Spring is coming, and I am, as they say in New England, wicked excited! But not for the reasons people usually have, or even that gardeners have. What I am most excited about is not the warmer weather, or starting seeds, or wearing a t-shirt instead of 3 sweaters.
No, what I am most excited about is the chance to eat the wild greens that start popping up in March and April.
In the “olden days”, before there were Californian and Chilean farms and the planes and trucks to carry their produce worldwide and year-round, before we had hydroponic greenhouses that grow tender lettuces and pungent basil even in deepest winter, those of us who lived in cold northern climes had to make do with dried fruits and vegetables, and stored root vegetables. Not a fresh green in sight for several months.
By the time spring arrived, people were desperate to have fresh green, leafy plants and veggies of any kind. These plant foods provided much-needed Vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals, and people hungered for them with an ancient body awareness of their goodness.
Whatever started peeping above the ground that was at all edible was plucked and eaten, either raw or cooked as a “pot herb”.
Many of the plants we see in spring originated in Europe and Asia, and found their way toNorth Americawith the European settlers. Others were already here, valued by Native Americans.
Here are just a few to whet your appetite.
Some of the earliest plants to appear are in the mustard family, some very tiny—only a couple inches wide and tall. Others are bigger and more evident, such as Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris), and later wild mustards. Winter cress has beautiful, mustardy, dark green leaves that cook up well. The flowers are edible as well, but a cluster of flowerpods when gently steamed remind one of broccoli. Just remember if you are enjoying the buds and flowers to leave a few to reseed for next year.
Dandylion, of course, is easily found, sometimes even putting up leaves and the occasional flower in late winter (or all winter as has been the case in 2011-12). The first young leaves are the most tender and tasty, and the roots are also full of nutrition to add to soups or stir-fries.
A dainty little lady, Chickweed, actually glories in cool weather, and will sometimes be seen lounging about in mid-winter in a sunny spot, surrounded by snow, but in her own little bare arena.
Spring is the perfect time to enjoy the intense nutrition and green taste of chickweed, as she grows quickly and abundantly. Chickweed is best eaten fresh and raw, in salads and sandwiches, though adding it into cooked dishes toward the end will still save much of her nutrition.
Violets start showing their heart-shaped leaves a little later in the spring, and then their dainty flowers. Both the leaves and the flowers are edible and filled with wonderful nutrients.
Any of these wild greens can be collected, singly or collectively, and added to a lettuce or spinach salad, or combined into their own little wild salad. Use a sprinkle of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic or herbed vinegar for a finishing touch, and to help you better digest all those lovely nutrients.
Happy spring grazing!
Some useful books: A Field Guide To Edible Wild Plants Of Eastern And Central North America by Lee Peterson
Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman, 1990, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places by “Wildman” Steve Brill with Evelyn Dean, 1994, Hearst Books (includes recipes)