Not everyone can say they enjoy being knee-deep in weeds. But meet Tamara Geene, who with her son, Drew, makes a business of growing weeds - the edible kind. Turns out that some of the ones you're pulling out of your veggie garden are more nutritious than the very stuff you're trying to grow.
"The nutrition content of wild plants is so potent, you don't need much to fill up," she said on a recent weed identification hike. "A wild plant has 200 to 300 phytonutrients, compared to 30 to 50 in a domestic vegetable. Humans can eat more than 20,000 types of plants, but we usually confine ourselves to about 20."
The Geenes' mission with their business, Earth's Green Gifts, is to educate about edible weeds. Tamara Geene's interest grew out of wanting to learn survival skills. She's a hunter and sometimes found herself in unplanned situations that required her to find food to hold her over. So she started learning about what wild plants she could safely eat. She soon discovered there were a lot of them.
During a recent hike on the Santa Fe Trail, she gave me a quick primer on some of the common wild edible weeds abundant in our area. And she wanted to be clear about the science behind the merits of eating wild plants.
"I like to compare apples to apples," Geene said. "That's where the nutrient analysis by USDA comes in."
She has charts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that compare the nutrient content of several edible weeds to common veggies such as beet greens, Swiss chard, kale, carrots, broccoli, potatoes and asparagus.
"Many of these wild edibles are comparable to foods considered super foods," she said. "Two great examples are amaranth and lambsquarters."
Take amaranth. Its zinc content is higher than that of kale, a highly touted super food. It trumps Swiss chard for vitamin K. Amaranth also has the second-highest content of calcium, iron, potassium and riboflavin. And it makes a decent showing for magnesium, vitamins C and B6, and folate. Raw amaranth leaves are good in salads and have a flavor like Swiss chard.
Still not convinced of the nutritional benefits of wild edibles? Have a look at the nutrients in lambsquarters compared to all those good-for-you-vegetables. It takes top place for calcium, riboflavin and vitamin B6. It takes second place for phosphorous, vitamin C, thiamine, niacin and vitamin A. It places third for potassium and zinc, and fourth for iron and magnesium. When it is sautéed in olive oil with a little salt and pepper, it has a spinach flavor.
These two weeds are common in local yards. Other edible "super food" weeds that you might find near your house are purslane and mallow.
Before you grab scissors and a basket to head out on a foraging walk, it pays off to take a class like the ones the Geenes conduct.
Be careful where you plan to forage.
"Always get permission to forage," Geene said. "For instance, here on the Santa Fe Trail you would never gather wild edibles. It's a public land, plus it's near the railroad where toxic residues could be on the plants."
Geene has two fall workshops scheduled and would like to start a tasting club that would meet twice a month to learn about particular plants.
"I taught a class at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and several of the participants wanted to learn more about edible wild plants," she said. "So I've been going to Denver to meet with them. We spend about an hour talking about the plants and how to prepare them. It's been really fun, and I'd like to have the same educational group here. I'm going to call it Embracing Earths Green Gifts."
A big part of the Geenes' business is collecting wild edible weed seeds to propagate plants. They sell the plants at local farmers markets. You can also hire them to help you plant a wild edible weed garden. Bonnie Simon did just that and now has a small plot of tasty edible weeds.
"Lots of edible wild plants grow around here with no assistance from us, despite our desert climate," Simon wrote in her Hungry Chicken Homestead blog (hungrychicken homestead.com). "That means I could be saving myself a lot of effort, time and money by encouraging them to grow, instead of relying on plants that evolved to grow in places with more water and better soil. My hens are getting the best nutrition in my garden when I feed them the weeds. The wild plants haven't had the nutrition cross-bred out of them."
At the end of my plant identification hike with Geene, her parting comment was a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."
Visit earthsgreengifts.com to learn more about the Geenes' wild edible weeds business.