A Spring Seasonal Sampler
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Like many of our friends, we enjoy eating wild foods in season. Spring is the time for young greens, "bitters" or tonics, and time to collect leafy herbs for tea or dried storage.
Oregon Grape (pictured, right) is about to bloom. Its flower buds have some of the tangy, unusual flavor that is more pronounced in the berries. The roots and stems have other uses, including medicines and dyes. Herbalist J.J. Purselle (of The Herb Shoppe) recommends a tea of Oregon Grape root as a camper's first-aid against nausea, vomiting, or digestive troubles. (If you suspect poison, please don't experiment: call a doctor or the Oregon Poison Control hotline: 1-800-222-1222)
I can't argue with the idea of planting gardens instead of lawns for the ecological young couple, but some of us like having an open lawn for play, visibility, or ease of maintenance. Not to mention badminton, croquet, frisbee, baseball. Who says you can't have both?
My grandmother's lawn, happily untouched by chemicals for over 20 years, has become a diverse and balanced micro-ecology. It stays green longer, and needs mowing less often, than the grassy lawns of my suburban childhood. Nitrogen-fixing clovers and vetches, mineral-tapping dandelion and plantain, our native hawkweed and scattered patches of violets, sorrel, and other succulent edible plants mingle with various "normal" lawn grasses, and a thick pad of Oregon green mosses in the shade.
(Moss never needs mowing... I'd love to show you a picture of an exquisitely clever border in a local Portland yard, with grass-free moss and moss-free grass separated by little cedar planting strips. Lovely, in an abstract Getty sort of way, with plant textures standing in for color.)
Here are a few of the succulent young plants that we're eating from our lawn this season (late Feb - early April):
"For my money, a dandelion is one of the prettiest flowers," Grandma Enid said while I was picking them for dandelion wine. "The only reason people call them a weed is they're so prolific." They can be eaten as salad greens (younger the milder), taken as a tea and tonic, the root can be cooked (I'm told it's a coffee substitute, but I can't say I'm eager to try it). That milky sap is rich in natural latex, making me wonder about using it for natural paints or glues.
Bittercress / Wild Mustard: Look for the distinctive "lyrate" leaves and four-petaled flowers. (Each leaf has a larger lobe at the tip, then a series of smaller lobes along the central vein). These spicy flowers, stems, and leaves are pretty good by themselves, with sharp cheeses like cheddar or blue cheese, or with a mustard-friendly dressing such as honey-lemon-cardamom-flavored sour cream.
All mustard-family flowers have four petals, four sepals, four tall stamens, and two very short ones, grouped around a central pistil. Flowers are typically white (like wild bittercress and garden arugula) or yellow (like broccoli and garden mustard greens) and highly edible. Wild mustards may interbreed with your garden brassicas, creating unusual hybrids if you let them self-seed.
Sheep Sorrel: Tart and tangy, a little of this goes a long way (due to oxalic acid content). Look for ovoid leaves, almost like plantain, but with two sheepish "ears" by the stem. They are tender and tart at this time of year. Substitute for lemon in dressing or tabouleh, or use it to balance bitter greens in a salad.
Clover: Forbs, rhizomes, and blossoms are edible and faintly sweet. Imported agricultural clover blossoms make a nice herbal tea; our native clover's rhizomes are hefty enough to be boiled up as a snack. Plus, it adds nitrogen to the soil for other plants.
Chickweed: Some of my friends call this "corn salad," easy to remember because it tastes a bit like sweet corn. There is another "corn salad," Valerianella (v. radiata, v. locusta). Both stellaria media and Valerianella ssp are edible, and they look and taste fairly similar. S. media is shown here.
To identify chickweed (S. Media), look for a starry white blossom atop cupped leaves, with buds waiting in the wings. It may look like ten skinny petals, but it's really five notched ones. Look for leaves wrapping partway round the stem, spade-shaped or heart-shaped. Taste for succulent, slightly sweet, corn-like flavor. A common garden weed, it seems to like the edges of things, and a fair amount of sun.
Grass Stems: this is more of a childish pleasure than a salad ingredient for me. The inner stems of most grasses have a sweet taste to them, and a few (like this lovely bluegrass) are even reported to be digestible. Most grasses aren't digestible by humans, but they still taste good. I won't pretend to tell you how to identify digestible grasses, but it's a great excuse for letting your lawn get a little shaggy. "When you're sitting on a park bench ..." enjoy a snack for me.
Strawberry: White or pink blossoms make a nice surprise. The leaves are reported to make a sweet tea, good against children's diarrhea (I haven't tried it). The fruits are always popular, and fun for small ones to discover.
Our native coastal strawberries have smaller fruits, and hardy leaves and stems that will stand up to a fair amount of abuse.
