[PHOTO 5] Be sure to pick dandelion greens before the flower appears. [PHOTO 6] Plantain leaves are so common in disturbed soil that American Indians nicknamed the plant "white man's footsteps." [PHOTO 7] Winter cress was sometimes called "scurvy grass" by prospectors and homesteaders who ate the vitamin-rich food. [PHOTO 8] The willowlike leaves of fireweed (which thrives in burned-over areas) make a tasty green, but its young stems are a fine ""wild asparagus""!
In past articles I've described a number of scrumptious domesticated pot-herbs that you can raise easily in your vegetable garden. But whether or not you're already growing rows of kale, tendergreen, New Zealand spinach, and the like, you sure shouldn't miss out on some of the best leafy munchables of all: wild greens!
Some folks, it seems, call every plant that didn't get its pedigree from a seed company a weed, but the fact is that a lot of very delectable leaf crops spring up, spontaneously, just about everywhere ... through cracks in cement, in agribiz cornfields, upon well-manicured lawns, and—quite probably—in your own vegetable garden! Wild greens have at least as much flavor and nutrition as do the cultivated varieties and—best of all—don't need to be sown, watered ... or even weeded. (Remember? They are the "weeds.")
One of the finest—and most common—of the "untamed leafers" is lamb's-quarters (Chenopodium
album ). This spinach relative (which, incidentally, holds its texture when canned or frozen much better than does "real" spinach) grows so widely that it's earned a large collection of local names ... such as goosefoot and pigweed. You ought to be able to recognize lamb's-quarters by the jagged diamond-shaped leaves with powdery-feeling, white-dusted undersides. Remember, though, that you should never eat goosefoot—or any wild plant—until you have positively identified it as edible.
The young tender leaves of lamb's-quarters are tastiest, so either harvest your "wild spinach" from plants no more than a foot high, or pick the youngest (uppermost) blades from more mature specimens. The delicately flavored leaves can be served up in salads, steamed, added to egg and cheese casseroles, or prepared in most any recipe calling for spinach.
Amaranth Leaves and Seeds
Another wild green that's earned a lot of names (including careless weed, redroot, and—once again—pigweed) is amaranth ( Amaranthus retroflexus and hybridus ). This extremely common plant has rough, oval-but-pointed leaves that are borne on long stalks ... a stout, hairy main stem . . . and a crimson-colored root. The fast-growing potherb doesn't have as distinctive a flavor as lamb's-quarters ... and its relative blandness makes amaranth a good choice to mix in with any especially tangy greens that you want to "tone down." Amaranthus —like so many other leaf crops—can be harvested either by collecting the entire young plant, or by continually pruning new growth from the stems to keep a local redroot population productive for months.
An excellent hunting ground for amaranth is the space between rows of cultivated crops. Of course, you should always ask a farmer's permission before you go tromping through his cornfields, but believe me, most folks will gladly let you gather their amaranth plants ... all summer long!
In times past, amaranth was a popular domesticated plant, but it was primarily raised for its shiny black seeds rather than for its leaves. In fact, back in 1519—when Cortez set out for Mexico—the Aztecs grew almost as much amaranth as they did corn ... and Montezuma received 200,000 bushels of the plant's seed as an annual tribute!
Nowadays, though, most North American foragers value the amaranth for its young leaves. Some people savor them as salad makings, but the fronds taste even better when fried, steamed, creamed, or boiled and served with a homemade cheese sauce.
One of my favorite wild foods is purslane ( Portulaca oleracea ), better known as "pussley". Actually, many gardeners in our country might not give the delightful little green such an affectionate nickname. But the antagonism of such weed pullers is sadly misplaced. In many countries—including France, China, India, England, Mexico, Holland, and the Middle East—purslane is a highly respected and sought-after untamed edible ... and is often deliberately cultivated as well.
Veteran pussley foragers find that one of the petite potherb's most endearing assets is its "sense of timing." In midsummer, right after most greens and salad crops have gone to seed, purslane pops up from patio cracks and garden gaps. The paddle-shaped leaves (which resemble smaller versions of jade plant fronds) shoot out from a plant that rarely grows over two inches tall but spreads horizontally—on fleshy, reddish-purple stems—with a vengeance.
The ground-hugging purslane leaves have a distinctive and slightly acid flavor (owing, no doubt, to the fact that the potherb contains more vitamin C than does an equivalent amount of orange juice!). The greens taste quite good served raw in salads or sandwiches, cooked in meat loaf, fried in an egg batter, pickled, and—because the cooked stems and leaves have a somewhat gooey, okra-like texture—added as a thickener to soups and gumbos.
The most remarkable feature of this green is its availability during the cold weather "nothing growing" season. In fact, winter cress ( Barbarea vulgaris ) is officially named after St. Barbara's day (which occurs on December 4) precisely because folks in many areas can gather the healthful potherb even during that twilight time of the year. Barbarea vulgaris is also called scurvy grass (for its high concentration of disease-preventing vitamin C), upland cress (since—unlike stream-loving watercress—it grows in such dry land locations as fields and ditches), and spring tonic (because the hardy plant is one of the first edibles to shoot up after winter). Each winter cress leaf has a dark green basal lobe that's accompanied by two to eight pairs of "earlike" side lobes ... and the fast-growing plant can reach a height of over two feet.
The youngest leaves make a crisp and tangy raw salad green, while the more mature blades serve well as a boiled or steamed vegetable. In addition, in late spring—when the grown leaves become somewhat bitter—you can pick some of the plant's unopened flower buds, boil those soon-to-bloom stalks for five minutes, and serve up some delicious "wild broccoli."
Just about everybody is aware that you're supposed to be able to eat the leaves of dandelions ( Taraxacumofficinale ), but a good number of the folks who decide to give the sharply serrated blades a try find that they taste overwhelmingly bitter. Well, such unfortunate foragers have made the simple mistake of harvesting their wild crop too late. Pick the young leaves before the flower stalk appears, and I guarantee that you'll have cooking greens that can be matched with the best around (be sure to include the tasty blanched underground leaf crowns with your pickin's).
Furthermore, dandelions have other virtues that I can't resist mentioning ... even if this article is specifically about greens. The developing yellow flower buds can be dug up (you'll find them nestled in the white crowns) before they sprout ... and will make excellent boiled vegetables. In addition, the energy-filled root can be served as a delightful "miniparsnip" in early spring and—after dry-roasting—it can also be ground up and used as a coffee substitute. So dig and use the whole plant whenever you go out dandelion "greening." (After all, anyone who's ever tried that spading tactic when attempting to weed a lion's tooth out of a lawn will tell you that there'll soon be lots more of the same species to replace any you remove!)
Wild Greens Galore
Of course, there are a zillion and one other flavorful wild greens: curled dock, milkweed, plantain, fireweed, watercress, wild grapes, shepherd's purse, wood sorrel, chickweed, stork's-bill, burdock, chicory ... and on and on. So if you want to gather a unique—and bumper—leaf crop that you don't have to caretake, forage for greens ("culinary delightus ") ... and enjoy some wild but wonderful eatings.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An excellent aid in identifying native foods is Lee Peterson's A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants (Houghton Mifflin,). Two other handy guidebooks on foraging for the undomesticated delicacies—both of which contain loads of mouthwatering recipes-are Euell Gibbons' classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus (David McKay) and Billy Joe Tatum's Wild Foods Cookbook & Field Guide (Workman).