Meet the weed eaters
KwaZulu-Natal native Nikki remembers being horrified when a farmer sprayed herbicide on the cow pasture near her rural Dargle home: “He didn’t want anything to compete with the grass for his cows and in the process ruined the real food that the farm labourers gathered every evening.” The food activist, writer and vegetarian was furious, she says, as he was destroying “exceptionally healthy food that might be turned into unhealthy burgers”. She credits Nombuizelo Mokhoakhoa, a Sesotho woman who came to work in the Midlands, as well as other local Zulu women, with teaching her about many of the edible weeds she now eats “almost every day”. A favourite dish is amaranths stir-fried with chilli, garlic and chopped tomatoes, and she loves nettles steamed with potatoes. Chickweed is added to scrambled eggs or salads.
Nikki is the author of the cookbook Mnandi (due in spring 2016), in which the imifino section “will encourage you to take a whole new look at the abundant greenery in your veggie beds”. Proceeds will be donated to the Mpophomeni Conservation Group.
mpophomeniconservationgroup.wordpress.com/mnandi/ Noordhoek-based conservation scientist and home gardener Donovan has an open-door policy on edible weeds: “I leave and even encourage useful weeds that come up in the veg garden, where they are more tender and tasty as a result of good growing conditions.” Black nightshade is allowed to do its thing, but, he adds, “When the chickens are out they eat all the ripe ones and leave none for us.” Chickweed is a favourite: “I think it has one of the most distinctive and pleasant flavours of all the edible garden weeds.” He is more reserved about amaranths, saying, “Despite the high protein reputation, I suspect they have lots of defensive chemicals and may be actively antinutritional.”
Don’s interest in edible wild plants began in his 20s, when he was “still enamoured with this idea of living off the land”. And what is a weed? “It implies a strategy,” this ecologist with a PhD behind his name answers: “wild plants adapted to be exceptionally fecund, easily dispersed, and fast growing… usually evolved with minimal chemical defences against predation, so very often quite palatable.”