March is all about young leafy greens. They’re the first things that start shooting up out of the crumbly earth and leaf litter in February, and they’re some of the first to flower in April and May.
When it comes to edible weeds, they’re pretty much everywhere. Many of these are still out in full force right now in April, so get out some carrier bags, scissors, put on your boots and head out into your nearest woods (or local park!).
When I was little, growing up in the Soviet Union, our grandmother would take us on train journeys to the woods and countryside to pick bags and bags of this Spring weed. Having moved to the US, I had held on to hazy memories of the low-growing woodland plant with its many leaves, and the tasty soups my grandmother would make out of it, but I could not remember its name. I had gotten older and developed a passion for foraging, and desired to find this weed again, but by this point my grandma had passed away, so I could not ask her directly.
Imagine my delight when I’d moved to the UK and discovered that it is growing practically everywhere. Indeed, ground elder is a weed, and a pernicious one at that. The tiniest of root cuttings will grow new plants, and to get rid of it once it’s claimed a spot, a gardener must dig up to 6 feet deep and remove every last trace of the stuff. Keeping this in mind makes picking ground elder all the more satisfying.
OK, enough with all that prattle! How do you find it? So, as far as looking for ground elder, keep an eye our Feb – May, look by garden hedges or fences, under trees, in the park, next to your office building, etc. The leaves do kinda look like elder leaves, but unlike elder, they’re actually edible. Being part of the carrot family, ground elder smells and tastes like carrot greens. Which is to say, it’s better cooked! Younger leaves are better, but even the older ones are fine. ***Just make sure not to gather the plant once it’s blooming with white flowers. Once ground elder flowers, it becomes a super-laxative. You’ve been warned!
You can make lots of dishes with ground elder, especially classic spinach dishes. Coming up soon, I’ll tell you about Ground Elder Soufflé and Russian Spring Green Borscht – my two favourite uses!
Garlic Mustard is another pernicious weed. Introduced to the United States as a culinary herb, it soon took over forest floors, suffocating any other native woodland undergrowth. What’s more, garlic mustard releases chemicals that mess with the fungal balance of the soil, thus affecting the growth of other plants, including trees. Aaand, deer want nothing to do with its garlicky taste, so garlic mustard is left ungrazed and unchecked. Here in Europe, its role in the ecosystem is a bit more controlled. Nonetheless, you do see massive clumps of the stuff, so don’t be shy when picking it.
This plant can be found in conditions similar to ground elder. Take a walk through your local woods or along a stone wall, and you’re bound to find it. Garlic mustard is best picked when it’s young, when the leaves are still round (as in the photo above). As leaves get older, they develop sharp point, and the flowers come out. Still, I’ll munch on the leaves and flowers as I stroll along, but do bear in mind that older plants have that bitterness common to cabbage and mustard family plants, even after you cook them.
As for uses, try them in a quiche or as wilted greens. Garlic Mustard is also used to make pesto.
Goosegrass is the stalky plant with long, narrow leaves popping out among the wild garlic above. This is the best photo I have for this edible weed. To be honest, I haven’t foraged this plant much, in part because as a gardener I struggle with it sticking to every article of clothing on me, and sometimes it really frustrates me. Do you know the stickyweed that kids attach to their friends’ clothing as a joke? That’s goosegrass. Mind you, in the US goosgrass is the name for another plant, so do check out the link here instead of just googling it.
In any case, people tell me it’s nice once steamed or put into soup, tasting like a wilted lettuce or something similarly mild and planty. Take care when picking it, as it’s a bit prickly and can cause “gardener’s rash”, as I like to call it. Its sticky spines are totally dissolved in the cooking process, so don’t worry when it comes to eating it. Goosegrass is found everywhere, so just keep your eye out. And it can be harvested all year long, even in the Autumn months. The seeds apparently can be gathered and roasted for a coffee substitute. I’ll be sure to try that this summer!
Now go get some greens!