Nature gives us a timely supply of vitamin C every spring, fresh for the picking. Long before we relied on grocery stores or health food shops for our daily dose of vitamins, natural plant sources have supplied us with plenty of options. There are wild, edible botanicals, rich in vitamin C and other nutrients growing all around us.
Vitamin C—Vital For Good Health
Vitamin C is a popular vitamin for good reason. This antioxidant boosts immune function, fights infection and cancer, lowers the risk and shortens the duration and severity of colds, bronchial infections, and asthmatic symptoms. It also helps the body absorb iron. When we’re sick, it helps us heal faster. High dose intravenous vitamin C is used in the treatment of sepsis, Lyme disease, and cancer.
Since the human body doesn’t manufacture vitamin C, it’s up to us to consume foods rich in vitamin C or take supplements, regularly. Some herbs are good sources of vitamin C too. Herbal sources can be purchased in supplement form, but foraging for natural, edible sources is a fun way to add flavor and variety to our meals. All while getting fresh air and sunshine, outdoors.
Foraging for Natural Vitamin C
This spring, before you do any weeding, check your yard and look for these five wild herbal foods that are pleasant to the palate, rich in vitamin C and other key vitamins and minerals.
Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Fun Fact: Chickweed got its name because chickens (and ducks) love snacking on it!
Where To Find It – Common Chickweed can be found throughout North America. Chickweed grows in yards and fields, damp areas, and shady spots.
Harvesting and Eating – Chickweed has a slightly crunchy texture that can be eaten raw, like bean sprouts. Its tiny flowers, leaves, and stems are edible. Clip the top inch or two, instead of pulling the plant out of the ground. Pick and eat before the stems get long and stringy, and the color fades. Rinse clippings under running water and pat dry with a towel. Toss into salads, use in sandwiches such as egg salad, or add to green smoothies.
Eastern Redbud Blossoms (Cercis canadensis)
Fun Fact: Eastern redbud blossoms are a flowering member of the legume family, which includes peas, beans, and red clover.
The redbud tree is sometimes referred to as the Judas tree, for Judas Iscariot, who is said to have hanged himself from a redbud tree after betraying Jesus. According to legend, the flowers on the tree were once white. After Judas’ suicide, the flowers turned pink with shame.
Where to Find It – The Eastern redbud variety is native to North America. It grows in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9 in woodlands, and along rivers, and creeks. As an understory tree, it is often found on the edge of the woods among taller tree species.
How To Identify – The beautiful pinkish-purple spring flowers bloom before the heart-shape leaves sprout. The pea-like flowers grow in clusters on the branches. This hardy tree species grows to an average height and width of 20 feet.
Harvesting and Eating – If you have access to a redbud tree in bloom pick a blossom and eat it. You may be surprised how good it tastes. The sweet-sour flavor resembles dried, sweetened cranberries. Pick and collect the flowers right off the branch into a container. No cooking required to enjoy these beauties. Toss fresh redbud flowers in a salad with raw dandelion greens or spring salad greens to add a burst of color, flavor, and nutrients. Stir into cooked oatmeal or pancake batter. Redbud flowers can be infused in vinegar, dehydrated, or made into wine.
Dandelion Greens (Taraxacum officinale)
Fun Fact: Dandelion greens were cultivated and eaten in the U.S. during the Great Depression. Every part of the plant—its flowers, leaves, and roots—is valued as a source of food and medicine.
Where to Find Them– If you aren’t growing this highly nutritious herb in your garden, like our European neighbors do, you can easily spot the yellow flowers as it appears in your lawn or other grassy, sunny spots in spring. They can grow in any soil type, in full sun to partial shade. Just be sure they haven’t been treated with pesticides.
How To Identify – Dandelions are easy to identify by their cheerful, yellow flowers. They’re one of the first to pop up each spring. The dark green leaves are smooth with jagged, scalloped “lion-tooth” edges.
Harvesting and Eating – Harvest young, tender leaves and shred dandelion flowers to make fresh leafy salads. Toss in sprigs of chickweed, and some redbud flowers along with your favorite salad dressing. Blanch, steam or sautéed older leaves in a pan with butter or olive oil to reduce bitterness. Try these recipes!
Note: If you’re allergic to ragweed, you may be sensitive to dandelion.
Red Clover Flowers (Trifolium pratense)
Fun Fact: Red clover is a flowering herb that belongs to the legume family along with peas and beans. It is the state flower of Vermont. It was first imported from Europe as a hay crop.
Where To Find It– Look in lawns, meadows, pastureland, and farm fields. The flowers bloom from spring to fall. Never consume any that are turning brown.
How To Identify –Its round, reddish-purple, flower head at the top of the stem is easy to spot in a grassy green meadow. At first glance, the flower head appears to be a single bloom, but it is made up of many tiny tube-shaped flowers. Clover generally has three-parted leaflets with distinct chevron, V marks.
Harvesting and Eating – Red clover flowers have a naturally sweet taste. Pluck the flower off its stem, leaving the plant in the soil. Chop large flower heads and toss in fresh green salads to add vitamin C, color, and texture. Red clover flowers can be used fresh or dried to make herbal tea. To make a cup of Red Clover Flower tea, pour one cup boiling water over one to two teaspoons of red clover flowers. Steep ten minutes before straining or drinking. Sweeten with honey, if desired.
Wild Violet – Leaves (Viola spp. – Viola odorata & viola papilionacea)
Fun Fact: Wild violet flowers are a lovely, edible garnish, but the leaves are edible, tasty and rich in vitamins C and A, too.
Where to Find Them– Wild violets prefer moist semi-shaded areas such as meadow, woodlands, thickets and flowerbeds. If you find violets growing in your flowerbed, it may take it over. This native wildflower tends to spread easily.
How to Identify –Wild violets are a perennial that bloom from spring through summer. The plant grows close to the ground, usually between 3 to 6 inches tall. The plant is noted for its blue-violet bloom and heart-shaped, veined leaves with lightly toothed edges. Most American wild violets are odorless, but European species are fragrant. African violets are not related to wild violets and are not edible.
Harvesting and Eating – Harvest leaves when flowers are in bloom to avoid picking the wrong plant. Do not eat the rhizomes (roots), as they’re poisonous to humans. Pick the tender leaves, wash, rinse, pat dry and eat raw. They make a mild, yet tasty lettuce substitute for salad greens. Wild violet leaves have a slight thickening effect when added to soups.
Never pick wild herbs or edibles from areas that have been chemically treated with weed killers. Forage in non-polluted areas, away from roadways. Pick only what you need. Leave stems and roots intact, so you can harvest more in the future. Flowering botanicals are beneficial to bees, so leave some blooms in the wild for the pollinators.
If you have any known allergies to these plants, do not consume. Check with your doctor first.
Deborah Tukua is a natural living, healthy lifestyle writer and author of 7 non-fiction books, including Pearls of Garden Wisdom: Time-Saving Tips and Techniques from a Country Home, Pearls of Country Wisdom: Hints from a Small Town on Keeping Garden and Home, and Naturally Sweet Blender Treats. Tukua has been a writer for the Farmers' Almanac since 2004.