The wonderful thing about spring is that you can just go out – fold-up bag tucked into your pocket – and pick your greens for free. Right now is the season for wild garlic, but there are lots more edible wild greens or, as some like to call them, weeds: nettles, dandelion, plantain, cleaver (goosegrass) and ground elder. If you have never foraged for edible plants, now’s a good time to start.
Green plants are excellent food sources, rich in minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients. Weeds are particularly good sources of antioxidant phytonutrients, after all they are very resilient and successful (in plant terms), having to fend for themselves in the wild without the mollycuddlig our vegetables get on farms and in greenhouses. They get their strength from their amazing nutrients content, and that’s something we can benefit from!
Wild greens also have a beneficial fatty acid composition. Although their fat content is not high, the fat they do contain is mainly omega-3, a type of fat that is not abundant in the typical Western diet.
Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria) is best picked now, before it flowers in May or June. It can be used raw in salads. It has a diuretic and mild sedative effect. If picked after flowering, it can have a laxative effect and a more pungent taste.
Goosegrass or cleaver (Galium aparine) can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. It is also excellent for green smoothies, but it may be a little stringy for the average blender. Best chop it before adding it to your blender or it could wind itself around the blades. My next newsletter will have a recipe for a green smoothie based on goosegrass. Again, it is best gathered before the fruit appear, although you can also pick the (tiny) fruit, dry, then roast them and use as a coffee substitute. Cleaver is a great detoxifying plant. You can also dry the leaves and use them to make a detox tea.
English Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and its brother broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) are so common, it’s hard to miss. Forage for plantain form April to August. When young and tender, you can use it raw in salads, older leaves can be cooked in soups or stews, or dry the leaves for tea. Plantain tea is used as a cough remedy. A poultice made from plantain can relieve itching after insect bites. Broadleaf plantain has been traditionally used to treat diarrhoea. The nutrient rich tea simultaneously replaces minerals and vitamins lost in a bout of diarrhoea.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) again best gathered before flowering, the young leaves are delicious in salads. Like other bitter leaves, they promote bile production (bile is needed for the digestion of fats). The yellow flowers can be used to make a honey-like syrup or jam.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) can be used just like spinach – but only cooked. They lose their stinging power once cooked, but obviously you should wear rubber or garden gloves when gathering it. You could still eat it in a salad: Pile the leaves on to a tea towel, then fold over or top with another tea towel and go over them back and forth with a rolling pin, them give them a thorough rinse and chop finely. Nettle is more aromatic than spinach and tastes great as a side vegetable or soup. It is a great source of vitamins A and C, iron and even protein. The dried leaves can be used to make tea. The tea is traditionally used to treat cystitis, acne, hay fever, headaches and eczema.
Before heading out to forage, it is important to familiarise yourself with the rules for foraging first, both for safety reasons as well as for sustainability. There are lots and lots of books on the subject out there, telling you where to find edible plants, how to harvest, how to prepare them and what they do.
Once you know what you are doing, you can go and discover a whole new world of foods!