Researchers in Europe are adding a nutritional twist to the term “weedeater.” Scientists studying health-promoting properties of wild and weedy vegetables believe these plants may be an important previously overlooked factor in the Mediterranean Diet of southern Italy and Spain.
The Mediterranean Diet is high in fruits, vegetables and olive oil, and generally follows a balanced consumption of unrefined carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Scientists already have identified monounsaturated fats and phytonutrients found in olive oil as important components to this healthy style of eating.
Now researchers speculate phytonutrients found in more than 100 species of uncultivated vegetables may also play a significant role in the diet. Residents of this region traditionally gather wild vegetables from the surrounding countryside, especially during the spring months
According to ethnobotanist Dr. Andrea Pieroni, of the United Kingdom’s University of Bradford, many weedy vegetables are known for their bitterness, a trait also associated with high levels of phytonutrients. When consumed by humans, these phytonutrients may have powerful antioxidant effects that could help fight cardiovascular disease and cancer.
While it is impractical for most people to pick vegetables from the wild, some cultivated and domestic vegetables may be distant cousins to these wild plants. Some of these domestic relatives to wild plants may include mustard greens, dandelion, mache, and arugula — all bitter greens commonly found in grocery stores.
In the case of arugula, now common in many U.S. groceries and known as “rocket” by the British, a domestic species has been cultivated since ancient Roman times, according to Dr. Pieroni.
Mache has long been gathered and used in salads and is known as “cornsalad” or “lambs tongue” by the British, says Dr. Pieroni. In recent decades it has been cultivated in southern Europe, France and the United States. “The market of this salad weed has increased very much and it is known as one of the important vegetables in central Europe,” says Dr. Pieroni.
As for dandelions, which many people know as pesky lawn weeds, it’s important they not be consumed from lawns or gardens where chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides have been applied. A person should also be sure to correctly identify this or any other wild plant before consuming it.