Joined: May 29, 2010
Location: Ava, Mo, USA, Earth
I wrote this for my Ozark-Homestead group on Yahoo, but thought it would be a good fit for here too. I'm going to try to do this weekly, but it might turn out I do it weakly. For those of you not in the area, the Ozarks are a hilly region mostly in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas, near the center of the contiguous USA.
Eat This Now! 16 April 2011 This is an ongoing, hopefully weekly or at least monthly, list of what food can be foraged now in my part of the Ozarks. I make little or no effort provide instructions on how to identify plants. It is up to the readers to know how to identify any and all plants before you try eating them. I will try to mention any parts of named plants that are not edible or if a plant is only edible at certain times of the year or with special preparation, however do not eat any part of a plant that I do not mention. It may be that I do not know of non-edible portions or that I simply forgot to mention something.
Most of the plants I talk about will be wild, but I will also mention commonly grown plants that few know are edible or know all of the edible parts, such as day lilies and rose of Sharon in this issue.
So far this year I have not found a single morel mushroom (Morchella esculenta), however everybody that I've talked to that has had time to hunt them has been finding them for the last week. With all the rain we just had, this should be prime morel season so happy hunting.
Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are in bloom. The flowers and buds are great trailside snacks and I graze them whenever I pass a tree. The leaves are starting to appear. They are also edible. When tiny they can be delightful raw. As they get bigger they get bitter, however the bitterness leaves with light cooking. As they continue to grow, they lose their shine and get too tough and bitter to eat even with cooking.
Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum), dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) are nice and tender now. Chickweed leaves are excellent raw, but the stems are a bit too fibrous. Dead nettle and henbit are both mild-flavored mint allies. They have a nice flavor, but a disagreeable mouth-feel when raw. I mention these three in the same paragraph because I often find them growing together and they all go in the same pot of mixed greens. Chickweed can be found during mild spells even in midwinter. The mints have been pickable for months. These three are a great source of fresh greens when little else is growing.
Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) is past its prime now. The rosette of large but tender leaves are good cooked in late winter, but are bitter now. I'm mentioning the plant because the flower buds are OK cooked. Some claim they are like tiny broccoli. The buds are somewhat bitter eat raw, but I do nibble them on occasion.
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) bushes are leafing out now. The tender leaves are good. Picking a few here-and-there will not harm the bush, but don't strip any branch of all of its leaves.
One of my favorite plants is the day lily (Hemerocallis fulva). Find a thick patch, wild or in your flowerbed and snap the plant off as low as you can. The leaves are a bit tough and fibrous, but the center and lower parts should be tender and sweet. It's a good trailside nibble or salad green. The roots are also good, but fiddly to clean. This is not the best time of the year for the roots.
Onion grass/wild chives (Allium spp.) are rampant now. I've seen some of the spring ephemeral wild onions in bloom, but I don't know their species. If it looks like and onion, smells like an onion and tastes like an onion then eat it like an onion. There are false onions that look like onions but do not smell or taste like them. These are not edible and some are very toxic.
Dandelions and chicory are prime now. I rarely find dandelions greens mild enough for salads, but chicory sometimes is. Both are best cooked though. A few weeks ago I turned over half a barrel that had been sitting open-side-down all winter and found a mix of curly dock, dandelions and chicory all blanched from the lack of sunlight. It made an excellent salad.
Trout lilies and Dog tooth violets(Erythronium spp.) are not violets but are kin to true lilies. The leaves and flowers are edible raw or cooked. They also have a small edible bulb. Please don't eat too many of the bulbs though. These are getting harder to find and I'd rather not see the plants killed for less than a bite of food. The different species differ mainly in flower color and not in use.
I'm not going to give cooking instructions for most of the plants, but I will give my method for cooking most greens: Fry a couple strips of bacon, when cooked crisp remove the bacon. Add some chopped onion to the hot grease. Stir until the onions are cooked. Rinse the greens and let them stay wet. Add to the onions and grease. Stir quickly until the greens are wilted. Remove from heat and crumble the bacon on top. If you don't want the bacon, use olive oil.
Greens that are too bitter for the above can be boiled or steamed. Serve with butter and vinegar.
One green that is just starting to appear that should not be cooked as above is poke salad, a.k.a. pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Even young poke contains potentially harmful toxins, but these are removed by boiling. Mature leaves and any other part of the plant are toxic. Most books say to cook young leaves and shoots in two changes of water. Get two pots of water boiling. Add the poke to one. Let it boil for a minute. Strain and add to the second pot for at least a minute, more if you prefer. Don't reuse the water. Frankly, I don't know anybody that does this. Most boil it once and then either serve or remove from the water and fry, often in bacon grease with onions. There is also much debate on when to stop picking poke. General advise is to quit picking it when the stem turns red. I've heard stories about people nearly dying from eating poke roots and I know people who got very sick from eating the berries.
Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana and other spp.) is in bloom now. Any part that is tender enough to eat is good. Now, eat the leaves if they are tender, the flowers and flower buds are good sweet nibbles. T. virginiana has purple flowers. There is also a white species or subspecies. The white ones are somewhat rare, so don't eat too many.
There are a number of small spring-ephemeral members of the mustard family that collectively go by the name peppergrass (Lepidium spp, Capsella spp and Thalspi spp.). Earlier in the spring, the small rosettes of leaves were a good spicy addition to salads. They have since gone to seed and lost most of their leaves. The seeds can be ground and used as a replacement for mustard. To make it resemble 'real' mustard each seed would have to be removed from its husk. I've never bothered. I have put dried seeds, hull and all, into a pepper grinder and used them as a spice.
