In a foraging group recently a member asked what fresh greens are available this time of year in the U.K. Another member replied that there weren’t any and then a slew of others corrected the first respondent.
This got me wondering exactly what I can find within a reasonable distance of my own home including the various patches of “weeds” in my own garden which I keep for their edibility, medicinal uses and early sustenance for some of the local wildlife.
Cleavers – At this time of year Cleavers is making a welcome return to my garden and the hedgerows.
This plant has numerous common names including goosegrass, stick wicky and stick-willie among others.
The leaves need to be eaten while the plant is still young as the “hooks” can make them unplatable. To this end it may be better using Cleavers in soup and stews. It has a mild flavour reminiscent of spinach or chard. A previous post provides more detail.
Cleavers is used in traditional herbal medicine as a diuretic to clear gravel and urinary stones and to stimulate the lymphatic system, relieving swollen lymph glands which enables the body to clear wastes and toxins more readily, reducing inflammation and supporting the immune system. Mabey et al suggest using an infusion of Cleavers to clear the complexion and treat dandruff as well as making a natural deodorant.
Pennywort – Umbilicus ripestris is also known as Wall Pennywort and Navelwort.
As the common name suggests this is often found growing in the cracks between bricks in walls. The leaves are succulent and slightly crunchy, reminiscent of cucumber and quite a good substitute for this in salads and sandwiches. Culpeper describes the juice as being an effective anti-inflammatory and cooling especially to a hot liver or for bowel heat. The leave can be used as a compress/bandage and an infusion of the leaves is suggested for acne, redness or other inflammations or swelling. Culpeper also suggests using the leaves or the juice to help relieve the spasmodic pain associated with kidney stones as it may also act as a diuretic. Used in an ointment it may also help with piles and chilblains, suggesting a role in supporting the circulation. Some additional information is here
Sea Beet – is a relative of Chard and Beetroot and is related to Amaranth and plants such as Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album). The leaves are crunchy with a similar flavour to the more familiar ones often found in packs of baby leaf salad. As the name suggest this variety grows close to the sea and may taste salty from spray. Use it in the place of spinach in cooking or try it in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe here
Scurvy Grass – is another coastal wild edible that can be found at this time of year. There are two varieties in the UK, both are coastal plants although Danish Scurvy Grass can be spotted alongside roads later in the year, the seeds having probably been mixed with the salt that is used for gritting in cold weather. The flavour is of very hot mustard with a slight salty tang, similar also to horseradish and the leaves have a pleasant crunch to them. The common name derives from their use onboard ships to prevent scurvy among the crew. There is a bit more information here
Nettle is familiar to many of us and the young leaves coming through at this time of year are full of nutrients to counter the richness of winter foods. Nettle’s reputation as a diuretic also helps the kidneys excrete waste material that may have built up over the winter period. A traditional use at this time of year would be in a soup. Nettle is quite bland of itself so mixing in some spice or other leaves to add flavour is a good idea. Also take care to liquidise it well for a good texture. Even though these leaves and plants are small they will still sting so take care when picking. I have written about Nettle on previous occasions, notably here and here.
Alexanders – is a highly aromatic member of the Carrot family and care must be taken if picking very young leaves, not to confuse it with any of the highly poisonous members of this family. Once the leaves are through (usually early winter) and unfurled their general size, shape, colour and the aromatic nature of the plant make it more readily identifiable. The flavour, in my opinion, is almost myrrh-like and is not palatable to everyone. In fact I’m the only one of the family that will happily eat it. Garry Eveleigh, author of Wildcook recommends using the young stalks as you would celery. The adjacent picture is of a more mature Alexanders plant whose stems would probably be too tough, however the flower heads can be cooked tempura style later in the year and once the plant has gone to seed the black ovoid seeds can be ground and used alongside fresh pepper for a different flavour profile.
There are other green, leafy plants coming through. I found Chickweed a week ago in a sheltered spot about 25 miles from me, young Dock leaves are popping through as are young Teasel leaves. A selection of Plantain leaves is also around and young Dandelion leaves are also coming through.
Plenty to learn to identify, taste and use to provide additional flavours, textures and valuable nutrients.