Juliet Blankespoor outlines your options for healthy and helpful spring treats.
The sight of tender lime-green shoots emerging from the brown earth after winter’s respite always brightens my mood and lightens my step. With our shorter winters, early March is a time of bounty for fresh wild greens. Before the advent of modern-day, widespread shipping of vegetables, people depended on and relished these vitamin- and mineral-rich “free-for-the-picking” treats. With increasing national awareness of the environmental costs of shipping foods from California and beyond, we can turn to our backyards, fields and gardens and find joy in providing the freshest possible food for our tables.
Nettles, daylily shoots, chickweed, creasy greens, sochan, garlic mustard, dandelion, winter cress and violets are some of the plants my family picks in early spring for our salads and cooked greens. (We don’t use all of these plants for salad; the sting of nettles in my mouth is something I tend to shy away from!)
The daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) is not only a versatile wild edible with tasty young greens and flowers, but also a beautiful and easily grown perennial vegetable and garden flower. Native to Asia, it has escaped cultivation and is a familiar sight alongside streams, roadsides, trailsides and generally anywhere humans tread. Chances are you’re already living close to a patch.
The yummy shoots sprout up in Western North Carolina from February to early March and may be picked by clipping with scissors at ground level when they’re about four inches high. In warmer areas of the South, the green growth emerges as early as January. Daylily greens are edible raw, sautéed or steamed. I prefer them mixed with other greens if eaten raw, as they can leave a funny aftertaste. They’re excellent sautéed in a little olive oil, tamari and garlic.
In extolling their deliciousness, I feel I should offer this caution: some people are allergic to daylilies and react to them with vomiting and diarrhea, especially when eaten raw. A very small percentage of people (perhaps one out of 50) experience these unpleasant reactions. Still, it is prudent to start with a small amount of cooked flowers or shoots and wait 24 hours before slowly eating larger portions if no gastric upset is observed. Following this protocol, serious allergic reactions can be avoided.
It’s important to correctly identify daylily shoots as they resemble some very poisonous plants that grow in similar habitats. Until you know the plant well, locate daylily patches in summer when the plant is easily recognizable by its six yellow-orange petals (botanically tepals). Revisit these patches in the spring, and you’ll be able to identify the tender new growth. Make sure you’re not confusing the shoots with irises (flatter leaves and rhizomes that grow laterally just under the soil surface). I’ve also seen daylily shoots interspersed with the new growth of daffodils and other bulbs. It goes without saying that you should know what it is you’re eating. Consult an experienced forager or wild foods book if you’re in doubt.
Creasy greens (Barbarea vugaris and B.verna), or winter cress, with their mustard flavor and edible leaves and flowers, are another one of my spring favorites. They have a lively pungency when eaten raw as a zesty addition to a mixed baby green salad; sautéed or steamed, they transform into something more subtle and tender. Winter cress becomes more spicy and bitter as the season progresses; it can be added to milder cooked greens when its flavor begins to intensify. During the winter, we find this plant in its basal rosette stage (all the leaves emerging from a central point on the ground with no erect stem) poking around in lawns, fields and gardens. The leaves are smooth with rounded lobes, which divide the leaf into two to 20 segments depending on the species and have an obvious mustard-like aroma when the leaves are crushed and a piquant mustard flavor when eaten. In March, the plant sends up a flowering shoot that can be used like a broccoli raab while still young and tender. After the flowering stem begins to toughen, I simply use the bright yellow flowers to garnish salads and other dishes. Watercress, also in the mustard family, looks somewhat similar but grows in waterways and not on land.
Creasy greens are a traditional early spring delicacy in the South and still can be found in some rural grocery stores. One can buy seeds of this extremely cold-tolerant plant as winter cress (the Northern name used in most wild foods books) and grow it all winter in an unheated greenhouse or under little hoop houses covered with clear plastic or floating row covers (also sold as frost blankets). If you’re lucky enough to have it already growing near you, simply let it flower and go to seed, and your patch will increase. Creasy greens are high in vitamins A and C, containing, by weight, twice the vitamin A as broccoli and three times the vitamin C as oranges. The pungent mustard oils found throughout the plant are stimulating, warming and drying, and are useful for clearing sinus and lung congestion.
Remember to always pick from areas that have not been contaminated with herbicides and other harmful chemicals, and do your gathering at least 30 feet from the road.