In the early 1960s, Euell Gibbons wrote Stalking the Wild Asparagus and introduced millions of North Americans to the virtues of harvesting wild foods. Since that time, gathering wild edibles has become increasingly popular, and in our region, woods-grown delicacies such as ramps and fiddlehead ferns appear in grocery stores each spring.
Yet you don’t have to lace up your hiking boots to enjoy the wild repast. If you resist the urge to use herbicides, you are likely to find a diverse array of edible wild plants growing in your lawn and vegetable garden.
Let’s start with that botanical Darth Vader in the eyes of lawn perfectionists — the dent de lion, “lion’s tooth” or dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), so named for the tooth-like serrations on its leaves. Pick the young leaves for salad greens early in the season, before the flowers bloom and the leaves become bitter. Use blossoms to make dandelion wine or batter-fried fritters. Dig the roots, clean and slow roast until crisp, then grind and brew into a caffeine-free coffee substitute.
In striking contrast is the sharp, peppery taste of a wild mustard called winter cress, or garden yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris) — among the first plants to sprout after snowmelt. The leaves add character to any salad, but I prefer them steamed like domestically grown mustard greens, or added to soups.
Nearby, you’ll likely find red clover (Trifolium pratense) and white clover (T. repens). As with the dandelion, these clovers originally came from Europe. The leaves are good for salads and can be boiled for five to ten minutes for cooked greens. Crush the dried leaves into bread dough to enhance the leavening of yeast.
Common sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is another strong-flavored herb whose fleshy, arrow-shaped leaves add bite to a salad. Or boil the fresh leaves to create a tart tea, which can be chilled and sweetened for a lemonade-like cooler that’s loaded with vitamin C. The shamrock-shaped leaves of the violet wood-sorrel (Oxalis violacea) and common wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) can be similarly prepared.
As springtime progresses, look for the heart-shaped leaves of wild violets (Viola spp.). When violets bloom in our own lawn, they create such a rich carpet of blue and white that I cease mowing those spots for several weeks. Especially good when young and tender, the leaves make an excellent salad green or potherb that is high in vitamins A and C. Violets can be eaten freshly picked, or the boiled leaves can be used as a thickener in soups. Beware the leaves of yellow violets, however, which have a laxative effect.
Search the unkempt margins of the yard and you’ll notice the scalloped leaves of oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), another European immigrant. These leaves, which taste pleasant and slightly spicy, make tender salad greens.
Flowerbeds and vegetable gardens often harbor two species that are among our most common edible “weeds” — lamb’s quarters or pigweed. Pick the thick, arrow-shaped leaves of lamb’s quarters, which are coated with a whitish bloom, when the plant is less than a foot high. Boil or steam the leaves lightly, then serve with butter and thyme for a spinach-like dish that is rich in vitamins A and C, B-complex vitamins, calcium, iron, and phosphorous. Lamb’s quarters tastes so good you’ll wonder why you’re not growing it rather than treating it as a weed. The fleshy leaves of purslane, which often grows near lamb’s quarters, can also be eaten in salads, or you can boil them for ten minutes as a tart, tasty potherb. Purslane is used to thicken soups, and some people enjoy pickling the stems.
After your lawn has gone feral, the tiny, five-petalled white flowers of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) may appear, harbingers of the miniature, ruby-colored confections to come. The sweet scent and flavor of these minute gems put domesticated varieties to shame. You have to pick a lot of them because they’re so small, but they’re worth the time and effort. Try baking them into muffins or pancakes, sprinkling them on your cereal, over fresh yogurt, or into homemade ice cream. Create wild strawberry jam.
As the season progresses into summer, your reward for maintaining a chemical-free lawn and garden will be a succession of useful ripening plants — from the fragrant, chamomile-like blossoms of pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea), to the snappy seeds of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis and I. pallida), which taste like walnuts. And you’ll be joined by a host of birds, bees, butterflies, and other forms of wildlife that come to partake of the abundant nectar, leaves, fruits, and seeds offered up in the wild harvest.
Michael J. Caduto is an author, ecologist, and storyteller who lives in Reading, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: [email protected]