How sweet it isn't
Deva Luna shows how to make weeds into a tasty meal
Many people see dandelions, miner's lettuce, mallow and peppercress as garden nuisances deserving a liberal squirt of herbicide. Master gardener Deva Luna sees them as lunch.
To her, these common household weeds are the perfect components to a tasty salad: She values dandelion for its bitterness, peppercress for its spicy watercress-like bite, and miner's lettuce for its delicate flavor and texture.
She will teach a class on identifying, harvesting, cooking and eating common garden weeds at Common Ground Education Center on Feb. 18. The class will include which plants to eat or reject, tasty recipes and harvesting tips.
"I think people love the idea of getting back to nature and eating locally," she said. "And you can't eat more locally than right out of your back yard."
Luna tasted her first weed when she was 4 years old at her grandparents' dairy farm in Fond Du Lac, Wisc. — the place where she said she first grew close to nature.
The Great Depression had instilled in her grandparents an importance in autonomy, and they ate just about everything they grew, including weeds. In some ways, Luna follows in her grandparents' footsteps. But Silicon Valley is not Fond Du Lac.
"I'm not trying to live off the land," said Luna, who has 38 chickens, 90 fruit and nut trees, and a huge garden at her property outside San Jose. "I mean, realistically, I live in Silicon Valley. I do go to the supermarket but I also like to live more naturally and healthfully."
Luna has worked with gardens and plants for most of her life. She earned a self-made Bachelor of Science degree in plants and art from the University of Davis in 1975 and earned the title of master gardener in 1997 from the University of California Cooperative Extension. She is now a sustainable landscape designer at EarthCare Landscaping, which operates in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Eating weeds isn't as strange as it sounds. She once went to an up-scale restaurant and ordered an expensive salad, which turned out to be mostly miner's lettuce.
"It just shows you can pay a lot for a really good salad you can just find growing in the shade under an oak tree," she said.
"Weed," she said, is a somewhat ambiguous name and can most simply be defined as a plant that grows where you don't want it to grow.
"If you don't like roses and they're in your garden, they're weeds," she said.
Not all plants that are commonly considered weeds are fit to eat. Oxalis, a common garden weed, is edible but must be consumed sparingly because it contains high levels of oxalic acid, which can damage the kidneys. On the other hand, some research suggests that the spiky milk thistle can help reverse some toxin-induced liver damage.
Luna said it's best to start out slowly, eating weeds in small portions, because even the edible ones can take more work to digest at first.
Some people might be turned off by the spiciness of peppercress or the bitter flavors of weeds such as dandelions, she said.
"Americans don't tend to like bitter flavors," she said. "They like sweet and salty."
But eating plants isn't dangerous for the informed grazer. Although, Luna said that it's best to stay away from plants with milky sap (except dandelions) because it usually indicates some kind of toxin. She also doesn't pick plants to eat from areas treated with herbicides or places that are near major roadways, because particulate matter from exhaust settles there.
The United States used 43 million pounds of herbicides and growth regulators for homes and gardens in 2007, according to a 2011 report by the Environmental Protection Agency. Luna prefers more natural approaches to weed control.
"I think they're going to regret the path they've taken with chemicals in the long term," Luna said. "I'd rather eat weeds than chemically treated vegetables."
Gardeners concerned with the presence of heavy metals or pesticide residue can test for them, but Luna said such tests are out of most peoples' prices ranges. However, she said some universities will test soil samples for fertility and nutrition for a relatively small fee.
Many herbicides used in the home and garden market have been declared innocuous to humans, but Luna prefers to avoid them, instead setting aside the time to weed gardens by hand.
"You're relaxing, getting sun and you're stretching," she said. "It's like gardening yoga."
Best of all, unlike more complex and involved gardening techniques, Luna said anyone can be a weed gardener.
"Even if you're a rotten gardener, you can still have a weed garden and eat out of it," she said.
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15-minute Green Nest and Eggs
(from Deva Luna)
Gather 6 to 8 cups of wilds greens (mustard, mallow, young dandelion, chickweed, miner's lettuce).
Wash them and taste them raw to make sure they are not too bitter.
Place them in a frying pan with the lid on and steam them for one minute.
Using a spoon make a few 3-inch holes, or "nests," in the greens.
Break an egg into each hole and replace the cover. Within a minute or so, the whites will be cooked and the dish will be ready to eat.
Serve each green nest and egg on a slice of buttered toast.
What: Weed Appreciation Day!
When: 10:30 a.m. to noon, Feb. 18
Where: Common Ground Education Center, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto
Info: www.commongroundpaloalto.org or 650-493-6072
Editorial Assistant Eric Van Susteren can be emailed at email@example.com.