Backroads: Spring Edibles

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Stinging nettle growing next to a spring branch. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

One of the most interesting and useful things I’ve learned since moving to the Blue Ridge is the abundance of edible plants growing in the woods and fields where I live. These plants are quite delicious and packed with the natural vitamins and nutrients our bodies need, plus they’re free for the taking! I bought a book called Stalking the Wild Asparagus, by Euell Gibbons, and was hooked. It is always a good idea to have a field guide to properly identify wild plants before eating them.

I like to tell folks, there were no Kroger stores in the Garden of Eden; God gave us what we needed for a balanced diet right under our noses. Wild foodstuffs contain no additives, steroids, or preservatives and each season gives us exactly what we need. A big plus in today’s world with obesity problems is that to obtain these foods, you have to walk to gather them so it’s a win-win!  Here is just a smidgeon of the many edible plants that grow locally.

Stinging Nettle

Nettle weed, the same plant that brings instant stinging pain when brushed up against, is possibly the most succulent of all native greens and is a powerhouse of vitamins. My introduction to this wild potherb was truly memorable. Walking through the woods, I brushed  against a tall green plant and, instantly, it felt like my leg was on fire. I looked down, fully expecting to see a nest of yellow jackets stinging my flesh. I was surprised to see nothing. Rubbing it did no good, and the pain lasted a good ten minutes before subsiding. I told a neighbor what happened and was informed that I had gotten into a patch of stinging nettle or nettle weed. So it was with wary, slit-eyed skepticism that I listened to Burley Mays say nettle was the tastiest of all greens when cooked properly. This potherb, like most wild greens, is at its best when gathered in the spring when a new growth of leaves appears. Usually it grows in and around wet areas. Like most greens, it takes a lot of leaves to make a “mess” so bring a shopping bag and pack it full. But be warned; wear heavy leather gloves when handling and cut it with scissors.I must admit trepidation the first time I cooked it, and taking the first bite was a lesson in faith, wondering if my mouth would be stung like my leg. What a surprise it was to savor the delicious flavor and lack of sting! Fix them like any other greens; with some diced onion, salt and pepper to taste and a dollop of bacon grease. 

Asparagus growing wild along a ditch bank. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Wild Asparagus

Asparagus is very pricey in the supermarket, but is free to anyone willing to gather it.  The shoots can be found in early spring growing along fencerows. Once a patch is located, you can go back every year since asparagus is a perennial. May is the perfect time to start looking for the budding green stalks.  Long before the tender shoots appear, you can locate them by simply watching out for last year’s dead stalks, which resemble miniature straw-colored Christmas trees. Once found, cut them at ground level with a sharp knife, take a batch home and fry them up in a pan of butter. Ambrosia from heaven.

Dandelion yellow flower suns. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

The Dandy Dandelion

 We all know this pesky perennial, the scourge of suburbia, with everyone trying their best to eliminate the yellow blossoms by spraying or digging them out. But I’ve learned the secret of ultimate revenge—not by spraying but by eating them! “Abused, but not used” is one way of describing this flavorful plant. The entire plant is edible, and, because of its prolific nature, it is easy to gather a large amount in a short period of time. Here is a novel way of fixing them the next time you get the urge to rid your lawn of these hearty yellow flower suns.

Blossom Fritters:  ¼ cup milk, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ cup flour, pinch of salt, 1 beaten egg, 2 tablespoons powdered milk, 16 large blossoms (minus stems).

Mix all ingredients together except blossoms.  Wash blossoms lightly, and then drain.  Dip immediately into batter and fry in butter until golden brown.

The white flower of the May apple. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

May Apple

The May apple, or mandrake by its common name, is a perennial of the barberry family and is one of the first plants to come up in the spring. It has large deeply cut, umbrella-like leaves with a single white flower that often hides under the broad leaves, pointing downward. The flower yields a single fruit that is yellow and soft when ripe. Never eat the green unripe fruit, which is slightly poisonous. The plants sometimes carpet the forest floor or they may grow in open fields, as well.  If you can beat the squirrels to the harvest, the mature fruits are quite tasty with a “slippery-banana” like texture.

The first of May is a perfect time to begin a quest for delicious, vitamin-packed wild foods that will round out your diet but not your budget! 

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