There may be nothing more thrilling (or comforting) than the sight of a tiny green bud poking its head out of a blanket of snow after a long cold winter. For many of us, this is the first recognizable sign of spring and the assurance that warmer weather is just around the corner. It is also a sign that fresh, harvestable food is not far off. It’s hard for those of us so intimately woven into the modern food system to imagine that beneath the icy winter landscape is a nutritious and tasty smorgasbord just waiting to be discovered.
But this is just how Mother Nature planned it. To enjoy the first taste of spring, we don’t have to spend money at the grocery store or toil over the earth with shovel and hoe, we simply have to leave our home with satchel in hand and take a walk to the nearest green patch. It is here we will discover together the free and delicious bounty Mother Nature offers us as nourishment. So put your shoes on and get ready!
It was as if Mother Nature knew that after a long winter of eating storage crops, canned vegetables, and dried meat and berries that we’d be hankering for something fresh, crisp, and chock full of vitamin C! For that reason she made spring one bountiful salad with all the variety of nutrient-dense greens you could imagine. This first green is more of a “family” of greens that you can find easily among other herbaceous spring plants.
1. Wild Mustard Greens
Wild mustards are the forbears of modern vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, kale, and collards. This collection of unruly brassicas is versatile, tasty (some pack a nice spicy bite) and can be found in early spring and into the summer in fields and commonly disturbed areas. Like most greens mustards can be eaten raw in a salad when young, sautéed, or added to soups and stews when they become older and tougher. The pretty yellow flowers, flower buds, seedpods and seeds can be eaten and make beautiful additions to a stir fry. Common wild mustards include field mustard and black mustard. The distinguishing features among mustard greens are their deeply lobed leaves, four-petaled yellow flowers (much like a broccoli plant gone to seed) and slender bumpy seed pods.
Peppergrass or pepperweed goes by the scientific name Lepidium virginicum. It’s also called “Poor Man’s Pepper.” As its name suggests, peppergrass has a spicy, peppery flavor. Because of this, it can add flavor and variety to salads or be used as a garnish on baked potatoes or pork. The plant’s distinct peppery seedpods—flat, slightly notched circles make excellent additions to spicy soups and stews. They are high in Vitamin C and iron. A similar plant to the peppergrass is shepherd’s purse. It’s sometimes easier to find because of its noticeable heart-like seed pods shaped, as the name suggests, like purses.
If you don’t like your greens having too much of a bite, try a lovely and prolific little plant that is thought of more for its pretty flowers than its edibility. Violets are not only a beautiful sight in a field, garden, or roadside, they are a very palatable and aesthetic addition to your dinner menu or picnic plans as both the greens and flowers make a lovely addition to salads. The leaves can also be added to soups as a thickener. Simple and mild in taste violets are high in Vitamin C and A and make great pairing with more bold greens like those in the mustard family. There are a number of violets out there with the most widespread being the common blue violet.
Another excellent mild and nutritious green is those in the amaranth family. Amaranthus retroflexus is often thought of as a pesky weed in many parts of this country, but it’s eaten the world over with the leaves being served alongside or in place of spinach, and not simply because of their similarity in appearance. People have taken to cultivating the plant and certain varieties have found a resurgence in health food stores. In addition to making an excellent cooked green, the seeds, which appear later in the fall, can be dried and ground into a tasty and nutritious flour or toasted and added to a variety of dishes. Very similar to amaranth in taste appearance and uses is a plant known as lambs quarters.
A bit more flavorful but a similarly delicate green are sorrels. Like amaranth, sorrels are more popular outside of the U.S. and have been cultivated and coveted for their sour lemon-like flavor, which makes them an outstanding addition to cream-based soups and sauces. Arrow-shaped leaves grow large in the garden setting when planted from seed and smaller among the more wild sheep sorrel variety which make for an excellent nibble while on a walk. Although technically from a different plant family, and very different in appearance (typically a three lobed clover looking plant), the common wood sorrel is often clumped with true sorrels for its sour taste. All “sorrels” make excellent lemon like teas and refreshing beverages, but must not be eaten in excess as the oxalic acid present in the plant (also found in spinach) could hinder calcium uptake. Everything in moderation!
The last green is not for the faint of heart, but is well worth the trouble if only for its high nutritional value and superb taste. Nettles, known by their more common name and attribute, as stinging nettles, are incredibly high in vitamins A and C as well as iron and protein, and unlike many other wild edibles which are fair to OK in taste, nettles truly do have a pleasant flavor akin to some of our more familiar and favorite vegetables. But like any “prize,” the enjoyment of nettles as a food does not come without work. As their name suggests, nettles are covered in fine hairs that can sting skin. The best way to handle nettles is to simply wear a good pair of gardening gloves. Once the greens are cooked — they aren’t ever to be eaten raw! – the stingers fall away. They are a great soup and stew green and, once dry, make a wonderful and nutritious tea that’s great for supporting overall health during the colder months.
Disclaimer: These articles are meant to inspire and entice and are not to be used in place of a proper field guide or certified instructor. If you are a first-time forager it is important that you familiarize yourself with proper plant identification either through books and/or a knowledgeable guide and to be able to recognize potentially harmful plants. The more practice you have in foraging for wild edibles the more confident you will feel and the safer you will be. Ultimately, this will lead to a more enjoyable satisfying meal!
Sherie Blumenthal is a Food Access Coordinator with Lots to Gardens, an urban gardening and community nutrition initiative sponsored by St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston, Maine.