Saturday, March 9, 2013

Foraging Wild Winter Greens in Your Yard, by Melinda

Chickweed Stem
While we've had to forego our last Winter Markets because the protracted extreme cold slowed the plants' growth, there still are greens to be had, right under your feet!  Believe it or not, some delightful edible greens actually grow wild outside during the winter.  (Don't sneer at the idea of eating "weeds"--some of the most chi-chi restaurants are now using foraged greens and other veggies! In the New York area, one fashionable forager is Tama Matsuoka Wong, who collects "weeds" for a number of upscale restaurants; click here for an article about her.)

One favored plant is chickweed, Stellaria media, a low-growing, bright green plant, with leaves around 1/4- to 1/2-inch in diameter. Eventually the plant forms a creeping mat on the ground (see photo at top), which is one of the ways it reproduces and thrives. By the way, there are a number of varieties of chickweed, but common chickweed, the one I'm discussing, has a tell-tale strip of tiny hairs down just one side of the stem (see photo at upper right). On my plants, I had to use a magnifying glass to see these hairs, but quite honestly, don't stress over it.  I've been eating my chickweed for years and never knew about this line of hairs till I started this post!

Detail of chickweed flower
As it matures, chickweed forms its tiny white flowers (with five pairs of double-petals) and its seedpod more or less simultaneously. The leaves, stems, flowers and seedpods of chickweed all are edible. Chickweed is in the family Caryophyllaceae, that is, the family of "Pinks" or carnations, which also are edible, if you can find them unsprayed.  If you like the idea of including edible flowers in your salads and other recipes, click here for a very useful chart listing edible flowers, as well as plants to avoid.  (More cocktail-party conversation:  in the Middle Ages, pinks or carnations were associated with the Passion of Christ. The reasoning is a bit convoluted but makes sense if you think about it:  carnations smell like cloves, and cloves look like nails, and so the carnation was called the "Nail flower" and linked with the nails of the crucifixion.)

Some butterflies feed on chickweed, and, as the name suggests, chickens love it! If you keep chickens (which we'll be doing), this is one of the few fresh greens available in winter.  But there's plenty to go around!  While chickweed has traditional medicinal uses, it also can be eaten raw, chopped, in a spring salad  (tastes mild, a bit like corn silk); in green smoothies; in soups & stews (don't cook the chickweed longer than ~5 minutes); or in a pesto sauce.  It can be steamed like spinach or sauteed briefly in oil or butter (with onion, garlic, bacon, or whatever floats your boat).

Bittercress in its early stages
Another edible plant that's positively FLOURISHING at the moment is bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). It loves moist soil, which we have aplenty! I'm certain you'll find this in your yard. It's in the Brassica/Cabbage/Mustard family, and, despite its name, it's not bitter. It begins growing in a rosette (see left; click on the caption for the photo source), then gradually becomes more of a mound; it soon sends up long stalks with characteristically tiny, 4-petaled flowers (usually white or light pink) and long, slender fruits (about an inch long) with seeds inside. Some folks describe bittercress as a self-seeding annual, while others say it's perennial.  Regardless, it will be with you, once you have it! Its leaves are divided (pinnate), with leaflets opposite each other along the stems. While they're usually somewhat rounded, the leaflets also can be longer and more slender. As the plant assumes its mounded form, the original rosette shape is more difficult to discern. Eventually, as it flowers and fruits, it becomes downright leggy! But it's still tasty.  One writer describes bittercress as a "delicious, nutritious wild edible, reminiscent in flavor to watercress." One of its more amusing features, leading to nicknames like "shotweed" or "spitweed," is the tendency of its seedpods to shoot out their seeds at the slightest touch, sometimes right into your face while you're gathering it!

Bittercress leaf variants
At left, see the mounding growth habit of bittercress; for an image of the flowers and long, slender seed pods, click here. Note that each flower has only four petals; at right is a chart of possible various leaf shapes, showing how the leaflets are opposite along the stem (and that there usually are 7 leaflets).

Onion grass
Onion grass w/ tiny bulbs
Finally, another delicious  green that grows now (actually more year-round) is often called wild garlic, but "back in the day," suburban gardeners like my Dad called it "onion grass" and spent endless weekends trying to eradicate it from an otherwise pristine lawn!  (Love you, Dad.)  Onion grass has a strongly "oniony" fragrance and taste--it's really a treat!  ****Btw, onion grass has a couple look-alikes that are not edible; they have flat leaves (like lawn grass) and are related to lilies, which generally are toxic (except for daylilies, which are not in the same family). The non-edible look-alikes also DO NOT smell like onion.****  Wild onion has a round, hollow stem (like a chive), rather than a flat stem, and often the tips of the onion grass develop a little curl to them(above left). If you pick a stalk and crush it, and it doesn't smell like onion don't eat it!!!! As well, onion grass grows in clumps in your lawn and is taller than your grass (one of the reasons folks of my parents' generation were eager to get rid of it!).  And its bulbs (see above right) are very small.  If you have any doubts, about *any* plant, either check with our local agricultural  extension service, or with Angela Kidder (who is an expert forager), or get a good book like one of the Peterson guides. A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by Lee Allen Peterson can be had at the library, or through an online bookseller, or free from Google Books (click here)--the Google Books version does leave out some pages, however, so as not to violate copyright laws.

And the dandelions are putting out new, tender leaves now!  Add to salads, pestos, omelets, or soups! For starter recipes for various parts of the dandelion plant (leaves, flowers, roots), click here.  And please do stay tuned for chickweed and bittercress recipes in the next post.

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