Wild Flavours of Spring

The First Greens of the Season are Cleansing Bitters

After a long cold winter, I get a feeling of warmth and contentment when contemplating a trek to the woods to forage for springtime edible plants. In the colder climes, this desire to seek out the first herbs of spring for cleansing and rejuvenating the body has been shared throughout the centuries by countless people. The desire to eat spring edibles goes far beyond just wanting to eat fresh food.

The Greek physician Galen (Claudius Galenus, 130 AD – 200 AD), and other notable physicians after him, commonly believed that blood becomes stagnant after a long winter of heavy comfort foods, and that the winter months ultimately affect one’s temperament and trigger melancholy.

Galen believed that blood becomes stagnant in the winter months because of the weather and inactivity. Even in those days many people went through melancholy as they waited for the arrival of warmer weather. And the first thing people ate when the snow melted was wild spring plants.

A Native elder once shared with me the belief of his ancestors that it isn’t the blood that becomes stagnant, it’s the liver and the lymphatic system that get clogged up from inactivity and eating rich, heavy foods all winter long. This is why they feasted on the first wild greens that appeared as the snow was melting.

For the most part, fresh wild greens are bitter, and that’s what is needed to properly cleanse the liver and the blood. The liver is the largest internal organ we have, and it filters more than 1.4 litres of blood per minute. One of the reasons why people develop health ailments is because their liver is not getting the nourishment it needs, including bitters.

Green foods improve digestion and this is the whole essence behind purifying our blood. Many also contain significant levels of chlorophyll which is essential to cleansing the liver. Bitter foods were once consumed much more widely than they are today, and their liver-loving benefits were appreciated by those with knowledge of folklore medicine.

Some of the early spring edibles that appear as early as mid-March include dandelions, stinging nettles, chickweed, mallows, wild strawberry leaves, and garlic mustard. If you can find some of these plants and eat them, your liver will love you. (Some plants, like stinging nettles, should only be eaten cooked. Where dandelions can be eaten raw or cooked, and chickweed is best served raw.)
There are two other notable spring edibles that don’t appear until mid to late April – these are violets and trout lilies; both are quite tasty and look fabulous in a salad.

TROUT LILIES

In rich, moist, woods usually in mid-April, a tiny lily can be seen emerging through the dead leaves; many of these lilies literally break through the decaying forest leaves. This delicate yet stunning member of the Lily family (Erythronium americanum) is also known as Adder’s Tongue, Yellow Adder’s Tongue, and Dogtooth Violet (even though it is not a violet).

Trout Lilies grow in very large colonies that, in some cases, completely cover a forest floor. Some colonies are decades old but it takes a long time to grow to such a size. The bulbs are sterile up until about the seventh year of growth and then each one produces only one leaf and no flowers. When a trout lily plant matures, one plant will grow two leaves and one stunning yellow flower on one stem. They range anywhere between 7 to 20 cm in height.

These spring edibles are short lived and appear in early spring only. The mature plant has two mottled basal leaves, and a small lily nodding from the top of the stem. Trout lily is yellow, with three sepals and three petals; however, there is also the fawn lily (Erythronium albidum) which is white and not as common.

The leaves, flowers, and the corms (fleshy, bulb-like base) are all edible and the corms in particular are the tastiest. These have a somewhat sweet taste to them.

VIOLETS

There are so many different varieties of violets, it’s difficult to describe them all. The good news is that all wild violets are edible. (However if you purchase violets from a commercial grower then it is important to know whether or not they have used chemicals before deciding whether to eat them or not.) It’s the violet leaves and flowers that are edible, not the roots. Actually, the flowers and leaves (either dried or fresh) have been used in European and Asian meals as well as desserts for centuries and as medicine. Violets are loaded with phytochemicals and medicinal constituents that have been used to treat many ailments – from the common cold to cancer.

Naturalist Euell Gibbons (1911-1975) referred to violets as nature’s perfect vitamin pill. In his Handbook of Edible Plants he says that a half cup serving of violet leaves provides as much vitamin C as three oranges. Interestingly, the flowers contain ketones and the entire plant contains flavonoids. In addition to its nourishing properties, this is a great plant to cleanse your blood with because it is an alterative.

Violets (Viola odorata L.) stimulate the lymphatic glands, helping the body flush out bacteria and other toxins. Some herbalists have used violet medicine to help clear skin problems such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Eating violets after a long winter is an uplifting way to cleanse our bodies.

With over 500 species of violets, giving an accurate description is difficult, however most of the wild violets that occur in our area typically have heart-shaped, scalloped leaves. The flowers are formed from five petals, four are fan-shaped with two per side. The fifth petal is broad and points downward.

Trout lilies and violets will certainly add colour to the dinner table. The flowers can be used as a garnish, in a salad and even crystallized. The greens add texture to a salad and can be added into soups, stir-fry or stews. Tossing some flowers or leaves into a sandwich is a great lettuce alternative. By dining on wild foods, you are bringing nature’s cleansing medicine into your fresh spring diet.

Karen Stephenson is a writer, author and wild food educator. She has studied herbal pharmacy, nutrition, and shares her knowledge with those who attend her edible plant  walks.

This summer, on July 19th and 20th Karen will be at the International Herb Conference at Toronto’s Eaton Chelsea Hotel and is a featured speaker on the 20th. She will discuss the reasons why to consider foraging and how to chef up foraged plants. To find out more visit her events page at https://www.ediblewildfood.com or https://www.iherb.org/conferences/2014.htm

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Greek Dandelion Salad

by Linda Gabris

Dandelions are always delicious in the salad bowl – you can simply toss them with any “house” dressing, or make them into traditional salads such as a Caesar or Waldorf, or go Greek as I have done with this favourite recipe.

  • 6 cups torn dandelion leaves
  • 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves
  • ½ cup pitted sliced black olives
  • 1 cup chopped peppers (red, yellow, and/or green)
  • 1 red onion cut into thin slices and separated into rings
  • 1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Dressing

  • 4 Tbsp virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp liquid honey
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tsp fresh chopped oregano (or dried herb)
  1. Put salad ingredients in bowl, scatter with feta cheese.
  2. Mix dressing ingredients separately. Pour dressing over salad and toss.

Ed. note: The above recipe is reprinted from a longer article by Linda Gabris entitled: “Nothing Says Spring Like Fresh, Wild Greens”. 


References

Karen Stephenson is an author, writer, public speaker, and expert wild food educator. She is a chartered herbalist and is a certified Acute Canine Herbalist. Karen has lectured for schools, a multitude of community groups, and is a sought after speaker for many notable events including the International Herbal Association and online events hosted by Lakehead University. She has been interviewed on national radio, has been written about in a variety of media and has appeared on television. Karen's website is: www.ediblewildfood.com

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