As the blossom falls away and Spring steps away more defiantly from Winter, a tide of Spring greens is sweeping across the soil. Fresh, leafy weed growth is bursting out after the weeds’ Winter slumber, and the time is now for enjoying the best of Springtime garden weed and hedgerow foraging.
I tend to find at this time of year that walks out and about (even in Town) turn into veritable saladfests without any preparation. Not only does the fresh growth taste good (there’s a big variety out there than just bland lettuce-in-a-bag in the shops), they’re also very nutritious – plant breeding by Man has often bred out nutrition in place of higher yield and size, leaving our cultivated selections’ wild cousins beating many of them hands down in mineral and vitamin content.
As a brief guide for those of you not sure where to start, here’s some good’uns to look out for to pick. As some extra tips, remember to not overharvest (difficult to do with spring greens but the rule in general is to not take more than a third of the original crop), pick away from the ground, roads or sprayed fields (to avoid soil bits, pollution and animal wee) and give it a wash (to avoid bird poo – though sometimes it’s hard to resist nibbling on the go if it looks fine…):
It may seem odd to some to celebrate the return of the infamous Stinging Nettle, but it really is an amazing plant that deserves respect and good use. Near unmistakable to identify (except perhaps confusion with it’s similarly natured dead-nettle cousins), Nettles are great ‘soil miners’ who bring up and concentrate useful minerals like iron. Along with this and their high vitamins A and C content they’re great as a spring green packed with a big nutrition-punch, or as a refreshing tea or even medicinal tonic.
At the moment I can’t get enough Nettle Tea (take the tip with 4 or 5ish leaves for a big cup and just pour on hot water), but it’s also good very lightly steamed to avoid stodginess or in something else like a frittata or spring soup. It tastes fairly ‘planty’ in general, but to me has a great fresh flavour to it. For nettle nuts like myself the odd raw leaf is also a fun snack – by screwing up the leaf into a ball it loses its direct sting but leaves and interesting numbness. For the more sane though, light cooking removes all the sting (but some of the fun).
For harvesting, it *is* possible to do it without gloves and not get stung (it involves gripping the stem in the right direction, going with the needles), but lest people get stung and fume at me I’d suggest some gloves. If you’ve got a supply you can return to locally then cut away – the world isn’t short of nettles, and if you only take the top few layers of leaves (3 or so) you’ll get the best, freshest bit regenerating through much of the season.
As an experiment for plentiful young nettle tops I’m considering trying nettle beer this Spring – I will report back on how it goes…
Wild Garlic in flower ((c) 2010 Ken Fern, Plants For A Future)
This is the classic Spring herb, which at the right time of year fills certain woodlands with drifting clouds of garlic smell as they cover the woodland floor. They’re easy to ID by smell – there’s not much mistaking the pungent garlicyness when crushing the leaf, though there is a chance of mistaking it on sight for the poisonous lily of the valley at first.
The leaves and flowers are good in salads raw or slightly cooked if that’s too strong – the bulbs can be used too and are stronger, but for regeneration’s sake it’s best not to use the bulbs too much. If you like them, try collecting some seeds later on from the dried flowers and sowing them in a garden or pot for a more convenient garlic salad source.
Tree leaves – Hawthorn, Beech and Lime
All of these trees produce good tasting leaves in the Spring which knock the socks of lettuce for satisfying salads (Beech tastes a bit like apple/grape peel, Hawthorn a tad nutty). You can tell when they’re edible by their brighter green and non-waxy texture – when they get older they become darker, waxier and too full of cellulose to do humans much good.
Known better as the bane of lawns, I find Dandelion a good addition to salads at this time of year. They have a fairly bitter taste, but the young leaves have just the right bitterness as a salad component to make it interesting. Don’t have too much though (quantified as circa lots), there’s a reason why the French call it “Piss the Bed”…
Not the tastiest of greens, but certainly plentiful and regenerates – the young leaves slightly cooked are pretty nutritious, though the hairiness is a bit ‘different’. Many people would chuck this straight on the compost, but along with the nettles and cleavers in some gardens it forms a pretty dense and edible ground cover, so is worth considering to eat!
The sticky weed of ones youth, the young tips of cleavers (also known as goosegrass or sticky willy) are good slightly fried, though as with most of these they’re best young and fresh rather than older, tougher and stickier.
Jack by the Hedge (Garlic Mustard)
Jack by the Hedge often occurs pathside with Nettles but is a bit less common in gardens – it has a garlicy/mustard taste (as suggested by the alternative name!) which gets stronger as it gets older. At the moment they’re packing a fair punch compared to a month or two earlier, but would do well chopped finely in a salad or cooked into something.
All of these are plentiful and easy to identify and are in their prime now and for the next couple of weeks – I recommend getting out there and whipping up some wild spring-greens laced salads, soups and fry-ups!