As the winter draws to a close, spring gardens begin to appear. Amongst the first plants that we can grow, those with a bit of frost tolerance, are popular greens like kale, spinach, lettuce, and chard. Spring greens come just in the nick of time as our bodies long for the vitamins and minerals from fresh produce.
While these greens are fun to grow, adding color and value to any garden bed (including decorative), another way to get a load of nutrients is to forage wild spring greens. These will often pop up a little earlier than those grown in gardens, and like those cultivated greens, they are good for us.
The other obvious advantage is that foraged spring greens are free. We don’t have to buy them, don’t have to buy seeds, and don’t even have to spend energy cultivating them. They also bring particularly unique flavors and shapes to dinner plates.
Chickweed comes out early. It likes to grow along woodland edges, where forests meet pathways, driveways or roads. It has a mild flavor, is easily identified, and can be eaten in bulk. It has two possible lookalikes — scarlet pimpernel and spurge — but they have some distinguishing characteristics and aren’t likely to cause problems unless they are eaten in abundance. Even so, it’s best to double-check before eating chickweed.
There are many members of the allium (onion) family that grow wild, often popping up in the winter and definitely the spring. These are easy to spot, but the real way to be sure is simply to smell them. If the leaves look right and smell like onions, then they are probably safe to eat. They are generally either in the woods or near them.
Wood sorrel has excellent flavor, slightly sour due to oxalic acid. Oxalic acid shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities, but it generally doesn’t cause problems when eaten in moderation in a well-rounded diet. Wood sorrel has no poisonous lookalikes, but it is sometimes mixed up with clover, which is also edible but not as tasty.
Otherwise known as wild garlic mustard, this is a tasty edible that tantalizes the tongue. It arrives in early spring, like many others, along the edges of forests or around hedges. The leaves, as well as flowers and seeds, are edible. It offers both nutritional and medicinal benefits. It’s considered an invasive species, so eating it might be part of keeping the spreading under control.
It’s hard to go into wild edible greens, spring or fall, without listing dandelions. They seem to always be around, and the young, tender leaves are delicious and packed with nutrients. Dandelions are extremely useful plants, edible all over, and they are often considered a “spring tonic” for cleansing the body after winter.
Violets pop up everywhere: city parks, backyards, fields, roadsides, parking lots, and so on. The leaves and flowers are edible, with a warm, peppery flavor. The roots are not. While easy to identify, these do have some lookalikes — larkspur and monkshood — of which to be aware, and those cultivated violets in the garden are not the same thing. Still, they are worth getting to know.
Lambsquarter is so delicious that many gardeners will actually put it in their gardens, but it does grow wild and free. This is another foraged green that offers roots and seeds as viable nutrition as well. It tends to have a slightly salty taste and is a great source of minerals and amino acids. The leaves, like most wild edible greens, can be treated like spinach.
About as common as dandelion, plantain is a “weed” that we can find in abundance wherever the soil has been disturbed. It’s often used medicinally, as a poultice for bee stings, and is also made into a tea. The leaves, particularly the young ones, are possible additions to wild salads but are best when cooked.
For those lucky enough to live near clean streams or natural springs, watercress is a fantastic springtime harvest. It has a reputation that precedes it, both for taste and nutrition. It’s also renowned for its medicinal qualities, including anti-carcinogenic characteristics. This is another one that’s so good lots of people choose to grow it.
There is something magical about eating a salad composed of mixed wild spring greens. Not only is it bursting with flavor and nutrients, but it’s also a rarity. For the most part, only those willing to forage get to sample such a dish. What a culinary treat, and for free!
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