I eat my spring greens religiously and want to make you a convert too. For me, it boils down to viriditas which literally means “greenness” in Latin – not just any green but that incandescent lit from within greenness that is vitality, fecundity, lushness, verdure, and growth. Twelfth-century Abbess and herbalist Hildegard Von Bingen used the word copiously to refer to the greening power of nature and she believed her patients could be healed and revitalized by consuming the viriditas found in abundance in green plants and herbs.
Considering the largest contributor to green in nature is the green pigment chlorophyll, this makes sense. These molecules absorb sunlight and convert it to chemical energy – and are considered by many as a literal life force. Chlorophyll not only quashes cell-damaging free radicals, but it also helps repair DNA, oxygenate and detoxify the blood and boosts the immune system. Now I’m not saying chlorophyll is viriditas but I’m pretty sure the chlorophyll on display in the wild greens shimmering in our spring landscape is packed with it.
Hildegarde believed viriditas was a “divine force reborn anew in each shoot and leaf”, manifest “when the earth swells with living green”. Whether we’re talking nettles, dandelions, mustards, cresses, sorrels, wild garlic and onion, spring is the season Mother Nature presents us with a bounty of viriditas to revitalize our bodies after winter.
We may call them weeds but for our ancestors, all over the world, they were the first superfoods. Gathered from local woodlands, meadows, seashores and mountain slopes, and eaten fresh in salads, added to soups, pesto, pasta, omelettes or simply pan-fried with olive oil or butter, these spring dishes were part of an age-old medicinal cuisine.
And no wonder. Bursting with so many of the vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, antioxidants, and phytonutrients we need to thrive, they put domesticated leafy greens like kale and spinach to shame. This is why many herbalists believe the rise of modern chronic diseases coincides with the disappearance of these “nutritive restoratives” from our diets.
I’m Latvian and Baltic on my mother’s side and French on my father’s but his family tree included plenty of Greeks, Romanians, Hungarians and a few generations of Italians! This likely explains my fondness for Lativian Sorrel Soup and Nettle Dumplings, French Cream of Dandelion Soup, Greek Wild Fennel Frond Pies, and Italian Erbazzone (wild green cheese pie) and Pancotto Soup!
So in this post, I’m going to share some ideas for cooking up mother nature’s superfoods in simple rustic dishes inspired by my family ancestry and culinary traditions around the world. Brought to the new world by immigrants as food and medicine you can now find these plants growing in abundance in meadows, fields, along country lanes, neighbourhood streets, clinging to hilly slopes, at the edges of seashores – and outside your front door. Some are mild and sweet, others tart and citrusy, peppery or mustardy, oniony or garlicky, but all will add loads of flavour and nutrients to your everyday meals
So let’s rediscover some of the wild plants which filled ancestors’ plates up until a few generations ago!
I live on the top of a hill on the border of a large wildish park which literally meets my backyard, Every morning I head off into the park with the dog for a daily walk. In March, the first leaves of miner’s lettuce (mild and tender) dandelion (bitter) wild mustards (spicy & hot) lemon balm (sweet and citrusy) and crow garlic (oniony like a revved-up garlic chive) have already begun to shine in the landscape.
Some days a glorious verdant patch of dandelion, garlic mustard or even plantain will catch my eye – I usually pick whatever is glowing with viriditas that day. Now technically foraging is not permitted in parks, but my park (like so many) is so overrun with these weeds, I help out with a little invasive plant removal here and there. Back home, I take a look at what’s coming up around the garden, usually dandelion, wild onions (which have migrated from the park) bittercress, milk thistle and miner’s lettuce, a native plant which has also migrated from the park and spread across the back garden.
Miners Lettuce Claytonia perfoliata
Miners Lettuce is a native plant so widespread and profuse that many consider it a weed. High in Vitamin C, it acquired its name because it was consumed by miners during the Gold Rush, who ate it to prevent scurvy. Otherwise known as “spring beauty” it is also a traditional food of many coastal indigenous peoples from British Columbia to California.
Its first heart-shaped leaves morph into round platters as the season progresses, and it has a soft succulent texture perfect in salads, especially as a base for greens with stronger aromatic or more bitter flavours. For this salad, I added a few tiny leaves of lemon balm for a touch of citrusy sweetness, some punchy wild mustard, a few aromatic fronds of wild fennel and finished it off with a sprinkling of fruity flowering red currant buds. I used a simple Dijon Mustard dressing and again a few shavings of parmesan cheese. Salad heaven – with a daily dose of veriditas. Easy peasy.
Another green I use all the time is a wild onion known as Crow Garlic. It has tall spindly greens that look like a patch of chives, and they are hollow inside like chives too. Crow Garlic is the bane of park workers, impossible to contain and it continues to spread prolifically across many North American parks. So let’s do our bit. And you know when you find it – because you can’t mistake the strong oniony aroma.
Crow Garlic or Wild Onion (Allium vineale)
Studies have shown that Allium (wild onions) contain sulphur compounds (which give their oniony flavour) and have many beneficial effects, helping to reduce blood pressure, regulate blood sugar, and even act 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! You can use it exactly as you would chives – and crow garlic has a lot more flavour!
