Get Wild

by Danielle Charles

After writing my last post,  I’ve been wanting to more formally introduce you to some of my favorite  wild spring greens – and give you some pointers on how to wildcraft them safely for yourself and prepare them in the most delicious of ways. Wild foods are typically quite absent from the American diet, but have traditionally comprised a large part of the spring diet in cultures across the globe.  There are several good reasons why diets that include wild greens (like the Mediterranean for example) tend to provide numerous health benefits and protection against a variety of disease:  wild greens contain more micronutrients and better fatty acid ratios than their cultivated counterparts, and they also contain significantly higher levels of antioxidants (please check out this study for more info)

Why should this be?  Shouldn’t our coddled, well-nourished garden plants outshine those weedy stragglers?  Actually no. Coddling a plant and providing it with all the nutrients it needs for growth tends to have the effect of increasing carbohydrate production – making for bigger, sweeter tasting leaves, fruits and seeds – but does not necessarily tend to increase micro-nutrient content. In fact, overtime, coddling tends to make a plant more lazy at extracting nutrients in the soil unless they are readily available and abundant. Wild plants, on the other hand, have to be excellent nutrient extractors if they hope to survive – because they don’t have the benefit of nutrient rich soil and regular applications of fertilizer to keep them growing.

Secondly, majority of the compounds produced in a plant with antioxidant activity are produced in response to stress – a thing that wild plants know well, but cultivated plants have relatively little of.  Such compounds help the plant to deter insect feeding, fight disease and deal with UV damage – and help us to deal with oxidative damage when we consume them.  Wild greens can contain up to 10 times or more the antioxidant levels of our most antioxidant rich cultivated greens like kale, spinach and brussels sprouts.

So, before I introduce you to some the stars of the wild world, I’d like to give you a few rules of thumb on the harvesting and consumption of things found in the wild:

1. Never eat something you haven’t identified beyond a doubt as edible.

2. Never harvest from an area that is heavily polluted or contaminated – like a roadside or industrial area for example.

3. Never take more than a quarter of a plant population from a given area.

4. Always give thanks to the plants for the harvest you have taken, in whatever way that feels appropriate to you. When you take a life (plant, animal or otherwise), it is always in your best interest to acknowledge the sacrifice you have taken with gratitude.

Basically, use common sense and be respectful.

Now, the plants I am going to introduce to you this day are typically on the abundant, easily identifiably side of things – which also tend to be some of the healthiest and safest to eat! These are the champions of the wild world, of course, because they are so successful at extracting nutrients out of the soil and fending off disease – which means they are abundant in micro nutrients and antioxidants.

Wild weed #1: Dandelion

Description: Dandelion is perhaps the most famous (and nearly as despised) weed known to man. It grows on every continent in temperate regions and thrives in the nitrogen rich soils found in our lawns, gardens and pastures.  We can all identify it’s basal rosette of long, toothed leaves and its cheerful yellow flowers (and most gardeners know all to well its stout, searching taproot).

Nutrition and Health Benefits: One cup of dandelion greens provides nearly a day’s requirement for vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene), and a third of your daily vitamin C requirement. It also contains abundant calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, boron, and silicon and B complex vitamins. The bitter taste is derived from a class of plant compounds known as sesquiterpene lactones that help to stimulate digestion and improve liver function.  The leaf has been used for centuries as an effective potassium sparing diuretic (meaning it provides more potassium than is lost in the urine). The root contains the carbohydrate inulin, which supports digestive microflora and helps to normalize blood sugar levels.

Uses: Mix tender young dandelion greens into a salad with a lite, lemony vinaigrette. Older, tougher leaves can be used in stir-fries or cooked down in a cream sauce with a little curry spice (yummm). The flowers can be combined with eggs and a little flour and salt to make fritters. Spring and fall roots can be used similarly to carrots, in soups, stir-fries or sauteed  with garlic and onion.

Wild Weed #2: Nettles

Description: Perhaps not as abundant as the dandelion, nettle must be just as well known (and despised) for its characteristic sting, caused by formic acid and other plant compounds found in fine needle like hairs covering the plant.  Nettle is found in wet, rich soil throughout Europe and much of North America. It’s leaves are a dull green, serrated, hairy and oval shaped – growing in pairs up the stem. While the sting is only temporary, be sure to wear gloves when you harvest this one.

