Wild Spring Greens
From Elise Krohn, Wild Foods and Medicines Program Director
I am filled with joy as I witness familiar signs of spring at GRuB: bright pink salmonberry flowers buzzing with bees and hummingbirds, fragrant violets, and all the lush green native plants emerging after the cold and dark of winter. The seasonal changes flood my senses with new colors, smells, textures, and warmth. They also make me hungry for the first foods of the season. Our Tend, Gather and Grow Curriculum includes a Wild Food Traditions module with a lesson on spring wild edibles. In March, we did a full-day teacher training with 18 educators—our first in-person workshop at GRuB in over two years! It was a delight to harvest and cook with people. Here are a few highlights from our day that can help us to enter spring with renewed energy.
Bigleaf Maple Flowers
Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) is a tall, multi-trunked tree that thrives in wet forests and open fields. Young bark is green and smooth, while mature bark becomes grooved and gray-brown in color. Older trees are often covered in mosses, lichens, and licorice ferns. Leaves have five tips and can grow over a foot in diameter. In early spring, greenish-yellow flowers bloom, hanging in clusters on short stalks before leaves fully emerge and give the whole tree a golden hue. Each individual flower is bowl-shaped, cupping many pistils with a downy fur at their base, resembling a tiny bird nest.
Bigleaf maple produces massive amounts of fruit, which look like wings attached in a V-shape and travel like helicopters in the wind. Every spring, thousands of seeds germinate but only a few survive. Bigleaf maple can grow nine feet tall in a single year and can live as long as 300 years. It is often home to many plants, insects, birds, and tree-dwelling creatures.
Bigleaf maple flowers are harvested in spring when they are fully opened at the base but are still budding at the tip of the cluster. They are full of sweet nectar and pollen, making them an important food for spring pollinators. Try eating the flowers fresh or using them as a garnish on salads or soups. You can add them to baked goods like pancakes.
Bigleaf Maple Flower Fritters
You can experiment with fritters by adding either dried or fresh herbs. Try savory flavors like rosemary or garlic, or sweet flavors like vanilla and cinnamon. If you are preparing sweet fritters, consider serving them with a drizzle of maple syrup!
- 20 bigleaf maple flower clusters
- ½ cup flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of salt and herbs or spices of choice
- 2 eggs beaten
- ¼ cup milk (use cow, rice, almond, or even water if you do not have milk)
- ¼ cup oil for frying (sunflower, sesame, safflower, and coconut oils are favorites)
In a bowl, mix the flour, salt, and herbs or spices. In another bowl, whisk the eggs with milk. Put a medium-sized sauté pan on medium-high heat and add the oil. Once the oil is heated, dip the maple flower clusters in the egg mixture first, then dust them with the flour mixture, and then place them in the pan. Place 4-5 clusters in the pan at a time. When the fritters are golden, flip and let them brown on the other side. Let them drain on paper towels and serve hot.
Variations: Pancake mix will work fine for this recipe. Mix the batter, dip the flower clusters, and let the excess drip off before you put them in the pan. Gluten-free pancake and biscuit mix can also be used.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) grows in patches and can reach a little over a foot tall. Tiny white star-like flowers have five petals, but appear to have 10 because each petal is shaped like rabbit ears. The bright green leaves grow in opposite pairs. A single line of hair runs down the length of the stem, resembling a mohawk.
Chickweed is a common weed that will grow in any wet place it can take root, including carefully managed gardens and randomly available city dirt patches. It loves moist rich soil and will take over entire garden beds in early spring. As the sun gets brighter and the days warmer, it dies back in open areas, but continues to thrive in shady moist corners.
Chickweed contains a powerhouse of nutrients. Spinach is the most mineral rich green in grocery stores but chickweed boasts 12 times more calcium, five times more magnesium, 83 times more iron and six times more vitamin C! No wonder chickens and other green foraging animals love this nutritious plant! (Hence the name: chickweed.)
Young chickweed has a pleasant, mild flavor. It grows rapidly through March and April. Use scissors to harvest the tender new growth or just trim the top couple of inches off more developed plants. Rinse if necessary. Chickweed will last for several days in the refrigerator when wrapped it in a damp paper towel or placed in a plastic bag. If chickweed has a stringy tough texture, it is too old to be edible.
