Wildcrafting is defined as the gathering of plants (often greens) from their natural or “wild” habitat. Normally this is done for culinary or medicinal purposes. Perhaps it is a throwback to our early ancestors who were foragers as well as planters that we annually scour the outdoors to find nature’s bounty. Wild greens have better flavor when gathered early in the spring while they are still young and tender. March is a good month to begin harvesting from nature’s “salad bowl” if your taste buds yearn for food that can be a bit piquant in nature.
The cardinal rule to remember when hunting wild greens is to be certain to know what you are gathering. If in doubt about the identity of a plant, then pass it by. Missouri Wildflowers by Edgar Denison (published by Missouri Department of Conservation) is an excellent reference for the identification of edible wild greens; it also serves as a good field manual for the enjoyment of other members of our wild flora. Also, remember to ask permission first if you go onto someone else’s property. Some good places to hunt for wild greens include wood lots, old pastures and fields, along stream banks, and even in your yard.
Although many of these plants grow along roadsides, it is best not to gather them from such places because of the risk they may be contaminated by residue from automobile exhaust. All plants gathered from the wild should be carefully inspected and thoroughly washed with two or more changes of water. The inspection is needed to find and remove grass, insects and other debris. As a final precaution, when eating wild greens for the first time start with small amounts. Allergic reactions to any new food can happen, be it cultivated or from the wild.
The following plants are popular table fare for those who enjoy edible wild greens and are common to Missouri.
Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenate) - After a long winter without fresh vegetables to consume, pioneer women eagerly awaited the first appearance of toothwort (or crow’s foot). It produces low-growing plants found primarily in rich woodlands and wooded slopes. Cutleaf toothwort has five narrow, deeply-lobed leaves that are arranged like the toes on the foot of a crow, hence the common name. Although the leaves of toothwort are edible, the plant’s rhizomes are what most wildcrafters covet. They have a spicy, radish-like flavor and can be cut up fresh and added to salads, fermented (to sweeten them) or boiled.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) - With its familiar jagged leaves, milky stems and yellow sunburst flowers, dandelion is well-known to most of us. Indeed, many lawn owners spend quite a bit of time and effort trying to eradicate this common plant from their lawns. Dandelion greens are especially rich in vitamin A and iron and are best for eating during March and April. The best way to gather this plant is to cut off the whole crown close to the soil, pluck out the flower stem and sort out any “trash”. The leaves of this maligned weed can be mixed with other greens to make a salad that is quite a treat.
Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) - Often referred to as wild spinach, lambsquarters appears later in the season when most other wild greens have become too mature for consumption. Its alternate common name refers to the fact this plant does taste a lot like spinach and also is high in vitamins and minerals. Its oval-to-lance shaped leaves are light-green above and mealy-white underneath. Lambsquarters is a common plant in gardens, along roadsides, in waste areas or anywhere there is plenty of sunshine and few trees. Young plants can be pinched off just above the ground, cooked and eaten whole. Tender young leaves from older plants can be harvested and eaten all summer long.
Nettle (Urtica spp.) - Few people who have ever encountered a patch of stinging nettle will fail to recognize the plant at a later date. In spite of its anti-social behavior (caused by formic acid contained by its fine bristles) nettle is a popular source of springtime table fare. Its leaves are egg-shaped-to-oblong with a heart-like base and toothed margins. Both stem and leaves are covered with the afore-mentioned bristles. Nettle leaves are best for eating when gathered early in the spring when young (and while wearing gloves). Young leaves lose their stinging properties when boiled and many consider nettle to be tastier than spinach.
Shepherd’s-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) - This plant derives its common name because its mature, heart-shaped seed pods that look like miniature forms of the pouches once carried by ancient shepherds. It is a winter annual that springs to life from a prostrate rosette of deeply-cut, lance-shaped leaves. Common to fields, country roadsides, pastures and idle land, it has long been used to pep up the taste and flavor of less-savory greens such as lambsquarters. Shepherd’s- purse can also be used raw in tossed salads or eaten by itself. Legend has it that old-time raftsmen who floated downstream great flotillas of logs cut from the hills went to great lengths to find this plant along the riverbanks they past by because of its peppery taste.
Watercress (Nasturtum officinale) - As one might guess from its name, water cress is an aquatic plant. It often can be found floating on the surface and creeping around the banks of ponds, pasture creeks or cold springs. Water cress has small, bright-green leaves arranged on long slender stems and is at its succulent best from April to June. It has a delightfully pungent taste and has been used for years as a salad or garnish for meat. Early pioneer physicians used water cress in the treatment of scurvy. The latter stems from its high ascorbic acid (vitamin C) content; it also contains significant amounts of vitamin A, iron, calcium and potassium.
Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) - This plant is common to lowland pastures, cut-over timberlands and along the moist banks of streams. Like its relative the dandelion, it is best for eating in March and early April. Later in the season wild lettuce becomes bitter and unpalatable. It can be identified by its smooth, deeply-lobed, light-green leaves. When broken, leaves and stems of this plant produce a sticky, milk-like sap. Wild lettuce can be mixed with other greens or eaten raw in a wilted lettuce salad.
Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris) - Commonly called “creasies” in days-of-old, winter (or upland) cress is a superb potherb that has been picked and eaten for generations. It is so popular that commercial canning companies have been known to market it as a canned vegetable. Common in fields, gardens and waste places, winter cress starts from seed late in the summer and develops a rosette of dark green, five-lobed leaves in the fall. It grows remarkable well during warm periods of winter and is ready for harvest and eating in March. Mature winter cress is rather bitter; this problem can be avoided by gathering it when young or mixing it with other greens.
Readers of this article should note that pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is not included on the preceding list of wild greens even though many old timers relished poke “salid”. Because of toxic compounds contained in all parts of this plant we cannot include it on our list of plants acceptable for wildcrafting and human consumption. Therefore, readers are urged to avoid it.
To prepare wild green the “old-fashioned” way simply place them in a sauce pan with a little water, salt to taste and cook until tender. Wild greens should not be over-cooked or cooked in a lot of water for fear of losing vitamins and minerals. The bitterness of some greens such as winter cress and dandelion can be offset by cooking them with milder plants. Greens can also be seasoned with bacon drippings or a dash of vinegar or lemon juice for added taste. Wild greens blend well with any menu but (arguably) go best with a “working man’s” meal of soup beans, fried potatoes, corn bread and raw onions. Undoubtedly, such a dinner sustained many a mountain farmer of the past during long springtime days of clearing land, walking behind a horse-drawn plow and putting in a new crop.
DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this article is designed to provide helpful insight on the subject discussed. The author is not responsible for any adverse reactions that might be experienced from the consumption of edible wild greens or plants mistaken to be edible wild greens.
REVISED: March 5, 2013