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Friday, August 6, 2021

Kickstart the Foraging Colonist Inside You with Lambs Quarter

by Naomi Musch

As is often the case with my novelist brain, I get ideas for my stories while I’m tending my garden or picking fruit. My head clears of other to-do clutter, and at times the produce itself inspires me. Today was no exception. As I burrowed into a thick bean patch, plucking beans and pulling weeds, I got to thinking about wild edible foods my characters might have harvested.
It could be that as novelists, most of us find it difficult not to think about the foods our characters would have been eating as they embarked upon their daily tasks or set off on some adventure. In my upcoming novel Song for the Hunter, my characters forage for blackberries, dandelion greens, wild lettuce, and wild rice. In Elinor, Shannon McNear’s excellent upcoming release about a woman among those of the lost colony of Roanoke, her characters not only do quite a bit of foraging, but their foraging leads them to danger on more than one occasion.

Have you ever foraged for wild foods, be they something common like blackberries, or something less frequently sought after like wild nettles?

One place to begin is the very common but overlooked Lambs Quarter, sometimes called Goosefoot (supposedly because of the shape of the leaves. Huh...). I suspect the colonists would have used this plant since it has been both foraged and cultivated for centuries around the world, even among the Blackfoot Indians as far back as the 16th century. Lambs Quarter easily wants to take over our gardens if even a few seeds find their way in. Although it is edible and medicinal, I still have way too much of it, so that’s what I was pulling from my beans. I snapped this photo next to me. That corn patch is full of lambs quarter too. 

Despite my needing to get rid of some, Lambs Quarter is extremely nutritious, and its long taproot is good for soil, pulling minerals up to the surface where my plants can reach them. For this reason, it is also considered a “restoring” plant. It's easy to yank out when it's small, but if you let it get out of control like I did, then be prepared for a mighty tug.

The leaves of lambs quarter are exceptionally high in vitamins A and C, as well as in calcium, iron, and protein. It’s also a good source manganese and provides notable amounts of potassium and copper. Some folk call it “wild spinach”, although it’s packed with even more vitamins and minerals than spinach, and it’s easier to grow than spinach too, so there’s that. (Be sure and read my cautions below.)

Lambs Quarter can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, or blanched. You can add lambs quarter to soups, sautés, smoothies, and juices. You can even dry some and use it as a seasoning in place of table salt. (I'm definitely trying that!) The seeds can be used as a porridge or bread enhancer or flour additive. Birds love them! (Don’t overdo the seed use, as they contain saponins. See the caution I mentioned below.)

The best way to try out your lambs quarter is by harvesting the tender tips of the plant. While the lower portions of the mature plants are woody and strong-tasting, the tender tips can be plucked off and eaten in entirety.

Lambs quarter is also said to have medicinal properties. Do you suffer from arthritis? I do. I intend to try a poultice from the simmered leaves which is claim to alleviating achy or swollen joints. Burn relief is another use for a leaf poultice. Chewing on the leaves or swishing water left from simmering the leaves is said to relieve toothaches, while Native Americans ate those leaves to treat stomachaches and prevent scurvy. Cold lambs quarter tea can be used to treat diarrhea.


Up to 75,000 seeds grow in clusters at the top and on branches.

Water droplets will run off the goosefoot-shaped leaves. That's because there is a fine, crystal-like coating of wax on the leaves. This won’t harm you to ingest, by the way.

The plants grow 3’-5’ tall. You really don't want them going crazy in your carrots and beets, or you'll never find those root crops.

Lambs quarter thrives in gardens and near rivers, forests, clearings, and in disturbed soils. 

Edible parts: Leaves, shoots, seeds – alone or with other foraged leaves like dandelion, garlic mustard, or nettle.


  • Lambs Quarter seeds contain saponins, a soapy-like chemical, that is potentially toxic and should not be eaten in excess. However, if you want to harvest the roots which also contain saponins, you could try them out in some scrub water for a cleaner.
  • Before you run off and harvest a bushel of Lambs Quarter for your dinner salad, you should note one caution. Lambs Quarter does contain oxalic acid, so there are some discretions involved in how much you eat or how you prepare it. Cooking removes the acid, and it’s not something I’d eat raw every day in large amounts. A cup, maybe. Not a bushel. You don’t want to dive into too much of a good thing, with anything wild edible you haven’t tried. Test it in small quantities.
  • Never harvest it where soil might be contaminated, though you might find it in such a location.


Some folks refer to lambs quarter as pigweed, but pigweed (amaranth) is a different plant—also edible—and you’ll frequently find it growing in the same places as Lambs Quarter. Pigweed is a courser, more bristly plant with darker foliage. It grows about the same height as Lambs Quarter, and also contains a spike of seeds at the top. This is another plant that takes no effort to find if you have a garden. I pulled a lot of pigweed from my bean rows too.

But, if you enjoy greens, young pigweed can also be eaten raw or cooked like spinach. It has a very mild flavor and makes a nice mix with greens that are stronger. Fresh or dried leaves can be used as tea, and the seeds are strong but nutritious also. They can be ground, used as a cereal substitute, or sprouted and added to salads. I haven’t tried it, but they say you can improve the flavor by roasting the seeds before grinding them.

What about you, have you eaten lambs quarter or pigweed?


Metis Hunter Bemidii Marchal, known to Frenchwoman Camilla Bonnet as Benjamin, takes her foraging for blackberries to be used for a very special purpose. Any guesses what it might be?

Happy foraging!


  1. Fascinating!! I just weeded OUT a bunch of lambsquarter from my herb bed this afternoon ... should have been saving those for salad, I guess!

    And thank you for the mention! ❤❤

  2. She’s foraging blackberries for ink?


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