Lamb's Quarters: How to Cultivate, Harvest & Prepare this Nutritious & Delicious Wild Plant
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
Lamb’s quarters is one of the most common weeds in gardens, backyards, and fallow fields, following human habitation closely. Like other opportunistic plants, it thrives on the disturbed ground humans inevitably create, but it has also been spread deliberately for millennia around the globe. With tender edible greens, packed with vital nutrients, AND edible seeds, it’s no wonder humans have both foraged and cultivated this free-ranging food for hundreds of generations.
The nutritious seeds have been eaten for thousands of years in Eurasia, as evidenced by archaeological digs.1 A native species of lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri) was one of the earliest agricultural crops grown in North America—archaeologists have discovered seeds dating back 3,500 years. This cultivated strain of lamb’s quarters predated the cultivation of corn (Zea mays) by 1,500 years in eastern North America!
Currently, this cosmopolitan weed is eaten in Japan, South Africa, Europe, India, and the Americas. Lamb’s quarters also has a famous cousin: quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), a cultivated grain from South America that is closely related (same genus).
Lamb’s quarters—also called wild spinach—is one of the most nutritious greens ever analyzed, outcompeting many common vegetables (including domestic spinach) in vitamin and mineral content.2 However, it is also high in oxalates*, for which there are some precautions—these are outlined in detail at the end of this article.
Identifying Lamb’s Quarters
Lamb’s quarters has some distinctive traits that help with identification. It has alternate, triangle- to diamond-shaped leaves that are coarsely toothed or shallowly lobed. Many people liken the shape to the webbed foot of a goose. The leaves bear a whitish-gray powdery coating, which is especially evident on the emerging young leaves.
The coating is a natural part of the leaf, made of fine crystal-like concentrations of wax, which the plant presumably produces as a waterproof coating. This is fine to eat—there’s no need to attempt removal. Hold a leaf under water and the waxy coating causes the water to bead up in a beautiful iridescent fashion. This coating may sometimes possess a coppery-fuchsia sheen and is sold as a cultivar called “magenta spreen” in some garden catalogues.
Lamb’s quarters grows to 3-5 feet (1–1.5 m) and is a branching annual with a grooved stem which is often tinged with red, especially at the node, or leaf joint. The seeds are shiny and black and about a third the size of a lone quinoa seed.
The various species of Chenopodium can be hard to differentiate—use a local field guide to identify your local species. Several species of hairy or black nightshade (Solanum nigrum, S. villosum, S. physalifolium, and S. sarrachoides)—common garden weeds—could ultimately be confused with wild spinach. These species of nightshade can be toxic in larger doses, so it’s important to be able to differentiate them from wild spinach.
If you don’t already have wild spinach in your garden, you can harvest the ripe seeds from nearby plants in the fall, save them over the winter, and broadcast them in the spring. If you add horse or cow manure to your garden you will have a steady supply of these tasty wild greens for most of the spring and summer. Or you can buy the seeds of “magenta spreen” lamb’s quarters, which are sold by seed companies as a specialty green.
The seeds can be directly sown in dense rows in spring, and the greens harvested repeatedly in a cut-and-come again fashion. Wild spinach transplants well, so you can always dig up neighboring plants to bring them into your garden. Let them go to seed and they’ll rapidly spread themselves about. If you don’t like that idea, consider giving the plants an area to grow that’s out of the way but close enough to easily harvest.
Gathering the Greens
The tender tips—the top few nodes—can easily be pinched by hand for a tasty harvest. When working with two hands, one person can rapidly gather a nice bundle of greens from a dense patch of lamb’s quarters. The tips are mostly leaves with a little stem; later in the season they might contain flower buds.
The beauty of picking just the tips is that your harvest will need little processing in the kitchen other than a good rinse—there’s no need to separate the stem from the leaves, as the immature stem is tender enough to eat.
The lower, older stem is another story: it’s quite fibrous and inedible. You can, however, eat leaves lower down on the stem; they simply need to be stripped away from the woody stem. As you travel down the stem, the older leaves are chewier, so favor the uppermost leaves.
If you own the lamb’s quarters mother lode, pick only the succulent tips. When you harvest in this fashion, the plant responds by branching out—and ultimately produces more tender growth.
