27 March 2019
Favorite Wild and Weedy Spring Greens
The fruit trees are blooming, the sun is rising earlier each day, and it's time to start clearing a space for this year's garden. I'm always delighted to see that the edible weeds are already up, ready to harvest for the salad bowl!
Like mine, your yard may blossom purple in March, with some combination of two common wild weedy edibles: violet and ground ivy. I love making salad with the violet leaves and flowers, adding small bits of leaves from the aromatic ground ivy, daughter of the mint family.
I also pick dandelion leaves for my stir fries and wild salads, breaking up the young leaves to distribute their strong flavor. Keep an eye out for the dandelion flowers which are just beginning to bloom, to top off dishes with her sweet flower heads.
As we move through the spring equinox and full moon this week, the natural cycles of remind us . . . we are following a long tradition of our grandmothers’ grandmothers who watched these cycles of moon and sun through the generations. Including incorporating many of these spring wild plants into their soups and salads. Which other plants do we look for at this time of year?
Chickweed lays the foundation of my wild spring salads. Her tender leaves are mildly flavored and full of nutrients, containing an abundance of vitamin C and chlorophyll. If you're lucky, chickweed (known to botanists as Stellaria media) will have already made herself at home in your garden beds and planters, as she has in mine.
As an alternate to simple wild greens salads, I find chickweed rice salad is always a big hit. Just mix equal parts chopped chickweed and cooked rice, then stir in some olive oil, minced garlic and salt to taste. It's even more delicious with chopped walnuts and crumbled feta cheese.
If you're not sure that what you have is chickweed, look for a line of hairs running along just one side of the stem. (The star lady's hairs are tiny, so you may need a magnifying glass for this.) Chickweed is my favorite salad green. It tastes just the way it looks: mild, gentle and bright green. The easiest way to harvest chickweed is with scissors, as if you were giving it a haircut (leave the lower portion of the plant so it can continue producing).
Chickweed loves cool, wet weather, so she becomes lush in spring and fall. Later in the spring, chickweed's "star in the middle" shows white and bright. In summer, chickweed dies down to a brown, stringy mat, her seeds packed into beak-shaped pods. That's the time to gather the whole plants, which contains the seeds, and lay them over any of your own garden beds where you want to cultivate this wonderful weed.
In the early cool days of spring, my heart flutters at my first glimpses of peppercress, poking between the cracks in the pavement or peeking out at the edge of my gardens. You've probably seen peppercress, an edible wild mustard green that's related to broccoli, with its four tiny white petals on each flower.
Peppercress is one of the first of the wild edibles to reveal herself to us after the dormant season. She’s a member of a very large and distinguished family—brassicas, also known by the Latin name Brassicaceae—that includes distant relatives such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, collards and cauliflower, as well as closer kin such as mustard greens.
As we learn the family connections of wild plants, their lineage will often give us clues to their nutritional and medicinal properties. Brassicas are almost universally edible and once you become familiar with their traits, you can safely try them to see if you like the flavor.
The flowers of the Brassicaceae family set them apart. They have 4 petals and, inside the flower, if you look closely, you will find six stamens: 4 tall and 2 short—a distinctive characteristic of the family. The seed pods occur in a radial pattern around the stalk. In the case of peppercress, they are very long, thin and green, like a mustard seed.
Peppercress is a weedy, social plant; it grows in borders and yards, so you don’t have go foraging in the woods to find it. I love to enjoy its peppery bite, as a snack by itself or in the first wild-crafted salads of the year, mixed with some chickweed—also an early arrival.
Keep an eye out for lush leaves of chickweed and peppercress’ tentative tendrils, and invite them to your table. The mild, earthy taste of chickweed and the pungent flavor of peppercress will wake up your taste buds and remind you that greener days are, indeed, on the way.