O thou weed, who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet that the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne’er been born! (Othello 4.2.69)
On the farm, we grow weeds! Yes, those plants commonly considered “undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one growing where it is not wanted” here in the US, but in other parts of the world, three of the most common weeds found on the farm are not only staple crops, they are highly nutritious.
Inadvertently planted in 2011, a purple-leaved decorative amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) has self-seeded throughout our space and returns with abandon every Spring. Beautiful in the late Summer and early Fall, it seems to grow anywhere there is disturbed ground (read: in every field and garden on the farm!) yet whilst many gardeners around DC have sprayed and pulled and heaved these plants from cracks in the sidewalk and from their beds of prized blooms, on the Farm at Walker Jones we encourage its growth, for after all, it is an edible crop. Documented as a cultivated edible crop throughout much of Asia, it is consumed as a leaf vegetable in Indonesia and Malaysia where it is known as bayam; in Vietnam, it is called rau dền and is used to make a soup; in India, the leaves are added in the preparation of a popular dal called thotakura pappu; and in China, the leaves and stems are used as a stir-fry vegetable and called yin choi.
Purple-leaved amaranth ready for simmering in a broth seasoned with garlic and allspice, and cracked black pepper
This season we also received a donation of heirloom seeds from a farmer in Kingston, Jamaica. Not only are the okra still growing and producing, another amaranth (Amaranthus viridis) grew very successfully. The national dish of Trinidad, and of course popular throughout Jamaica, this leaf is used to make callaloo.
A callaloo loaf from Christie’s in Brooklyn – photo by Chef Paul Yee, the author of the food club Brooklyn Table
The scourge of cotton and soy fields in the southern US, resistant to Roundup, and classified by the USDA as a noxious weed toxic to livestock, redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) is another crop we encourage to self-sow on the farm (anything this defiant towards Monsanto is always welcome!) The young leaves of this plant are commonly used throughout both East Africa- in Swahili it is known as mchicha, and in the West, found as a staple ingredient in most Nigerian dishes where it is known in Yoruba as efo tete or arowo jeja (“we have money left over for fish”), called lenga lenga in the Congo, as well as added to the Cameroonian peanut soup ndole (the name taken from yet another “weedy” species, Vernonia, one of the ironweeds)
Redroot pigweed, soon to be steamed, then added to potatoes and peas in a samosa!
As one of the important aspects of our mission as a farm is to produce food, and to improve nutrition in our local community, yet another weed is allowed to grow profusely throughout the Summer here on the farm. Containing more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable we could purposely cultivate, is purslane (Portulaca oleraceae) whose leaves, buds, and flowers are eaten throughout much of Europe and the Mediterranean. In Greece, where it is called andrakla (αντράκλα) or glystrida (γλυστρίδα), they fry the leaves and the stems with feta cheese, tomato, onion, garlic, oregano, and olive oil. In Turkey, besides being used in salads and in baked pastries, it is cooked as a vegetable similar to spinach, as it is also used in Albania, where it is called burdullak when simmered and served in olive oil dressing, or mixed with other ingredients as a filling for dough layers of byrek. In the south of Portugal (Alentejo), baldroegas are used as a soup ingredient.
Another very important reason we encourage purslane to grow wantonly is in its role as an ecological facilitator, sending its roots down through harder soil that other crops cannot penetrate on their own; corn in particular will “follow” purslane roots as they penetrate the deadpan common to DC soils
Purslane salad with cucumbers and tomatoes- photo by Chef Karen Tedesco of DinnerStyle