Depending on one’s perspective, when lamb’s quarters volunteers itself in your yard, garden or field, it’s either a welcome wild vegetable or an unwelcome weed. Scientific research takes one side or the other: either it is a promising plant for world food security and an excellent way to clean up toxically contaminated sites, or it’s a weed for which people develop new herbicides to eradicate.
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), also called white goosefoot and fat hen, is an introduced Eurasian species found in most of North America, and is related to the Andean quinoa grain (C. quinoa). Its upper diamond-shaped leaves look as though they’ve been dusted with white powder, and the stem of the more mature plant is vertically striped yellow, green and fuchsia. This annual prefers sunny, moist, cultivated soils; however, it can also grow through gravel, demonstrating its tolerance for difficult, abusive situations.
Being a culinary vegetable staple in Old World cuisine, lamb’s quarters was introduced early in the colonization of North America. It spread throughout the continent and was quickly adopted into the diets of many Indian Nations, including the Iroquois, Cherokee, Navajo, and Eskimo. In ethnobotanical accounts, many nations ate the young shoots of lamb’s quarters boiled, and then cooked with grease. Cherokee ate raw greens as a salad for good nutrition. Shoots and seeds were dried for winter food storage. The seeds have been ground into flour for bread and made into porridge.
Medicinally, in addition to being a nutritious vegetable, the Navajo used lamb’s quarters as a topical poultice dressing for burns, and more unusually would make snake figurines out of the young shoots to use as antidotes for snakebites. Recently, lamb’s quarters has been found to prevent the proliferation of two strains of breast cancer cells.
Researchers in South Africa have looked at the nutritive quality of lamb’s quarters and its potential for providing food security. They found lamb’s quarters to be as high in minerals as spinach, lettuce and cabbage, and a good source of micronutrients, such as cancer-protecting flavonoids and polyphenols. As a vegetable cooked like spinach with butter or olive oil, lamb’s quarters has a pleasant taste which pairs well with many types of meats or beans. When cooked with beans, lamb’s quarters shows its hidden carminative benefit, neutralizing the undesirable, gaseous effects of bean dishes.
Ecologically, lamb’s quarters provides an economically and environmentally beneficial answer to wastewater contamination from agricultural fields. Studies show that lamb’s quarters growing in agricultural ditches absorbs organophosphates and pyrethroid (permethrin) pesticide runoff, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), all very toxic compounds capable of disrupting human hormones. Lamb’s quarters also holds promise in the re-vegetation of mining sites.
Which perspective of lamb’s quarters will you have when you see it growing into your life?
If you need more persuasion, you can sample it from Athens locals who are choosing its benefits by selling it at the farmers markets. Athenians can also find lamb’s quarters growing along roadsides and the North Oconee River Greenway.
If you find and harvest lamb’s quarters, keep in mind that it’s an annual. If you don’t leave some to go to seed, it will cut down on the chances of having lamb’s quarters around the following year.
Cut the stem above the last “good leaf”, above any yellowed leaves. If you don’t use lamb’s quarters right away, you can wrap them loosely in newspaper and place in a plastic bag. That will keep the lamb’s quarters fresh in the fridge for a week or even two. Lamb’s quarters can be dried or frozen for future use, as well.
When you’re ready to cook lamb’s quarters, you’ve got as many options as you do with other greens. Strip the leaves from the tougher, lower, stems. The tops are tender enough that you can cook and eat the stems if you like. You can chop the leaves further, or leave them whole. I add a cup of water to a stock pot, and place on low-medium. Add the lamb’s quarters, some green onion, and a splash of vinegar. Put a lid on the pot, and stir occasionally. Cook for about 8 minutes. The greens get slightly steamed and boiled. If you choose, you can sautee garlic and onions in butter on the side and combine it with the cooked greens before serving.
Lamb’s quarters can be cooked into soups and casseroles, quiche, or a greens pie.
This article was published in the Athens Banner-Herald, July 11, 2010.