Spring is definitely in the air and wild plants are beginning to surface, many of which are edible and at their best when young and sweet. A variety of wild herbs were once traditionally used as a Spring tonic and many of them can still offer us a much-needed vitamin boost after a long cold winter.
One of my favourite edible herbs growing everywhere in Spring is Hairy Bittercress. Also known as spring cress or peppercress, it is a member of the mustard family. The plant grows to shin-height, has white flowers and a collection of rounded leaves growing from each stem in an almost fern-like formation. Contrary to its name, the leaves are not particularly hairy or bitter. It is also nutritious containing Vitamin C plus calcium and magnesium. I love it in salad (see top image) but you can add it to stews and even steam it like spinach.
Another early Spring favourite of mine is Wild Garlic (Ramsons). Perhaps not as common in urban areas as Hairy Bittercress it still manages to get a foothold in the most unlikely places. Other than being versatile in the kitchen it also has many health attributes from lowering cholesterol to being an antioxidant, digestive and immune booster. As if this wasn’t enough, wild garlic contains vitamins A and C along with several minerals including selenium and iron. It is important when collecting wild garlic to properly identify it by its odour as many poisonous wild woodland plants sport similar leaves but lack the garlicky smell. I have a large patch growing nearby and I visit every week to gather some while it’s in season. Just before it dies back in the summer I freeze some to last over the Autumn and Winter months. I do this by chopping up the washed and drip-dried leaves, pushing about a teaspoonful into each segment of an ice cube tray, covering with olive oil and then popping in the freezer.
I have mentioned Cleavers in a few previous blogs, mostly for its multitude of medicinal qualities. However, the leaves, flowers, seeds and stalk are all edible and it can be added to salads, tasting very similar to fresh pea casings. Although not delicious, it is still worth adding to food for its nutritional value which includes vitamin C, silica and calcium. As Summer approaches the plant becomes stringy making it tough to eat raw. Nevertheless, it can be eaten steamed or sautéed, or added to soups and stews at any point in its lifecycle. The fresh stem, flowers and leaves can also be made into a tea which tastes like a stronger version of the raw plant and acts as a Spring blood cleanser (I use the tea to combat water retention). To make the tea I put a freshly-picked and washed sprig into a cup and half fill with boiling water and drink when it has cooled. Due to Cleavers cleansing and detoxifying properties, it also has a reputation as a weight-loss plant.
My last spring edible, Sweet Violet, is a wild flower which grows prolifically on the edge of woods and in shaded areas. The whole plant is edible and very high in vitamins A and C. The leaves have a slightly unpleasant texture and are not very tasty, making it easy to see why it was traditionally eaten as a pot herb. The flowers are far more palatable with a distinctly floral flavour. They make a pretty decoration on desserts or as a garnish on salads. Violets were once made into a popular wine but the quantity required would make that a tall order these days.
Most people never consider what is growing around them or think about whether it’s edible. But it’s worth taking a second look. It can save you a bit of money (I never buy rocket or garlic while Bittercress and Ramsoms are in season) plus you get the added experience of trying new and interesting flavours.
- Not to be taken internally by diabetics
- Not to be taken by people on lithium-based medication
- Violet roots are a powerful emetic so it is wise to avoid them entirely
- As a precaution sweet violet should not be eaten by pregnant or breast-feeding women
- Do not eat sweet violet if you have an aspirin sensitivity
- Eaten in very large quantities the plant can cause stomach ache and even nausea
DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences using the above herbs combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate – in the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. Always check if any pharmaceutical medication you are taking is compatible before trying herbs. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the herbs mentioned above please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.