Common Lambsquarters


Common lambsquarters or fat hen (Cbenopodium album L. #3 CHEAL) was classified by Linneaus in 1753. The generic name is from the Greek cben, a goose, and pous or podos, a foot (14); the leaf shape of plants in this genus are reminiscent of goose feet (19). The goosefoot family, Cbenopodiaceae, includes many vegetables: table beets, sugarbeets, spinach, and marigold. The name `fat hen', used for several plants of the Goosefoot family, was first published in English in 1795 (13). Richard Charles Alexander Prior (1809-1902) noted that lambsquarters is a corruption of "Lammas quarter" (15), a harvest festival held Aug. 1 in the 9th century English church, at which loaves of bread made from the first ripe corn were consecrated (13). "Lammas" was one of the quarter days which marked off the quarters of the year; it may be a contraction of "loaf-Mass." 

Tenants of the Archbishop of York were obligated to bring a lamb to the altar; this also may have been an etymological source for "lammas" or "lambsquarters." Common lambsquarters and a related plant, spreading orach (Atriplex patula L. # ATXPA) formerly known by the same name, had some associ-ation with the festival (13) - possibly as a green vegetable which characterized meals at that time of year.

Distribution and Uses

Common lambsquarters grew in Britain in the late-glacial and post-glacial periods. Neolithic, Bronze Age, and early iron Age people ate it, and the Romans and Europeans used it extensively (9). People once regarded lambsquarters as one of the most delicious of wild vegetables. In spring they gathered the young plants, boiled them until tender, and served them with butter, salt and pepper (19). An old English recipe says "Boil myles [lambs-quarters] in water and chop them in butter and you will have a good dish (9)." Seedlings and tender shoots also were used in salads (8) or were made into soup. Lambsquarters contains more iron, protein, Vita-min B2, and Vitamin C than either raw cabbage or spinach; it has more calcium and Vitamin B1 than raw cabbage; and its other constituents com-pare favorably with both these vegetables (9, 19). 

Seeds of common lambsquarters were dried and were ground into flour for bread, cakes, or gruel, and some American Indians still use them this way (9). Flour made of lambsquarters seed is dark colored from the blackish seed coats but bakes up into a tasty and nutritious product (7, 8). The seeds taste like buckwheat and are delicious raw (9), but are tiny and hard to chew; because the seeds are small and smooth, they had to be boiled, mashed, and dried before grinding (8). The pioneers added lambs-quarter seeds to breads, pancakes, muffins, and cookies (19). They were part of the gruel eaten by the Tollund man at his last meal (9) before he was pitched into the Irish bog.  

Although Europeans once valued lambsquarters as a vegetable and as an important fodder for their animals, it lost favor when spinach was introduced from southwest Asia in the 16th century (9). But its name persisted: the Anglo-Saxons called it "melde," and it grew so profusely in some areas that settlements were named for it. Tenth century Meldeburna (the stream where melde grew), Cam-bridgeshire, England, is now called Melbourn. And Meldinges, in Suffolk, is now Milden (9). From Europe and Asia, lambsquarters traveled to the United States. A hardy weed, growing well in many climates and soils, it spread rapidly across the continent and is now common throughout the country (19). It persists as a weed in gardens, field crops, pastures, and almost any waste groundin Europe, the British Isles, North and South Amer. ica, Asia, and Australia (9). Worldwide, common lambsquarters is ranked as the most important weed in potatoes and sugar beets and seventh in abundance in corn (10). 

In the United States, lambsquarters is the predominant weed in soybeans (17). It is the most common weed of sugarbeets and potatoes in Sweden (1). It grows from 70 N to 50 S latitude, except in areas of extreme desert conditions (10). As early as 1840, Christian Horace Benedict Alfred Moquind-Tandon (1804-1863), the monographer of the Chenopodiaceae, considered lambsquarters an agricultural weed throughout the temperate region (12). Lambsquarters grows mainly in disturbed areas, particularly in yards and around farm buildings near local concentrations of nitrogen or organic matter (6). 

Its penchant for establishing on disturbed, abandoned land make lambsquarters valuable as a soil protector (19). Common lambsquarters, an annual with succulent stems and leaves, grows from 0.6 to 1.5 m (2 to 5 ft) tall. It may have reddish streaked stems, with short alternate branches. The stalked leaves are variable: some are narrow, some are wide-pointed, toothed ovals, and others are almost triangular with wavy teeth. The leaves and stems are powdered with a whitish-gray meal, especially the undersides of leaves; this gives the plant its specific name, album, which means white. Very small, green or gray-green flowers crowd in groups in the forks of upper leaves; the seeds are horizontally flattened, smooth, and shiny (6).


