To Eat It or Not To Eat It?
April 29, 2011 3:37 PM   Subscribe

We've recently moved into a new place with an empty lot. The previous tenants used parts of the lot to garden, but it's now overgrown with a mix of food plants and weeds. Over the past month, we've had this plant popping up. It looks sort of spinachy, but we don't want to start mixing it into salads unless it's actually edible. Can anyone identify it? Closer look here.
posted by tau_ceti to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oh, I'm in Oakland CA if it helps.
posted by tau_ceti at 3:44 PM on April 29, 2011

I can't tell from the scale, but it looks suspiciously like when calendula went feral in my neighbor's yard. If you feel like letting it grow up, you'd know for sure! Calendula is edible and allegedly medicinal. The flowers are tastier than the leaves, as I recall (slightly sweet from the pollen).

That said, when in doubt...I hesitate to suggest that you eat anything unknown (let alone poisons, a lot of people have INTERESTING food allergies), but you could at least taste a little bit, then spit it out. If it tastes nasty, then you already know you don't want to eat it.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:45 PM on April 29, 2011

Also, honestly, if you're in Oakland and polite, you could try asking Novella Carpenter at ghost town farm. She seems pretty nice, and she's local to you.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:46 PM on April 29, 2011

You might contact you county extension service and ask.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:47 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you pulled one out? What do the roots look like?
posted by golden at 3:54 PM on April 29, 2011

Do you know if the lot is contaminated (lead, heavy metals, etc.)? It's probably not a huge deal if you're not feeding it to kids, but it's something to consider. Leafy greens tend to be the worst for contamination because it's difficult to wash all the dust off.

I like the calendula suggestion. The flowers are delicious, and tea from the flowers is nice as well. It might also be corn salad (aka mache), but I doubt that would be so prolific in an untended lot.

Have you asked your neighbors? You could also keep an eye out at produce/flower stands for comparisons.
posted by momus_window at 4:25 PM on April 29, 2011

It looks like mache to me, too. (Though I'd run it by a master gardener or other expert before eating it.) I'd believe that mache was that prolific if untended; I let mine go to seed a year or two ago, and now I've got enough volunteer mache for an army.
posted by sculpin at 4:30 PM on April 29, 2011

You could also wait to see if it flowers.
posted by allelopath at 4:37 PM on April 29, 2011

It's calendula all right. I grow it every year and have some exactly this size in my garden right now. I wish it had reseeded to the extent yours has, actually! I've never eaten it - I grow it strictly for the flowers, which are beautiful. It will happily reseed itself and bloom all summer long, too.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:01 PM on April 29, 2011

I was part of an expedition that removed half a backyard of that stuff for a friend. (We called them weeds.) I didn't eat any, and it didn't smell like you'd want to. Not bad, but not "vegetable" either. Just generic bland smell.
posted by gjc at 6:14 PM on April 29, 2011

That looks a lot like baby romaine lettuce to me.
posted by TungstenChef at 10:14 PM on April 29, 2011

wee tiny rocket plants? You can tell when it flowers. Tastes peppery if you can't wait that long.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 7:50 AM on April 30, 2011

Nth-ing the Calendula (type of marigold). I live in Oregon and always have them in the garden. The leaves should feel very thick, crisp, and hairy. They're edible, but will only taste it if they've been watered like any desirable plant. Root system should be fibrous.

Best wait to see if what the flowers look like.
posted by SallySpades at 3:08 PM on April 30, 2011

Also nth-ing the Calendula. It grows wild in my garden and looks just like that (or will in another three weeks or so; Toronto has had a very cold spring).
posted by Felicity Rilke at 4:12 PM on April 30, 2011

I think the "wait and see" tribe has it. Calendula is supposed to produce flowers in 7-9 weeks from germination. If it hasn't flowered by beginning of July, it's something else.

Also, if it's mache, rocket, etc., you might be able to just pick up a bunch of the likely candidates from your local hoity-toity food store and do some taste tests. If it's anything distinctive-tasting, you should be able to figure it out pretty quickly (especially rocket/arugula, which is a peppery little bastard).
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:19 PM on May 1, 2011

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