In DIEGO BONETTO’s new book, Eat Weeds, he explains that there was a time for all humans when collecting wild food was a necessity of daily life. His new book aims to help us take that knowledge back, through learning where to look when foraging for food and transform our neighbourhoods into an edible adventure. We take a look at one plant that might surprise you, that you can often find just metres from your back door.
FLATWEED AND CAT’S EAR
All hail flatweed, the wonderful edible weed. This plant is easy to identify and grows from Mackay in Queensland all the way across to Carnarvon in Western Australia – in abundance. Its look-alikes are also edible, making this an easy food plant for the novice forager. I know a few elderly Greek people who have front yards filled with flatweed, on purpose, because they love it so much 22 goodreadingmagazine.com.au and use it all the time as a generic green in pies.
I myself eat this plant just as often. Whenever I find an attractive specimen, I bring it home and cook it in sauces, stir-fries, stews and veggie rolls, or serve it raw in salsa verde, a parsley-based green dip that I either eat with bread or use as a marinade.
There is no chance you have a lawn and not flatweed.
Many people dismiss it, as its hairiness can be off-putting – and it often gets a bit battered due to its love of high-traffic locations – but when you find a good-looking flatweed, you should definitely try it.
Flatweed (Hypochaeris radicata) and cat’s ear (Hypochaeris glabra) are very similar to the related dandelion, in that all three have a yellow flower made up of dozens of overlapping petals, arising from a flat rosette with a central crown. In Australia we also have another less common variety of flatweed, with white flowers, called Hypochaeris albiflora, which is mostly found around Brisbane and Sydney. In the rest of the continent, you will find either Hypochaeris radicata or Hypochaeris glabra. All edible, all worth your effort to bring to the table.
Leaf, flower, root.
Flatweed and cat’s ear range in height and size according to conditions, from 10 centimetres to half a metre wide. They flower all year round, and are naturalised in Australia.
LEAVES AND STALKS
The leaves of both flatweed and cat’s ear are club-shaped, with rounded indentations – as opposed to the deeply toothed leaf of the dandelion. They are dark green on both sides and can grow up to 30 centimetres long and 5 centimetres wide. Flatweed’s leaves are noticeably hairy while those of cat’s ear can be less so.
The easiest way to tell the look-alikes apart is to pay attention to the flower stalks. In flatweed and cat’s ear they are branched and solid, while dandelion’s flower stalks are hollow and never branched, and sow thistle’s stalks are branched and hollow.
FLOWERS AND SEEDS
The flowers of flatweed and cat’s ear are typical of the dandelion family, with cheerful yellow petals that last a few days, closing at night and reopening in the morning – until one day they reappear as a ball of seeds, each with its own white fluffy parachute, ready to be transported by the wind. Hypochaeris albiflora has white flowers.
Flatweed has a long taproot, at times growing 30 centimetres deep, while the root of cat’s ear is shallower and more branched.
All parts of flatweed plants are edible; however, the leaves and taproot are most often harvested. The leaves range in flavour from slightly bitter to bland. They can be eaten raw in salads, but are most often steamed or tossed in a pan with oil and garlic and served with lemon and salt. It is best to select younger leaves, as they can become fibrous and stringy when older.
The flowers can be collected all year round, with a spike in flowering occurring in the cooler months after rain. They can be infused in honey for a breakfast treat, or coated in flour for colourful fritters. The petals can be used in rice-paper rolls, or as a garnish for salads or cakes.
The root can be dug out, scrubbed, lightly roasted and ground for a satisfying coffee substitute.
I do not know of many wild plants that can be harvested 365 days a year – and that makes this plant one of my most beloved wild veggies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I grew up on a dairy farm in northern Italy when it was still common practice to collect the wild produce of the land. Springtime was all about dandelions, nettle and lovertin (hop bush young shoots), summer was about mulberries and blackberries, autumn was the time of chestnuts, hazelnuts and a host of edible mushrooms.
I learned this ancient craft of gathering from the fields and woods while caring for resources in Piedmontese, my mother tongue. I am one of the last generation in my family to carry this language,
When I moved to Australia in the mid 90s I spent many years working in orchards and garden centres. I soon learned that my knowledge was a rare practice in modern societies and I sensed in the people around me a longing to rekindle their untapped connection to nature. Indigenous knowledge loss and a disproportionate mistrust for wild produce, gave way for a country of disconnected living. We no longer know the names of the plants living on our doorsteps; we distrust and dismiss some of the most important food and medicine plants that have always walked with us as our co-evolutionary species.
I then followed my passion for the arts and graduated with a Bachelors degree. As part of a performance art class where I had the opportunity to make films, contribute to festivals and present my own unique artworks, I found the platform to highlight the misuse and waste of these ‘weeds’ by land managers. I saw many of the plants I valued being wasted. The knowledge I had brought with me, began to emerge through these stories, returning botanical literacy and therefor reconnecting communities.
The dandelions, nettles, mulberries and edible mushrooms of my childhood are also here in this country, alongside some incredible native produce.
To tell the story of plants is my passion and by now I run public and private workshops every week. In 2017-18 I offered in excess of 150 workshops and events, talking personally with over 3000 people.
I collaborate extensively with chefs, herbalists, environmentalists and cultural workers promoting new understanding of what the environment has to offer. I love to enable conversations around belonging, sustainability and agency, while eating food. The old stories and flavours offering an alternative for people to re-engage with their neighbourhoods and ecologies.