Lambsquarters is a vegetable most people weed out of their yards. The foraging community calls it wild spinach.
Lambsquarters: A Wild Spinach with Many Names
Lambsquarters, Chenopodium album, in the amarathus family (Amaranthaceae), was a pot herb (vegetable you add to the stew) across Eurasia and was certainly brought to North America as a food. It is related to spinach (Spinaca oleracea) and as a food has the same warnings. (Spinach is rich in oxalic acid, can be high in nitrates, and has a lot of vitamin K, a blood-clotting factor, each of is a problem for some people.) Lambsquarters grows all over the world but you may well walk by it without noticing it.
The scientific name says “white goose foot”, chen is goose in Greek, podium means foot, and album is white. Goosefoot describes the shape of the leaves. The new leaves around the flowers are whitish, as are the small flowers in lambsquarters. Other species of goosefoot (Chenopodium) have new leaves that are just green.
After two thousand years as a European food, it has many common names. Some are not distinctive: calling lambsquarters goosefoot will confuse it with other Chenopodium species. Pigweed is another name for lambsquarters but not just other chenopodiums but other amaraths are also called pigweed. Fat hen is its most common common name in England, but you don’t hear it in the United States. Wild spinach is often applied to any Chenopodium species. All the goosefoots (genus Chenopodium) are edible, but some are more fibrous than others. In my experience lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) is softer and easier to chew than the other goosefoots where I live.
Lambsquarters hybridizes with its relatives, so intermediate forms are common. North America has 39 species of plants in the genus Chenopodium, known generally as goosefoots. Of those, 29 are native. Chenopodium berlandieri, pitseed goosefoot, was domesticated by Native Americans in eastern North America more than 3,500 years ago and was an important crop until Europeans arrived.
Using and Gathering Lambsquarters
Lambsquarters is my favorite of the wild greens. It tastes good with no bitterness or annoying fibers. My advice, though, is, if you are gathering, either gather early in the spring or wash the leaves carefully looking for little green inchworms (caterpillars), because they like it too. As with all foraged plants, be careful to gather from sites where the plants did not pick up something nasty from the environment. I let lambsquarters grow as weeds in my garden so I can gather them to eat. That is a very old tradition; farmers and gardeners throughout history have tolerated edible or useful plants that invade their crops to have those plants without the work of cultivating them.
I eat it boiled like fresh spinach. The foraging references listed below, Blair, Dean, Kallas and Thayer, give preparation options and interesting recipes.
Found all over North America (and the rest of the world, actually), lambsquarters is an annoying weed to many people. It grows fast and survives under diverse conditions. One healthy plant can produce thousands of seeds (for example 500,000, though counting small seeds is not something many people like doing, so that is probably not the most seeds a lambsquarters plant ever made.) With that kind of seed production, it can and does quickly become a smothering carpet of lambsquarters. On the other hand, it is edible, to wildlife and domestic livestock as well as people, and so it can be a problem in a bean field but absent in the adjacent cow pasture. If it is in your yard and you don’t want it, pull it out before the seeds ripen; it is an annual that is easily eliminated that way.
Mostly, although abundant and widespread, Chenopodium album is overlooked, which is too bad since it is a tasty, pretty little green plant.
Blair, K. The Wild Wisdom of Weeds. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont. 2014.
Deane, Greene. Eat the Weeds Chenopodium album, getting goosed http://www.eattheweeds.com/chenopodium-album-getting-goosed-2/ accessed 1/26/20
Jones, P. Just Weeds. Chapters Publishing Company, Shelburne, VT. 1994.
Kallas, J. Edible Wild Plants. Wild foods from dirt to plate. Gibbs Smith Publisers, Layton UT. 2010.
Smith, B. D. Eastern North America as an independent cetner of plant domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 103 (33): 12223-12228. 2006.
Thayer, S. The Forager’s Harvest. A guide to identifying, harvesting and preparing edible wild plants. Forager’s Harvest Press, Birchwood, WI. (2006).