One of my new favorite early spring meals is homemade naan bread topped with sauteed greens. At this time of year, there really isn't much growing in the garden except for sorrel, onions, and some of the hardier perennial herbs (such as parsley and chives). Of course, I incorporate all of this into the sauteed greens. However, this often is not enough to satisfy my lust for veg (and one never wants to eat too much of sorrel, since it contains oxalic acid - same as spinach - which isn't good for you in large quantities). Since we are lucky to have 5 beautiful acres to roam around on, with plenty of pasture, I have begun taking long walks around the property, munching my way through the fields!
I have received a great deal of interest and questions when I talk about searching for edible greens. I preface all of the following with: I am not an expert! In no way should you attempt to taste any unfamiliar plant unless you are absolutely certain of your identification (or have already had an expert identify it). There are a great deal of poisonous plants, many that can be easily mistaken for other, edible plants. It's easy to make a mistake in identification, and sometimes that mistake can be FATAL. Please be careful!! Also, please make sure that wherever you decide to gather your wild edibles has not been sprayed with pesticides!
That being said, I thought folks would enjoy a blog post briefly discussing some of the wild edibles in my own pastures and how to identify them.
Let's start with the easiest of all - that "pest" the infamous DANDELION!
The poor little dandelion gets such an undeservedly bad rap. This so-called "weed" is actually a wonderful edible, full of vitamins and minerals, and has even been used for centuries to make dandelion wine! Dandelion leaves are higher in beta carotene than carrots, and have a higher iron and calcium content than spinach. It is an excellent early spring tonic plant, helping to "flush out" the system of its winter blues. The name dandelion means "lion's tooth" in Old French for its long, lance-shaped (or "toothed") leaves, which grow around a basal rosette.
Dandelion leaves can be anywhere from 3-12 inches in length, depending on the "happiness" of the plant. Dandelion is easily identifiable due to its well-known, sunshine yellow flowers. Because of this, and the fact that it has no poisonous lookalikes, dandelion is an excellent wild edible. You can eat both the leaves and flowers.
The leaves are actually best before the plant flowers - less bitter - but I think they taste great all season long!
Miner's Lettuce is a succulent wild edible, related to purslane (which makes it a bit easier to identify, in my opinion!). If you have ever harvested wild purslane (and we definitely do on our property), you'll notice that purslane and miner's lettuce have leaves that are quite similar in textural appearance.
Miner's Lettuce can grow anywhere from 3-12 inches tall, with leaves that are a wide oval shape with a pointed tip.
Miner's Lettuce was a major food source during the California Gold Rush, and one bite will show you why! Both the leaves and flowers are edible (currently, it's too early in the season for our plants to be blooming). The leaves are best eaten raw, but can be sauteed as well. Miner's Lettuce is an excellent source of vitamin C!
One of the great things about plantain is that it is easy to identify, and has no poisonous lookalikes! Here on the farm, we have English plantain growing wild in our fields. English Plantain plants grow in basal rosettes and have long, slightly hairy, lance-shaped leaves that grow upward as though standing at attention.
The leaves have very distinct parallel veins running lengthwise. English Plantain is one of the earliest spring edibles to come up, braving the cold weather before anything else. The smallest, youngest leaves are the tastiest - larger, older leaves are quite fibrous and tough to chew. Both the leaves and the seeds are edible.
According to Steve Brill & Evelyn Dean in their book, "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places," Plantains were inadvertently brought from Europe by the first settlers, and by the early 1700s, people already thought of them as native plants.
For more information on identifying and eating wild edibles, I do highly recommend the book by Steve Brill & Evelyn Dean, "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places"