Foraging for Lambs-quarters May Change More than Your Diet

Whether you are already gathering lambs-quarters, or have never heard of it, you may be surprised about how useful this nutritious plant has been in the past.

I’ll admit it, this one blew my mind. As I’ve learned more and more about wild edibles, my perspective has been broadened quite a bit. I see things different than I used to. I notice plants I used to routinely walk by. On my journey to learn more about the wild abundance, I thought I was making strides. I thought I was finally beginning to more fully see what was happening around me. Then, I discovered lambs-quarters.

It started in my garden one morning pulling weeds. On hands and knees I was working slowly down the rows removing the undesirables. I’ve learned that weeds have more to do with perspective than any nutritional value or other guidelines based on usefulness. As I was working, I noticed this pale little green leaf plant I kept pulling. Something made me curious about the plant. For some reason it just seemed worth looking into. After a bit of research I discovered this unwelcome visitor was in fact lambs-quarters, a well-known edible. That wasn’t the end of the story though.

Nutrition

I learned that not only is lambs-quarters a wild edible, but it is one of the most nutritious plants you are likely to encounter. It can be substituted for spinach in many recipes, and as an added bonus, appeared in my garden as the spinach was bolting. Due to high levels of oxalic acid lambs-quarters should be boiled, but it doesn’t shrink as much as spinach will. Oddly enough, it is even more nutritious than spinach. You can imagine my confusion when I realized the plant I had been pulling was more drought tolerant, nutritious, and easier to freeze than the plant I had been cultivating. It simply didn’t make any sense.

Identification

Lambs-quarters white powder.
This photo showcases the white powder found on lambs-quarters.

Identifying lambs-quarters turned out to be easy as well. A little reading, a few Youtube videos, and help from my local Facebook group, affirmed my hunch the plant was lambs-quarters. It turns out lambs-quarters has a few identifiable features that help it to stand out. First off, the shape of the leaves have earned it the another name, goosefoot. It does have a shape resembling the foot of a goose. A feature, I feel, that is a little more distinguishable is the white powder that covers the plant. This hydrophobic coating repels water, a fact that amazed my 4 year old daughter. Older plants also have a purplish coloration on each of the nodes. Finally, the stalk of the plant is not smooth, having ridges that run vertically down the stalk. If you are looking at a plant with these characteristics you are likely looking at the nutrient dense lambs-quarters.

Here is a good video identifying the distinguishing features of the plant.

There are some folks who get this plant confused with nightshade, so make sure to do your research. Once again, members of a Facebook group I am active in helped to confirm the plant before I ate it.

History

After first noticing the plant while pulling weeds, the book I referenced was Wild Seasons by Kay Young. This excellent guide is focused on wild edibles of the Great Plains. It offered up only a brief guide to identifying lambs-quarters, but had some interesting tidbits on the history of the plant. According to the book, apparently lambs-quarters has been introduced from Eurasia, but native varieties exist as well. Historically it was a green many people canned and depended on for winter greens. Young, the author, also included an interesting nugget about how during the Depression a meter reader in Kansas City saw people gathering it by the bathtub full. Not only is lambs-quarters nutritious, but it was often found growing in urban areas. A fact the hungry folks pounced upon.

Recipe

In addition to the history, Wild Seasons also included a good recipe for eating lambs-quarters. The recipe comes from a fellow Nebraskan who volunteered an old family recipe. This was my first lambs-quarters dish, and turned out to be a darn good meal.

First off, gather your lambs-quarters and rinse well. A few cupfuls should satisfy for a single person’s meal. Next, drop the greens in boiling water to make the leaves tender. After you’ve boiled the leaves tender, drain away the excess water. Once drained, put them into a skillet of hot bacon grease. Without any bacon grease, I used a splash of canola oil. Cook until the greens are heated through. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and vinegar. The whole process takes just a few minutes and you’ll have “a mess o greens” ready to enjoy.

Lambs-quarters greens
This “mess o’ greens” may not look like a delicacy, but it is jammed with incredible nutrition.

After gathering, preparing, and learning about lambs-quarters, it is easy to see why people of the past utilized it so greatly. Not only is it abundant, but the process to cook it is simple. Also, none of the simple spices in the recipe needed refrigeration, and would likely have been a staple in most homes. All told, this plant was a perfect solution to the challenges people in the past faced.

Summary

As I mentioned, this one caught me by surprise. I wasn’t necessarily shocked that it was edible, but the usefulness of the plant is what caught me off guard. How is it this nutritional plant isn’t part of common knowledge? To me, it sort of highlights the strangeness of our food culture here in America. Most folks seem to grab lettuce as a health food. You’ll see them hit the salad bar to get a lettuce salad smothered in ranch dressing and bacon bits.The reality is lettuce has almost no nutritional value whatsoever. “Health nuts” mix in, or completely switch to, spinach salads. Spinach is nutritious and definitely a good dietary move. However, it seems “the hippies” push further into the realm of wild foods like lambs-quarters. What? That just doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t we acknowledge a historically valuable and highly nutritious food free for the taking? Maybe that is just my perception of the way things operate, please correct me if I’m wrong.

I’ll admit, this whole article may make me sound like a dolt to people well-versed in wild edibles. I’d also confess I am certainly a student when it comes to wild foods. I’m only trying to share what I’ve learned. In fact, I hope to always be a student and continue to learn. What is surprising isn’t that I didn’t know about lambs-quarters, it’s that so few people do know.

Through Soft Tracks I’m looking to learn more about the past. Past skills, knowledge, and ways of self-reliance. I was wondering how we got from this nutritious wild food being a sustaining fuel in our time of greatest need, to an anonymous “weed” we spray. I could imagine why people shifted away from  it after The Depression. They were probably tired of eating it and hoped to fill their bellies with something else. The surprising thing is that it hasn’t been passed on as simply a good thing to know. We’ll spend 1/2 of our monthly wages on health insurance, but won’t spend 15 minutes to gather a plant that could reverse some of our health woes. It’s absurd.

I did a little digging into some of the factors that could have deterred people from using this plant. It turns out that lambsquarters, and other plants, can be potentially poisonous to cattle and other grazing animals. The problem arises when they grow under drought stress. Under the right conditions the plant accumulates high levels of nitrates, and when consumed by grazing animals can severe reactions. This plant also contains high levels of oxalic acid that can potentially be poisonous to humans if eaten in large quantities. This link provides some good information on oxalic acid and the threat it poses. Apparently much of the oxalic acid of the plant can be removed through the blanching process.

Again, maybe lambs-quarters is old hat to you and your friends and family. I really hope that is the case. On the other hand, maybe it is something you’ve never experimented with or learned about. In that case, I’d encourage you to at least become familiar with it. You may not eat it for every meal, but it served our ancestors well and hasn’t changed since then. Make sure you know what you are harvesting before you eat any wild foods. There is a huge body of people out there who can help and will share what they know. In a strange way the technology of the 21st century is allowing people interested in traditional ways of living to share what they know. They will not only help teach you about lambs-quarters, but may help to shift your perspective on what you see in the world. With some luck you may just begin to notice how many other blessings are scattered all about.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on wild foods and lambs-quarters in the comments below.

Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article about lambs-quarters. If you found it interesting, and want to learn more about wild foods, you might enjoy this article on the 8 uses of cattail from hunting to the dinner plate.

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