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Eat your weeds: Fat Hen

Photos by Maude Farrugia

A weed loved equally by humans and hens, Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), also known as Lamb’s Quarters, is valued for both its culinary and nutritional benefits. An inoffensive texture and flavour makes it the perfect entry level weed for novice foragers. Fat Hen can be found in most climates but grows best in temperate zones.

Foraging And Harvesting

Plants are upright with multiple stems. The tiny flowers form in clusters at the tips of mature plants and can be green/blue through to grey, often with a magenta tinge.

When foraging Fat Hen, look for sage coloured rhomboid leaves with a white dusty film, in particular on their undersides. The alternative common name ‘white goosefoot’ gives you some idea as to the shape of the leaves, as they’re said to look like a webbed foot (this is more clearly exaggerated when the plant is going to seed).

As a weed, it grows happily in poor soils, however the best eating specimens are usually found in nitrogen rich soils. This means that the Fat Hen in your vegie patch is more delicious than the type you might find on the side of the road. Foraging from a food growing area rather than the side of the road also means less need to be wary of council spraying and soil contamination.

Stalks are woody, so it’s only usually the leaves and very young shoots which are eaten. It can be a bit of a pain to harvest each small leaf by hand. In our kitchen we like to hang fronds of Fat Hen over a colander from their tip and drag a hand down along the stalk to remove leaves in one go.

Eating

An excellent replacement for English spinach, Fat Hen can be used anywhere a steamed or cooked green is called for. Eating it raw in great quantities is not recommended as it is high in oxalic acid, though the occasional nibble whilst gardening probably won’t hurt.

Its flavour is variously described as being nutty and delicious, to mild and bland. The taste of the leaves become less palatable when the plant is going to seed, so it’s best to seek out younger plants.

Like its close relative quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), Fat Hen seeds contain anti-nutritional saponins and should therefore be thoroughly washed before eating. Fat Hen has traditionally been used as a grain crop in Northern India, as well as areas of Africa and Asia. There is also historical evidence that it was an important staple in ancient European and North American civilisations, however there is little modern data on the effects of eating the seeds in great quantities. Using Fat Hen as a grain crop could be an investigative project for enthusiastic permies, though it should be done with caution given the lack of information on grain toxicity.

Other Uses

As its name suggests, Fat Hen is a wonderful chook forage crop, being high in protein, vitamins and minerals. Chickens go mad for its leaves and seed heads.

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