Before the days of vitamins, multinational drug/chemical companies, and factory farming, homesteaders headed out to the woods and fields as soon as the spring turned green, to gather tender wild greens. Wild greens, collectively known as “greens”, “Potherbs”, and “spinach” had to be gathered while they were still young and tender, because as they matured, and sent up their flower stalks, they became tough and bitter. In my area the “wild asparagus” is mythic. Old timers still comb the hills around Grand Forks, and up the North Fork looking for the green budding stalks as they peep up above the grass. But looking beyond asparagus what other wild greens and herbs will you find growing in the fields and gardens around you, that you might not think to try? Most of these came to North America from Europe at the time of the settlers and were seeded in the pastures on purpose to provide hardy spring food and herbal remedies. Wild greens are coveted for their hardiness and early Spring growth. Know the wild greens near you and learn to identify them so that you can increase your self-reliance and improve your health.
Don’t be in a hurry to weed wild greens out of your garden with a hoe. Allow a patch or two to grow wild outside of your vegetables beds and you will find that they enrich your pastures with their seeds. If you do need to weed out young plants, toss them to your chickens, ducks, and sheep, rather than letting them wilt on the path. Wild greens provide valuable minerals and vitamins after a winter on hay and feed store fare.
Don’t harvest Spring wild greens next to the road side or where you don’t know if they’ve been sprayed, or even if they may have been touched by spray-drifted from a neighbour. Harvest wild greens where they grow, in the wild, away from road sides. If you are harvesting on someone else’s land, always ask permission.
1. Stinging Nettle (Utica dioica, or U. chamaedryoides)
Stinging nettle a choice wild green full of minerals and is a natural spring tonic. It is a weed of damp, rich soil. It thrives where animals walk down to the creek to drink or where livestock used to loiter. Stir up an old barn yard or horse pasture and the nettles will abound. Nettles are rich in vitamin C and A, very high in protein, and support the liver. Wear strong gloves when you gather them.
They should be gathered when young, when the stems are only 6 inches high. You will get two gathering periods — once in the Spring and again in the Fall. Nettles are perennial, so if you can get a clump established, don’t pull them up by the roots but rather clip them off with pruning shears, near the ground and they will keep growing year after year. You can dry them for tea, year round or cook them like spinach, pour off the cooking water and rinse. Once they are dried or cooked the sting is gone. Don’t eat them raw.
If you do get stung, while you are picking nettle tops, find a dock or plantain plant, mash up a leaf and apply it to the sting and it will be relieve the pain and itch and reduce the swelling.
2. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is my favourite wild green. The yellow flowers are one of the first Spring flowers and they light up the short pasture grass like a thousand suns, after the winter snow recedes. The first leaves of dandelion should be gathered before the flowers show their sunny faces. Dandelion leaves are tender with only a hint of bitterness in the early spring. Once the flower stock emerges the leaves get tougher and more bitter. Rabbits love them all summer long, even when they are bitter, so don’t toss the weeds. Feed them to your livestock, when they are past their prime for human consumption.
Dandelion is a liver tonic and eating the greens in Spring supports the immune system and cleanses the body. They are rich in iron, potassium, and vitamin C. Leaves, flower buds, flowers, and roots are all harvested for food and drink, at the appropriate time of year.
Young wild greens can be added to salad and taste much like radicchio. Cook older dandelion greens like spinach and discard the first cooking water to get rid of bitterness. Use as you would cooked spinach in cheese and egg dishes.
Flower buds are added to soups and omelettes. Stir fry them in fat before adding to your dish.
Open flowers can be used to make wine for winter medicines. This is the recipe that we use. It makes 1 gallon of wine or 5 750 ml bottles.
- 3 qts dandelion flowers
- 2 cups raisins
- 1 gallon water
- 6 cups granulated sugar
- 2 lemons
- 1 orange
- yeast and yeast nutrient
Pick the flowers just before starting, so they’re fresh. You do not need to pick the petals off the flower heads, but the heads should be trimmed of any stalk. Put the flowers in a 3 gallon bucket. Set aside 1 pint of water and bring the remainder to a boil. Pour the boiling water over the dandelion flowers and cover tightly with cloth or plastic wrap. Leave for two days, stirring twice daily. Do not exceed this time. Pour flowers and water in large pot and bring to a low boil. Add the sugar and the peels (peel thinly and avoid any of the white pith) of the lemons and orange. Boil for one hour, then pour into a crock or plastic pail. Add the juice and pulp of the lemons and orange, and the raisins. Allow to stand until cool (70-75 degrees F.). Add yeast and yeast nutrient, cover, and put in a warm place for three days. Strain and pour into a secondary fermentation vessel (bottle or jug). I used a glass jug from apple cider. Fit a fermentation trap to the vessel. Leave until fermentation ceases completely, then rack and add the reserved pint of water and whatever else is required to top up. Refit the airlock and set aside until clear. Rack and bottle. This wine must age six months in the bottle before tasting, but will improve remarkably if allowed a year. [Adapted recipe from C.J.J. Berry’s First Steps in Winemaking]
In the Fall gather the roots from your dandelions. After a full summer of growth they will have lots of good immune boosting qualities. They are a support to the liver and help rid the body of toxins. Wash the roots well. Split them, chop them, and dry them. They can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Or they can be used in tea. They are strongly diuretic, but being rich in potassium they are ideal for keeping your body in balance.
