Spring greens from the woods can add variety to your diet. Wildcrafting — the gathering of plants from their natural habitats — is a throwback to the days of our distant ancestors, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.
Our ancestors’ winter diets lacked the variety of fresh produce we enjoy today. Therefore, when spring arrived, they combed the woods for wild edibles to add flavor and nutrition to their meals.
Trinklein cautions beginning wildcrafters to study plant identities before they begin.
“The cardinal rule to remember when hunting wild greens is to be certain to know what you are gathering,” he says. “If in doubt about the identity of a plant, definitely pass it by.”
Trinklein recommends Edgar Denison’s “Missouri Wildflowers,” published by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Beginners also can benefit from going with seasoned wildcrafters until they learn what plants can be eaten safely, he says.
Avoid harvesting roadside plants, which may contain vehicle exhaust residue or pesticides from adjoining cropland.
Wash all plants at least twice after gathering, changing the water each time. Check for insects and debris.
Eat small amounts when trying a new plant to avoid possible allergic reactions.
Prepare wildcrafted greens by putting them in a saucepan with a little water and salt. Cook until tender; do not overcook. Mix bitter plants with sweeter ones.
Add pan drippings, vinegar or lemon juice to taste. Drain water before serving.
A common “working man’s diet” in the past included soup beans, fried potatoes, cornbread, raw onions and wild greens.
Trinklein recommends these Missouri plants for wildcrafting:
• Cutleaf toothwort — Also known as crow’s foot, this low-growing plant is found in woodlands and on wooded slopes. It bears five narrow, deeply-lobed leaves that look like the toes on the foot of a crow.
The leaves are edible, but cutleaf toothwort is prized for its rhizomes. Their spicy, radishlike flavor livens up salads.
Some wildcrafters ferment toothwort to sweeten it; others boil it.
• Dandelion — Gardeners hate them; wildcrafters love them. Dandelions are high in vitamin A and iron. Their flavor peaks during March and April.
To gather, cut off the whole crown close to the soil, pluck out the flower stem and sort out any debris.
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• Lambsquarters — Also known as wild spinach, this later-producing green is rich in vitamins and minerals. Its light green, oval to lance-shaped leaves fare well throughout the summer.