Common lambsquarters is in the same family as spinach and beets, which are damaged by the same pests and diseases, including beet leaf-hoppers and spinach mildew. The common stalkborer is an insect that lives on lambsquarters but will spread to tomatoes, corn, and certain flowers (19). Lambsquarters produces airborne pollen which causes hay fever (18).

An average-sized lambsquarters plant produces about 72 450 seeds (16) in fall, ensuring lambs-quarters the following spring (19). During long days, lambsquarters produces a high percentage of black, dormant seeds. Such seeds are smaller and have a thicker testa than the occasional brown, reticulate, nondormant seeds that are produced on short days. C. album can germinate over a wider range of conditions than the less weedy species of the genus; dormancy factors contribute to its success as a weed (5). Lambsquarters seeds will germinate even after being buried 20 yr (19).

Aellen (3) recognized 34 subspecies, varieties, and forms of C. album in North America, but Abrams (2) concluded that all these taxa were minor variants of the species. C. album often is confused with several other closely related weedy annual species, of which the most common are netseed lambsquarters [C. berlandieri Moq. # CHEBE ssp. zscbackei (Murr.) Zobel] and late-flowering goosefoot [C. strictum Roth. var. glaucophyllum (Aellen) H.A. Wahl. # CHESG].

Several of the more than 20 species of the genus Chenopodium, mostly annual weeds, are considered toxic or potentially toxic (11); some have caused nitrate poisoning in livestock (6) and even loss of livestock in Australia (11). Some species of Chenopodium are weakly cyanogenetic (11). Common lambsquarters and oakleaf goosefoot (C, glaucum L. #CHEGL) frequently contain potentially dangerous concentrations of nitrates. Animals may not die solely from eating these species, but their presence in toxic hay may contribute to the hay's toxicity (11).

Common lambsquarters also contains oxalic acid and is poisonous to sheep and swine when eaten in large quantities over a long period. The plant causes severe taint in milk when eaten by dairy cows but is generally regarded as useful feed for dry cattle and sheep. Animals under stress may be affected if they eat the plant in quantity, but field cases of poisoning are rare (6). C. album leaves are one source of ascaridole, an oil used to treat for round worms and hook worms (4).


1. Aamisepp, A. 1976. Weed control in potatoes and sugar beets. Swed. Weed Conf. (SWDCA) 17:D-30, D-32.

2. Abrams, L. 1944. Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States. Vol. 11. Stanford Univ. Press, Palo Alto, CA.

3. Aellen, P. 1929. Beitrag zur systematik du Cbenopodium. Rep. Spec. Nov. Regn. Veget. 26(1):31-64. 26(2):119-160

4. Boche, J., and O. Runquist. 1968. Kinetics of the thermal rearrangement of ascaridole. J. Organ. Chem. 33:4285.

5. Cumming, B. G. 1963. The dependence of germination on photo-period, light quality and temperature in Chenopodium spp. Can. J. But. 41:1211-1233.

6. Everist, S. L. 1979. Poisonous Plants of Australia, 2nd ed. Angus & Robertson Publ., London.

7. Fernald, M. L., and A. C. Kinsey. 1951. Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America. Harper Brothers, New York.

8. Harrington, H. D. 1967. Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains. Univ. N. M. Press, Albuquerque.

9. Hatfield, A. W. 1969. How to Enjoy Your Weeds. Frederick Muller, London.

10. Holm, L. G., D. L. Plucknett, J. V. Pancho, and J. P. Herberger. 1977. Weeds of the World-Distribution and Biology. Univ.

11. Kingsbury, J. M. 1964. Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

12. Moquin-Tandon, A. 1840. Chenopodearum Monographica Enumeratio. P. J. Loss, Paris.

13. Murray, J.A.H., H. Bradley, W. A. Craigie, and C. T. Onions, eds. 1933. The Oxford English Dictionary. Clarendon Press, Oxford, England.

14. Plowden, C. C. 1970. A Manual of Plant Names, 2nd ed. Philosophical Library, New York.

15. Prior, R.C.A. 1870. On the Popular Names of British Plants, 2nd ed. Williams and Norgate, London.

16. Stevens, O. A. 1932. The number and weight of seeds produced by weeds. Am. J. Bot. 19:784-794.

17. Wisk, E. L., and R. H. Cole. 1966. Effect of date of application of two pre-plant herbicides on weed control and crop injury in soybeans. Proc. Northeast Weed Conf. 21:366-367.

18. Wodehouse, R. P. 1971. Hay Fever Plants, 2nd ed. Hafner Publ. Co., New York.

19. Wright, R. H. 1972. What Good is a Weed? Ecology in Action. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., New York.