Ah, spring. Time to think about your lawn — not to mow it, but to harvest it. Wild spring greens and roots useful as food and medicine abound in lawns, flower beds, parks and vacant lots. Many of these weeds are edible greens and roots packed with vitamins and minerals. And they’re almost always free for the taking.
Many countries consider wild weeds as traditional fare. In Greece, I found raw or steamed wild greens on every menu, offered as horta.
Play By the Rules
Herbalists who search the hills and dales for edible and medicinal plants call it wildcrafting. Before you harvest, you must learn the wildcrafting rules. First, be able to identify without question any wild weed you collect (see “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” on Page 34). Second, make sure your weeds haven’t been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Of course, you’ll have control of your own yard, but check before harvesting your neighbor’s property or a park. Finally, avoid areas next to well-traveled roads, which will be polluted by traffic exhaust. Most herbalists recommend harvesting a minimum of 50 feet away from major roadways.
Let’s say you have made a positive identification and know that the plant you’re seeking is not endangered or threatened. It’s time for wildcrafting. Look for healthy plants that are not bug-eaten. Whenever possible, take gently from the plant to assure its survival. Don’t rip or pull, but treat the plant as if you are pruning it. If the area hasn’t been watered or rain-washed recently, rinse off your wild herbs after harvesting them. If you’re storing the herbs for future use, dry them in a warm place with plenty of air circulation and out of direct sunlight. Store them in an airtight container.
The wild herbs described in this article are rampant weeds. In fact, they are European natives that made themselves at home throughout North America and beyond. Once you learn to recognize them, you’ll encounter them everywhere, even through cracks in the sidewalk. Harvesting them won’t negatively impact the environment. However, that’s definitely not the case with all wild plants. Some favorite herbal remedies are becoming scarce from overharvesting; others are disappearing because civilization has taken over areas in which they grow. With some herbs, only a small percentage of the patch should be picked. Other herbs are too rare to collect at all.
In an effort to preserve wild medicinal herbs, herbalists have formed United Plant Savers, an organization dedicated to promoting herb cultivation as an alternative to wildcrafting (see Page 28 for more about United Plant Savers and endangered herbs).
Let’s begin with the easiest weed to recognize because it’s also the most versatile. You’ll find dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) growing just about anywhere, but it’s especially fond of lawns. Its name comes from the French term dent de lion, or “lion’s tooth,” for the familiar indentations along the edge of its leaf. It is often confused with false dandelion (Hypochaeris radicata) because both have a yellow dandelion-like flower. The easiest way to tell the difference is that dandelions have a hollow stem and a soft leaf, while the imposter has a solid stem and bristly leaves.
Finely chopped dandelion leaves make a great addition to salad, especially when they’re picked young and tender. If you like bitter greens, such as arugula, in salad mix, you’ll find dandelions a good wild replacement.
Steaming dandelion greens (removing the central rib first) or mixing them with other steamed greens will mask the herb’s bitterness. For Italian-style dandelion greens, steam, then lightly stir-fry the greens with pine nuts and serve sprinkled with olive oil.
Harvest dandelion roots in spring or fall. The roots’ main medicinal use is to treat liver and urinary tract problems. The roots also are a diuretic that won’t leach potassium from the body, unlike most of the drugs for this purpose. If you are a true dandelion lover like me, plant the herb in your garden — it will develop sweeter leaves and roots. The flowers can be used to make a delicious, delicate wine.
Another common bitter green is chicory (Cichorium intybus). Its bright blue flowers appear on tall stalks in spring or early summer, opening with the sunrise and closing at sunset. Chicory used to be planted in “calendar” gardens designed to tell time.
The leaves of this common roadside plant grow in a rosette much like dandelion but have fine, coarse hairs. The young leaves are edible, although they are better steamed than raw because of their bristles. You also can use either the raw or roasted roots for tea. The roasted roots are legendary in the southeast United States, where historically they were added to coffee to make the drink more affordable. You can roast the dried, chopped roots in an oven at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes, in true Louisiana style. The roots also are sold already roasted. Chicory root’s bittersweet taste somewhat resembles coffee, but the herb doesn’t contain caffeine so it won’t provide coffee’s buzz. The root is edible but is hard and stringy. The root of its much tastier Asian relative, endive, has long been cultivated as a vegetable. Medicinally, chicory provides a tonic for the liver and kidneys.
Powerful, Plentiful Plantain and Mint
I often turn to plantain (Plantago spp.) as a first-aid salve, cream or poultice. It makes cuts and any other skin injury heal more quickly. In Shakespeare’s signature play, Romeo tells Juliet, “Your plantain leaf is excellent for that,” and adds, “for your broken skin.”
