What is lambs quarter?

Clean.

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

Yesterday (or “wild food Wednesday” as we were calling it) was rich with foraged foods. Nettle and raspberry leaf tea, a batch of garlic mustard and chickweed pesto, some tangy, crispy dock chips, and finally chickweed and lambsquarter spring rolls.

I was in my bliss.

Because honestly. What’s not to love about free, nutrient-rich food?

After all that deliciousness, I thought it was time to bring you another post in the Wonderfully Wild series.

The goal of Wonderfully Wild is to share with you some thoughts on using wild, foraged plants in your family’s meals and medicines. Plants that offer us so much more than their cultivated counterparts!

This series is written in real-time as the season unfolds. Nothing overwhelming or too technical, but just some simple herbs and roots and fruits you can enjoy to get your feet wet (sometimes literally!) with wild edibles and medicinals.

Today I’ll be talking about a plant that is not a wild medicine, but a delicious and nourishing wild food: lambsquarters.

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)

Lambsquarters are a common (often annoying) weed in garden and field.

Gardeners will recognize it as a quick plant taking root almost overnight in tilled soil, forming a smothering carpet of dusty green leaves in a short time. Left to grow, lambsquarters will quickly grow to knee-high then waist high and beyond.

So what’s so great about this pesky plant?

It’s a nutrient-powerhouse.

Seriously. If only tame plants contained nutrition like this!

Think spinach, but better. Super-spinach if you will. Spinach in tights and a cape.

And cooked up with a lot of butter and a little salt? You can’t beat this delicious, free, nutritious green.

Uses

Lambsquarters’ nutritional benefits are many. If you’re pulling lambsquarters in your spinach field, you might consider letting a patch go wild and harvest it instead!

Lambsquarters is significantly higher than spinach in many nutrients.

Including:

  • calcium
  • phosphorus
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin A
  • minerals
  • protein

It is also high in iron, though not so high as spinach.

Field ID

To identify lambsquarters in the field we’ll look for it’s key distinguishing characteristics. Use the photographs above as a guide.

Leaves: Because of the shape of the leaves, lambsquarters is nicknamed “goose foot”. The goose foot (or pyramid to diamond-shaped) leaves are irregularly toothed and emerge alternately on the stem. (This means rather than each leaf presenting with another leaf growing directly across from it on the stem, these leaves appear to take turns marching up the stem. A leaf on side, then a bit further up the plant a leaf on the other).

Leaf texture: The leaf texture is a key characteristic for proper id. The leaves are covered in a white or pinkish-purple bloom that gives them a soft, slightly velvety appearance.

This bloom is most pronounced at the terminal (top) end of the plant and on the young emerging leaves. As the leaf grows the bloom diminishes.

Looking at the underside of the leaf you will find the bloom is thicker than on the top, giving it an ashy or pale appearance.

Stem: Stem is ridged and pinkish-purple at the base.

Growth: Lambsquarter seeds are spread by wind. While each seed grows into a single stem, It is not uncommon to see large swaths of lambsquarters completely covering the ground (as in the lighter green photo above).

Look-alikes: When leaves are wet, jewelweed and lambsquarters both repel water in a similar gem-like fashion. But their leaf texture and shape is quite distinct.

Cook it up! Lambsquarters is the perfect green for most any cooked recipe. Because it contains a fair amount of oxalic acid, lambsquarters should be cooked before eating.

Harvest by pulling the whole plant or simply breaking off the tops. (The younger leaves are more tender and tasty, but you can harvest older leaves throughout the year. I tend to avoid the more tattered, aged leaves at the bottom of the plant.) If pulling I like to break off the soil-covered taproot and bottom portion of stem and leave behind to keep my leaves clean.

Back home, pick leaves off of stem and rinse well in cold water to remove any soil. (I leave the smallest leaves behind to save time.) Saute in butter or coconut oil with a bit of salt and garlic and a few tablespoons of water and eat.

So. Darn. Good.

Bear in mind that many wild plants do have a different texture or mouth-feel than tame ones. If you are unsure at first, give it time. Your palate will soon adjust. And you’ll be so glad.

What other wild plant friends are you eager to learn about?

How I Finally Identified Lambsquarters

Having never seen lambsquarters before in my life and with nobody else knowing where to even start, it was a little tricky. Then I ran across this book, Southwest Foraging by John Slattery.

What a lucky find! Not only was I able to identify lambsquarters, but many other plants in my yard…like Sow’s Thistle, which I thought was really scraggly Dandelion. Amazing. I love being able to eat right from my yard, even though I have a fine garden this year (except the tomatoes…they did very little for us this summer).

NOTE: I am not a botanist or a scientist. Be sure that you know what you are eating when trying to identify wild plants to forage and use. I checked several sources besides the above book before giving our lambsquarters a try…just to be sure.

