Do you grow spinach in your garden? If so, or even if you are just a spinach fan, you might want to consider branching out to this other, less well-known member of the goosefoot family – lambsquarters.
This is young lambsquarters nestled in among my lettuce:
There is also a stray cilantro plant in there too.
Here’s what the young seedling looks like when you pull it up.
Let’s get a bit scholarly for a moment. Lambsquarters latin name is Chenopodium album. The first part of that means “goosefoot,” – which gives your first clue at how to recognize this plant. It’s leaves are similar in shape to the foot of geese.
You will recognize some of the other members of the goosefoot family – along with spinach, it includes quinoa, amaranth, beets, and swiss chard.
Along with its leaf shape, another way to recognize this plant is that it is covered with a fine white powdery substance when you look at it closely. These are mineral deposits.
I have read sources saying that lambsquarters is a safe weed for most to eat because it doesn’t have any look-alikes.
However, an untrained eye could mix this plant up. Here is lambsquarters – on the left – growing next to (inedible) nightshade – on the right:
They don’t look like they would be easily confused in the above photo, but this is a macro shot.
Here’s another photo with one leaf of each plant side by side:
That’s the lambsquarters on the left, nightshade on the right. (Remember – you DON’T want to eat nightshade, which is a relative of tomato, another plant whose greens you don’t want to eat).
While foraging a batch of lambsquarters from our garden rows, I noticed that the leaves of these two plants – particularly at this stage – could easily be mistaken for each other if not paying close attention.
In this next photo you can see that the underside of the leaves looks quite different:
Nightshade (the two samples on the right) has deeply veined leaves when viewed underneath. Lambsquarters is much smoother in comparison.
Also note that lambsquarters leaves come to a point, nightshade is rounded.
Once the plants are a bit more mature, it would be very hard to mistake these – at least in my neck of the woods, lambsquarters grows to be a much taller plant.
And one more thing – nightshade has a paler green color – lambsquarter has a blueish green hue, often with a coating of white powder.
And there’s another wonderful way to recognize this plant – it has touches of pink on it.
Undersides of leaves are sometimes pink, as are seed leaves.
I like to wash my lambsquarters harvest in my salad spinner until the washing water is clean, with no more particles of dirt or sand.
In early spring I never notice any bugs on the harvested leaves, but as they get bigger, meanwhile the insect population has had time to grow too. Then I start finding eggs on some leaves, and the occasional cabbage moth caterpillar.
When the plants are bigger, I go for the tall plants with the large leaves, which makes inspecting for eggs and caterpillars much easier.
As mentioned, lambsquarter is closely related to spinach, and you can cook it just like spinach. It is probably not as good in salads as raw spinach is, but cooked, I doubt you would be able to distinguish them.
I like to heat up a little olive oil, then before it gets to the smoke point, drop in my spin-dried greens, then cover to saute-steam them. The moisture that is still on the leaves from washing will just help the steaming process.
When the leaves are wilted, I add some minced garlic, then cover back up.
The greens will be done in just a few minutes.
Note: When certain of your identification, weeds are safe and nutritious. On the other hand, if you eat a weed that is not edible, you can get a very nasty stomachache – or worse. Before you eat loads of any new weed I recommend the following:
- Make sure you prep it properly. Some weeds are edible only with multiple cookings beforehand, such as pokeweed.
- Sample a small bit then wait for a few hours or even a day before eating larger quantities.
Also be aware that lambsquarter, like many other greens, has a lot of oxalic acid in it, and can bioaccumulate nitrogen. For both of these reasons, don’t eat it every day. If you have a bushel of it, you can cook up a big batch and freeze some for later, or dehydrate the raw leaves.
UPDATE: Since first writing this article, I have learned that I have been dealing with oxalate overload, a condition which has caused a lot of painful inflammation as well as contributing to my histamine intolerance.
A diet high in oxalate can cause problems for anyone, and lambsquarters is very high in oxalate, so in all honesty, I don’t recommend eating lambsquarters anymore, or its cousin, spinach for that matter, since there are many other alternative greens that are lower in oxalates.
If you must eat lambsquarters, try to eat it with some dairy so that the calcium can bind with the oxalate and be removed from your body more easily.
Here are some other edible weeds you might be interested in:
Originally posted May 25, 2020. Updated May 31, 2021.