Violets: Pink, purple, white, or yellow, all violet flowers are edible and make a lovely grace note for salads, cake decoration, or candied as treats. Our native violets are mostly white or yellow; imported European violets in a range of colors are common garden escapees. Violet combines well with licorice or anise (as pastilles), or can be plucked and eaten with impish delight. The leaves are also edible, though a bit fuzzy. Some people report "unusual digestive sensations" after eating flowers for the first time, and as with any new food, it's best to start small and work up to larger amounts over time.
The camelia blossoms falling around it are reportedly also edible, though I have done no more than taste them. A bit like their relative, green tea. Other edible flowers include roses (green taste), nasturtiums (peppery), and pansies.
Bedstraw: You probably have a pet name for this plant already, something along the lines of "That horrible Velcro weed that sticks to me and prickles my skin when I pull it, and leaves little round burrs everywhere." But did you know that it can be eaten when young? (Personally, it has to be very young for me to swallow it; the sticky hairs irritate my throat.) Pojar & MacKinnon recently tipped me off to the excellent coffee substitute that some folks make from green bedstraw burrs, roasted and ground. Varieties of bedstraw have also been used to strain or curdle milk, boiled to make a hair rinse, or as a bedding material (possibly because it is easy to pull up in large quantities, having very shallow roots).
I'm not suggesting that you go out and invest your time or money in installing any of these weeds. Chances are, they're already there. If you're going to spend money, use it to get rare native plants from a local nursery, or some really choice stepable culinary herbs, like fragrant creeping thyme or heart-shaped wild ginger leaves. The weeds above will seed naturally, or be available from friends' overgrown patches, in next to no time.
Maintaining an edible lawn is more a question of not doing: don't spray any chemicals, because you and your kids may be eating them (or the fish that soaks them up downstream). Don't mow every week; set your mower blade a half-inch to an inch higher if you want to spare a few nice-looking salad leaves. Don't break your back pulling "weeds." Choose your battles, eat what you pick, and save your energy for plants that are poisonous, truly unsightly, or both. If you really need to kill a particular weed, pull it early (when the soil is still moist) or try spot-treating weeds on concrete with boiling water instead of chemicals.
When you're ready to harvest, take the time to get acquainted with your crop. Get a reliable book, ask local Master Gardeners or other experts. It's very helpful to have someone personally introduce you to a plant, and confirm your identification the first few times. It's also a very good idea to start by tasting tiny amounts, work up to a bite every few hours as you work in the garden, and if it agrees with you over a few days or a week, eat a larger amount or use it as a garnish on your regular dishes. And give your guests the same courtesy: introduce them, and let them make up their own minds whether to try it or how much to eat.
There are wild food enthusiast groups all over the country if you want encouragement. Some are enthusiastic to the point of folly (nightshade jams and mystery mushrooms) while others are excellent botanists and scrupulous mentors. Quiz them with plants you know, like poison hemlock, deadly nightshade, or buttercup (toxic), and get a second opinion whenever possible.
Groups that may host wild food potlucks, classes, or excursions in the Portland, Oregon and vicinity include:
This is a sign that you've really given up on your lawn. Before they start growing new branches for this year, get in there and hack up that invasive Himalaya blackberry. The tender buds and new leaves can be eaten in spring, but I personally think they're better used for an interesting, slightly floral green tea. I'd love to hear of an exciting use for the roots, because they really do need to be uprooted and vigorously suppressed.
Don't forget to keep an eye out for our native trailing blackberry, rubus ursinus. Besides its "trailing habit" (makes me think of errant nuns), rubus ursinus has distinctly "blue" stems due to a powdery white coating. Its berries are delicious -- often more so than the Himalaya -- and as a bonus, it won't leap into your trees when your back is turned. Its shoots are also good for tea, but I leave it alone when I have Himalayas to harass.
Stinging Nettles are also choice for tea, or cooked greens. They're prime now; and the similar but stingless plant Lamb's Quarters will be coming up soon in my garden mulch. Nettle photo courtesy of R & M Vicol at publicphoto.org.
The article above was published in Portland's Village Builder magazine in the May 18-26, 2008 edition. Please note that photos of mustard and chickweed were swapped in that publication; the correct photos are shown above. -The Author
We're working on an edible, useful, native-friendly landscape at the Dana House, under the benevolent dictatorship of resident landlady Emily Dana.
To see a current list of plants I am offering / interested in, please visit: http://www.gardenweb.com/members/exch/ericalady
If you didn't know that buildings and walls can affect your garden growing zones, check out this microclimatology article.
Natural building is a great way to create artificial microclimates -- with a little reconfiguring, the dirt and rocks in your yard can help protect sensitive plants. It's even easier to take advantage of existing structures and zones to grow herbs, vegetables, and rare native plants.