Freegan in the City
By Joel Le Blanc
While waiting for seeds to sprout and seedlings to grow and spring to erupt in glorious arrays of petals and pollen, there is still much free food growing everywhere that you look. Throughout the winter I make good use of whatever edible weeds I can get ahold of, using them in salads, sandwiches and meat dishes. Christine Dann, in her new book “Food@Home” describes this practice of urban foraging as “freeganism” — the eating of free, wild food for environmental, economical and health benefits.
While stinging nettles, deadnettles, clover, chickweed and dandelion have been available in my garden and front lawn for much of the past few months, I am excited to see another free food emerging on my lawn in time for the new season: Puha.
Puha (Sonchus oleraceus) is a native New Zealand plant that was widely consumed as part of the traditional Maori diet. They look like thistles, but the leaves are glabrous and smooth, and there are no stingers or needles. Throughout the spring and summer they are easily recognized by their bright yellow flowers that resemble dandelions.
Related species, known in Europe as Sow Thistles, were consumed widely by Romans and used in similar ways to Spinach. Alys Fowler, British gardener and author, describes the taste of Sow Thistle as a “slightly nutty, bitter flavour” — and Puha is no different.
I love them. The taste is delicate, the leaves are crunchy, and they wilt easily when mixed into hot food. Cooking reduces the bitterness, but I’ve never avoided bitter flavours. Bitterness is necessary in the diet, as it helps promote digestion and detoxification.
Puha is not a “lesser” vegetable just because it grows in my lawn. On the contrary. Puha is a nutritious source of iron, folic acid, vitamin C, and A, as well as medicinal phytochemicals. Herbalists have used Puha and Sow Thistle as traditional remedies for anxiety, skin disorders, anaemia and digestion. Recent studies suggest that Puha might also play a part in preventing chronic and degenerative diseases.
The University of Otago published a study in “Phytherapy Research” in 2011 investigating the antioxidant properties of Puha extract. Through their research, Arlene McDowell and colleagues discovered that Puha was not only antioxidant, but comparable in its antioxidant activity to blueberries.
When you compare the price of blueberries to Puha (which is free) I really it hope it makes people stop and think twice before throwing out young Puha plants as invasive or unwanted weeds. As for me, I’ll be having Puha and red onions for my lunch today, in the hopes that I become the same as the food I eat each day — wild, free and healthy.
Joel Le Blanc is a freelance writer, poet and medical herbalist. He has published articles on health and lifestyle in a range of publications, and is currently studying a BA in English. Joel runs a blog for on self-sustainability at Getting Earthed.
Tags: wild food