Nutrition and Health Benefits: Nettle is another nutritional superstar, rich in protein, vitamins C,  K and B complex vitamins, carotenoids and  minerals such as iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium and silica. Its anti-inflammatory flavanoids  have strong anti-allergic activity useful in countering conditions such as eczema and hay fever. The plant has a gentle diuretic action and reduces inflammation of the urinary tract and kidneys, and has long been used as a nutritive tonic for pregnant and nursing mothers. Even the sting has been used medicinally to improve blood flow and reduce inflammation in painful joints (only for the most daring!).

Uses: Nettles can be used similarly to spinach in cooking – thrown into spanokopita (a greek phyllo layered pie with feta), sauteed with a little butter, or blended into a delicious soup with a touch of cream and wild leeks. Cooking lightly is enough to de-activate the sting – so don’t worry about getting poked after you’ve cooked it. Leaves should only be harvested before the plant goes to flower.

Wild Weed #3: Chickweed

Description:Chickweed is a delicate little herb that likes to grow in the moister parts of our gardens. The stems are weak, and it tends to trail on the ground with a fine row of hairs on the upward parts of the stem. It has delicate white star-shaped flowers and oval shaped leaves that grow in pairs.

Nutrition and Health Benefits: Chickweed is a delicious, fresh tasting plant abundant in minerals and vitamins including magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, vitamin C, bioflavanoids and carotenoids. The plant is what we herbalists call demulcent (or moistening), meaning it soothes and cools inflamed mucus membranes in the digestive tract, bladder and kidneys and lungs. Applied topically, the plant reduces inflammation and helps to draw out heat and infection.

Uses: Chickweed is delicious in salads, where it lends it fresh green taste quite nicely. It can also be combined with a more pungent herb in pesto (wild leek might be a nice choice). Some herbalists like to blend it with pineapple juice and drink it as a refreshing spring tonic.

Wild Weed #4: Japanese knotweed

Description: Japanese knotweed is a recently introduced invasive species from Asia. Like many other invasive plants, it was brought into the US as a garden perennial for its delicate sprays of tiny white flowers – but quickly escaped and proliferated in the wild.  It grows abundantly in disturbed soils and waste sites such as vacant lots and roadsides where it forms dense colonies of zig-zagging stems with triangular leaves.  The easiest way to recognize it in spring is to search for the papery, dry stalks from the previous year – which look a little like dried out hollowed bamboo shoots.

Nutrition and Health Benefits: Knotweed is an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C and minerals such as potassium, phosphorous, zinc and manganese. Most surprising of all, however, is that it is an excellent source of the bioflavanoid complex resveratrol (also found in red wine) that lowers bad cholesterol, prevents cardiovascular disease, and slows nerve degeneration.  The plant is a close releative of the Chinese herb he shou wu, which is said to enhance life force and prolong life.

Uses: When the tender young shoots are just 2-4 inches, they can be harvested and used similar to asparagus – steamed, baked in casseroles or roasted. Once they get a little taller (6-8 inches), the taste becomes intensely tart and tangy, similar to rhubarb, and you can use them as you would rhubarb for fruit compotes, apple sauce, marmalade and jams.

Wild Weed # 5: Violet

Description: Wild violets are one the delights of springtime in the forest. They bloom early spring (starting just around now) in the rich soils of mixed deciduous woodlands, often on bluffs and near rocky outcroppings. They can easily be identified with the characteristic flowers and pointed, heart shaped leaves. There are a variety of species that are edible (both woodland and garden varieties), but watch out for yellow violets which can cause GI distress.

Nutrition and Health Benefits: Violet leaves and flowers are an excellent source of vitamin C and beta-carotene. They are also rich in flavanoids like rutin (found in citrus fruits), and salicylic acid (the plant pre-cursor to aspirin). The plant has a long history of use as a cough remedy and for the treatment of skin diseases by gently improving eliminatory function. Violet also improves lymphatic congestion, particularly in the breast, and is incredibly useful for fibrocystic breasts and the painful breast swelling that can preceed menstruation.

Uses: Both violet leaves and flowers can be added to spring salads. The leaves can also be used in stews and soups, where they lend a gentle thickening action. The flowers can be used to garnish sweet treats like cakes and icecreams, and can be preserved in sugar.

Other potential spring edibles:

lamb’s quarters, chicory, burdock root, wild strawberry leaves, garlic mustard, miner’s lettuce, sheep sorrel, wintercress, and yellowdock leaves.

If you are interested in pursuing more spring edibles, I highly suggest you buy a field guide such as Edible Wild Plants or The Forager’s Harvest. Another great book with lots of recipe ideas is The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook by Steve Brill.