Foraging for Edible Weeds

EATING WEEDS WITHOUT REPROACH: A salad of wild greens gathered from a Knoxville backyard.

EATING WEEDS WITHOUT REPROACH: A salad of wild greens gathered from a Knoxville backyard.

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My Beardsley Farm benefit calendar says it’s time to harvest fall greens. I only planted a few mustard greens in my garden this year, and they are still too young to eat. That’s all right though, because I can still make a decent salad from the wild greens growing like weeds in the yard.

“Thanks to the late Euell Gibbons, one may now eat weeds without reproach,” says Dolly Freed, teenage author of the oddball 1978 self-help manifesto Possum Living, which I picked up from the late Book Eddy a while ago, and am just getting around to reading. Foraging for greens is part of Freed’s scheme to “quit the rat race” and live stress-free on little money, scrounging around for food and shelter as a possum might.

Between chapters of Possum Living I’m also reading The Jungle Book aloud to the kids. Together we are sunk deep in a world of possums and mongooses and feral children, all living the good life. According to The Jungle Book, the motto of every mongoose family is “run and find out,” a motto I admire. I suggest eating wild greens mainly for the interesting experience of finding things out.

When I am curious about a plant growing in my yard, I’ll taste a leaf and see if I recognize similarities with plants I know, and figure out what it might be.

Bittercress, despite it’s common name, tastes great when the weather is cold. I just found a lot of it growing in a flower bed around the base of an evergreen tree near my shed. Bittercress tastes like its relative, watercress, which you can find growing in the overflow around Love’s Spring just off Rutledge Pike. A lot of people regularly drink the water from Loves Spring, so that watercress is probably safe, too.

Wood sorrel has shamrock-shaped leaves, small yellow blossoms and green pods we used to call “dill pickles.” The taste is more like lemon than dill—a small bit goes a long way.

Chickweed, growing in the shade of fences and houses is bland salad filler—but a good excuse to eat salad dressing.

Recently, I discovered a mystery herb in my flower bed that looks like a kind of cress, and tastes like onion. Wild mustard greens, maybe? I couldn’t figure it out. I scattered a few leaves on my salad anyway. I am not too nervous about poisoning myself by eating plants in my yard. I stay away from mushrooms and vines.

Wild greens can be cooked and used the same way you might use spinach. I think they are best served raw, mixed up in a big bowl with your favorite dressing.

The more I learn about wild plants, the harder it is to weed my garden. It feels wrong to pull up and cast aside a lot of well-established edible greens just to plant other, less hardy varieties purchased from a store.

Violets are one plant I cannot weed out of my beds. The purple and white chasmogamous blossoms, designed to attract pollinators, are now poking their enticing heads up through the crunchy late-fall leaves. But more numerous this time of year are the violet’s cleistogamous flowers, small colorless buds hidden under its heart-shaped leaves. These unobtrusive flowers, which contain all the parts necessary to produce fertile seeds, are breaking open now, releasing their seeds into the soil.

I love these words—chasmogamous, which means open marriage; cleistogamous, meaning closed marriage. The facts of a violet’s reproductive habits are ripe for inventing myths and allegories. We can eat both kinds of flowers, and eating them feels good, like they will keep you alive forever.

“Possums can live almost anywhere, even in big cities,” says Freed, “They’re the stupidest of animals, but there were possums on Earth millions of years before men appeared, and here they are—still going strong.”

Sometimes I wonder, though, how big of a part wild greens play in a possum’s diet. I saw a possum on my porch the other night, finishing off the remains of a Little Debbie roll, discarded by another small, uncivilized creature.

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