Tag Archives: wild greens

Looking Over Spring Pantry

February full moon was called the Hunger or Starvation Moon. People put up food for the winter, but the pantry was close to empty by then.

Root crops and canned food is fine. Fresh food has an appeal that grows the longer it can’t be obtained.

Many years ago I spoke with a woman, Ruby Woods, about her years growing up back when the general store was a day’s wagon ride away. For her March meant time to raid nature’s pantry for fresh greens.

wild onions
Wild onions are perennials and send up their first leaves in late winter as soon as there is a warm spell. They are easy to spot as they tower over the short grass. The root bulb is edible, but the tops make good eating in eggs and stir fries.

Most of the greens she talked about are considered weeds today. For those who want to try a few, fair warning: Most of these are bitter or sour.

Plants are determined to grow and produce seeds. Getting eaten before that prevents the plant from reaching its goal. So plants often produce substances to deter insects and others from eating them.

dandelion greens
Dandelions were the bane of the garden for my father. They have deep taproots and can be challenging to dig out. The roots are edible. The flower is a mass of little flowers filled with nectar and attract lots of insects including native bees.

Domesticated plants have most of these substances bred out as these are the bitter and sour tastes we’ve learned to not like. Some of these are rich in nutrition.

As “Wicked Plants” by Amy Stewart warns: Don’t eat anything you don’t recognize. My advice is to try a few that are easy to recognize.

chicory greens from nature's pantry
In late spring chicory lines the road with light blue flowers. It’s roots were dug, dried, ground and used with or instead of coffee. The early spring greens are good eating, but become bitter once the flowering stalk appears.

Probably the easiest one is wild onion. There are several kinds and my preference is the one that sends up a clump of onion leaves. These are small, but powerful. Chewing on a leaf will heat up your mouth quickly.

Chickweed is a garden pest. It is a mild green and prolific in a cool, moist area. It’s great in stir fries. Cut or break the stems off and use the tops. You can harvest these plants many, many times.

chickweed greens from nature's pantry
Chickweed comes in several kinds. This is a good kind for eating. It comes up in the fall, overwinters and takes off in the spring. It grows in gardens, flower pots, sidewalk cracks. It puts out quarter inch across white flowers with four double petals.

Dandelions are good too. Use the younger, smaller leaves and the flowers. These leaves are a bit bitter and add a zest to salads or do well cooked down as a potherb alone or with others.

Yellow rocket is another good potherb. The leaves are easy to recognize once you know what to look for. If you are new to this one and to the chicory, watch the plants this year and know them by their flowers. Harvest the leaves next spring to add them to your pantry.

winter cress greens from nature's pantry
Yellow Rocket gets its name from the yellow flower umbels. Over the winter the plants survive as low growing units called winter cress.

Chicory or blue sailor is a perennial. Mark where a few plants bloom. That makes it easy to pick the greens the next spring. Chicory leaves are similar to several wild lettuces and wild dandelion relatives. These too are edible, but not always tasty.

Nature’s pantry is a busy place. Dock, plantains, water cress, lamb’s quarter and more are also edible. Add a bit of variety to your salads this year with some wild greens.

See more of the Ozark’s seasons in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.

Pokeweed Thickets

When spring warms up, pokeweed sticks up its first shoots. This is considered a wild green.

The shoots should be gathered when six to eight inches tall. They are bitter in taste so parboiling them is a good idea.

Parboiling is putting the shoots in water, bringing it to a boil, then draining the water. The half cooked shoots can then be used in other ways.

Frying the shoots is popular. I prefer to boil them. That way they end up with a taste and feel similar to asparagus.

pokeweed plant
Pokeweed has a big tap root with multiple stems growing up. The stems are red, up to 2 inches wide and hollow. They branch at the top with these covered with large leaves and streamers first of flowers, then with berries.

The time for gathering pokeweed shoots is long past in August. The plant is now a tall, leggy plant with thick red stems. The stems branch giving the tops a wide spread.

Flower streamers hung down for a short time. The flowers are small, white and waxy in appearance. Berries have replaced the flowers.

The berries start out green, but mature to red purple. They are juicy. The juice was used as ink in pioneer days. The berries are poisonous to us.

Pokeweed was an unfamiliar plant when I moved to the Ozarks. That first year I saw my goats urinating this red stream and panicked. The panic passed and I found them happily eating pokeberries.

pokeweed berries hang in clusters
A pokeweed berry begins to grow almost before the flower is done blooming. The top flowers bloom first so the berries form and ripen from the top of the cluster down. They are full of a red juice that stains the hands.

One thing about this plant: it seeds prolifically. Birds spread the seeds all over including lawns and gardens. The lawn mower takes care of those seedlings.

I was teaching and my garden was very neglected. Pokeweed takes advantage of such opportunities. It moved in.

My garden sprouted a pokeweed thicket. It survived two or three years getting bigger each year.

I wanted to reclaim my garden and attacked the thicket making an unwelcome discovery as I snapped a spade handle trying to pry one plant out. This plant puts down a big – really big – taproot. A couple were close to a foot across and two feet long with several large side roots going off.

