Lambsquarter, Lamb’s Quarter, Chenopodium – Delicious whatever you call it

lambs quarter( chenopodium album)

Forager Bill meets Gardener Bill in this post about about lambsquarter, one of the all-time great greens. It tastes wonderful (like a cross between asparagus and spinach);  it’s easy to prepare and cook;  it’s good for you – the usual dark green “high in vitamins and minerals, low in calories”  - and as a major bonus, it not only plants itself, it starts so early and grows so fast that you can harvest multiple crops and still have time to  plant tomatoes, corn, squash, beans or whatever in the very same ground.

HALF-WILD GREENS, PART TWO  – LAMBSQUARTER

by Bill Bakaitis

Compared to cultivating ramps, growing lambsquarter in your garden is a snap. In fact, if you don’t know what it is you may already be trying to weed it out. It is considered by some to be  one of the most widespread weeds in the world.

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) is probably best thought of as a complex of related plants which intergrade and hybridize quite easily. I find a variety of forms growing in my garden, often changing as the season progresses. You can find one form or another of it growing throughout North America; C. berlandieri was once part of the group of crops grown by the Eastern Woodlands Native Americans.

In Mexico a subspecies (ssp. nuttalliae) and hybrids are still grown as commercial cultivars:  ‘Huauzontle’ for the flowering heads, ‘Chia’ for the seeds, and ‘Quelite’ for the leafy greens. It is sometimes called Pigweed or Goosefoot, and Giant Goosefoot, or ‘Magenta Spreen’, (C.  gigantium) is available from several specialty seed suppliers, including Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

magenta spreen ( giant goosefoot, chenopodium)

(There is more on species, distribution and taxonomy here and here.

All varieties of Chenopodium seem to be quite prolific, producing panicles that release thousands of tiny seeds, some of which germinate quickly while others persist in the soil for years. This is undoubtedly one reason why these plants are such successful weeds.

Far from being difficult to grow, they are often difficult to eradicate, particularly in soils which are frequently turned. It’s like the many-headed Hydra of Greek Mythology, every time you hoe down the weed, more come up as you expose more seed to sprout. You can see how lambsquarter is a problem when thought of as a weed. Think of it as a delicious green, however, and the problem becomes a blessing, a gift that keeps on giving.

lambs quarter (chenopodium album)

lambs quarter (narrow) c. lanceolatum

Next to Broccoli Raab, Lambsquarter is my favorite green, but it does have two characteristics that might give you pause the first time you try it.

The first is a grayish, mealy powder found mainly on the underside of the young leaves. This will create an intriguing silvery sheen to the leaf when it is plunged into clear water. The grayish powder, parts of the leaf structure itself, will easily rinse off and rise to the top as a scum. Not to worry, it is harmless.

Equally harmless is the purplish red bloom which will come to dot some of the leaves.

closeup of lambs quarter leaf

The second aspect of lambsquarter that might cause concern is a flavor characteristic. Best described as a slightly astringent, bitter or mineral quality, it occasionally will leave in the mouth and on the tooth an oxalic acid sensation similar to that produced by rhubarb.

If you or your children do not like spinach, you will not like lambsquarter.  But if your palate has progressed to a more mature level chances are that you will flip over it. Take Lois, for instance. She can’t ever get enough of it. She heads for the greens patch as soon as she gets to the Hudson Valley,  and she continually scours the garden in Maine, laying claim to every plant she can find.

harvest of greens, Lois Dodd

CULTIVATION OF LAMBSQUARTER

Nothing could be simpler. As I build my garden compost piles in the fall, into those beds where I want lambsquarter to grow next year, I incorporate a few mature plants along with the usual horse manure, garden remains, leaves and grass.

In late winter or early spring I turn the piles at my leisure, one every week or two. Before the last frost a thick carpet of two-leafed seedlings will appear, and with the first warm rains of May the tender young plants will be ready to be sheared off with a pair of scissors.

turning a compost bed

The first cutting is always the best, and the staggered turning of the planting beds, some double dug and turned twice, assures that a “first cutting” will always be available until the heat of summer.

True to its ‘weed’ status, lambsquarter will be found throughout the garden, although beds not treated as described will not be as prolific.

cultivating lambs quarter

The heaviest harvest often comes just as the asparagus is allowed to go to fern. Large quantities can be cut, placed in storage bags and kept for weeks in the fridge. This green is so delicious and cooperative that it has been years since we have grown spinach.

lambs quarter ready to harvest

One final gift of this plant should be mentioned. During the chaos of the early to mid season growth spurt it works very well as a trap plant for aphids.

At first, only a few plants will be affected. When you find one that has growing tips covered with these tiny insects, simply pluck the entire plant and you have captured pests that otherwise would have spread over the whole garden. (Bury infested plants in the compost; the aphids won’t survive.)

