The Culture of Food and Drink


Home / Agriculture  / 5 Wild Greens You Need To Be Eating This Spring

5 Wild Greens You Need To Be Eating This Spring

Foraging basket with wild greens asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Foraging basket with wild greens asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Spring has finally lifted her sleepy head, and while your garden veggies may not yet be ready to harvest, there are edible wild greens popping up all over that will enable you to enjoy the fresh foods you are craving.

Wild plants are hardy and can handle the weather swings that often come with spring. Take a few minutes to look at the ground, and you may be surprised at how many tasty edibles are right at your feet.

Just make certain to follow the three golden rules of foraging. First, never eat any plant you’ve not identified with certainty. Second, don’t eat anything you suspect has been sprayed or grows in contaminated areas. And finally, harvest sustainably, with an eye to the greater environment. Grab a local guidebook, and see how many of these wild greens of spring you can add to you kitchen.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Sure, you already knew you could eat the leaves of these familiar wild greens, may have even seen them at the grocery store, but did you know that every part of the dandelion is edible?

You can cook the root like you would a carrot, if it is tender enough. If the root is tough, it can be chopped, dried, roasted, and enjoyed as a coffee-like beverage. The crown of dandelion, where the leaves meet the taproot can be a delightful vegetable, cooked and eaten as a side dish, or thrown into stir-fries.

The flowers can be put straight into salads for a pop of color and bitterness, or fried into fritters. Even the long flower stalks can be boiled like noodles, if you have enough on hand.

My favorite dandelion recipe is to prepare a pizza with a salt-and-pepper garlic crust, baked with prosciutto, cheese and eggs, and graced with a generous handful of raw dandelion leaves once it emerges from the oven.

Mustards (multiple genera)

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild plants in the Brassicaceae family are botanically related to some of the most common commercial vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, turnips and kale. Wild mustard plants sometimes have a stronger flavor than their grocery store cousins, but you can use that to your advantage by pairing them with equally strong flavors.

Locally, I use musk mustard (Chorispora tenella) in much the same way as arugula, enjoying it with a bold blue cheese dressing as salad or stuffed into sandwiches. Another favorite is white top mustard (Lepidium draba), which stands in nicely for broccoli rabe in the classic pasta dish with sausage.

The trick with mustard plants is often in knowing at what stage to eat them for best flavor, which is something you can find out from your local guidebook. The great advantage of wild mustards is that they are often invasive in nature and can be harvested in large quantities.

Dock (Rumex spp.)

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dock can often be recognized by its tall fruiting stalk, which turns rust-colored when it dries out. If you’ve got dock nearby, seek out its newly unfurled leaves, staying away from any that are touched with red or purple, which may indicate bitterness. Because of its high oxalic acid content, dock is best enjoyed cooked.

Lovers of sorrel will immediate recognize a similar lemony green taste in dock. It makes a very nice last minute addition to all manner of soups, and is also a natural in egg dishes.

Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, F. sachalinensis, and F. bohemica)

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

In most places outside of Asia, knotweed is considered unwelcome, even pernicious. It has taken a stronghold in several areas of U.S. Because it is reviled as an invasive, you must take great care to harvest knotweed from a place you are certain has not been sprayed. But if you find a clean area to harvest knotweed, you will be able to snap off the earliest growth of this plant and take advantage of its tart flavor.

The hollow shoots of these wild greens make an excellent crisp pickle, or can be cooked into savory sauces to be paired with game meat. Knotweed can also stand in any place you’d use rhubarb. Take care not to put trimming from knotweed into your compost, so as not to further spread it.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

 

One of the kings of wild spring foods, you can stalk the wild asparagus just like outdoorsman Euell Gibbons did. The asparagus that grows wild in the U.S. is actually the same species sold in stores. It escaped from gardens at some point, and is technically considered feral for that reason.

The key to finding asparagus in the wild is learning to recognize the bushy yellow-gold color of the previous year’s plants. Once you have that pattern down, old fence lines, former farm land and irrigation ditches are often your best bet for finding asparagus.

Main photo: Foraging basket with asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty



Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty is a wild foods enthusiast dedicated to showing people how to transform abundant, "weedy" plants into free and nutritious kitchen staples. She is the foraging instructor at the Laughing Coyote Project, and shares her favorite wild foods from the Rocky Mountain region at Hunger and Thirst.

9 COMMENTS
  • Kate 4·30·15

    I was thrilled to see dock and asparagus starting to peek up from the ground around us in Michigan in the last week or so! I have been known to eat both before they make it into the house… The nettles are starting to look mighty tasty around here too. Risotto, here I come! 😀

    We grilled steaks the other night and made a garlic mustard chimichurri to go over it. GREENS FOR DAYS!! Of course I went out to pull a handful for the sauce, then I went on a 10-minute weeding rampage, because it’s already getting ready to head out and bloom. Harrumph.

    Thanks to your writing about the invasive knotweed, I’ve starting to keep an eye out for it. Haven’t spotted any yet, but I know it is in the state. Not that I hope to find any, but if I do, I’m eating it for sure. So thanks for that, Wendy!

  • erica 5·1·15

    This is a nice overview of edible spring greens to keep an eye out for. The photos are gorgeous.

  • Allan Smith 5·4·15

    I’m looking for a website or book which lays out the edible herbs & weeds which are native to northern NY state … hoping that the website and/or book will have what a rookie needs in order to correctly identify the plant & warn about similar plants which should be avoided. I’d like to be able to find, on the site or in the book, the nutritional / healthy properties of each herb / weed and, where possible, warnings about which of these herbs ( as essential oils and/or tinctures ) should not be mixed with other herbs and/or “big-pharma” drugs.

    Am I asking for too much ?

  • Julia della Croce 5·5·15

    This is a wonderful story, Wendy. I’m grateful for the information. The naysayers can say what they like about the importance of visuals in good journalism, but without the terrific images, it would be less instructive at the least. Thanks very much.

  • Laura 5·5·15

    Try lambsquarter too. I tried to copy in a photo but couldn’t.

  • Clifford A. Wright 5·6·15

    This is a wonderful story, but one should not be mislead by the dandelion photo, as beautiful as it is. As my Italian grandfather taught me, dandelion is picked long before it flowers or goes to seed as that would then be too bitter. Dandelion is best picked young.

  • Kate 5·7·15

    @Clifford – the blossoms are sweet, as are clover blossoms. The entire dandelion is edible, has no poisonous look-a-likes – we might change the part/s we consume based on what we find.

  • Wendy Petty 5·8·15

    Allan, I’m in the Rockies, so that’s pretty far outside of my region, and I’d be a poor judge of which guides or sites are good for your area. There should be plenty of options for you though, are there are many knowledgeable foragers in the area. In my own region, the book I recommend most often for beginners is Cattail Bob Seebeck’s Best Tasting Plants of Colorado and the Rockies. It’s a small book, but the reason I like it is because it shows four pictures of each plant, one for each stage of growth, and lists toxic and non-toxic lookalikes for each stage of growth. Another great option could be taking classes.

  • Annie 5·14·15

    As a sorrel fan I’d love to eat dock, but aren’t there some that are poisonous, others totally fine? I don’t completely trust myself to retain the knowledge of the difference when I’m out there picking.

POST A COMMENT