We may not be deer or giraffes, but there are plenty of leaves out there that are edible but slip our notice. If you are trying to be an eco-conscious grower, a forager with a healthy larder, here’s some knowhow.
Let’s talk about the leaves you cannot eat first. These are the ones which don’t look right or smell right. Some of these may put you off because of oozing sap, while others may exude a non-appetizing scent. Still others may have thorns and look too tough and chewy to eat. Basically, most toxic and unpalatable plants will have one or more of the following characteristics…
- Exudes a milky, sticky, or otherwise unpleasant sap
- Thorns, needles, prickly hair and such
- Bitter or even a soapy taste
- Gathered foliage like dill, parsley, or even carrots
- Bitter-almond scent (think of cyanide and run!)
- Spurs and grainy texture to the leaves
- Pods that may look attractive—any seeds, bulbs, or beans inside usually signify toxicity
- Odd-leaved growth pattern (3, 5, 7 or more!)
Remember to eat only plants you can positively identify with 100% accuracy—there are plenty plants that may be safe for herbivores to eat, but end up giving us a nasty case of poisoning, toxicity, or stomach ailments. Or worse!
That said, nature offers you a whole bouquet of greens to eat, aside from the usual bunches of spinach, kale, chard, lettuce, mustard greens, etc. So here are some greens to look out for to add to your nutritional larder, as well as be an eco-conscious farmer-forager who wants to reduce their carbon footprint.
If you have even inadvertently walked into stinging nettles, eating it is the last thing you want to do. But they are an amazing source of iron as well as plenty other phytonutrients. You need to use thick gloves for protection and snap off the tender leaves at the stem. You can even use long shears to do the trick. The trick is to blanch this painful bunch in hot water—this step dissolves the fine hair and the chemicals that sting. Now rinse the leaves in cold water and cook them as you like—pureeing into a curry or soup, or even making an iron-rich nettle tea from it.
We usually use only the florets of the cauliflower, discarding the leaves in the compost heap or worse, the trash pile. But the leaves are just about as tasty and nutritious as are the florets, and not only can they be eaten raw in salads but also sautéed with garlic and herbs as a vegetable side dish. The same goes for turnip and beet greens as well. Nutritionally, they are all as dense as any other commonly eaten greens.
Most squash and pumpkin leaves are not only edible, they also have an amazing taste that’s reminiscent of green beans, asparagus, broccoli, and spinach—so they are pretty flavorful. Nutritionally speaking they are high in calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and manganese. They are also a good source of vitamins A, B6, and C, as well as riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, folate, and protein. While some do eat the tender shoots raw in salads, cooking brings out their unique flavor. They can be steamed and creamed like spinach or sautéed with olive oil and garlic, or even added to a stir-fry. Sweet potato leaves are another powerhouse, and they taste pretty close to spinach and can be cooked the same way you cook your favorite spinach dish.
If you have ever relished dolmas, you have just enjoyed a stuffed grape leaf! With just 3 calories per leaf, they are free of cholesterol, fat, and sodium, and also contain vitamins A, B, C, E, and K. They are also rich in calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium, plus enough fiber to keep your digestive system working at optimum. Grape leaves can be eaten raw in salads and they add a citrus tang to it. Traditionally though, brined grape leaves are stuffed with rice and meat and called dolmas or dolmades.
For those who relish taro, the leaves are edible too—but only in a cooked form. Raw taro leaves can actually cause your throat to itch and swell up, and not be a very friendly ingredient at all. Collect young and fresh leaves with no discolorations—the greens are a wonderful source of fiber, protein, vitamins A, C and B6, thiamin, copper, calcium, and folate. Cooking them is key to eating them as they have to be fully cooked to ensure no itchy throats. A rather Polynesian way of making them is to first heat a cup of water in a deep-bottomed pan, to which you can add 1 teaspoon baking soda. Chopped up leaves are then added slowly and stirred continuously to form a creamed spinach type paste. Once the leaves are cooked and soft, you can add chopped onion and garlic, plus salt to taste. After the onions and garlic are cooked through, add half a cup of coconut cream and then stir it all briskly.
Another way to cook taro leaves is to make a very Indian dish called pattor—taro leaves are kept whole and layered on top of each other, which each layer being covered with a paste of gram flour mixed with spices. Once a 4-5 leaf layer is done, it is rolled up and tied up with a string, and resembles a spring roll. This is then steamed for 20-30 minutes till the leaves turn mossy in color. The same is then sliced into thin rounds and further pan-fried in a little oil—almost like fritters. You can eat these with dips or chutneys of your choice.
While you may not like this lawn invader all that much, the leaves are a great harvest since they are brimming with vitamins A & K. They are also rich in flavonoids: zeaxanthin protects the retina from UV rays, while carotene, lutein, and cryptoxanthin protect the body from lung and mouth cancers. They are high in fiber and contain plenty other vitamins and minerals like vitamins C and B6, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper. Baby leaves have a mild flavor but larger leaves can taste a tad bitter, and they go perfectly well in a salad.
We know that nasturtiums are edible flowers and can add quite the twist in salads, desserts and pretty plates. Not many know that the leaves are equally edible, though a tad chewier than the blossoms. The best time to pluck the leaves is just before the plant flowers because the leaves are at their most nutritious then. Other than containing vitamin C and iron, the leaves also have antibiotic properties that can help you fight off any lingering winter colds and coughs. Pluck fresh leaves, wash them well, and chop them into your salads and stir-frys.
Yes, we do mean the tree. And the best tasting leaves are the young ones that are literally translucent—you’ll find that they have an addictive taste that’s like a cross between a lemon and a mushroom so they do make an excellent salad addition. They are pretty high in fiber and vitamin C, as well as many other antioxidants so they do add nutritional value to your table as well!
Just before a hawthorn bush blooms into flowers or berries, the fresh leaves have a wonderfully nutty flavor. You can eat them in salads, or chew them fresh off the tree, or even chop and sprinkle them over various dishes as a flavorful garnish. While the nutritional benefits are not very well known, the leaves are said to be able to nurse a broken heart into health. So the next time you feel sad, try popping hawthorn leaves.
If you are doubtful about why you should eat the tender leaves of the moringa or the drumstick tree, try this for size. They are chockablock with protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C, along with plenty beta-carotene. While you can eat the really tender leaves raw in salads or smoothies, the not-so-tender leaves can be cooked into soups, stews, curries, and even pasta.
Bonus: Corn Silk
While these are not leaves, they are perfectly edible. These silky blonde hairs left when a corn kernel is pulled away from the husk are great for anyone having any bladder issues. And they are not edible per se, but steeping them in hot water makes a great tea for the bladder that helps in many a health issue. One tablespoon of chopped corn silk per cup of hot water should do the trick, and you can add honey to it for taste.
We hope you give these rather unusual edible leaves a go, and share with us your experience and recipes in the feedback section below...