It’s early spring. The bone-chilling winds of winter have finally given way to that sweet-smelling southern breeze. Songbirds have returned en masse to turn the dawn into an exultant chorus. The dry-rasping fields seemingly transformed overnight from the old, tired tan to bright green, dotted with bits of purple and yellow. And with all the work to do in the spring, I bet you’re hungry. Would you like to join me for lunch and maybe an organic, artisanal hand-crafted beverage? We don’t have to go far—in fact, my favorite place to eat is just around the corner. The corner around the barn, that is. We’re foraging wild greens for our lunch today.
You see, some of the best food in these parts is absolutely free for the taking. You just need to know where to look, you really don’t have to look far. At least once a week in the spring, I take a walk around my land in Missouri with a basket, harvesting the bounty well before my garden begins to really produce. I use my rather-loose recipe for wild green fritters as my favorite way to turn the sudden burst of growth into a filling and nutritious lunch that even the most wild-food adverse might be willing to try. So grab your own basket, take a walk with me through an early spring field or forest, and by the time we’re done, we’ll have food and drink for the price of twenty minutes in the sunshine. I think anyone can afford that.
Let’s Go Foraging for Wild Greens
First, we’re headed to a weedy area near the side of a path. I noticed a huge clump of chickweed (Stellaria media) when I was doing my chores this morning, and I can’t resist its sweetly crunchy stems. You may be familiar with this plant because of its ubiquity in your garden—but rather than merely ripping it out as a weed, throw it in your basket instead: it’s delicious! Samuel Thayer describes its flavor as similar to fresh corn silk in his book Incredible Wild Edibles, and I can think of no better description.
There are a few plants that bear a similarity to chickweed, so here’s a simple diagnostic clue to make sure you’ve got the real deal when you’re starting out. Hold one of its rather limp stems up to the sunshine—if it’s really chickweed, you’ll see a single line of fine hairs running along the stem.
At the well-trodden sides of the path—and even springing from the hard-packed earth of the driveway—is another wonderful weed. Plantain (Plantago major, P. lanceolata) bears no similarity to the banana-like fruit that inexplicably shares its name, but it’s delicious all the same. It’s a non-native European migrant that isn’t going away anytime soon, so harvest with abandon. This early in the year, its tender new leaves are perfect for the picking. Even later in the year, you can still toss the larger leaves in oil and bake them exactly like kale chips.
Moving on, I can see a jackpot of green goodness nearby. I’ve been waiting for the spring leaves of curly dock (Rumex crispus) to appear ever since I learned about this plant last summer. By that point in the year, the leaves were bitter and tough, but I mentally marked where they were growing so I could return when the pickings were better. Get those center leaves that look like they’ve just unfurled—they’ll be the best.
Now, let’s head over to the area by the oak trees. There’s a former garden patch that’s been allowed to go back to field, but it’s still full of food. Dandelion flowers and leaves (Taraxacum officinale) are unmistakable and nutritious, and this early in the year, they are barely bitter! You won’t overharvest it, trust me—take as much as you want.
Mixed in with the dandelion are wonderful clumps of violets (Viola sororia). I’ve heard people call these weeds, but I’d welcome a lawn riddled with these useful flowers any day. The leaves are wonderful cooked. They also contain a fair bit of mucilage—a nice-sounding word for their okra-like sliminess. The flowers are edible, too—and though they don’t really taste any different than the leaves, they’ll impart a lovely color to a cup of tea.
Now look there, nodding in the breeze: do you see those little pink flowers? There’s a patch of violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), and its fresh, sour leaves and flowers will be perfect for our basket. I’ve heard that there’s an edible tuber beneath each clump of those pretty shamrock-like leaves, but I’ve never had the heart to dig one up. I’d rather have the flowers back next year.
