A Penny for my Thoughts. . . about Lamb’s Quarters:
Nature’s Treasury of Vital Nutrients
By Stephen Hoog
It has relatives that are more well-known, like spinach, beets and quinoa and some less known ones like epazote, strawberry blite and Jerusalem oak. It is one of the most nutritious plants available. It grows in abundance in the mid-Atlantic states; yet it is mostly unknown. Its name is lamb’s quarters and it is willing to transform into human form.
The origin of its name is unclear. One theory says that the mature leaf looks like a cut of lamb’s meat––the quarter. “Mutton tops,” one of its common names, seems to support this thought. But another theory relates it to “lammas quarter” ––an English festival––although the plant associated with that holiday is actually “orache,” another relative. The Latin name is Chenopodium album, meaning white goosefoot, referring to the shape of its leaf and to a mealy white powder appearing on both sides. In Canada it has been widely known as pigweed and bacon weed because it was often fed to pigs.
Lamb’s quarters is found over North America, Europe and Asia in waste places, edges of pathways, overgrown fields, urban parks and most gardens. Thought to be brought here from Europe, there is evidence it may be native to Canada. Lamb’s quarters apparently was not well known among American Indians before European settlers came, but it was quickly adapted into their diets, used as a potherb and as a medicinal herb–– internally for genital itch and stomachache and externally for gout, pleuritis and edema.
The plant reaches a height of 1 to 4 feet normally but in rich soil may reach 5 to 6 feet or more. Its stem is slender and grooved, and a mature plant will have red around leaf joints and axils. Young leaves are simple and alternate and are long and thin. They grow to be more oval or diamond shaped and develop edges that are wavy. The small green flowers come in dense spikes in the upper leaf axils. They later contain up to 75,000 small black seeds, which, when scattered, may lie dormant for several years before sprouting. There is no distinguishable aroma to this plant.
In temperate climates lamb’s quarters appears in mid-spring. It is one of a number of plants which help transform poor soils by putting out a deep root system to break up the soil and bring nutrients to the surface. This root system also allows it to be resistant to drought. Lamb’s quarters can be a good mother weed, if controlled, for common vegetables, encouraging and supporting their growth.
The leaves are a great source of beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Like other green plants, lamb’s quarters aids the liver in the production of bile and contains an oil which helps emulsify hardened animal fat in the heart and arteries. The plant is high in calcium––about 309 mg per 100 grams––one of the highest amounts in green leafy vegetables. The leaves do contain oxalic acid, which inhibits calcium utilization, but the calcium levels are so high it is still a good source. They have 4.2 grams of protein per 100 grams ––again, one of the highest. Lamb’s quarters is also rich in potassium, B-vitamin complex, vitamin C and fiber. It is one of the plants richest in folic acid, especially important for pregnant women. The seeds also contain calcium, protein and potassium as well as niacin and phosphorous.
The whole plant can be eaten when young. The leaves are good in spring and early summer. After that, the upper leaves are best. It’s better than spinach and never bitter (unless you are from the Midwest where everything turns bitter when hot weather comes). The leaves can be used raw in salads or cooked in soups, stews, casseroles, simply steamed or sautéed. Lamb’s quarters dries well and can be reconstituted or powdered for use in winter. It is very good in raw cheese or tofu dishes like quiche, as its wild flavor and high mineral content go well with the cool, neutral tasting high protein foods. The leaves can be chopped and mixed with pancake batter or steamed with cabbage and drizzled with ume or rice vinegar. A quick, light stew with pasta, tofu, cabbage and carrots, with soy sauce or miso as flavoring, also works.*
In summertime flower heads can be used in casseroles and breads. They are very delicious. The seeds are harvested in the fall by rubbing the flower heads, collecting them in a large bowl, then blowing out the chaff. They can then be cooked with oatmeal or kamut flakes or ground into flour for inclusion in pancakes or bread.* Napoleon used them like that for his army when supplies were short. It is not necessary to have an army to commandeer this abundant, nutritious and tasty plant. All it takes is some curiosity, some will power, a small cutting knife and a pot of water; and you will be rewarded beyond your dreams.
Stephen Hoog, a Lehigh Valley resident and bodywork therapist,
has been studying and teaching wild foods for over two decades.
He is a CAPHA Professional Network associate.
*Lamb's Quarters can also be used raw in many recipes that are similar to the cooked versions mentioned in the article. Rhio