Smartweed is one of those plants that has negative effects on some people. It’s said that eating large quantities of Smartweed can cause a sensitivity to the sun and some people can get a rash from skin contact with the plant. However, I have enjoyed Pennsylvania Smartweed fresh off the plant without any negative impact.
One of the first forage plants that I decided to try many years ago was Smartweed. It’s a pretty common plant that’s found throughout North America and it’s in almost every state except Utah and Nevada. Polygonum is a large genus of plants in the Buckwheat family and the different types of Smartweed can vary in spiciness. Think of different types of peppers ranging from a very mild bell pepper to the dreaded Carolina Reaper and you’ll get the idea. So with that in mind I should be clear that I’m speaking of Lady’s Thumb and Pennsylvania Smartweed. Both plants have a characteristic dark spot on the leaves ( I’ll try to do a follow-up this spring when they’re nice and fresh and get a good shot of the leaves) but the spot on Lady’s Thumb is more like a smudge where Pennsylvania Smartweed’s spot tends to be a chevron. The plant I have the most of is the Pennsylvania Smartweed. The peppery flavor tends to be stronger in Pennsylvania Smartweed but my experience with it is that the leaf is relatively mild when compared to other spices. If you’ve never tried Smartweed before then I do recommend starting with a very small piece ( about the size of the tip of your pinky finger) until you’re sure that the plant agrees with your palette. The stronger tasting Pennsylvania Smartweed leaves are mostly used as a spice.
Lady’s Thumb leaves are so mild that they can be used as a substitute for spinach in salads. Or, even cooked and served as a pot herb. The pink flowers of both plants are used as an edible garnishment.
At some point those pretty pink flowers turn white. When they do the seeds are ripe and can be collected in a paper bag and dried to be ground as a substitute for black pepper. From what I’ve read that’s the traditional European use for Smartweed. Again, remember that some varieties are more potent than others and the seeds of both Lady’s Thumb and Pennsylvania Smartweed are more spicy than the leaves. To use the seed they’ll need to be freed from the papery husk and rubbing them in your hands works just fine. Allow the seeds and husks to fall on a plate and then gently blow the paper away. Carefully tossing them up while blowing will also help.
The plant is Native to Europe but was brought here by the colonists and quickly became a Native American favorite. It was used medically to treat a variety of issues including arthritis and poison oak rash. ( Again, some people get rash from it so I would test myself before treating poison oak with Smartweed. )
As I mentioned above my plan is do a follow-up this spring when I can get some more images that includes the leaves. Tonight’s feature image was actually a calibration shot from an earlier project and since foraging can be a little bit of a challenge this time of year I decided to use it.
Before I close I’m going to toss out a reminder that if you forage please remember to either forage your own land or gain permission from the landowner and always respect private property.
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