As we walk, we see a small tree by the forest’s edge. Even though its leaves have only barely begun to unfurl, it stands out from the rest of the trees because it has a russet-red trunk and surprisingly green branches. Though there’s little doubt of the identity of this wonderful plant, the scent of a broken twig only further confirms Sassafras’ (Sassafras albidum) identity. If the tender new leaves were out, we could judiciously grab a few here and there to add fragrance to our lunch. Instead, let’s grab a few twigs from that larger sapling and add them to our drink.
There’s another wonderful smell in the air—it’s a plant that I often smell before I see. Eastern Beebalm (Monarda bradburiana) is in the mint family, and if the squared stems and paired leaves weren’t proof enough, the sweet oregano-like scent should tip you off as well. I like to grab a few leaves from each plant for both seasoning and tea, but I never uproot this native perennial—once the blooms open, butterflies and bees go mad for it.
As we head back toward the house, there’s another treasure underfoot. This patch of wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) plants is gearing up to bloom, and all those blooms will soon mean the most decadent of wild fruits will appear. In the meantime, however, their three-parted leaves make a wonderful tea ingredient. Let’s grab a few leaves, being careful to avoid the buds.
And right before we go inside, we find one final ingredient—blackberry (Rubus family). These thorny brambles won’t yield their summer-ripe berries without a fight! Thankfully, however, picking their new spring leaves is an easier endeavor. Good for both food and drink, this vigorous tangle of shrubs won’t mind if we take a handful or two.
Using Foraged Foods for Wild Greens Fritters and Wildcrafted Tea
Now, our basket may be full, but our stomachs are not—it looks like it’s time to head to the kitchen and turn all of this free spring forage into lunch. You’ll have to forgive the somewhat informal nature of the following wild greens recipe, but that is the beauty of it. It will work no matter what wild green edibles we find—we just have to try to find around 3 cups of leaves total.
First things first, though—let’s throw all the material in a bowl full of clean water and get it washed and sorted. No matter how carefully we pick, it’s inevitable that a bit of old oak leaf, dirt, or dried grass ends up in the bunch.
Get a big pot and fill it with fresh water. We’ll add the dandelion blossoms, violet blossoms, violet wood sorrel blossoms, sassafras twigs, half of the Eastern beebalm, ￼the strawberry leaves, and some of the blackberry leaves, and start gently heating the water. Let the tea reach a simmer while you prepare the other ingredients, then turn off the heat and cover.
Pile the washed greens on a cutting board. Early-spring wild greens should all be so tender that there will be no need to remove any woody stems. With a nice, sharp knife—a vegetable cleaver is my favorite tool for this—mince up the greens into a bright green pile and put them in a mixing bowl. Add diced onions, two eggs, salt, pepper, and spices, if desired. For the mix you see in my photo, I added cumin, oregano, thyme, and crushed red pepper. Then, a quarter-cup at a time, add whole-wheat flour until the mix just starts to hold together.
Preheat a cast-iron skillet on medium heat, and add a few tablespoons of oil—I like the neutral flexibility of sunflower oil. Add a few spoonfuls of the greens to the hot oil—it should sizzle on contact. After about thirty seconds or so, flip the fritter. It should be cooked enough on one side to hold together—you can now use a spatula to press it down. Cook until both sides have a nice toasted brown.
Serve the wild-green fritters with hot sauce and a side of millet, brown rice, or a few slices of toast. Pour the hot foraged tea through a filter and enjoy the wild-sweet aroma—add honey if desired, but you will find that it is somewhat naturally sweet.
Now, sit back and enjoy a lunch like no other, brought to you by the blessing of a new spring!
About the Author: At first, Wren was an environmental educator and language teacher living in the city. Then, she and her husband decided to escape from the confines of city life and its dependence, and move their family to 12 acres in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing their dream of a self-sufficient, permaculture-based, off-grid homestead, one step at a time. She can be typically found armpit-deep in brush foraging, cooking on cast iron, talking to her ducks and chickens, pumping yet another bucket of water from the well, and, in quiet moments, sketching art around the homestead.