Final Thoughts on Foraging for Lambsquarters

If you see this plant around, take a look and consider using some for your next meal. At the very least, you will have experienced eating lambs quarters and therefore be a little more prepared in case of a disaster where there is little food to be had.

I’m glad I have this new knowledge to share with you. You know what? Every little bit of preparedness will help if ever SHTF.

You may also be interested in these articles:

  • Tips for Wildharvesting Medicinal & Edible Herbs

  • Foraging and Using Chaparral

  • 140+ Emergency Supplies Every Home Should Have—Just in Case

  • Survival Skill: What About Female Hygiene Preparedness? What Did Ladies Do for That Time in the Olden Days?

There’s lots more over on the blog, too! 🙂

Do you forage any of your own food? I’d love to know what you’ve found in your backyard or if you know of other ways to use Lambsquarters!

Oh! And by the way—if you are interested in learning more about using herbs for health in your own daily life and want to take a class or two or three, I love The Herbal Academy of New England. They seriously have something for everyone over there.

Another option, which is a less expensive yet will give you the confidence to be your own home family herbalist (safely and effectively) is my own course: The Confident Herbalist: A Guide to Home Herbalism. This course will actually get you ready for more intermediate herbal courses, and you own it forever. It’s perfect for beginners!

Hugs, Health, & Self-Reliance!

Heidi

P.S. Don’t forget to sign up for the Newsletter and never miss a thing! Plus, you’ll receive my eBook on How to Use Herbs to Relax as well as many more eBooks and guides for your self-reliant journey in the FREE Resource Library!

Identifying Lamb’s Quarters

Lamb’s quarters is part of the goosefoot family, which has been reclassified as a subfamily of the amaranth family. Some plants in this family look very similar, but most of them are edible. Edible look-alikes include certain amaranth species (Amaranthus spp.) and orache species (Atriplex spp.). Also edible, but not in the goosefoot family, is black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). (Black nightshade is often miscategorized as poisonous. It is edible, but does require more caution than lamb’s quarters. I would recommend staying clear of the greens unless you’re an experienced forager.) The only poisonous look-alike I can think of is belladona (Atropa belladonna), but in my opinion it doesn’t look much like lamb’s quarters at all; even a basic understanding of lamb’s quarters’ characteristics will prevent confusion between the two.

Amaranth is distinguished by it’s smooth leaf margins, leaves that are diamond- to oval-shaped, and spiky flowers at the top of the plant. Here are some photos of various amaranth species.

Orache can look very similar to lamb’s quarters. Since lamb’s quarters and orache both are variable plants, the best way to distinguish them is by the flowers and seeds. Lamb’s quarter’s flowers are rounded or oval, while the female flowers of orache have two triangular- or diamond-shaped bracteoles. These bracteoles eventually enclose the seeds. For pictures of the common orache and links to other species in the Atriplex genus, see NatureGate.

Black nightshade bears only a faint resemblance to lamb’s quarters. The leaves are generally egg-shaped, with smooth or wavy margins. Some leaves may be sparsely toothed, but they are not as consistently toothed as lamb’s quarters’ leaves. Furthermore, the petioles (leaf stems) of black nightshade are “winged,” meaning that a narrow bit of leaf runs all the way down the stem. The flowers differ vastly from those of lamb’s quarters, being 5-petaled, white or violet, much larger at 1/4″ to 1/3″ across, and growing in small clusters along the stem. Finally, black nightshade produces small berry clusters that start green and become black when fully ripe. Here are more pictures and identification marks.

Belladonna (also called deadly nightshade) is a European native with limited range in the US. I’ve never personally seen it, but as a potentially deadly plant, it’s good practice to familiarize yourself. It bears much closer resemblance to black nightshade than lamb’s quarters. The leaves are oval and untoothed. The flowers grow singly from the axils of upper leaves (where the petiole meets the stalk.) They are brownish purple in color, with five fused petals. The berries are also single, initially green and black when fully ripe, and surrounded by a star-shaped calyx (modified leaves) that extends far beyond the fruit itself. Pictures can be found on Nature Spot.

Garden News Blog

Weed of the Month: Lambsquarters

By Saara Nafici | May 4, 2018

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), a common roadside and field plant, is easy on the eyes and useful to boot. A member of the expansive amaranth family, which also includes beets, chard, quinoa, and spinach, lambsquarters can be identified by the telltale dusty white coating on new growth and the undersides of leaves. It’s a favorite among foragers, who mostly gather it for the leaves, which taste like a mild version of spinach.

Once you have this wild green in your garden, you may be blessed—or cursed—with it forever. At the Red Hook Community Farm, we have both common lambsquarters and an unusual cousin, Chenopodium ficifolium. They both emerge in one epic cohort, covering huge swaths of the field. Each plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds, the secret to its success as a weed. If we don’t pull or plow under the seedlings before they’ve flowered, we’re left to battle with multiple generations in one season. This isn’t the worst thing, as it’s much easier to grow than spinach! We’ve offered bunches of lambsquarters at our farm stand and even include it sometimes in our weekly CSA shares.

