For the wild green foragers, this is the best time of the year. Almost every lawn, driveway, empty lot and park is filled with choice early spring edibles, just waiting to be harvested and help with the grocery bill.
One of the most common of the choice greens is the humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). It is packed with nutrition and the young leaves make a great addition to salads. As they mature, and particularly after the plant blooms, the greens become bitter which, up to a certain point, can be tempered by either boiling or stir-frying. Adding butter and a splash of red wine vinegar (or olive oil and lemon) and you have a dish which rivals the offering of any gourmet restaurant.
Every part of the plant is edible including the root (used for a coffee substitute), the crowns, leaves and flowers (which add a bright splash of color to salads or which can be used to make wine).
The list of ailments treated with dandelions is long and diverse. Euell Gibbons, the famous forager, writes that 'I do not think it is an exaggeration to say this vitamin-filled wild plant has, over the centuries, probably saved a good many lives.' 1
The best place to harvest dandelions is where it grows in soft soil and receives plenty of water. Under these conditions, it grows large and succulent.
Another choice spring green is chickweed, a lovely little tender green that grows with exuberance in many habitats and can be eaten like lettuce or alfalfa sprouts. It has a fresh, delicate flavor which blends well with salads. The quickest way to harvest it is to clip the end two inches of the branching tendrils - farther down toward the crown, the stems become more stringy and tough. Chickweed is very high in zinc, iron and potassium and is a strong antioxidant, rivaling spinach in nutrients.
Chickweed likes cold temperatures and will continue to grow until summer heat hits or spring rains stop. It begins growing again in the fall in cool, shady areas. Each plant grows for about six or seven weeks but reseeds freely so a second crop may grow before conditions become unfavorable.
The third choice spring green which is harvestable right now is purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). It is the ground cover which is turning farm fields lavender as the top leaves of the plant turns purple and the flowers bloom like tiny violet orchids. It is an important source of nectar for pollinators but it grows so abundantly that there is generally more than enough to harvest for the dinner table.
The top of the plant is edible, again, for adding to salads but does not lend itself well to cooking. It can make a pleasant tea and like dandelion and chickweed, makes a healthy addition to smoothies.
There are many other choice edibles but these three are generally easy to identify, taste good, are very healthy additions to the diet and are available in the outdoor produce aisle now. They are generally considered weeds and considerable effort is expended on their eradication, however, by adding them for culinary use, they can provide a very pleasant addition to meals.
As with any harvesting, it is best to go with a friend who can positively identify the plants or consult a trusted guidebook which details less desirable look-alikes. Also, be choosy where you harvest to ensure no herbicides have been sprayed in the area.
1 Gibbons, Euell, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, David Mackay Co., Ltd,. NY, 1962, p. 77
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