Spring and sunlight and warmth, oh my! Here in the Northeast after an extremely long, cold, and snowy winter, the plants, animals and birds, and humans are stretching toward the warmth of the sun and sighing with relief. My favorite spring plants are popping up, though later than usual, and I am thinking about what I will put on my plate, in my soup pot, and into my handcrafted herbal medicines.
Here are 6 plants that are coming up and that are ready to be used now. Some have parts that must be harvested now before they get too woody/stringy/invested in plant growth, others will be able to be used for a while. All are used for both food and medicine, except for garlic mustard, which as far as I know has no medicinal uses.
Note: Please be very sure you know what plant you are picking before you use it so that you don’t run the risk of poisoning or illness. A couple of good plant i.d. books and sites are listed at the end of this article. If you’re uncertain and want to learn more, up close and personal with the plants, I lead foraging walks throughout the growing season. Click here for my calendar.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
As some of you may know, dandelions are one of my most favorite herbs. They are edible and medicinal and their yellow blossoms are immensely cheering. When I was a kid I used to take the blossoms and try to make perfume with them! (It didn’t work, darn it all.)
This is the perfect time to be digging up the roots for making bitter tonics and tinctures. Susun Weed says that spring-dug roots are more bitter than autumn-dug and excellent for bitter tonics. She says the best time to harvest the roots is between the warming of the earth and the first buds appearing.
If you want to eat the leaves before they get too bitter, you have to hurry, as the dandelions are already setting their buds, and once they start putting up their buds and blooming the leaves will be much more bitter.
If you want to know where the dandy buds are, get down on your knees and look into the center of a rosette of dandy leaves. Nestled into the very heart of the leaf rosette you will find a tightly-shut bud, ready to come up at the top of its individual stalk. It is amazing to watch the flowers grow, it is quite unique in my opinion.
Dandelion roots, leaves, buds, and flowers all are edible and can be used for medicine as well. Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, gives a nice description of dandies and what can be done with them for food and medicine, here is a link: http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/d/dandel08.html
One of the best resources for using dandies for food and medicine is Susun Weed’s Wise Woman Herbal: Healing Wise which has a whole chapter, with wonderful recipes, on all parts of our friend Dandelion. And Dr. Peter A. Gail has a couple of books on dandies, as well, with easy recipes.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Mugwort is just peeping above the ground and it is the perfect time to use her for spring greens. Trim close to the ground and add the greens to your soup or stir-fries. Some Asian cultures are very fond of the young mugwort greens in the spring.
Later in the summer mugwort can be used for flavoring foods and for medicine, as well as dried for smudge sticks and moxabustion, if you’re so inclined.
Evening Primrose (Oenethera biennis)
Surely one of my favorite plants. Now is the last time you’ll be able to eat the roots until the fall. These biennials are gearing up for their second year of growth—leafing, blooming, going to seed, and then dying.
The roots are still edible, in that they have not yet gotten too stringy. The rosette of leaves as well is edible, with a peppery taste similar to the roots.
I use evening primrose roots in soups, stews, and stir-fries, and also throw them in the stock pot when making soup stock. The roots can be eaten raw in salads as well.
The rosettes of leaves get used similarly, before the plant starts its growth and flower-making process.
At this time of year you will only find second-year plants, as last year’s seeds have not yet started to sprout.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Another biennial, but considered very invasive, so feel free to eat as much as you want! It has rather heart-shaped leaves when the plant comes up, the stem leaves are pointed instead.
As the name implies, it has a garlicky scent when the leaves are crushed. It also has a garlicky taste when eaten raw, but that taste disappears when it is cooked, leaving the bitter taste paramount.
As with many mustard greens (and it is in the mustard family), it has a bitter taste, especially when cooked. Depending on your tastes, you may or may or not enjoy eating this plant, but it certainly is nutritious.
Garlic mustard can be eaten raw or cooked, and all above-ground parts can be eaten, including the flowers when it blooms. If you harvest a lot of it you can freeze it for use later.
Plantain (Plantago major, P. lanceolata)
A trusty perennial, there are actually two species that abound in our area of the Northeast, and indeed, in many places in North America. The 2 species are broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major) and narrow-leaved, lance-leaved, or English plantain (P. lanceolata). Both are used the same way for food and medicine.
If you are going to eat plantain, now is the time to do so, when it is very young. It quickly gets too tough and stringy and then is good for teas and infused oils, but is not pleasant to eat.
Boil the young leaves for 3 to 4 minutes and eat as a veg or in soups, or make teas with the slightly older leaves. I dry the leaves to use in teas and to add to the stock pot during the cold months.
I also infuse the leaves of both species in oil, usually extra-virgin olive oil, for a really effective oil for skincare that gets added to lip balms, salves, and lotions.
All hail to this marvelous plant, another of our biennials! Again, the leaves you see coming up are from second-year plants, as the seeds from last year haven’t yet sprouted.
This is the perfect time to harvest leaves and roots. If you are going to eat the leaves you want to do so while they are very young and relatively tender. Later they get tough and unpalatable and are good for teas and infused vinegars, but not really for eating.
This is also your last chance to get the roots before the plant starts into its growth and bloom cycle. After this the plant will be putting its energy into growing, thus taking nutrients and energy out of the roots, and they will also become too stringy. Now is the time to eat the roots in salads or soups, or make them into medicines.
Violet (Viola spp.)
Violets are coming up now, and their slightly mucilaginous, mild-flavored leaves are a great addition to salads and soups. I especially like adding violet leaves to pea soup, they add nutrition and oomph to it.
Make sure you are harvesting violet leaves, as there can be some look-a-likes. Our common wild violet, which is the one you are most likely to encounter, has heart-shaped leaves that unfurl from the center; some other species have differently shaped leaves. Here is a link to help you properly identify wild violets.The wild violet can take over your garden plot if you don’t watch out (I am currently taking out numerous patches from my garden!).
The wild violet flowers are edible and medicinal. Generally they are eaten raw in salads, made into syrups, or candied for a condiment. The cool thing about these flowers is that you can use as many as you want without affecting the reproduction of the plant! The flowers are actually sterile, and therefore don’t set seed. The fertile, seed-setting flowers bloom later in the season, and are non-descript, growing close to the ground. These flowers and root-extension are how the violet spreads.
The wild violet leaves are very nutritious and mild-flavored, as well as being good medicine, and can be eaten throughout the season.
Both Susun Weed, in her Wise Woman Herbal: Healing Wise, and Peter Gail write about violet and how to use it for food and medicine.
Throughout the growing season I take people on walks to meet the many useful plants growing around us. It is wonderful to see the abundance of what is growing even in the middle of the city or in a lawn. If you’d like to take a walk with me, check out my schedule and come meet the plants!
What wild plants are you seeing come up and harvesting? Let me know in the comments below.
- Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb, Little, Brown and Company
- A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-Central North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Margaret McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson
- The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region by National Audobon Society
- A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Lee Allen Peterson and Roger Tory Peterson
- Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman, 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, Hearst Books
- A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Steven Foster, James A. Duke and Roger Tory Peterson
- The Wise Woman Herbal: Healing Wise by Susun Weed
- The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine by Peter Gail
- Violets in the Kitchen by Peter Gail
- http://apps.winterroot.net/ Wildman Steve Brill’s app for foraging and plant i.d.
- https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/ identification tools for New England plants