Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
In springtime the human body seems to crave green food. Although, with our modern systems of transportation, it is available all year round, many of us have enough of the spirit of adventure to seek and use some of the wild plants eaten by the Indians and frontiersmen. Perhaps there is the gratification of "getting something for nothing". More likely, some primitive instinct is satisfied by experimenting with such foods, and the feeling that we would manage to survive if cut off from ordinary sources of supply. Wild greens are used much more in Europe than in America but they can furnish an interesting and important part of ourdiet, once we learn to know them. Half the pleasure is in the gathering. Further, that time spent in the out-of-doors makes any food taste better.
Of these wild greens, the dandelion is most commonly known, gathered and eaten. It has been used since ancient times and, in recent years, it is cultivated for the markets in New York and other cities. The "crowns" or rosettes should be gathered when the leaves are very young and tender. The plants growing up through matted grass or fallen leaves are best. Like many wild greens, they have a slightly bitter tang but are equally good in a salad or when cooked -- alone or with other kinds. Being rich in vitamins A and C, the water in which they are cooked can be saved and sipped as a spring tonic. Winter salads of dandelions can be had if strong thrifty crowns, with two or three inches of root, are stored in a cellar, in autumn, and covered with litter or coal ashes.
Some of us plant vegetable gardens and raise spinach, beet tops, mustard and Swiss chard for greens. As often as not, there is a weedwhich we keep hoed out, and which also grows in shady places around outbuildings -- Lamb's Quarters, or Pigweed, or Goosefoot. It is a fast-growing plant with pale bluish-green leaves shaped like a goose's foot; a relative of spinach and the beet, and equally edible.
Wild mustard is another famous potherb, preferred by many people for cooking with fat salt pork. Sour dock or curly dock, purslane, sorrel, wild chicory and even the plantain which plagues our lawns, are others.
Once you know them, the trick lies in picking only young tender plants and in cooking them properly. However, even older plants become fairly tender and lose much of their bitter taste if boiled in two or three waters and drained after each boiling. The common burdock, although a pest, can furnish good eating if its young sprouts are peeled, scraped and boiled. Wild onions and leek can be as good as domestic onions in salads, soups and stews if used in moderation. The young succulent shoots of milkweed and pokeweed, cut off just above the ground, can be cooked and eaten like asparagus tips; and asparagus, in many localities where its seeds have been spread by birds, has also become a wild plant.
The delicious Creole gumbo, a celebrated American dish, originated from an Indian soup to which dried powdered leaves of the sassafras tree -- native relative of the cinnamon -- were added to give it that spicy "slippery" taste. Later, okra was used as a substitute. Our native water cress and the domesticated water cress, which thrive best in cool clear spring water, have become the favorites of gourmets for salads and as a garnish for meats.
Relatively few wild plants are very poisonous. In some, only certain parts are poisonous -- for instance, the roots of pokeweed, and the raw shoots and roots of the milkweed. One of the best publications telling which to pick and how to use them is the book: Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, by Fernald and Kinsey, published by Idlewild Press. [ed. another book is The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants]