A hundred years ago many weeds were treasured. Cottagers made wine with them, stewed them up for dinner, drank them medicinally, or made healing salves for scratches. Many of our common garden flowers, like violets, sunflowers, or nasturtiums, were grown to be eaten as well as look beautiful. These days we rarely eat anything we haven't already seen packaged in supermarkets.
On the other hand, consuming the wrong weeds or flowers may leave you seriously dead. Don't eat anything if you aren't sure what it is, and how it can be safely eaten
Chopped purslane leaves, for example, can be added in small amounts to a salad, but like many raw dark green veg (weeds or not) purslane is high in oxalic acid - don't eat more than a small amount unless you ''blanch'' it for a minute in boiling water, then throw that first lot of water out.
Do the same with ''warrigal spinach'', a native spinach that is happily covering about 30cm a day in our garden now it has rained. Once warrigal spinach has been blanched, it makes an excellent spinach soup or quiche. Puree if tough.
Almost all neglected gardens and often footpaths or parks have sheep sorrel growing in them, the ancestor of the cultivated sorrel - smaller, tougher, and with more flavour. Sheep sorrel loves the cracks between paving. A good crop of sheep sorrel is a sign of compacted ''sour'' soil, and unsurprisingly abundant in most cities.
You can add sorrel leaves to a salad - it's too bitter for my taste, but then I don't have an adventurous palate for salads. It makes a good sauce for fish, but the taste doesn't quite compensate for the fiddliness.
Sorrel however does make a most excellent soup; one of those ''ready in a few minutes'' soups which make opening a can irrelevant.
Our garden is growing a good crop of dandelions now that the drought has left us. Most of ours, I hope, are at least relatives of the cultivated dandelion I grew for many years. Dandelions leaves can be eaten fresh in salads in early spring or steamed like silver beet in summer. The trick is to cover the plant with a box or flower pot, or heap straw up around them for a week before you pick it to make the leaves softer, lusher and less bitter.
The oily seeds of pigweed can be ground to meal and baked like a biscuit or added to stews to thicken them; the stems and leaves can be boiled or eaten fresh in salads, though raw ones taste a bit slimy. They're better pickled. Or try fried sow thistle buds - after all, artichokes are really only a superior thistle.
Nasturtiums used to be known as Jesuit's Cress - the very young leaves make a pungent but attractive addition (in small amounts) to salads. The buds can be pickled in spiced vinegar so they look (but don't taste) like capers, but are still pleasantly vinegary in white sauces etc. The flowers can be stuffed and cooked like vine leaves, or tossed at the last minute into salads.
You can also suck the nectar out of the end ''spike'' of each flower. We used to do this for hours when I was a kid. But the fried flowers are best of all. And as for other flowers: toss pansies, violets, calendula petals, rose petals, or primulas into salads at the last minute so the dressing doesn't stain them, or dip in beaten egg white and then icing sugar and use as decoration on a chocolate cake.
I am not even going to begin on rose heps - they can wait till after the first frost and will have a whole column devoted to them, and the uses to which Queen Victoria put them, which may not be what you expect.
Nor may your family expect you to serve weeds. But do it discreetly and deliciously, and they won't notice. I say this with the confidence of one who has been doing just that, for years.
Blend together half a cup of beer with a third of a cup of plain flour. Let stand for two hours. Now stir in a beaten egg white. Dip nasturtium flowers in lemon juice then in the batter. Cook in oil till puffed and golden. Drain, serve dusted with caster sugar or remoulade sauce.
Fried Sow Thistle Buds
Take very young sow thistle buds; scrape off the prickles, if any - if they are very prickly the buds are too old to be delicious. Dip them in the batter above, then deep-fry them in hot oil until they're light brown and just rising to the surface. Eat them hot, with a little natural yoghurt and garlic.
Pickled Nasturtium Pods
Boil two cups of vinegar with two tablespoons of salt, one tablespoon of peppercorns, one tablespoon of brown sugar. Add two cups of nasturtium pods and bring to the boil, then take off the heat, bottle, and seal at once. Keep for at least fortnight in a cool place before opening them. Throw out if they change colour, ferment, or grow mouldy.
Sheep Sorrel Soup
Wash the leaves well, in case a wandering dog has lifted its leg on them. Blend half a cup of sorrel leaves with four cups of chicken or celery and onion stock.
Simmer five minutes. Take off the heat. Add cream - more or less is up to you, depending on how creamy you like your soup. Reheat gently only if necessary. Sorrel makes cream curdle.
Serve hot, or cold if you really like cold soups.
This week I am:
- Discovering our purple asparagus had produced seedlings. As purple asparagus seeds are expensive, this is a Good Thing.
- Watching the pink rambling sage that has done nothing since I planted it in the front garden suddenly begin to ramble and bloom. Salvias can sulk for years, but when they get going they rarely stop.
- Picking roses, and roses, and roses
- Planting red mignonette lettuce for winter, a bit late but we may have a long warm autumn so they will grow.
- Placing wire cages over the parsley to stop Possum X who found he liked parsley during the drought, and is still nibbling it.
- Wishing the drought had left us just a few apples, as this is apple cake weather, and the house seems odd without its scent. We might even need to buy some apples.