Spring’s “weeds” are packed with nutrients and flavor
by Bill Taylor and Jaye Alison Moscariello
Join the wild food revolution! In a changing world of nutrient-poor domesticated crops, wild plants provide some of the most nutritious foods found anywhere. Floodgate Farm is known for their wild plant offerings, particularly their colorful and delicious salad mix. These plants are some of the first to recover after fires, and due to their resiliency, they’re now helping sustain Floodgate Farm as we replant and continue recovering after the Grade Fire destroyed our crops and orchard in July 2017.
Oftentimes unwelcome, wild “weeds” can be made into salads, snacks, and other dishes. Many of them grow best in the worst soil, so they often use niches outside the garden beds. Even “bitter” greens have some sweetness as well as other flavors, so the secret is to balance the mix with sour and sweet plants. Here are just a few of the wild edibles available, used for Floodgates famous “Wild Chips” and fennel “candies”:
1. Cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata), Endive, Dandelion (Taraxcium offinale), chicory (in order from least to most bitter) all have similarly shaped leaves. Cat’s ear has fuzzy leaves and a more flat topped yellow flower than dandelion. Chicory and endive have blue flowers. Timing is everything, as younger elastic-feeling leaves are milder, and moisture and coolness makes for milder and sweeter leaves. Dandelion is said to cleanse the liver and gallbladder, stimulate the kidneys, and can be safely used as a diuretic as it replaces potassium.
2. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Bulbs, stems, leaves, buds, flowers, seeds—in any season there is something! Fennel grows along roadsides with fine wire-shaped leaves with a bluish tint and umbrel flowers. It gives a mild anise flavor to any dish—stew, soup, or a roast. Seeds can be ground and used like licorice. Fennel is said to aid digestion, reduce acid in the stomach, and help with colic.
3. Mallow (Malva spp). Considered an anti-aging plant by traditional Chinese medicine, mallow has many uses. Its demulcent property, like its relatives okra, hibiscus and hollyhock, softens hard tissues and smooths linings like those of the intestine and bladder. There are several varieties; all are good in wild chips, and most work in salad (even the fuzzy ones in limited quantities). Flowers and green seed pods can be used in curries or other spicy dishes, or in “mallow pea crunchies” (a curry-spiced chip variation).
4. Mustards (Brassica rapa), Wild Radish (Raphanus sativus). To spice a salad, use flowers and radish pods as well as leaves from less hairy/spiny varieties. The leaves are great for wild chips. Pods are best when flexible; use taste together with feel to train fingers to harvest only prime pods. Leaves are available throughout the rainy season and in moist areas during the dry season. Flowers and pods follow 2-6 weeks after, especially when sun is abundant. These spicy brassicas are hot lymph stimulators, clear the sinuses and respiratory system, are helpful for allergies, and open the pores of the skin.
5. Lanceleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata). Prominent veins and low-growing rosettes of dark green leaves make this plant distinctive. Called “White Man’s Footprint” by native Americans because it grows in the most compacted soils, it has a slightly mushroomy flavor. It’s a bit tough for a lettuce-tender salad but adds great flavor—just start with small amounts. It adds a crispy flavorful accent to wild chips. Astringency makes it a great emergency wrap for small cuts. Buds and seeds from it and its wide-leafed relative Plantago major act as a mild laxative.
6. Sheep sorrel, 3-leafed sorrels, yellow dock, broad leafed dock. With their lemony tart flavor, sheep sorrel leaves appear like a spade shovel. It can be very troublesome in most annual situations, but it does loosen tight soils. On the other hand, all the docks are tap-rooted perennials, which are great in a fruit tree guild since they do not interfere much with shallow feeding roots of trees. Timing is important as older leaves can get very astringent and full of oxalic acid. Dock leaf stems are milder and can be used like rhubarb even when the leaves get too strong. Sheep sorrel is one of four ingredients for the herbal cancer remedy Essiac (along with Turkey Rhubarb, Burdock, Slippery elm). It cleanses and alkalizes the blood, and stimulates the kidneys.
We invite folks to explore the internet for pictures of the plants, or bring samples to us at the Ukiah Farmers’ market for identification help. You can also sign up for one of our classes. Be sure you properly identify a plant before consuming! Thanks go to Karin Uphoff for providing us with some of the information regarding healing uses.
Recipe: Easy Wild Chips
- Choose leaves from the following: Dock, cat’s ear, mustard, wild radish, mallow, lanceleaf plantain, and amaranth (a summer wild plant). Pretty much any edible spring green will do!
- Make a raw salsa by combining the following:
- 2 chopped tomatoes (frozen or dehydrated works if fresh is not available)
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 small onion
- 1 tsp ground hot pepper
- 1 cup chopped seasonal raw squash (stored winter is great)
Blend until fairly smooth. Massage into the washed and drained leaves. Add a mix of crushed sunflower seeds and nutritional yeast until coated to taste. Dehydrate—rearranging a few times will speed drying—and eat within a week or freeze to keep for longer.
Top left photo p. 30 from left to right: Mallow, Yellow Dock, Fennel, Mustard, Sow Thistle, Cat’s Ear, Lanceleaf Plantain. Top right photo: the Floodgate Farm stall at the Farmers Market.
Photos courtesy of Bill Taylor and Jaye Moscariello.
Bill Taylor is also a pianist and composer, and Jaye Moscariello is a visual artist. Our website floodgatefarm.com has more farm and workshop/class information and links to our work.