it’s own. Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein, which plays a critical role in almost every biological process in our bodies. A large proportion of our cells, muscles and tissue is made up of Amino acids, meaning they carry out many important bodily functions, such as giving cells their structure. Unlike other nutrients, the body cannot store Amino Acids but it can produce ten of the major twenty, those which it cannot make must be obtained daily through food. The ten Amino Acids that our bodies can produce are alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine and tyrosine. The essential Amino Acids we must ingest are arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Lamb’s quarter has 18% isoleucine, 13% leucine, 17% lysine, 5% methionine, 9% phenylalanine, 16% threonine, 14% tryptophan, and 12% valine.
As with all wild foods, there are natural health benefits associated with Lamb’s quarter in addition to nutritional ones. Internal uses range from treating diarrhea, relieving stomach aches, and for scurvy (due to the high Vitamin C content.) Lamb’s quarter tea is also known for decreasing inflammation and increasing circulation. Lamb’s quarter poultices are said to relieve itching, swelling, and relieve burn pain. Some people also use it to treat sunburn and insect bites. Native American’s were rumored to use an extremely potent version of Lamb’s quarter tea for treating fevers and as a cleanse for intestinal worms.
Externally, the juice makes a beautifying and cleansing body wash. It has gentle astringent properties which act to tighten the skin. It is also a useful mouthwash for tightening the gums and eliminating bad breath.
Oxalates, Saponins, and Cyanogenic Glycosides
Lamb’s quarter has one potential negative, depending on how you look at it. The plant contains oxalates, saponins and cyanogenic glycosides; substances found naturally in the plant but in such minute amounts that they are considered harmless. These aren’t the concern surprisingly, but instead what’s concerning is the potential for the plant to absorb too much of certain things from the soil. This scenario is very dependent on environmental conditions. It’s rare but there are circumstances that it can be deadly for human consumption.
The long tap root of Lamb’s quarter allow the plant to pull minerals from deep in the earth to be stored in the leaves. This is why it’s often been called a cleansing plant or purifying plant as it can be cultivated to “clean” an area which has been contaminated with too much fertilizer. In some cases, Lamb’s quarter will absorb nitrogen at unhealthy levels, making it toxic for consumption. This is why if you see large patches of Lamb’s quarter naturally occurring you should assume that the soil may be out of balance and not risk harvesting it. Excess nitrogen in the body will destroy the red blood cells ability to transport oxygen.
The risk of being poisoned by Lamb’s quarter is relatively low and is reduced even further by understanding the plant and it’s habitat. The benefits on the other hand are too great to pass up. If you intend to become a wild edible forager, there are resources available to help identify wild plants in all stages, seasons, and sizes. Before you decide to start any project please do the reading and research beforehand. And as always, start small and work your way up. Eating a few leaves and understanding how your body will react to them is a great way to start. Keep some of the plant you consumed handy in case you have a reaction; take it with you to your medical practitioner. Wild greens are a gift to health for those who are willing to put the time and effort into collecting them. The next time you are walking in the woods, take a minute and look down; you might just find your next meal growing at your feet.
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