Lamb’s quarters is an annual nonwoody plant commonly growing in disturbed areas such as gardens, mulch piles, and vacant lots. The single stem may have few or several branches above the base. Stalks and leaf stems may be reddish or purplish tinged or striped.
The leaves are alternate, variable in shape, but usually covered with a waxy, white-mealy coating that makes them hard to wet, especially when the leaves are young. Leaf stalks usually somewhat long. Leaf blades usually to 2¼ inches long, 1–3 times as long as wide, lobed or unlobed, toothed or untoothed; uppermost leaves linear to lanceolate, and lower leaves diamond-shaped, oval, or triangular. Most leaf margins usually wavy, slightly lobed or slightly toothed. Leaf texture varies from thin to thickened and somewhat leathery to slightly succulent. Upper surface not shiny; lower surface paler than upper surface. Leaf veins noticeably branched, with 1 or 3 main veins.
Flowers May–October, in green clusters in the leaf axils and at the top of the stalk; clusters are short spikes, each with small clusters of flowers. Flowers do not mature at the same time. Calyx (joined sepals) 5-lobed, covering almost the entire fruit. Petals absent. Stamens 5, stigmas 2.
Fruits less than ¼ inch wide, the persistent shell of the 5-lobed ovary covered with a white-mealy coating and nearly enclosing a shiny black seed, which is positioned horizontally within the fruit. The membrane-like covering is usually difficult to separate from the seed.
Similar species: More than 20 species in genus Chenopodium have been recorded growing in Missouri as either native or naturalized. Although it’s actually easy to learn to recognize lamb’s quarters and its close relatives when you see them (ask any farmer or gardener), these and other members of the amaranth family have a well-deserved reputation among botanists for being difficult to identify to species. To be certain of exact species, and sometimes even genus, you usually need mature fruits and seeds for identification, as well as a sampling of the larger lower leaves.
Stem length: 4–60 inches. Young plants grow upright; older, heavier plants may lay on the ground.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs on banks of streams, rivers, and spring branches, as well as crop fields, fallow fields, gardens, roadsides, railroads, and other open, disturbed areas. Prefers nitrogen-rich soils.
Introduced to North America and other continents long ago. Lamb’s quarters has been cultivated around the world for so long that researchers aren’t sure of its original range. Apparently it originated in Europe.
Although it is widespread, this species does not typically invade healthy natural communities to a great extent. Instead, it is usually found in places where the soil has been disturbed and other plants have been removed.
Common herbaceous plant, often considered a weed, valued globally as a wild edible green.
Taxonomically, Chenopodium album is confusing, even to specialists. Over time, it and its close relatives have been lumped together and split apart, so there are many Latin names that amount to synonyms. Confusing the issue is that C. album and several of its close relatives hybridize with each other, producing offspring with traits intermediate between the parent species.
Lamb’s quarters and about 2,000 of its relatives used to be considered members of the family Chenopodiaceae (the goosefoots), but botanists have determined that that group, though distinct, does not deserve to be held as a separate family, so it was demoted to subfamily level (Chenopodioideae) and folded into the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae).
Lamb’s quarters and its close relatives are cultivated as a vegetable or grain crop, or as livestock fodder, in many parts of the world.
In North America and Europe, lamb’s quarters is mostly considered a weed in gardens and crop fields, and people go to lengths to control it. It competes with crops such as soybeans and corn, reducing crop yields. Each plant produces abundant seed, and seed can remain viable for 40 years. If you want to prevent lamb’s quarters from getting established, remove the plants before they bloom and form seeds.
Lamb’s quarters is wind-pollinated, and it can contribute to hay fever. Allergy specialists often group chenopodiums and amaranths together in the same category of allergens, because these closely related plants bloom about the same time and have pollen that looks very similar under a microscope.
Lamb’s quarters and its close relatives can be eaten raw in a salad or as a cooked green, similar to its relative spinach (Spinacia oleracea). Like spinach, it has high levels of oxalates, so it should be eaten in moderation; people prone to kidney stones or having other kidney trouble should probably avoid it (check with your doctor or dietician if you have questions).
When cooking lamb’s quarters, keep in mind that it shrinks when cooking, so gather about three times as much volume of leaves as you think you need. Then, prepare it as you would prepare spinach. Cook it alone as greens, or use it in casseroles, stir-fries, in a wilted salad; or cook it and stir it into cream cheese as a cracker or sandwich spread, into plain yogurt as a tzatziki sauce, or in omelets, on sandwiches, and more.
In springtime, when tender young growth is present, many Americans enjoy eating lamb’s quarters in a “mess” of field greens (including a variety of other wild greens such as amaranth, lettuce, sow thistle, and dock).
The seeds can be dried and eaten like a grain or ground into a flour, much as you might prepare the seeds of its relatives quinoa (C. quinoa) and amaranth (Amaranthus spp.). Like quinoa and amaranth, lamb’s quarters seeds are highly nutritious, notably in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. Most American wild edibles enthusiasts warn that harvesting and preparing the seeds is a lot of work for little return.
A common, widespread, nutritious plant, lamb’s quarters is a favorite edible green and seed plant almost everywhere it grows. Apparently, humans have been eating it for about as long as anyone can determine. Archaeologists have found evidence of the seeds being stored or consumed at Viking, Roman, and prehistoric sites. Native Americans also traditionally ground the seeds for flour.
In northern India, lamb’s quarters is called bathua (BAH-too-uh) and is a favorite vegetable during the winter season. You can find recipes online for bathua raita (yogurt salad), bathua saag (cooked greens), bathua paratha (flaky flatbread), and more.
Other important food plants in the amaranth family include beets and swiss chard (Beta spp.), epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), orache (Atriplex spp.), and good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus).
Chenopodium album is the type plant (first plant named) in the genus Chenopodium. The originator of our system for naming plants, Carolus Linnaeus, named it himself. Chenopodium is derived from Greek words for “goosefoot,” referring to the shape of many of the leaves in this group.
Being a wind-pollinated plant, lamb’s quarters lacks showy flowers and does not offer gifts of nectar and pollen to attract insects. Therefore, pollinators such as bees and adult butterflies bypass lamb’s quarters.
The foliage and fruits of lamb’s quarters, however, are eaten by insects, birds, and mammals. The caterpillars of several skippers and moths eat the leaves; leafminers eat tunnels through the juicy middle layers of leaves; beetles and crickets eat the seeds; and aphids, leafhoppers, and other true bugs suck the sap. Deer, along with domesticated mammals such as sheep and pigs, eat lamb’s quarters, and rodents and songbirds eat the seeds.
The seeds of lamb’s quarters can pass through the digestive system of deer and germinate far away from the parent plant, creating new populations in new areas.
Where it grows in abundance, or in thickets with other plants, lamb’s quarters provides important cover and food for wildlife. Sparrows, especially, like to hide in thick growths of plants and nosh on the seeds.
Lamb’s quarters fits into an interesting category of American plants. Like common dandelion, English plantain, ox-eye daisy, Queen Anne’s lace, and henbit, it is one of the many plants and animals that Europeans brought with them (for better or for worse, intentionally or by accident) in past centuries and introduced to nearly all parts of the world. These plants have been present so long, it’s difficult to imagine the impact they had on native ecosystems. Most people are not aware that these wildflowers are not native to our continent. Fortunately, surprisingly few of these plants invade healthy, native ecosystems such as tallgrass prairies and native woodlands.