Each plant required time consuming excavation. New plants are now pulled as soon as they are spotted.

Pokeweed is on the march here again. A thicket has sprung up near the composting manure pile. Several plants are scattered around the workshop and garden areas.

I am out with my loppers for large plants. My garden is checked often. And the birds are feasting out in the pasture.

Wild Cresses Are Blooming

Older people around this area remember gathering wild greens. Some of those were the wild cresses.

The popular one today is watercress. It even shows up in gardening catalogs with instructions how to grow it.

Watercress is an alien species brought here long ago. It has spread both by seeds and by cuttings. Yes, nature can do cuttings.

wild cresses include watercress
Watercress sometimes seems to be a pest. It forms large mats in quiet areas of six to eight inches of cool water. The taste is always tangy, but gets very bitter and sharp once the plant blooms.

The stems of watercress are brittle and root at every leaf node. Floods break off stems, carry them downstream and these root to form new colonies.

Look for watercress in flowing cold water. I find it in spring fed streams and a wetland across from a spring. It forms large mats sometimes towering a foot over the water.

The most colorful one blooming now is yellow rocket or winter cress. The rosette of leaves persist through much of the winter and are edible. In spring stems shoot up lined and topped with bright yellow flowers.

wild cresses include yellow rocket
Yellow rocket or winter cress sends up numerous stems topped with vivid yellow flowers. This makes a good potherb before it flowers.

These grow in lawns and along roads. One stretch of my road is lined with yellow rocket and is lovely filled with the bright color.

Near and in shallow cold water is the spring cress. Like watercress, spring cress has white flowers.

These are smaller plants, often single stems with an array of flowers at the top. The stem keeps growing so more flowers appear leaving the older ones to make seeds. This plant seems to set seeds and almost disappear like the spring ephemerals.

wild cresses include spring cress
Spring cress usually has only one stalk. The white is brilliant against the green background. The plant likes its feet wet and grows in boggy areas or shallow water.

Several things are similar about these cresses. The flowers all have four petals. The leaves are deep green with ruffled edges. The seed pods are long capsules with many seeds in them. All of them are edible.

Wild cresses, there are many more than three, are among many plants found in the mustard family. We grow some members in our gardens: cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, kale and mustards among them.

Wild cresses are best eaten before they bloom. All of them are peppery any time but add a bit of bitterness when they bloom. All are nutritious.

Garden of Lamb’s Quarters

Weeds love gardens. All that open ground is so inviting. Rich moist dirt waits for plants to sprout up.

One of those weeds in my garden is called lamb’s quarters. Except I don’t really consider it a weed. It’s a wild green and good to eat.

I’ve read lamb’s quarters is fantastic stuff. It’s supposed to have lots of vitamins and minerals in it. That’s fine. Lots of wild greens have lots of vitamins and minerals in them and are bitter to eat.

lamb's quarters seedlings

There are several wild plants allowed to grow in my garden. Like the lamb’s quarters they come up by the hundreds each spring necessitating thinning.

Lamb’s quarters is a lot like spinach in taste. It’s a bit grittier. It can be used in much the same way. I use it in salads, stir fries, on quiche and as a pot herb. Very small plants can be eaten stems and all. Otherwise leaves can be used and stems discarded.

Each year I leave a couple of lamb’s quarters plants to go to seed. They get tall, nearly five feet, and leggy. These wind pollinated plants make thousands of tiny seeds. My garden gets covered with the seeds.

lamb's quarters

Lamb’s quarters are ready to eat at four inches tall. Just pull them up by the handful twisting off the lower stems and roots.

In the spring I mulch heavily to keep most of the weeds at bay. Weeds begin growing long before gardening season begins and the raised bed gets planted in February. Yet weeds are already sprouting covering the dirt in a green carpet.

Lamb’s quarters will not come up through a heavy mulch. So selected places are left open for the weeds. They are delighted at the garden party invitation.

Dead nettle, chickweed, henbit, clover and grass burst out with the encouragement of a little rain and a seventy degree day. This is fine. Bees zoom in for the pollen and nectar. Even early hummingbirds visit the dead nettle.

lamb's quarters plant

Most of the leaves on a lamb’s quarters plant are near the top. The stem stretches out as the plant gains height. Left alone the stem branches, thickens and hardens reaching five feet and more.

Lamb’s quarters are late arrivals. This is a warmer weather plant. It waits for two or three warmer days to carpet the ground with seedlings.

A little more rain and lamb’s quarters plants shoot up. They are ready for harvest at four inches tall. Thick stands stay tender to eight inches.

One easy trick to keep these edible weeds tender longer is to break off the tops. More stems will grow up, nice and tender. Older plants can be stripped of leaves to use although flavor is more bitter.

lamb's quarters leaves

Lamb’s quarters leaves have a triangular shape with scalloped edges.

So many of these welcome weeds come up, I can not use them all. No problem. Goats love lamb’s quarters. All the tall tougher plants end up in the hay trough. Nothing is left but thick stems and roots by the next morning.

Pulling weeds may not be my favorite pastime. Pulling lamb’s quarters is gathering an early harvest from the garden.