HOW TO COOK LAMBSQUARTER:

Again, simplicity itself: Rinse and pick through the greens, discarding any tough stems. (Stems get tougher as plants get older and weather grows hotter.)

I usually blanch the greens for a few minutes, drain and finish by a quick sauté in olive oil.

For a more robust dish, toast a handful of walnuts and a teaspoon of cumin seeds in the olive oil. As they are toasting, but before the oil gets a chance to smoke,  add a clove or two of diced garlic, perhaps a few shallots or a quarter cup of coarsely chopped Vidalia onion, a handful of sun dried tomatoes, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes.

Play with these as you wish.  A scant teaspoon of Smoked Spanish or Hungarian Paprika will create a perfect and automatic balance among all of the other ingredients.

Add the steamed greens, toss once, and serve immediately with coarse sea salt and fresh crusty bread. You will need nothing else except a glass of red wine.

Or beer, if you make Leslie’s Lambs Quarter Quesadillas.

quesadillas with greens ( chenopodium)

Quesadillas with lambs quarter, currants, pine nuts, 2 cheeses (and a little hot pepper never hurt anybody either)

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10 Comments »

  • I had no idea there were so many types of lambs quarter. And here is a question for you: where did it/they get the moniker “lambs quarter”?

  • Oh, I must write again, as we have just had lambs quarter, mushrooms, and ramp from your garden. How did we get to be so lucky? Many, many thanks!

  • I’m thrilled that you write about Lambs’ Quarter! Decades ago I read about it in _Stalking the Wild Asparagus_ and started using it when I could find it hopefully unsprayed. It’s so constantly disparaged generally, though, and unfortunately it’s one of the wild plants that has become RoundUp-resistant (which has now triggered the need in conventional farming for even worse herbicides, etc….).

  • beast Said,

    i let the bottom stems of my lambs quarter grow
    just pinch off all upper leaves as they start to grow
    doing this they tend to come in thicker and heavier
    with each new batch of young tender leaves
    this gives me a continuous harvest from just a few plants
    all summer long

  • Linda Said,

    Is this the real Chenopodium album L.? USDA Plants links to a site that claims all parts of C.album are poisonous.

    I’d like to clear this up. I’ve read that pioneers and native Americans ate “lambsquarters,” and I’m trying to find out for sure that the two are the same or different plants.

    Hi Linda,

    Yes, this is the real thing… and you’re right to be wary of eating anything wild until you’re sure it’s safe. But as far as I – and countless others – know, C. album is safe to eat…at least for humans.
    The USDA link is to a Cornell site that lists plants that are poisonous to livestock. The poison(s) in question are nitrates, which can be damaging in the large doses a cow, for instance, might ingest. And they can also cause problems for humans when present in large concentrations – as in rhubarb leaves, for example.
    But people eat a lot of things that contain nitrates.
    Spinach is an example, and one that’s pretty close to lambsquarters. Most people can eat spinach without having any problems, but it too can cause “poisoning,” at least to the point of stomach upset. This article (published by Medscape) lists it as among the top 25 reported poisonous plants.
    I can’t say for sure what plant was eaten by earlier generations, but it was probably
    C. album or one of its very close relatives. “Pigweed,” can refer to many plants from many different genera, but I’m pretty sure “lambsquarters” is always chenopodium.
    Hope this helps
    LL

  • Hilltop gardenner Said,

    A number of lambs quarters vollentered in my garden this year. I had planned to let them go to seed for a bigger crop next year. But I now see that the seed heads are covered with black aphids. Do I need to pull the plants up and destroy them to prevent an infestation next year?

    Hi Hilltop, and welcome.
    If you live where winter temps go below below freezing there’s no need to worry about these aphids (or their eggs) carrying over to next year. Instead, next year you can worry about the completely new crop of aphids that will almost certainly come to infest the lambs quarters as they mature. Far’s I know, aphids just come with the territory and are a major reason to eat a lot of this excellent green in spring and early summer, while the leaves are tender and before the bugs arrive.
    LL

  • LunaCafe Said,

    Great post! I admit I have never grown or eaten lambsquarter. But will definitely add it to the garden this year. …Susan

  • Sothomme Said,

    What more can you say about the purple spots that form? Is it pathogenic to other plants nearby?

    Hi there, and happy lambsquarters!

    The purple spots are from leafminers, closely related to the ones that can do a lot of damage to spinach leaves. They’re so minute that eating them isn’t an issue – no sense of eating bugs, really – but if you are growing a lot of spinach and other related greens it’s better to pull up the spotty plants and get rid of them to keep the miners from spreading.

    Or maybe not. Some authorities say the miners are so fond of lambsquarters it makes more sense to leave the plants to act as a trap crop.

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