In many regions of the world, particularly in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, people intentionally grow lambsquarters as an agricultural crop. The leaves are exceptionally high in vitamins A and C, as well as in calcium, iron, and protein. It ticks all the boxes! You can readily find lambsquarters recipes in foraging cookbooks, from Billy Joe Tatum’s down-home Wild Food Field Guide and Cookbook to Leda Meredith’s posh Forager’s Feast.

It’s easy to prepare—no need to parboil or cook for hours—and can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, or blanched. Unlike other weedy edibles, the leaves retain their mild spinachy flavor and don’t get bitter with age. The seeds similarly serve as a powerful flour additive, porridge ingredient, or bread enhancer. Of course, lambsquarters should only be consumed if collected from uncontaminated soil suitable for growing food plants.

The plant also provides a number of ecological services. Its long taproot extends deep into the soil, drawing water and nutrients closer to the surface and allowing more shallow-rooted plants access as well. No wonder you see perfectly healthy lambsquarters growing in the most poor and denuded of soils. Its plentiful seeds provide a nutrient-packed meal for birds, especially in the food-scarce late fall. On the Red Hook farm, our lambquarters patch serves as a “trap crop” by diverting leaf miners, a common pest for beets and chard.

Lambsquarters is also said to have medicinal properties—a poultice from the simmered leaves is used to alleviate achy or swollen joints, and the water left from simmering the leaves may be swished around in the mouth to relieve toothaches!

Lambsquarters also teaches us about protogyny, wherein the female parts of the flower mature before the male parts of the flower. This helps the plant receive pollen from another plant (cross-pollination) rather than from itself (self-pollination). This strategy encourages genetic diversity and thus produces stronger, more adaptable plants with each successive generation. Thank you, lambsquarters, for providing a botany lesson and also pleasing our palates!

Lamb’s-quarters, Chenopodium album

Life Cycle

Annual

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Propagation

Reproducing only by seed.

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Stems

Stems are 20-200cm high, branched or unbranched, smooth, green or with reddish or purplish lengthwise stripes and ridges.

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Leaves

First 2 or 4 true leaves apparently opposite (2 per node), but all later leaves and branches distinctly alternate (1 per node); leaves stalked, the blades 3-10cm long, lance-shaped or more often broadly triangular with irregular, usually shallow teeth; leaves green or grayish due to a covering of a white mealiness or powderiness, sometimes with reddish undersurface on young plants.

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Flowers and Fruit

Flowers very small, greenish, densely grouped together into small, thick, granular clusters along the main stem and upper branches, having 5 green sepals but no petals; seeds small, rounded in outline, somewhat flattened, 1-1.5mm in diameter, enclosed in a very thin, membranous, smooth, whitish covering (pericarp) which is readily fractured and lost when dry. Flowers from June to August.

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Roots and Underground Structures

Fibrous root system.

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Habitat

Lamb’s-quarters is very widespread throughout Canada, occurring in cultivated fields, pastures, wasteland, roadsides, gardens and almost anywhere the soil is disturbed.

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Competitiveness

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Distinguishing Features

It is distinguished from the Atriplexes by having only the first 2 or 4 leaves arranged in opposite pairs, and from most other weeds by its broadly triangular leaves with irregular, shallow teeth, its smooth, occasionally mealy or scurfy leaves and stem, and its inflorescence of small, greenish flowers in granular clusters.

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Toxicity

Lamb’s-quarters is not known to be toxic. The leaves are edible.

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Human Health Issues

Lamb’s-quarters is not a known allergen.

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Forage Quality

No information exists at this time.

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Species Benefits

“The tender leaves and tips are excellent steamed or boiled. The highly nutritious seeds can be boiled to make a breakfast gruel, or ground into flour.” From: Peterson, LA, 1977, A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l021TdYC7iQ to view a recipe for “Lamb’s Quarter Quiche”

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Often Mistaken For

Spreading atriplex (ATXPA), Oak-leaved goosefoot (CHEGL)

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Power Ranking Corn

Power Ranking

2

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Power Ranking Soybeans

Power Ranking

2

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Biological Control

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Biopesticide Control

Currently none available for this weed in corn and soybean.

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Herbicide Resistance

Sulphonylurea and imidazolinone resistant (WSSA group 2) populations exist in Elgin , Kent, Middlesex and Simcoe counties (ON). Triazine resistant (WSSA group 5) populations exist throughout Ontario. For more information on weed resistance: http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/resistant-weeds/

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Figure #1.
Figure #2.

Lamb’s-quarters at the 2-leaf stage.


Figure #3.

Lamb’s-quarters at the 8-leaf stage.


Figure #4.

Lamb’s-quarter leaf.


Figure #5.

Flower head of lamb’s-quarters.


Figure #6.

A mature lamb’s-quarter plant.

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