Four Early Spring Greens to Forage
Updated: Apr 12, 2022
As I sit and write this post we're getting our usual April snow. Last week it was in the 70s, this morning it was 16 degrees. Good ol' spring time in Colorado! Before this cold weather rolled in I was harvesting a lot of spring greens with the hopes of processing and freezing them to save for later this year, but so far we've just been eating all of them! Luckily the season for greens is just getting started so I'll have plenty of time to harvest more to actually stash in our freezer.
Although a little muted this year by the COVID situation, spring is usually a very exciting time for foraging, especially if you live in a place with 4 seasons. Here in Colorado we have 4 ish months of wintery conditions without much foraging opportunity. So, by the time spring rolls around the cravings have already set in pretty badly for me! Come March I'm ready to start getting some wild greens into my diet as soon as possible, and luckily for me there are many edible plants that are just as eager to get going! In this post I'm going to briefly cover a handful of species that are available early in the spring to satiate those early spring cravings.
The first is one that pretty much everyone should be familiar with; the ubiquitous dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. I would be remiss not to include this plant here even though I'm guilty of not collecting it that often! I think many beginner foragers, myself included, get excited about eating dandelions and then run out and eat some leaves raw only to find them bitter and unexciting. I remember having this experience myself, and even though I am now aware that it's not fair to hold that against the dandelion, the effects have still persisted...
I have only collected a small amount of dandelion crowns to cook and eat this year, but after a Facebook post by Erica at Wild Food Girl, I have decided that I need to add this plant back into my spring greens repertoire! She suggests that the best plants to collect are ones with upright leaves, like in the above photo. Dandelions will often be found with their leaves flat to the ground and those are fine to eat as well, but they wont be as good. These are almost guaranteed to have silt or sand on their leaves and thus require more cleaning, and they may still be gritty after a good washing. These plants are also probably getting a lot of sun and thus have no reason to stretch their leaves up or grow quickly; they're getting all the resource they need to start producing flowers!
On the other hand, the plants with upright leaves will usually be found in tall grass, shady or wooded ares, or gardens that get plenty of water. These plants are putting more energy into growing their leaves tall and large as quickly as they can to take in more sunlight, and as Samuel Thayer says in his books, "fast means tender"! So, if you're out looking for dandelions to collect, try to find the plants with upright leaves!
The next plant is almost as common as dandelions, and goes by the name of dock. Our most common species here is curly dock, Rumex crispus, but many others exist as well! I can almost guarantee that everyone who reads this has seen a dock plant. They're the green bunches of leaves with the rusty brown flower stalks that you see along roads, in areas with recent soil disturbance, in your yards, in pastures... pretty much everywhere. Once you learn it, you will indeed see it everywhere!
Dock is a really lovely plant to forage! It's abundant, very easy to identify, and provide quite a bit of greens! However, as with other plats in the Rumex genus, dock contains oxalates so you'll want to be careful about overindulging in this, or any other oxalate containing plant. Also, as far as I understand, all species of dock are edible but some are better than others. Curly dock is quite good and is our most common, but some can be bitter or just not very tasty.
To collect dock you want to focus on the still rolled, or recently unrolled leaves. In Nature's Garden, Samuel Thayer recommends looking for the crease lines running down the leaves. This suggests that they've only recently unrolled and will still be tender! Once the leaves are fully extended that can become tough and a little bitter. I like to find the rolled up ones and follow them down to the base where I clip out two to three leaves depending on how tender they look. Dock leaves emerge from a papery sheath that is filled with a weird slime. It's harmless, but is a little strange if you aren't used to it! When I get my harvest home I usually remove the sheath and wash off the slime before storing or using. Any application that you would use spinach in is a good bet for dock!
Next up, one of my favorite plants and one that I think is under foraged, salsify! Our most common species of salsify in Colorado is Tragopogon dubius, but we have a couple other species around as well! This is the plant with the large dandelion-like puffs that you see in the summer and fall. The reason I think it's under foraged is because it can be difficult to differentiate from grass in the spring! Luckily there are a few traits that make this pretty easy once you start looking for it!
Firstly, salsify grows in a rosette, meaning the leaves grow in a circular pattern around the center like a rose. Grasses can grow in bunches that look similar to rosettes at a glance, but they rarely grow as actual rosettes. Salsify also has a robust taproot (see below!) and grasses have shallow stringy roots. Finally, and most telling, salsify has milky sap similar to dandelions!
Salsify is usually a biennial, meaning that it flowers and dies on it's second year of growth. I have read that it can also persist as a perennial plant, but I do not know if that's true. In the spring, before the plant sends up flower stalks, the large taproots can be collected for food. The taproots of the first year plants are the best to collect, but I have also eaten the second year roots and they weren't too fibrous. There's no concern about digging roots of this plant as they're a non-native, well established, and very common. The leaves also make a great green vegetable! I like collecting the whole plant this way because I can separate the crowns from the roots, keep them both whole to use as nice vegetables! Later in the spring and summer the flower stalks, flower buds, and flowers themselves are also edible. The flower buds are one of my favorite parts of this plant!
Our final plant is another very common early spring riser, musk mustard, Chorispora tenella. This plant is another that most everyone will probably be familiar with once they learned it. It grows everywhere, has little purple four-petaled flowers, and can smell quite musky! We have many species of mustards in Colorado and they're all edible, but this one is one of my favorites. The greens have a nice musky-earthy flavor in addition to their usual mustard greeniness.
Like all mustard family plants, these can easily be identified by their flowers! All plants in the mustard family, Brassicaceae, have four-petaled flowers that have six stamens, of which four are tall and two are short. Also like other mustard family plants, all tender parts are edible! Before the plants flower I collect the largest tender leaves. Once they flower I collect the top few inches of the plants, including the flowers.
I sometimes use the greens raw in mixed salads, but I prefer to use them in cooked applications. Simply chopping and cooking in butter or oil is a simple and easy way to prepare these. They can also be used in any other dish where you would use fresh greens!
Aside from growing in early spring and being tasty wild greens, all of these plants have one more thing in common; they're all non-native and highly abundant! There's no harm in collecting as much as you like and, as mentioned previously, they can be preserved for use later in the year. I like to preserve my greens by quickly blanching, shocking in ice water, and freezing in vacuum sealed bags! Stored like this the greens can be used for many different applications throughout the year!
I hope your spring is full of wild greens and good health.