Add chickweed to salads or blend it into smoothies, pesto, and sauces. Add finely chopped chickweed to eggs, quiche, pasta sauce and lasagna to give them an extra nutrient boost and a splash of bright color. To preserve chickweed, place the tender greens in the blender with a little bit of water, blend well and pour into ice cube trays. Freeze, remove cubes, and place them in a freezer bag for later use in smoothies and soups.
Try tossing this with pasta, potatoes, or cooked vegetables. It can also be spread on crackers or fresh vegetables as a snack.
- 4 cups young chickweed, rinsed, drained, and chopped
- 1/2 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
- 1/3 cup walnuts or other nuts of your choice
- 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Optional: add 1 bunch basil, stems removed, washed, and drained (about 2 cups leaves)
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place the pesto in a clean jar and pour a little extra olive oil over the top. Cover with a lid. Pesto will keep for 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a nutritious food and a powerful medicine. This common “weed” thrives in sidewalk cracks, grassy lawns, well-tended gardens, abandoned city lots, and even mountain meadows. It is surprisingly easy to misidentify as many look-alike plants have similar leaves. Dandelion leaves are hairless and have toothed edges, hence the French name, “dent de lion” (lion’s tooth). They also only have one flower per stem which is hollow. Over 90 different types of insects pollinate dandelion flowers.
What most people think of as a single dandelion flower is actually hundreds of flowers growing together on a single base. They open in the sunlight and close in dark, rainy weather. Each dandelion plant can produce more than 5,000 seeds per year in the form of “wish balls” that are easily blown away with the slightest breeze. Individual seeds with parachute-like hairs have been known to travel on the wind as far as five miles!
Dandelion helps to improve soil quality. Roots draw minerals up from deep layers of the earth – concentrating them in the whole plant. When the plant dies back, it deposits these minerals in the topsoil. Roots also help aerate hard-packed soil and create pathways for water to enter.
Dandelion leaves are high in vitamins and minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C. Pinch off the young tender leaves from the center of plants, rinse, and keep cool. Add them fresh to salads or try steaming, sautéing, or boiling them. Older leaves become intensely bitter as they are exposed to increasing amounts of sunlight.
Dandelion buds can be eaten like capers when they are still tight little buttons. To remove the bitterness, wait until the sepals have unfurled and pinch them off. The buds look like little watermelons and can be eaten fresh, cooked, or pickled.
Dandelion flowers are high in Vitamin A and have a sweet, mild flavor, but the base of the flowering head and the green sepals are quite bitter. You can pull the petals off and use them straight in salads or add them to cooked foods like quiche, pancakes, muffins, and fritters.
Dandelion Drop Biscuits
This recipe is quick, easy, and completely satisfying. You can use wheat-free flour baking mix or gluten-free flour mix with delicious results.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour (or 1 c. white and 1 c. whole wheat)
- 2½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon dried herbs such as rosemary, marjoram, basil, or chives
- 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup milk
- ½ cup dandelion flowers, pulled off the base without sepals
Preheat oven to 450°. Mix the dry ingredients, then add butter. Work mixture with your hands until the batter is the size of coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in milk, herbs, and dandelion flowers. Do not overwork. Batter should be moist and sticky but not smooth. Use a spoon to form about ¼ cup scoops. Place on a cookie sheet 1–2 inches apart. Bake until the bottom is browned and the edges are starting to brown, about 12 minutes.
Stinging nettles are our first edible greens to emerge in early spring. They offer us strength and energy during a generative time. You can find nettles in fields, streambeds, and disturbed areas with rich wet soil from the coast into the mountains. They grow 1-3 meters tall and have opposite deep-green leaves with serrated edges, tiny greenish flowers and square stems. The stalk and underside of leaves are covered with stinging hairs that rise from a gland containing formic acid. Gloves and scissors are usually used to harvest nettles.
Nettles are often called a “superfood” and are one of the highest plant sources of chlorophyll, vitamins, amino acids, and minerals including calcium, magnesium, and iron. Gather nettles in March-May to eat fresh before they flower. Do not gather nettles in agricultural or industrial areas because they may absorb inorganic nitrites and heavy metals. Ways to prepare nettles for food include boiling, steaming, and sautéing them. They only need to be boiled for a few minutes, as the “sting” will evaporate with heat. Nettles will cook down like spinach and can be used in soups, dips, quiches, casseroles, meat pies, egg scrambles, etc.