Then there is Garlic Mustard another invasive that despite best attempts to eradicate its existence still continues to thrive. This truly ancient potherb is also filled with the many benefits of sulphur compounds and archaeobotanical research demonstrates we’ve been enjoying its mustardy garlicky flavour since the Neolithic! Today it is hunted down and eradicated as an invasive weed – and almost no one remembers its many culinary virtues. Which is a shame because it is so nutritious, and tasty (not to mention free!)Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata,
Every part of is edible, from roots, leaves, and flowers to its young seed pods, and a 2007 study shows it provides a rainbow of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, chlorophyll, enzymes and fibre. In spring its small tender leaves have only a hint of bitterness but plenty of mustardy garlicky flavour. And I use it in everything from bread dipping oils, soups to dumplings.
Bitter Greens Soup with Dumplings is a beloved Eastern European dish. Traditional recipes for dumplings usually recommend stale bread – I had none so used stale herb crackers! I mixed garlic mustard and young field mustard together, along with minced crow garlic greens, parmesan and mozzarella cheese, and eggs. They not only held together perfectly – they tasted incredible. It was easy to make, and didn’t require a lot of ingredients or time – aside from an afternoon walk harvesting outdoors in the sunshine – and several hours simmering on the stove.
Plants like Nettle and Dandelion need no introduction, both are beloved by foragers both novice and expert so I won’t spend much time on them here. These pesky “weeds” are everywhere, and they grow in my local community garden in profusion. Both have a long medicinal and culinary use and are filled with many nutrients and healing benefits too numerous to mention here. Let’s just say that dandelion, for instance, contains seven times more phytonutrients than spinach.
The fresh leaves of dandelion (before the plant flowers) are tender and not too bitter. Massaged with lemon and olive oil, topped with a few shavings of parmesan, make a simple savoury stand-alone salad. A dish beloved by the French, Italian and Greeks. And me.
Blanching nettles defuses their sting, so the Japanese-style Gomae salad with sesame seeds and tahini is one of my favourite dishes in spring! As are Nettle Blini! Recipes at Gather Victoria Patreon but you can find the recipe for Wild Onion & Nettle Rice balls here.
The next tasty invasive is the crunchy spicy and HOT, Wall-rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) a species of flowering plant in the mustard family. It’s also known as wild arugula and tastes just like it. Usually growing in sunny warm areas, spreading across grassy areas and meadows, its blossoms (like all mustards) feature 4 petals.
Wall-rocket Diplotaxis tenuifolia
I love its crunchy texture along with its peppery bite. One week I minced its leaves and stalks along with crow garlic and a couple of tulip blossoms into cream cheese. Yes, tulip blossoms are edible. You can find a post here. This I slathered on crisp celery sticks for a Netflix snack – because I was trying to cut back on the chocolate! And it truly hit the spot. So spicy, crunchy and satisfying!
Growing in profusion in early spring are Curly Dock or Yellow Dock, Rumex Crispus. These large leafy green often sport a bright pink-coloured stem & rippled curly edges. And while it is also a weed it is highly nutritious and even medicinal. So much so that one of the city’s common ground herbal gardens, The People’s Apothecary, has given it its own special spot.
Curly Dock or Yellow Dock, Rumex Crispus
Curly dock doesn’t taste like much, it’s bland with a slightly tangy, slightly bitter flavour. Like spinach, kale and chard it is high in oxalates (which give it its tang) so nutritional experts recommend it’s best cooked and served with dairy which means you shouldn’t consume it uncooked. But its large soft leaves made a perfect wrapping for a little mozzarella, cream cheese and parmesan – and of course oniony crow garlic chives”. Voila, irresistible cheesy dumplings. Take that chocolate!
Then there’s the tangy and tender Sheep Sorrel another abundant invasive! Native to Eurasia and the British Isles, this member of the buckwheat family is now spread across Vancouver Island (and much of the Northern Hemisphere), Found in sunny or sun-dappled areas, it is easy to identify by its fish-like or arrow-like shape.
Sheep Sorrel. Rumex acetosella
While I do like to throw tender young leaves into salads, sheep sorrel is also high in tangy oxalates – so best cooked with dairy. Brought here by settlers, its tart lemony leaves are high in vitamins (A, B complex, C, D, E, and K), anti-inflammatory agents and antioxidants and were used as a flavouring agent, a salad green, and a curdling agent for milk in cheese-making. I love to make them into cupcakes!
These are just a few examples of the simple tasty dishes you can easily make at home, and I hope it inspires you to eat your greens! That said, please remember, do not consume anything unless you are 110 % sure of its identity. And always be careful and respectful when you harvest. Even if these plants are invasive they can grow in endangered ecosystems and you want to leave a barely negligible footprint – literally.
For me, viriditas is the numinous colour of spring. Which is why its fresh young greens have a special place in my heart. Bursting with chlorophyll, their vivid colours, emeralds, jades, olives to citrons are the flavours of viriditas. Eating greens is like eating the sun – the source of life itself!