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Feast of weeds


May 15, 2013

The asparagus is up. The stout, purple stalks put those pencil-thin, store-bought shoots to shame. We have been enjoying them along with the other early spring wild things—leeks and dandelions and toothwort.

I have been gathering wild leeks (ramps as they are called in finer restaurants) with friends in the woodlands near my home. And, it is just a step outside the back door for a feast of weeds from the lawn. Dandelion greens, wilted with a dressing of vinegar and bacon grease or olive oil, make a delicious salad as well as a nutritious, green smoothie.

As a kid, we gathered many edible wild plants as the seasons progressed, starting with watercress and leeks. Dandelions, toothwort, milkweed, juneberries, lamb’s quarters (a tender-leaved weed good as a cooked green) and ground nuts are some of the common ones I remember. (You can “Google” all of these for photos and information.)

Puff ball fungi are flavorful when fried while they are still young and firm and white. Of course there were always wild berries to pick as well, starting with the wild strawberries which are presently in blossom.

I like to imagine who discovered the value of our wild plants for medicinal and food use. I mean who died in the discovery that foxglove (the origin of the drug digitalis) could slow down your heart? Who had the drive to start grinding pickerel weed seeds into flour? Who found out that the long, slimy roots of the pale pink marsh mallow could be used to make the first marshmallows?

One of my favorite spring wild flowers is the toothwort, or “pepper top” as it is colloquially called. The four-petaled white or pink flower has blunt toothed leaves that have a distinctive peppery taste similar to horseradish. It is also the food plant of the “wood white” or West Virginia White butterfly. This lovely, white butterfly, currently flying locally, can easily be mistaken for a cabbage butterfly.

The Algonquin are said to have used toothwort as a relish and to treat fevers in children. The Lenape used it as a stomach medicine and for venereal diseases. The Cherokee boiled the leaves to eat and also smoked it. The Mic Mac tried it as a sedative. And the Iroquois are said to have drunk a cold infusion of the roots for “when love is too strong,” and used another root infusion for when the “heart jumps and the head goes wrong.”

I just put the leaves in my salad.

Also in bloom now are the drooping, white flowers of the juneberry trees. Known also as shadbush and serviceberry, these small trees flower at the same time as the shad are swimming up the Delaware to spawn.