Nettle season is short, but you can enjoy their benefits throughout the year by preserving them. To can them, follow instructions for spinach. To freeze them, fill a medium-sized colander with the amount of nettle you think you will use for a typical dish. Wash the nettles. Fill the pot with enough water to submerge your plants, bring to a boil, and add nettles. Cook for about 3 minutes. Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and submerge in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process. Remove with the slotted spoon and let them drain a minute before placing in a freezer bag. Start your next batch in the boiling water and repeat. You can quickly freeze many bags of nettle this way. The cooking water makes delicious tea or broth.
Spring Nettle Soup
This simple soup is a perfect energizing food for springtime. It is easy to make and has a nice, smooth texture when blended.
- 1 bag of fresh nettles (plastic grocery sized)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
- 2 large onions, diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 8-10 cups water or broth
- 4 potatoes, peeled and diced
- 2 cups corn
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
Wash nettles in a colander, chop with scissors, and set aside. In a large soup pot, sauté onions and garlic until tender. Add corn, potatoes, nettles, and water or broth then bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Blend all ingredients in a blender or a food processor. Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. You can add other vegetables like celery, carrots, and squash.
Violets (Viola spp.) are beautiful low-growing plants that thrive in moist shady forests. There are many types in our region, including early spring violet, marsh violet, Canada violet, stream violet, and trailing yellow violet. They have heart or kidney-shaped leaves and five-petaled flowers that can be white, yellow, purple, or pink. Some of them have a wonderful smell, so try getting down on your hands and knees to smell them. It is worth the effort!
All violet leaves and flowers are edible, including their close relatives, pansies and Johnny jump ups. Eating just a few violet leaves will fulfill your daily requirement for vitamin C! You can eat a handful as a trailside snack, or you can add them to salads, soups, or sautés. Violets make a beautiful garnish for cakes and other desserts. You can also brush egg whites on the flowers, carefully coat them in confectioners’ sugar, and bake them in the oven on the lowest temperature to make candied violets. Wild violet leaves contain saponins or soap-like compounds, which can cause digestive upset if eaten in very large quantities. A small handful is a good amount for one person.
A Note to Foragers
When I am harvesting plants, I consider how I can be safe, respectful, and give back to the plant community. Here are some things to consider before harvesting:
- Proper identification: Make sure you have the right plant! Cross check with knowledgeable plant people, books, and identification apps.
- Find Safe Places: Avoid harvesting from roadsides or railroads, in agricultural areas, or other places that may be contaminated or sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. These chemicals can make us sick.
- Ask Permission: Acknowledge whose land you are on. Do you have permission to harvest there?
- Slow Down and Look Around: How many plants are there? Are they healthy? How many can you harvest while still leaving a strong community? Leave enough for other animals that rely on the plants for food.
- Leave No Trace: Clean up so that you don’t make a visible impact. Fill in holes, etc.
- Anticipate Processing Time and How Much You Need: Sometimes the bulk of the work comes when you get home and process the plants. Will you have time? How much will you be able to actually use?
- What Can You Give Back? Some people leave a gift, a song, or a prayer as thanks for the gift they have received. Others may pick up garbage or remove invasive plant species.
Books on Wild Spring Greens
Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska,Western Canada, and the Northwest by Janice Schofield
Edible Garden Weeds of Canada by Nancy Turner and Adam Szczawinski
Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide by Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman
Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food fromDirt to Plate by John Kallas
Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden by Sam Thayer
Pacific Feasts by Jennifer Hahn
Pacific Northwest Foraging by Douglas Deur
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coastby Jim Pojar and Andy Mackinnon
Foster, Steven and Hobbs,Christopher. Western Medicinal Plants andHerbs. Peterson Field Guide. 2002
Hahn, Jennifer. Pacific Feast. Seattle, Skipstone. 2010
Kallas, John. Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food from Dirt toPlate. Layton, Gibbs Smith. 2010
Krohn, Elise. Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar. GorhamPrinting. 2005
Lloyd, Abe. Wild Harvests Blog. http://arcadianabe.blogspot.com/2013/02/bigleaf-maple-syrup.html
Schofield, J. Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, WesternCanada, and the Northwest. Portland, Alaska Northwest Books. 1998
Turner, Nancy. Food Plants of the Coastal First People.Vancouver, UBC Press. 1995