January and February are among the sparsest months for those of us who like to go out there to pick wild greens for soups and salads and other delicious wild food dishes. Of course much depends on just where we live. Milder climes have a little more to offer with regard to early spring edibles than the colder northern regions where the snow gives no sign of melting and the earth is still frozen solid. Even in the more temperate regions, where snow rarely falls or if it does, hardly stays for any lengths of time, foraging can still be quite a challenge at this time of year.
One of the earliest harvestable plants are the Nettles (Urtica dioica). They are a hardy lot at any rate and if you have cropped your patch regularly there is almost always fresh young growth that will yield a few handfuls of tops for a soup. Even if you haven't, the early spring is the best season to pick the tender young leaves. Pick them with your gloves on if you are scared of the stings. At home wash them thoroughly and cut small. They can be prepared as spinach or added to a soup a few minutes before it is done. Once they are cooked they don't sting anymore. Nettles are especially rich in iron and thus make a great spring cleansing food, that will help to dispel the 'Frühjahrsmudigkeit', the sense of sluggishness and tiredness often encountered at this time of year, which is usually due to too little exercise and 'thick blood' from a winter diet.
For salad greens scan the ground for the very early growth of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Chickweed (Stellaria media) and Daisies (Bellis perennis). Dandelion leaves are especially healthful, being rich in potassium, and since they grow abundantly almost everywhere there is no danger of eradication. The older leaves become too bitter and tough to enjoy but the young tender leaves have a pleasant slightly bitter bite that goes well in salads. They make a great spring cleansing remedy. Once it starts flowering the season for the leaves is over, but the flowers can be used to make a delicious herbal wine. The roots too are used for food and medicine. They can be roasted and ground to make a healthful coffee substitute that is especially beneficial for the liver. Many of its closest relatives, such as Hawkbit, Catsear or Nipplewort are also edible, which is just as well as their leaves are often hard to distinguish before their flowers appear. Yarrow leaves are also best in the very early spring when they are still soft and tender. Their fernlike appearance is easy to identify even long before the flowers develop. Once they get older they tend to get a little tough and prickly and the taste is nowhere near as good. Chickweed can be harvested almost all year round, though the little leaves give neither much bulk nor flavour. However, those who encounter it as a weed in their gardens will be pleased to know that instead of throwing it on the compost it could be added to a soup or salad instead. Richard Maybe recommends it cooked:
'Wash the sprigs well and put into a saucepan with no additional water. Add a little butter and some chopped spring onions. Simmer gently for about 10 minutes turning all the time, Finish off with a dash of lemon juice or a sprinkling of grated nutmeg. Cooked this way Chickweed is especially good with rich meat.'
Richard Maybe, Food for Free
Daisies usually grow abundantly almost throughout the year. The young leaves and flowerbuds before they become hairy can be used in salads. Though not much used by modern herbalists, this is another wonderful 'spring cleansing' herb, which stimulates the metabolism and cleanses the blood.
Other likely candidates are the mustard greens, Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris), Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and White Mustard (Sinapis alba). Mustard greens can be cooked with other greens or added to a salad mixture. They add a deftly bite to any dish, cooked or raw.
Watercress usually grows abundantly in most streams, but should never be picked from stagnant water or where there is agricultural run-off from pastures to avoid any danger of infection from liver fluke. Watercress is an exception to the rule of picking young fresh leaves - the older ones have far more flavour. Wash well before adding them to the salad - they go best with a fruity salad, e.g. mixed with apples or oranges, and nuts. Horseradish (Amoracia rusticana) too might be worth a dig once the ground is no longer frozen. Grated Horseradish mixed with sour crème, double cream, or crème fresh makes a bitey condiment for meats and fish. Those who like it hot might try the Universal Devils Mixture:
"…To devil the same (anything), rub each piece with the following mixture, having made a deep incision in any article of food that may be subjected to this Mephistophelian process. Put in a bowl a good tablespoonful of mustard, which mix with four tablespoonful of Chilli vinegar. Add to it a tablespoonful of grated Horseradish, two bruised shallots, a teaspoonful of salt, half ditto of salt, ditto of black pepper, and one of pounded sugar, two teaspoonful of chopped Chillies, if handy. Add the yolks of two raw eggs. Take a paste brush, and after having slightly seasoned each piece with salt, rub over each piece with the same, probing some into the incisions. First broil slowly and then the last few minutes as near as possible to the Pandemonium fire."
From 'The Culinary Campaign', Alexis Soyer, 1857
Or try it grated as a salad, along with grated apples and a little grated carrot, mixed with sour crème or crème fresh, season with a little salt and sugar.
Garlic Hedge Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), which can be found abundantly growing in hedges, combines a garlicky and mustard taste and is especially good early in the year before the leaves become too bitter. Shamrock or Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosa) is also an early spring herb which can be found in woodlands. The tender leaves have a refreshingly sour bite that can go well mixed among other salad herbs. However, the leaves contain oxalates, which can be irritating to the kidneys and thus should not be consumed in large quantities and should be avoided by those who suffer from any kind of kidney problems.
Another early harbinger of spring is the Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and both the leaves and rhizomes are edible. The leaves are rich in Vitamin C and the roots are starchy, though quite small and not especially tasty. Medicinally they can used to make an ointment for haemorrhoids.
There are many more herbs that could be mentioned here and their local availability largely depends on the climate and habitat. The plants mentioned above are common and can be found in hedges and meadows in the early spring in most temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.
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