Every grain we have today has a wild ancestor, but some are more domesticated than others. Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is relatively new to domestication, and its wild cousin (Chenopodium album) is not that different than the modern cultivated grain. The seeds may be a bit smaller, but the plants look almost identical when they sprout in the spring.
What you may not know, however, is that wild quinoa likely grows in your backyard. Also known as goosefoot, it’s almost as common as dandelions, and it’s viewed as a weed by gardeners around the world. Most foragers harvest its leaves as a tasty salad green in the spring, but if you allow the plants to mature, they’ll produce a wild grain crop in the fall.
Most commonly called goosefoot because of its goose foot shaped leaves, Chenopodium album also goes by the name pigweed and fat hen because of its use as a nutritious animal feed.
The grain was eaten by peoples all over the world, even alongside more modern domestic grains. Remnants of goosefoots seeds have been found at Iron age, Viking age, Roman sites and more recent British archeological sites. Goosefoot seeds were mixed with other wild grains in the stomach of Dätgen Man, a body found preserved in a Danish bog from 300 BC, as well as several other preserved bog bodies throughout history.
In India, goosefoot (Chenopodium album) is still cultivated for its leaves and seeds. The leaves are used in curries like spinach, and they go by the name bathuwa. The seeds are eaten as a cooked grain. “Just as Incan people in the Andes grew Chenopodium quinoa for its nutritious seeds, so Chenopodium album has long been cultivated in India. Napoleon Bonaparte, who always paid close attention to the diet of his troops, employed ground pigweed seeds as a flour supplement for his army’s endless bread. (Source)”
Goosefoot starts out pretty humble in the spring. The leaves taste a lot like spinach, but with a more deeply “green” flavor and far more minerals. The leaves are best on the smallest of plants, and once the heat of midsummer hits, they begin to bitter.
During summer’s heat, goosefoot plants “bolt” or go to seed just like any salad green. They’ll grow taller and produce tiny white seedheads at the top of leggy plants. By the fall, they’re nearly 5 feet tall bushy plants that barely resemble the small salad green of the spring.
As temperatures drop in the fall, the seedheads will mature. Once they take on a bright magenta hue, the goosefoot grain inside is ready for harvest.
The harvest itself is relatively simple. Just grab around each seed cluster in the palm of your hand, and gently strip the seed from the stalk.
Open your hand and you’ll find a crumbly mixture of goosefoot grain and chaff. The tiny black dots are the goosefoot grain, and the green and red chaff needs to be separated out of the finished grain.
The problem is, separating the grain from the chaff is surprisingly difficult. While with other wild grains like dock seed, the grain can be ground into a flour chaff and all, that’s not a great solution for goosefoot grain.
The seeds themselves are a very small proportion of the harvest, and it’s surprisingly bitter. My daughter is fond of eating the unripe goosefoot seed heads because while they’re green they taste like cauliflower, one of her favorite vegetables.
Once the seed heads change color in the fall, I find them unpalatably bitter. Beyond the rough taste, the chaff is the majority of the bulk. My favorite foraging author, Samuel Thayer, sums it up nicely in his book A Foragers Harvest, “Some people that I have talked to do not separate the chaff from the seeds, but these are people who don’t eat much goosefoot grain, either. The chaff is mostly undigestible and it comprises most of the bulk of the seed material; I think you could eat all the unseparated goosefoot grain you want and still starve.”
He suggests separating the goosefoot grain by rubbing the grain between your hands and then winnowing away the chaff. It’s tricky because the chaff is only slightly lighter than the grain. I harvested the seedheads on a foggy autumn morning, and they were too damp for this to be practical.
As I rubbed though, I discovered something else interesting about goosefoot chaff…it contains a substantial concentration of saponins. The damp grains started to lather in my hands as I rubbed.
That’s also true of quinoa, and I have friends who cannot eat quinoa because it tastes like soap to them. Some people are more sensitive to it than others, and if you don’t taste it in domestic quinoa you likely won’t taste it in goosefoot grain either. It was a fun find though, and my daughter commandeered all the extra goosefoot chaff at the end of this process and took it right to the bath. I have to say, watching a3-year-old excitedly scrub herself with goosefoot chaff was one of the most entertaining parts of this whole harvest.
Since the grain was wet, I decided to try a wet extraction, in the hopes that the chaff would float and the grain would sink. I gave the grain a good rub between my hands and put it into the water. The vast majority of the chaff came right to the top.
I scooped the bulk of the chaff off the top of the water with my hand, and then carefully poured the water out of the bowl. The heavier chaff is still a bit lighter than the grain, and though it doesn’t float, it’ll pour out before the grain if you’re careful. Slowly pour the water out of a bowl and then scoop the remaining chaff out, leaving behind just the small black seeds.
The yield was surprisingly small, and I harvested one tablespoon of wet goosefoot seeds from every 2 cups of harvested grain and chaff. Now it’s easy to see why you’d starve trying to eat it without winnowing it.
Even though the yield is small, I was able to harvest nearly 4 cups of chaff from one large goosefoot plant in about 2 minutes. Winnowing it took no more than 3 minutes start to finish using water. Assuming you have enough water on hand, and good containers for winnowing, that’s 1 1/2 cups of finished grain for every hour of labor.
It’s hard to say if it’s as nutrient dense as quinoa. I simmered the seeds in water for about half an hour, and the seeds popped open in the same way as quinoa. Rather than being soft though, they much smaller and crunchier. My husband said, “It’s like eating sand!” I wouldn’t go that far, but they were crispy. I think they have substantially more seed coat than domestic quinoa.
Given how abundant goosefoot plants are, it’s good to know about goosefoot grain for a survival situation. Assuming you have enough water to process the grain from the chaff, with a little work you could sustain yourself until better harvests arrive.