The greens can be eaten raw, steamed, or sautéed or added to soups and stews. If you dislike the texture of raw spinach, or it gives you a funny feeling in your mouth, you probably won’t enjoy raw lamb’s quarters.
I enjoy the steamed greens in lasagna, omelets, quiche, and cold pasta salads. The sky’s the limit with this pleasant green—you can substitute it in most any dish that calls for spinach or Swiss chard. To preserve any surplus bounty, you can blanch and freeze the greens, or freeze a batch of pesto or pâté.
Some years ago I thought to bring some of my favorite wild edibles to the farmers market where we were selling organically grown vegetables. I set out pretty baskets filled with tidy bundles of pigweed (Amaranthus sp.), purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and lamb’s quarters accompanied by little signs explaining the preparation and nutritional value of these tasty greens.
I also thought a yummy sample of the greens would inspire people to move beyond any fears of eating an unknown vegetable, especially a “weed”.
As it turns out we did not develop a wild following or even a tiny demand for our weeds, but people went crazy for the sample – wild greens pâté. We ended up selling just as much pâté as fresh salsa and pesto.
Wild greens pâté freezes well and works well wherever you would use pesto – tossed over veggies and pasta, as a base to a green or white pizza (no marinara) or as a dip for crackers, raw carrots and celery. Last week I made delicious green lasagna with wild greens pâté and added more steamed lambs quarters instead of the traditional spinach.
Wild Greens Pate
- Sautée 3 chopped cloves of garlic in extra virgin olive oil for a few minutes in a deep pot
- Add the washed tender tops of purslane, lambs quarters and pigweed (about 7 big handfuls)
- Sautee until tender and add tamari or soy sauce to taste
- Blend in a blender or food processor with more olive oil, nutritional yeast and your choice of raw nuts
- Be creative with your ingredients – miso, freshly grated parmesan cheese and raw garlic are just some of the many ways you can put a little twist on this recipe.Note: This recipe is still delicious even if you only have one of these wild greens. Nettles and lady’s thumbs are other wild greens which blend well with lambs quarters.
*Dietary oxalates are found in a wide range of cultivated and wild foods, including spinach (Spinacia oleracea), Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris), beet leaves (Beta vulgaris), black tea (Camellia sinensis), rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum), garden sorrel (Rumex acestosa), sheep sorrel (Rumex acestosella), purslane (Portulaca oleracea), chickweed (Stellaria media), yellow dock (Rumex crispus, R. obtusifolius), and lamb’s quarters.
You’ll often see precautions in wild foods literature against ingesting high quantities of plants that are rich in oxalates or oxalic acid (the same molecules). There are two primary concerns: reduced mineral uptake and increased kidney stone formation.
Oxalates (which are acidic) bind to minerals (including calcium, magnesium, and iron) in the digestive tract, thereby rendering the minerals unavailable for assimilation.3 However, many leafy greens containing oxalates also contain considerable levels of minerals. When we eat a variety of greens and other mineral-rich foods in our diet, this doesn’t appear to be much of an issue.
An additional factor is a plant’s calcium levels. Calcium binds to oxalic acid, rendering it nonabsorbable (it isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream and, instead, passes through the feces). Therefore, it’s important to consider the relative proportion of oxalates to calcium. If a plant has high levels of both oxalic acid and calcium, it poses less of a problem than a plant that has only high levels of oxalic acid. Lamb’s quarters and chickweed are examples of the former, and yellow dock is an example of the latter.
There is a concern that eating a diet rich in oxalates will increase the formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones (the most common kind of kidney stone, making up 75–80% of all stones). Newer evidence points to multiple factors that affect kidney stone formation, which may be more important than dietary oxalate ingestion.
Increasing fluid intake, ensuring adequate dietary calcium levels, eating probiotic foods, and cooking oxalate-rich foods are all helpful measures to reduce the chances of kidney stone formation. If you are prone to calcium oxalate kidney stones, you may want to monitor oxalates in your diet or check with your physician.
- Behre, K.-E. “Collected seeds and fruits from herbs as prehistoric food.” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 2007;17(1):65–73.
- Kallas, J. Edible Wild Plants (Gibbs Smith, 2010).
- Ganora, L. Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry: A Holistic Approach for Students and Practitioners of Botanical Medicine (Herbalchem Press, 2009).
Meet Our Contributors:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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