While reading a 17th-century book on gardening, I was struck by the way modern gardeners and cooks have lost touch with the world of wild edible greens all around us.
Spring Green Recipes:
In former times, wild greens were not looked down upon as weeds, but instead were gathered up as potherbs for good eating and health. In the Old World and in early America, wild greens gathered from woodlots, pasturelands and meadows were an important part of the daily diet. But when 19th-century industrialization shifted eating habits toward beef, white bread and processed foods, attitudes toward plants like chickweed and dandelion changed. These wild potherbs, once relished even by the wealthy, became branded as poverty food.
The truth is, edible wild plants still are treasure troves of good flavor and health. You simply need to know when to gather them and how to prepare them to bring out their best qualities.
Throughout much of Europe, particularly parts of the eastern Mediterranean, farm markets still sell wild plants during their brief season of availability. Plants like bladder campion and white mustard are appreciated as much as new wine or freshly pressed olive oil.
Although some authors describe the flavor of all wild greens as something akin to spinach, each of these plants offers a distinctive flavor and texture not found in garden vegetables. Most importantly, they have terroir: Their flavor is determined largely by the soil in which they grow. Wild plants, which usually have to struggle in poor or rocky soil, contain less water in their leaves, so their flavor is more concentrated than that of garden plants.
North America contains an abundance of wild edible greens, but I particularly like bladder campion, chickweed and dandelion. All three can be found in every region of the United States, or, if you prefer, could be grown in your own garden. Dandelion greens also are sold in most markets. For additional wild greens commonly found in the United States, see “A Sampler of Edible Wild Greens.”
BLADDER CAMPION (Silene vulgaris)
This escapee from the Old World originally was cultivated in colonial kitchen gardens because it was considered good for digestion (not to mention its whispered reputation as an aphrodisiac). In the wild, this highly nutritious plant grows in well-drained, gravelly locations, producing attractive white flowers from April through September.
The name comes from its distinctive bladder-like seed pods, which look attractive in dried floral arrangements. I’ve always wondered why this pretty plant with silvery-green leaves hasn’t been developed into something more spectacular, but then, the first thing to be sacrificed would be its flavor, which I like to describe as a mixture of cabbage and walnuts. Bladder campion tastes best before it blooms. Gather it in early spring, when the plants first emerge, or late fal. when new leaves appear. Pick the smallest, most tender shoots from plants no more than 3 to 4 inches high. Avoid the largest leaves, which can be stringy and tough. Eat the young shoots raw in salads, add them to stir-fries or cook them in omelets (see “Breakfast of Champions”).
Caution: Avoid harvesting and eating the related fire pink (Silene virginica),which has red flowers. It could be mildly toxic in large quantities.
CHICKWEED (Stellaria media)
Many gardeners consider chickweed a bane, yet few realize this weed can become a blessing if you cook it like a vegetable.
An old saying, “Chickweed tastes best when the trees have no leaves,” is fairly accurate. The plants emerge in fall, sneak across the garden all winter, then explode with energetic growth in the first warm days of spring. Pick the greens before the tiny starlike blossoms appear, because inedible seedpods quickly will follow. The ground hugging plants tend to pick up soil and leaves, so wash the greens.
Chickweed is rich in vitamin C, iron, phosphorus and trace minerals, and its earthy flavor combines especially well with mushrooms. You can boil it (save the broth for soups and stews), use it in stir-fries, sauté it with onions or make it into a delicious, savory pie. Keep in mind that chickweed shrinks considerably when cooked, so cook twice as much as you think you’ll need.
DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
Like bladder campion, this ubiquitous potherb was introduced from Europe in colonial times. Its name derives from the French dent de lion (lion’s tooth), which refers to its deeply serrated leaves. For cooking, the leaves are used most often, although the flowers make excellent wine and the roots a passable substitute for coffee.
The leaves are best when harvested in early spring or late fall to winter—before the plants flower. After flowering, the leaves develop a bitter sap (latex) that cooking can’t hide.
Because the taproots grow so deeply in the soil, dandelions draw up an array of nutrients. The greens contain much more iron and calcium than spinach and are an excellent source of vitamins A and C. Dandelion also contains the antioxidant luteolin, which is a good source of antioxidants and also has anti-inflammatory properties. For maximum nutritional value, use uncooked dandelion greens in salads, or wilt them briefly.
A savory pie and a warming soup prove that spring tonics can be tasty.
Since ancient times, people throughout the world have gathered wild greens in spring for good eating and good health. Here are two of my favorite ways to enjoy them.
Old-time herbalists (as well as some modern practitioners) believed a plant’s growing site affected its medicinal potency. They claimed the most effective herbs were gathered from the wild—where they grow naturally—rather than from a garden.
Wild greens were valued especially in spring, after a long winter diet of meat and
root vegetables, which contributed to nutrient deficiencies. In spring, the gathering of vitamin-rich greens marked the end of the period known as the “Six Weeks Want” (late January to early March).
William Woys Weaver is a food historian, author and contributing editor for Mother Earth News and Gourmet magazines. He gardens, cooks and writes from his home in southeastern Pennsylvania.
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