I harvest plantain in the summer so I can blend it fresh to freeze small amounts in ice-cubes trays, ready to be thawed for an emergency. It is a common weed in many parts of the world. Look for leaves that grow out from the center with veins running parallel down their length. Plantain is edible, although I have to admit that even I — someone very fond of wild foods — find it too astringent and bitter for my taste. If you do eat it, steam it first.
Mint (Mentha spp.) is another wild weed that’s easy to recognize. Several types of peppermint and spearmint reveal their identities by their distinctive aromas. Other characteristics of mints are their square stems with leaves growing opposite of each other. Mint makes a tasty tea that will settle an upset stomach and improve overall digestion, a use for which it’s been prescribed for at least 2,000 years.
Sample Sheep Sorrel and Yellow Dock
Raw sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) adds a lemony taste to salads. Or put a few sprigs in a blender with oil and vinegar to make a salad dressing that’s definitely on the wild side. The herb’s tang comes from oxalic acid, which nutritionists caution can block calcium assimilation. However, don’t worry about eating small amounts. Oxalic acid is also found in spinach, and there’s even a little in chocolate.
Sheep sorrel loves disturbed soil, so it will make itself at home in yards and gardens. Invert the soft, thin leaves and they resemble a sheep’s head with long ears — that is, if you have the imagination to see it. This weed doesn’t have a vast history of medicinal use, but it is an ingredient in the popular herbal cancer treatment tea Essiac.
You will probably also encounter sheep sorrel’s relative, yellow dock (Rumex crispus) in the wild. There are several species, with such names as curly dock and red dock, but herbalists use them all in the same way. You may also know another relative, French sorrel (R. scutatus), which I grow in my herb garden to flavor salads and soups.
Like sheep sorrel, the leaves of yellow dock have a lemonlike taste, but they become bitter as they grow older, so it’s best to harvest them in early spring. The root of yellow dock is renowned among herbalists for its ability to reverse iron deficiency, usually in just a few weeks. It was once thought that the yellow root was packed with iron, but it turns out there’s a relatively small amount. That means it probably helps the body better assimilate iron.
You can dry the root for future use, but first wash it well and chop it because it’s difficult to cut when dry. The bitter tea is certainly nothing you’d serve at a party, but drinking it down is worth the effort if you need to build your iron.
You can recognize yellow dock by its yellow- to red-colored root and upright leaves that curl around the edges and rise up to about 1 foot. The distinctive, tall stalks bearing deep red-brown seeds are a common sight in late summer along highways. These attractive stalks can be put in dried flower arrangements.
Burdock Root: A Liver Lover
No wild weed discussion is complete without mentioning burdock (Arctium lappa). This weed lives two years, producing a tall, 4- to 5-foot flower stalk during its second summer. The flowers turn to the seed burs that give the plant the name burdock. The burs, with their hooked tips, are said to be the inspiration for Velcro. Burdock provided my first wildcrafting experience at 5 years old, when my mother tried to comb the burs out of my hair after I’d been playing in the field.
In Japan, burdock is known as gobo and is eaten as a vegetable. The fresh root is delicious in soup or stew. Prepare it like carrots and add to cooked dishes. Harvest the long root in the fall and spring, or in the winter if your ground doesn’t freeze and you can find the leaves after they have died down in the winter. Or look for fresh roots for sale in a Japanese grocery or natural food store. Burdock provides excellent medicine that even helps regenerate liver cells. It has been used traditionally in a number of cancer remedies, including both Essiac (mentioned above) and the Hoxsey formula.
Clover: Not Just for Cows
Another weed awaiting your discovery is clover (Trifolium pratense). A tea made from clover flowers has a light taste that mixes well with other herbs. Any type of clover can be made into tea, but red clover is most sought after for its medicinal properties. The deep pink flowers of this clover are beautiful when they blanket a springtime field. Look for the typical clover leaf growing in groups of three. Pick the flowers when they are in their peak, before they begin to turn brown. The Indians ate the leaves but only after much leaching (a process in which they repeatedly poured water over the pounded leaves to make them more digestible). I find they taste like grass, so unless you like the taste of grass, leave the food aspect to the cows and stick with the tea. Clover has achieved recent attention as a source of plant estrogen that helps relieve problems associated with menopause.
Kathi Keville is the author of 12 books on herbs and aromatherapy. She teaches classes and leads herb walks throughout the United States and is the director of the American Herb Association (www.AhaHerb.com).