The wild spring greens are here! Jam-packed with “nutraceuticals” known to have antiviral, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, immune supportive and immune-stimulating properties, they’re absolutely free and grow abundantly outside your front door. And they’re delicious. From mild and sweet, tart and citrusy to peppery and oniony, wild greens add all kinds of flavour to your everyday meals. So in this post, I’m going to share a bounty of simple and nutrient-filled recipes from the Gather website. Click on the links and you’ll find info on how to identify, harvest and cook with these superfoods of spring!
Today we know them as weeds but across the old world (and still today) the arrival of the first shoots of green was eagerly awaited by country cooks and celebrated in a bounty of dishes. From dandelion, nettles, wild mustards, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, plantain and wild onions, these “weeds” were once consumed to revitalize the body after winter and are part of a medicinal spring cuisine thousands of years old.
The French made Cream of Dandelion Soup, the Germans and Scandinavians loved Nettle broth and Dumplings, the Italians used wild baby fennel fronds and wild mustards in pasta. The Greek had an actual word for these plants, Horta – which simply means green. Served fresh in salads, cooked up into traditional spring pies or as braised vegetable dishes, sautéed with lots of oil, garlic and onions, Horta is still a beloved culinary tradition.
Today Horta are more often made with domesticated greens, but on the Greek Island of Ikaria wild greens dandelions, dock, mallow, chicory, chickweed, mustard greens, nettles, shepherd’s purse, lambs quarters, salsify, and sow thistle etc are still a staple of Horta. And according to the New York Times Ikarians are amongst the longest living people in the world!
And it’s no wonder. Wild greens are so chock full of vitamins, A, C, D, E, K, and minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, silicon, boron and zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, phytonutrients, antioxidants, flavonoids and carotenoids – and so much more – they are considered “nutritive restorative” plants by many herbalists.
Revitalizing and restoring optimal function to one or more organ systems, most are immunomodulators (helping balance the immune system) some help to detoxify the blood and optimize the elimination of waste, some contain gut-friendly bacteria and support digestion, some support the brain and nervous system.
But one thing they all have in common is that their nutrient content outstrips any greens you’ll grow in your garden or buy at the market. Kale and spinach contain only a fraction of the nutrients of their wild counterparts. As documented by journalist Jo Robinson in her book Eating On The Wild Side ever since farmers first planted seeds 10,000 years ago, humans have cultivated plants that are high in starch and sugar and low in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants. In other words, we bred a wealth of vital nutrients out of the human diet.
Wild greens (aka weeds) have not been domesticated, their nutrients not bred out. They contain important compounds that our bodies evolved eating – and still need to thrive. Most are loaded in phytonutrients (i.e. polyphenols, resveratrol, flavonoids, carotenoids, anthocyanins, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics) which support and balance immune system function, act as antioxidants, help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease – as well as being anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-cancer, anti-ageing, neuroprotective and more. Wild dandelion, for instance, contains seven times more phytonutrients than spinach.
Plus they’re all high in antioxidants, those superstars when it comes to optimizing our immune system. Antioxidants work to mop up free radicals that cause inflammation, damage cells and lead to disease. There are hundreds of different substances that can act as antioxidants, each with unique chemical behaviours and biological properties. Vitamins C E and carotenoids for example involved in mechanisms that repair DNA and maintain the health of cells.
Today we no longer consume these “weeds” but many filled our grandparent’s plates just a few generations ago. Most were brought to the new world by settlers as food and medicine. Plants like garlic mustard, nettles, yarrow, plantain, chickweed are amongst the world’s most ancient foods, their residues have been found in cooking pots from the Neolithic and beyond to the Upper Paleolithic, from the British Isles to the Middle East. And while you’ll find their genetically modified descendants in plentiful supply at the supermarket you won’t find one of these ancestral foods for sale. Which is a big reason why many herbalists believe that modern chronic diseases began to run rampant as wild greens disappeared from our diets.
Wild foods are truly ancestral foods. Consider this Roman springtime dish called Moretum (a kind of cheesy pesto) eaten in honour of the Goddess Cybele, The Magna Mater (The Great Mother). According to Ovid, it descends from a time ancient people drank only pure milk and ate only “the herbs that the earth bore of its free will.” Moretum was eaten during the golden age, “before humankind had to cultivate the earth to produce food”.
When it comes to personal favourites, there is probably no wild plant I use more than the highly invasive and extremely delicious wild onion Allium vineale) often called “crow garlic”. It tastes just like a garlic chive only much more intense, adding a sharp burst of oniony garlic flavour to any savoury dish. I love them sprinkled fresh over salads, soups, vegetables, side dishes and dips – the list goes on. Allium contains sulphur compounds (which give their oniony flavour) and acts as a prebiotic encouraging the growth of gut-friendly bacteria! According to Jo Robinson, author of Eating On The Wild Side, green onions have 100x more phytonutrients than other onions – so just imagine the nutrients in Allium vineale!
And because I like dishes that are hot and spicy, another of my favourites are wild mustard greens like Sinapis arvensis. Loaded with Vitamins K and A, young mustard greens contain phytonutrients and sulphur compounds found to protect against diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. I toss these in pasta, bake them into tarts and use them in herbal cheeses.
I also love the tender and tangy wood sorrel. Its young leaves have a sharp lemony flavour and were used as a pot herb long before the introduction of French sorrel. Its three-part leaves look similar to a shamrock (the Irish consider it the ‘true Shamrock’) and are said to be high in vitamin C, B-complex and calcium, and have been used in folk medicine to help with digestive issues, inflammation (particularly of the urinary tract) and for fevers. (Note: Oxalis literally means “sour” and wood sorrel is high in oxalic acid. This can be considered toxic if consumed in large quantities. It’s important to remember many domesticated vegetables, including spinach and broccoli, also contain oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is not a problem when consumed moderately, but people with gout, rheumatism, arthritis, and kidney stones should avoid it.)
And when it comes to wild green superfoods – none are as beloved as nettles. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has been a spring tonic since time immemorial, and highly prized for its vitalizing properties. This nutritional powerhouse packed with vitamins, A, D, E, and K. F, antioxidants, carotenoids, minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, silicon, boron, and zinc omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids, and even protein! Herbalists also use nettles to restore energy levels, strengthen the adrenals, detoxify the body, relieve allergies, restore youthful flexibility to blood vessels and to strengthen bones, hair, nails and teeth.
So if you’re looking for a little herbal support during this time of health concerns – all I can say is – learning to incorporate nourishing wild greens into your meals is as simple as adding them to a salad, pesto, pasta, cheesy tarts, horta or kimchi etc!
And if you’re looking for more ideas – I’ve got loads of more plant profiles and recipes available in the Gather Victoria ECookery Book for Gather patrons. Needless to say, I’m passionate about the many benefits of wild spring greens! So why pay top dollar for pricey domesticated greens and herbs when the most healthy and vibrant greens are in your backyard? Happy Foraging!