One of the advantages of growing up poor in the country is that you get to experience nature, raw. Throughout our harsh Manitoba winters, any vegetables were at a premium, and fruit (except for that which we picked wild, such as Saskatoon berries) non-existent in our diet. That meant that, with the first rush of greenery in the spring, almost everything that sprouted was a potential meal.
Dandelion, pigweed, common plantain, spruce buds, mustard greens, and many others found their way into our meals. Even the hated and much maligned ragweed was a treat, once the snow had melted.
Today, ragweed is blamed for the majority of pollen allergies in North America. Sixty years ago, it may very well have created similar adverse reactions, but I recall none of them. Young greens were a source of bland vegetables on a plate that had been bereft of greens for months. It was a treat. I have picked and eaten it raw, boiled it, or created an infusion by pouring boiling water over the leaves and then using that infusion to make breads, soups and so on. I have yet to develop the skin rash that a few people report from handling the plant.
Several centuries ago, natives harvested the plants routinely. Although there is scant written documentation as to how the plants were stored or prepared, my First Nations friends tell me of how their parents would pound the fine seeds and use them in stews or even in dried meat preparations. Some tell me that the seeds, along with others collected in the autumn, were carried on hunts, and were well regarded as a source of energy. This makes sense, since the seeds have close to fifty percent oil content (about the same as soybeans). Others still harvest the root and boil it.
I have tried similar tactics with this plant, but the roots pose two problems. While some varieties have a sort of tap root, most spread horizontally, with a main root and lots of rhizomes. These are difficult to clean, and the main root tends to be tough. Since ragweed thrives in poor soil, the root has to be tough, being subjected to harsh and varied weather conditions.
Flowers, too, can be consumed, but with their high pollen content, the best one can hope for is a weak tea. They cook poorly, even when the green flowers are immature.
My favourite use of ragweed is simple: boiled greens from young leaves harvested when the plant is less than a foot high, in spring. A little butter, a little thyme (or Italian spice mix) and a teaspoon of vinegar make it a pleasant vegetable option.
Many of our wild-harvested plants provide a medicinal benefit as well as a culinary experience, and ragweed is no exception. It is recognized as one of the best extractors of lead from soils, and, by logical extension, a good cleanser in your own body. Yet, this attribute can also be a hazard, so care should be taken that you do not harvest plants from environmentally polluted areas. Few scientific studies have been conducted on this plant to determine either medicinal or nutritional benefit and hazard. Instead, emphasis has been on how to control and eradicate the weed. That means that you should exercise caution around ragweed, until you know how you will react to it.
Other medicinal properties and uses have been reported to be effective. The extracts are anti-bacterial and anti-viral. Some varieties have been used to cure diarrhea or constipation, alleviate symptoms of colds and flu, resolve upset stomach, or to stimulate appetite. However, many of these remedies are simply common sense solutions, since raw or natural foods with high vitamin content generally are used to cure minor upsets.
As with most plants, fresh is better than dried or preserved, so eat your fill while the plant is still available. Winter comes too soon, and we will miss our weedy nemesis and friend in January!