Strawberries. (Frgaria spp.) I hope I don't have to tell anybody that strawberries are edible, but not everybody knows that strawberry leaves are good. The usual way to use them is to dry them and make a tea. It's mild flavored but very high in vitamin C and other nutrients. Some plants keep their leaves year-round and can be found even under snow. Now, the new leaves are tender enough to also be added to salad or mixed cook greens. Cleavers, a.k.a. goosegrass (Galium aparine) is another excellent cooked green. Don't let the prickly stems and leaves keep you from picking it or tossing it in a pot.
Curly Dock, (Rumex crispus) is a common weed that makes a great salad plant when young and tender. When it gets a bit too tough to eat raw, it is good cooked. Eventually it gets bitter, but can still be cooked with one or two changes of water. When young it has a nice sour taste from the oxalic acid it contains. There are two problems that oxalic acid can cause. It can inhibit absorption of calcium from your food and it might contribute to some types of kidney stones. If this sounds risky, most salad greens contain some oxalic acid. It is only a problem if consumed in very large quantities or if you happen to be susceptible to kidney stones.
Toothwort. (Dentaria spp.) There are several species that can all be used interchangeably. Cut-leaved toothwort (D. laciniata) is the most common in this area. The leaves have a peppery taste that is a good addition to salads or cooked greens. The roots are small and picky to clean but their horseradish-like taste can be worth the fuss.
Greenbriers (Smilax spp.) Another genus with several members that, for the leaves and stems, can be used interchangeably. The tender leaves are one of my favorite grazing greens. They are also good cooked. The new growth of the stems, while still tender, is very good. Stop picking the stems when the thorns get tough enough to jab or the stems bend rather than snap. Large and older stems will benefit from peeling.
Violets. (Viola spp.) There are a number of species, usually differentiated by flower color. All are interchangeable. The flowers were once candied as special treats or used to make jelly. The leaves are also good cooked, usually in a pot of mixed greens. One word of caution: unless you are used to them, violet leaves can have a laxative effect. Use with caution at first.
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is not related to 'real' ginger, but the rhizome has a similar taste. Do not eat the leaves. They are reported as poisonous by some authors. The root can be used anytime, but the plant is easier to spot before other plants hide it.
Sassafras (Sassafras spp.) is well known for the tea made from its roots' bark, but other parts are also edible. The roots can be dug any time, but are best when the tree is dormant in the winter. Some say right after leaffall is best. However, now is the time to start nibbling on the leaves and new shoots. The leaves can be gathered when young enough to be tender, dried and powdered. This is the file (pronounced fee-lay) of file gumbo and other Cajun dishes. The leaves and green twigs can also be used to make tea. It's good but different from the root tea. Sassafras root tea was pulled from the market by the FDA because it contains potential carcinogens, so use in moderation. I have never seen any reports of the leaves containing anything harmful. There are two species, one with red roots, the other with white. The white-rooted ones are sometimes preferred medicinally, but I've not noticed any difference for culinary use.
One of my favorite garden weeds is lambsquarters, occasionally called pigweed, (Chenopodium spp.) One of the reasons I'm putting all the botanical names in is because some plants have multiple common names and sometimes the same common name can refer to completely different plants. Pigweed can refer to at least half a dozen plants in different parts of the country. Anyhow, lambsquarters is a better spinach than spinach, at least when cooked. The tender leaves are fuzzy had have a bad mouth-feel when raw. The fuzz goes away with light cooking. There are two species in the area, but they are hard to tell apart and both used the same.
In larger springs, watercress (Nasturtium officinale)can be found almost year-round. All of the new growth of spring, however, makes this prime season for picking it.
This list is longer than most will be, and I didn't even mention many things that are already gone or past their prime. In future articles I'll only mention plants that are just coming into season and revisit plants that have new uses coming into season. Many of the above plants have other edible parts. In these articles, I'm not trying to discuss all uses of each plant, but only what can be used at the time I'm writing.
Joined: Jan 13, 2010
Location: swampland virginia
thank you for the info. was searching permies for 'Tradescantia virginiana' as i ran across your post. I had been trying to figure out another plant (think it is Rhus glabra) and finally found the name of this one, which has been eluding me for years
Why do some people say it is poisonous and others say you can eat it? Anyone here tried eating it? Might have to give it a try next year.
Would it be good for chop and drop mulch?
Anyhow, here are a couple photos of it out of my yard from spring. (purple and white - which i was wondering if it was an odd ball that was going to make me rich )
Joined: May 29, 2010
Location: Ava, Mo, USA, Earth
Just as a quick note: Some authors put the white spiderwort into its own species. Personally, I doubt if it is, since it appears to interbreed with the blue ones freely. I've eaten a fair amount of the flowers and buds.
The only thing I recommend using any Rhus spp. for as a lemonade-type drink or as a coloring agent. I'm not sure if eating the seeds would be a good idea and I know I'd stay away from the leaves or any other part of the plant. The sap can cause a rash almost as bad as poison ivy in a few people.
To make the drink from any Rhus spp.: Pick the berries in the late afternoon when you've had a few rain-less days. You need red-ripe berries, make sure they are not green. Cover them with cold tap water and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Strain through a cloth or coffee filter. And sugar or honey to taste. Personally, I'm not wild about it, but some people are. Staghorn sumac is supposed to be better than the others.