Pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) is often one of the first plants a budding forager tries as a kid. It can grow just about anywhere but has a gift for growing in the most uninviting locations. That includes places even dandelions can’t take root.
Growing up in the desert in southern California, there was nothing but dust and sand on our playground. The only bit of life came from the tiny cracks in the asphalt handball courts, where enough moisture must collect from early morning dew. Pineapple weed thrived in those cracks when little else grew for miles in any direction.
That was the first time I tried pineapple weed, and I have to say I was unimpressed. Though it did smell vaguely of pineapple, it was bitter and thoroughly unpleasant.
But how much can you ask of a plant growing in asphalt in the desert? I assumed it probably tastes better given a less stressful environment.
Fast forward nearly 30 years later, and there aren’t many places where a dandelion won’t grow on our Vermont homestead. Marginal land is in short supply, which I’m happy about.
Still, there is one spot right in front of the garage covered in sand, packed gravel and in near full shade. Pineapple weed has found a home there, thriving where nothing else can.
That spot grows the lushest crop of pineapple weed I’ve ever seen. The plants are dense, and nearly a foot tall. Nothing like the desperate 3-4 inch specimens from my California childhood. Surely this pineapple weed is going to be the cream of the crop!
I break off a stalk in mid-summer when the plants are at their full height and bite right in…and then promptly spit it out.
It tastes wetter and greener than my childhood memory, but it’s still bitter and otherwise tasteless. Though the plant smells pleasant enough, I don’t get any hints of pineapple in the taste. What am I doing wrong?
I’m ready to give it up. Maybe I can taste some bitter principle in pineapple weed that others can’t, and perhaps I’m just not meant to enjoy this plant.
Then I look over to see my baby foraging buddy gobbling up pineapple weed with excitement. I usually have my 3-year-old daughter with me when I’m foraging in the woods, but this time since I’m right on the driveway the little guy (17 months) got to come too.
My daughter tried pineapple weed, and promptly spit it out just like I did. The little guy had a different strategy.
I watched him carefully pluck off the blossoms, leaving behind any green leaf or stem material. His little hands worked skillfully, picking apart those blossoms.
I’m not above learning from a baby that seems to know what he’s doing. I give it a try, plucking off a blossom and leaving the green material behind.
The taste…sweet, floral, pineapple-y…and just the slightest hint of bitter. I try again, this time using my teeth to just pluck off the very tip of the blossom, leaving the greenery around the base intact. It’s perfect!
This is what people are talking about! Deliciously sweet, strong pineapple flavor with hints of chamomile tea.
Perhaps there is some bitterness in the greens that I can taste that others can’t, or maybe they do taste it and just don’t mention it. The kids in the schoolyard ate the whole plant readily enough, but perhaps they were just showing off. If you’ve found it bitter in the past, be sure to pluck off just the blossoms and remove every bit of the feathery leaf matter.
I found one source that says pineapple weed greens are used in salads, but only before the plants blossom. Once pineapple weed breaks bud the leaves become unpalatably bitter.
That makes a lot more sense! Maybe it is a sweet green when it’s tiny and hasn’t blossomed, but I’ll have to wait until next year to try it.
I plucked off a handful of blossoms, keen on taking them inside to make a bit of tea. I couldn’t keep my little baby buddy out of them, and he gobbled them up by the handful.
Identifying and Using Pineapple Weed
Pineapple weed is known as wild chamomile, and both plants are in the aster family. There is another plant that is actually “wild chamomile” (Matricaria chamomilla) also found on roadsides and waste places, but this version has far fewer leaves and actually has white petals.
Pineapple weed is completely lacking petals and only has a yellowish-green central cone. My Edible Wild Plants field guide says that both have a mild pineapple and chamomile scent when the flower buds are crushed.
The medicinal properties of pineapple weed are supposed to be similar to cultivated or wild chamomile. It’s a mild sedative, effective against anxiety and mild gastrointestinal upset. My medicinal plant and herbs field guide says that it’s a traditional tea plant “used for stomachaches, flatulence, colds, menstrual cramps” and externally as a wash for sores and itchy conditions.
Pineapple Weed Tea
Since I find the bottom of the flower buds quite bitter, I’m actually taking the time to cut the tops of the flower buds off of the base. It makes sense, when you’re making dandelion wine the petals have to be completely removed from the bitter green sepals or the whole batch will be horribly bitter.
Most people don’t go through this step, and instead, just make a tea with the whole blossom heads. Try the blossoms whole.
If you don’t taste the bitterness, don’t bother separating the sepals. It’s a pain, and time-consuming, but this extra effort cuts out the bitter flavor and allows the sweet pineapple flavor to shine through.