Fleetneedles' Forage: Fat Hen

As part of our Save Our Skills year, we are looking at foraging. These post were originally published on our Facebook Page, we'd like to thank Claire Fleetneedle for allowing us to publish them here.

The uses of a fat hen, not the chicken type but the herbal one #saveourskills #forage #bawk

Fat Hen (Chenopodium album)

Fat hen, also known as lambs quarters, goosefoot and, I kid you not – dirty dick, is an ancient plant which owes its most common name to having once been used as a chicken feed. The plant grows to around three feet tall, both the silver green stems and the leaves are covered with fine white hairs which give the top leaves especially an almost powdery, mildewed look. The leaves are shaped slightly like a ducks foot and the flowers/seed pods grow in small greenish clusters from spikes.

Contains vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, C, K and folate plus calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, sodium and zinc.

Fat Hen contains oxalic acid which is dangerous in massive doses. Don’t consume excessive quantities and avoid entirely if you have kidney problems of any kind. 

Anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, anti-oxidant, beneficial for vitamin deficiencies, calms toothache, immune booster, mild laxative, removes internal parasites, urinary tract cleanser.

Everyday Uses
Most gardeners will be horribly familiar with this ‘weed’. It rapidly springs up on newly turned soil, manure heaps and composts and seems impossible to eradicate. This is perhaps because one plant contains thousands of seeds which can survive, dormant, in soil for up to 30 years. Discovering this lead me to research its uses, as I realised I was unlikely to get rid of it.

To begin with I was amazed to discover that it is a close relative of the quinoa plant, which I am already familiar with as it is considered a nutritional super food. Fat hen is edible and can be described as having a flavour similar to a zingy kale or spinach. It can be eaten raw in small amounts but is far better sautéed or steamed with butter and black pepper and perhaps a little nutmeg. Like quinoa the seeds are also edible and highly nutritious – they can be baked and used in cooking like poppy seeds, or they can be dried and ground into a flour similar to quinoa or buckwheat. I have also read that the seeds can be soaked in water overnight, allowing them to sprout like alfalfa or bean sprout – they can then be added to salad.

The plants culinary history stretches back at least as far as the Neolithic period, with traces of the seed having even been found in Tollund man’s stomach.

Despite not being used by herbalists the sheer proliferation of the herb around the globe means there are many folk and tribal remedy’s associated with it.

Fat hen contains a huge range of vitamins and minerals which immediately makes it an immune booster. Ingesting the plant is known to sooth a sore stomach and is indeed thought to heal the entire intestinal system; perhaps for this reason it was traditionally used to treat diarrhoea and dysentery.

Ointments made from the entire plant, including the root have been used in the treatment of scalds and burns. Similarly an oil made from the leaves is thought to sooth sunburn and drinking the juice is considered a cure for sunstroke. The plant has anti-inflammatory qualities and this is probably why leaves were once made into a poultice to treat swellings, most notably boils. 

Fat hen was also an ancient treatment for rheumatics and joint pain. An external rub was made from the main part of the plant, juiced and preserved in alcohol. When chewed, the seeds were an ancient remedy for urinary problems and were thought to cleanse the urinary tract. I have also discovered that the leaves pulped have been used as a remedy to relieve the pain of tooth decay.

The plant is a well-known folk remedy in Asia, where it is primarily used as a treatment for liver complaints, as a mild laxative, to calm skin irritations and to remove internal parasites.  

I have also found out that the seeds and roots contain saponin.  Apparently soaking these parts in water for 12 hours will create a soap like liquid suitable for washing in, I have not tried this but aim to experiment as soon as I can collect some seeds. I have read several sources that claim a green dye can be made from the stem and the roots.

Contemporary American research has found Fat hen to have anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties with research continuing into how it can be utilised medicinally. Clearly this ancient herb still has some secrets to reveal..

This is my personal experience of using Fat hen combined with information I have researched over a number of years. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the above please stop using the herb immediately. And always take care when identifying the plant.

Happy Hunting, Claire Fleetneedle

LIFE ON PIG ROW DISCLAIMER: We’d like to thank Claire for this wonderful piece, as she points out, this is her personal experience and common sense must prevail in homemade herbal remedies. Therefore, if you are out and about foraging and aren’t confident that what you are about to pick is edible or medicinal the best advice is to leave it where it is. In the event of an adverse reaction to any homemade herbal remedy or foraged edible food you are advised to seek out medical advice. While every care is taken in the production of these posts neither Claire Fleetneedle nor Life on Pig Row are responsible for adverse reactions. Please remember to check local by-laws before foraging and never forage on private land without permission. Please use common sense when foraging.


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