3. Dock (Rumex crispa)
Dock is a broadleaf wild green, that grows in fields, yards, and around barns. It grows about 12 to 18 inches high and its leaves are 6 to 8 inches long. Leaves have crinkly edges. Flowers appear in June around here, followed by seeds that turn dark brown. There are several species of dock and all are edible when the leaves are young. They are rich in vitamin A and C. The dark green spring leaves purify the blood and cleanse the body of toxins.
To cook Dock, boil in water and discard the cooking water. Rinse under running water and then add to your casserole or serve with other greens, adding saturated fat, and caramelized onions or roasted garlic.
4. Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
Sheep sorrel, or sour dock is a wild green of fields, gardens, and disturbed land. It has fine green leaves and will send up a fine flowering stocks with many tiny red flowers. It has creeping roots. The leaves are arrow shaped and have reddish stems. The leaves taste lemony, and add a pleasant, sour taste when mixed in a salad or added to other cooked greens. A poultice of the leaves can be used to bind up boils. Use the leaves when young, raw in a salad or cooked like spinach. They add a lemon-like taste. Add them chopped up with green onions, to mashed potatoes.
5. Pig Weed (Amaranthus hybridus)
Its easy to mix up Pigweed, lamb’s quarters, and strawberry blight, so get a good field guide to common weeds to distinguish these plants as you are learning what the young spring leaves look like. Pig weed is in the Amaranth family and related to lambs quarters, and quinoa. It is an annual that grows one to 8 feet tall. Its leaves, stems, and roots are bright red. Pigweed, like all amaranths, has a mild flavour. Cook the leaves like spinach or add to salad with other wild greens.
The seeds can be gathered, dried, and cooked like quinoa or rice. Rinse them well to wash off the saponins — which will give the seeds a soapy, bitter taste — before cooking. Boil one cup of seeds with two cups of water, like rice.
Chick weed is an evergreen wild green, and can often be found in winter, under the snow. It is an annual that grows 8 inches high and creeps along the ground. The whole plant is edible before flowering. Chickens and ducks love it. It is a good feed for baby chicks and ducklings. It is a good source of vitamin C and can be used in salads or as a potherb.
It is medicine and can be dried for tea. It is also a natural remedy and is useful for relieving the pain of arthritis and to tread cuts, wounds, and irritations of the skin.
7. Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album)
Another wild green related to Amaranth and quinoa, lambs quarters grow in rich gardens and well fertilized pastures. The spring leaves are scalloped and frosted. Its leaves are mealy in texture. A wild green similiar to spinach in texture and taste, it’s rich in iron and potassium. The whole plant can be used if it’s under 6 inches high. Cook like spinach or use the young leaves raw in a salad.
If you’re growing quinoa or one of the flowering amaranths, and plan to save the seed for next year, don’t allow lambs quarters to go to seed. Lamb’s Quarters will cross with quinoa and some varieties of amaranth.
8. Strawberry Blight – (Chenopodium capitatum)
Another relative of the quinoa, strawberry blight, or strawberry spinach was grown in monastery gardens in Europe. It looks like lambs quarters when young, but its leaves that are reddish on the underside and frosted on top, give it away. Harvest the leaves when young and tender. Allow to mature and you can harvest the bland, red fruit to add to salads. You can buy seeds for this one in several seed catalogues.
9. Purslane – (Portulaca oleracea)
A common weed in gardens and cultivated fields, purslane grows like chickweed, flat on the ground, with thick stems and small, pinkish leaves. The whole plant is edible before flowering. Rich in vitamin C. Add young shoots to soups and casseroles. It has a bland taste.
10. Plantain – (Plantago major)
Broadleaf Plantain and narrow leaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) are both edible wild greens. You’ll find this one around the same places that nettles grow, note its location when you harvest nettles, so that you can use a leaf, as needed, to relieve the sting of nettles. It grows in moist soil and in gardens with round basal leaves that are ribbed. Leaves are rich in calcium, vitamin A and C. Harvest before flowering for potherbs. Wash leaves and remove stems. Older leaves will be quite stringy when raw. Parboil for 15 min. to lessen the stinginess. Drain and rinse. Boil again or fry in saturated fat.
This is not an exhaustive list of wild greens that you might enjoy in your area. Depending on where you live the choices available to you may be different that what is available to me. Don’t harvest any wild green without identifying it first with a field guide. Some wild plants are intensely poisonous and even to touch it to your lips can mean certain death. So please get a reliable field guide and consult it when you go out in the woods or fields to harvest wild food. Once you’ve seen a few plants in the wild and clearly identified them, you won’t have any doubt next time you see them. If you find something you can’t identify, leave it alone, until you can.
Some field guides that I’d recommend:
Back to you:
What’s your favourite wild vegetable to harvest in the Spring and where do you find it?