When I was a kid growing up in California I saw families picking mustard greens in the fields every spring. People I knew said that those people were too poor to buy food and that is why they had to pick wild greens. Well, I think getting nutritious and tasty food for free while going for a walk through a beautiful field of yellow flowers is pretty smart.
Mother Nature provides a feast for anyone who knows where to took. in early Spring, dandelions and winter cress are plentiful and packed with vitamins and minerals.
The common dandelion is a special plant not appreciated by modern mankind. Nearly everyone recognizes the dandelion; the sharp "lion-toothed" shaped leaves, yellow flowers, and downy white seed balls on hollow milky stems are a common sight. It grows throughout North America on our lawns, fields, and even the cracks of our sidewalks. Most consider the dandelion a pesky weed to be sprayed or pulled from our lawns and gardens. Many companies selling herbicides demonstrate the killing power of their chemicals by spraying dandelions in their commercials. These advertisements bring a tear to my eyes, for both the dandelion and for those people who have lost their appreciation for, and connection to, nature.
As a food, the leaves, roots and flowers are all edible either raw or cooked. The best time to eat the raw leaves is during early spring before the flowers bloom. The leaves have a mildly bitter flavor that perks up the flavor of a salad. They can also be cooked as a pot herb. After flowering, the leaves become more bitter, yet still pleasant. I especially enjoy the tea made from simmering the leaves and roots for thirty minutes. During three days in the mountains of Utah, I ate only dandelions and rose hips. Each day I picked dandelions, washed and cleaned the dirt from the root, then simmered the leaves, flowers and roots together in one pot. After thirty minutes of simmering over the coals of my camp fire I had a hearty meal. After all the plants were eaten, I would sip the greenish colored tea as the sun set over the mountain. I remember feeling so healthy and alive.
The flowers can be dipped in batter and fried as fritters. The English and our own pioneers made wine using dandelion flowers. The roots can be added to salads or cooked like carrots. A coffee-like drink is made by roasting the roots until brown and brittle, then grinding. Use a palm-full of grinds for each cup of hot water. The grinds can be filtered. Caution: do not collect dandelions from lawns or roadways that have been sprayed with chemicals.
Dandelions can provide an easy-to-collect, thrifty and tasty meal even if we do not know what vitamins or mineral are being provided. Once we know of the tremendous nutritional benefits, the meal becomes even more enjoyable. Dandelions are rich in vitamin A, C, B1, B2, B5, B9, Bl2 and E. They are also rich in minerals that are important to a healthy child, such as potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, silicon, zinc and sodium. Actually the common dandelion is more nutritious than many garden grown vegetables, although the dandelion is usually pulled out and discarded.
As a medicinal tonic the dandelion is superb. It was highly regarded by many native peoples and our early settlers as a spring tonic and was used for overall health improvement. It is still used by knowledgeable herbalists to improve patients' health because of the nutritional content and medicinal properties. Two major medicinal uses of the dandelion are to remove excess water from the body and to improve liver functions, A strong tea made with young green leaves has a diuretic effect. The problem with using most diuretic drugs is the resulting loss of potassium from the body, which can aggravate cardiovascular problems. Because of the high potassium content of the dandelion it can be safely used when a diuretic is required.
The root is especially beneficial to liver and gall bladder problems. It promotes the cleaning of toxins from the liver and bloodstream and improves the function of the pancreas, spleen, stomach and kidneys. The best results are obtained by drinking the juice from the roots, however, a tea made from the roots is also beneficial. Some studies have shown the use of dandelions in one's diet or drink can aid in preventing breast cancer, age spots and even be used to reduce serum cholesterol. They even help those with anemia, gout, rheumatism cirrhosis, hepatitis, cramps and stiff joints. Root tea also acts as a mild antibiotic against yeast infections.
Winter cress is one of my favorite wild edible greens. It is a member of the mustard family but its leaves are a smooth, glossy, dark green. Like other mustards it has deep yellow four-petal flowers growing in tight clusters on extended stems. The flowers grow above the dense rosette of leaves. Winter cress can be found in eastern Canada south into the eastern part of the United States. I have found it growing throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but I find it most often along stream banks or in damp areas with plenty of sunlight.
The wonderful thing about winter cress is that it is one of the few greens that can be found throughout the winter months. Few other greens can be picked and eaten from patches of melted snow. On warm sunny winter days it grows fast and the leaves have a mild pleasant taste. In the spring the beautiful patches of yellow flowers help you locate winter cress. Once the flowers have bloomed, the leaves and stalks develop a strong flavor. After blooming, the taste reminds me of a blend of radish and mustard.
Most plant food guides suggest cooking the matured greens and pouring off the water to remove the strong taste. I never cook winter cress, other mustard greens, spinach, swiss chard, turnip greens, beet tops, kale or collards. All these vegetables contain high levels of oxalic acid, an important element for maintaining and stimulating peristalsis. When plants containing high concentrations of oxalic acid are cooked, the oxalic acid changes from organic to inorganic. Cooking causes oxalic acid to combine with calcium in the body, or in other foods eaten, and destroys the nourishing value of both oxalic acid and calcium. Cooking the above foods can also cause crystals to form in the kidneys. Cooking changes our food. For example many people eat spinach because of its high iron content. Eaten raw, most of the iron in spinach can be utilized by the body, but only about ten percent is used if the spinach has been canned or cooked.
Another plant high in oxalic acid is rhubarb. As a kid I looked forward to my grandmother's rhubarb pies. They were delicious! Now I never eat cooked rhubarb because of studies showing the serious kidney troubles that develop from eating it. The damage is insidious and slow to manifest so the cause of these problems is usually not attributed to one's diet.
Back to winter cress. If it is eaten raw it can provide a tasty and nutritious addition to salads. The leaves, stems, and flowers are all edible. My favorite time to eat winter cress is during the spring when the flower buds are just beginning to open. The fleshy stalks and unopened buds are similar to broccoli and make a filling meal. While enjoying a free tasty meal, I know my body is getting lots of vitamins, especially vitamin C. The leaves are estimated to contain three times more vitamin C than store bought orange juice. The unopened flower buds have even more vitamin C than the leaves. In earlier times, winter cress was used to treat scurvy and has been called "scurvy cress."
The discussion of the nutritional and medicinal benefits of the dandelion and winter cress is to demonstrate how precious the gifts of nature are to our health. My hope is that people begin to appreciate and respect their natural surroundings and accept our gifts from nature rather than destroying them through our own lack of knowledge.
Dell Hall is a freelance writer and runs the Nature Awareness School in the Blue Ridge Mountains of