Volume III, No. 3, Spring 1976
Values of the Roadside
Drawings by Nancy Honssinger
During the first warm days of very early spring, before canning became widespread in the Ozarks, people anxiously combed the fields and streams looking for the first signs of wild greens. After a long winter of their monotonous diet of salt pork, stored potatoes and corn bread, they were very hungry for something fresh. Long before garden lettuce and onions were ready, cow parsley and poke gave a delicious and nutritious change in their menu, as well as serving as a sort of internal spring cleaning agent whether used cooked or in fresh salads.
Wild greens have always been plentiful even in the most remote places. This wild food, besides being nourishing and good tasting, is a food that is completely wasted unless picked. Its harvest does not diminish anything, because proper picking insures that the greens will come right back.
This excellent way to get an extra dish for the table has been almost forgotten in recent years as the knowledge of what to pick and where to pick it has been put on the back shelf. Since it has been easier to run to the store, open a can or take something out of the freezer, not many people take the time anymore to tramp the byways to discover the pleasure of finding little bits of shawnee peeking out of the earth or even recognize the value of the dandelion right in their front lawns.
Yet a few people like Ellen Gibson and Imo Honssinger still believe in the old-time goodness of a mess of greens. They faithfully roam the countryside in the heart of the green season from early spring until mid-summer, looking for a treasured bunch of black leaf lady thumb or a gurgling spring brimming with water cress.
They take their finds home to fix a mess to eat, and if there's enough left over, maybe can or freeze some for use during winter months when the varieties die down.
The early pioneers turned to the Indians who taught them about greens. This knowledge, added to and handed down, is preserved for today's amateur to know the good greens from the bad. For instance, the experienced greens pickers know that polk is best picked when it is young and tender, for when it gets good sized and forms a berry, some parts are poisonous, and they know that if it is not picked early, wintercress soon becomes bitter. Many of the plants seen every day could be eaten, but this does not mean to go out and sample something just because it looks good. One must first learn which greens can be picked and which to leave alone, learn when to pick and what parts of the plant are edible.
Though we are writing mostly about the green or leafy portion of the plant, other parts are edible, like the seeds of shepherd's purse and lamb's quarter, the stalks of polk and purslane, the roots of clover and chickery, and even the flowers of plants like violets and bluebells.
There are two main classes of greens, those that grow near rivers and streams or on marshy land, then others that grow in fields, pastures, gardens and roadsides. Some of these greens can be found in both types of environments.
The first section contains the river greens and those that grow near the river.
Watercress, a member of the mustard family, is one of the most familiar river greens. Many a weary hiker, coming upon a clear running spring filled with tangy watercress, has plucked a handful of the tender leaves to make a tasty sandwich. The growing season for watercress usually lasts from May to October, but if warm weather prevails, it may begin to come in as early as February. Watercress ranges from four to eight inches in height, and grows in mats on the top of the water, its roots reaching down through the water. Besides its snappy flavor which tastes somewhat like a radish, the watercress also contains many important vitamins. In picking this plant take only the leaf and tender stems. Never pull up the whole plant because this can destroy the root system. Mid-spring is the best time to pick this green when its flavor is at its peak. Caution should be taken to pick only the watercress that is growing in a continuously running stream where there is no danger of pollution. Watercress is identified by its smooth shiny leaves, long slender stems and small white flowers. If carefully transplanted in dirt and watered frequently, watercress can be grown as a winter crop, assuring crispness for salads all year long.
Another member of the cress family is wintercress. It can be found from April to June and unlike watercress, wintercress grows in fields or in moist places near streams. This is probably the first of the yellow mustards to bloom. The stem is smooth and the leaves are toothed and deeply incised at their bases. The lower leaves are stalked and larger than the small ones that grow up and down the stem. Those along the upper stem are stalk less and have clasping bases. The bright yellow flowers are dense and cylindrical. Most wintercress blooms from April to June and possibly later. But early cress appears before this. Early cress has more deeply lobed leaves than wintercress and has sharp four-sided pods. Wintercress is full of vitamins, and although it is kin to mustard, it lacks the pungent mustard taste. Wintercress is best after the last frost of spring. Pick the small leaves just after the plant has come up, because the cress becomes bitter early. After cooking this green for a dish, some people like to drink the juice that cooks out of the plant leaves. This is sometimes called pot liquor.
BLACK LEAF LADY THUMB
If you are a novice at picking greens, there is one green you could be certain to identify with no trouble at all--black leaf lady thumb. This riverbank green is not only unmistakable but also plentiful and delicious. Its unusual leaf is about one and a half inches wide and comes to a point at the end. A shadow of an arrow is found in the center of the leaf. When cooked both the stem and the leaves can be used.
Found in early February if the weather is warm is cow parsley. Cow parsley is a long lobed plant looking like a close relative of the watercress. It can be picked until the first of May or until the stalk becomes milky looking. The stems and leaves are good greens and can be picked until they begin to become coarse. Cow parsley is usually found near the river in in marshy locations.
The dock family is one of the most popular families of greens in the Ozarks. Narrow leaf dock (curly dock) and broad-leaf dock (sour dock) are two favorites. Dock can be found not only on riverbanks, but some of the best bunches are found in ash piles, along roadsides and in other waste places. To be at their tenderest the young leaves should be used when they are a foot or less in length. Tender dock tips are tasty boiled and served like spinach. In fact, many Ozarkers prefer dock to spinach because of its superior taste and greater vitamin content. Sour dock adds a lot of flavor to a mess of mixed greens. Curly dock can be found blooming from June to August. The plant grows almost anywhere and ranges from one to four feet tall. The leaves have curly, crinkly edges. Dock was one of the many native plants used for medicinal purposes. Cleaning the liver was its main value.
Member of the daisy family, wild lettuce is known for its unusual height which can range from one to eight feet. Wild lettuce can be found growing in meadows, open woods and moist thickets along rivers. Its leaves are blue-green and lobed. The stems are tall--four to nine inches. The smooth leaves may grow from six inches to a foot in length.
The top of the leaf is dark green and the underside is a pale green. The flowers are pale yellow and grow in clusters but are quite insignificant because the unusual height is the most obvious factor. Wild lettuce forms feathery seed clusters during the fruiting season. The leaves are good as a green and in salads.
Chickweed is a common pest that has probably at one time or another taken over your yard. There are two types of chickweed--mouse-eared chickweed reaches a height of between one and thirteen inches. Giant chickweed reaches heights from two to twenty-four inches. Both varieties grow from May to October in sun or shade and in lawns, pastures, woods and wet to damp disturbed ground. The small variety of chickweed has small weak, fine hairy stems. On each side of the stem are pairs of elliptic or oblong leaves that are from one-half to two inches long and are pointed on both ends. The small white flowers have deeply notched petals that make a ray-like formation. The leaves and stems can be boiled to make a tasty dish. Chickweed is good mixed with a mess of different greens.
Sure to be found growing in small beds near springs or rivers is the vitamin-rich plant, the violet. Violet blossoms range in color, but the blue is the richest in needed vitamins. These small fragile flowers can be found all summer long. Although the flowers are good to eat, most people do not use them in their greens because of their appearance when cooked. The tender leaves and roots, however, can be used as a green. As with all plants, the new tender leaves are the best to use. The root tastes surprisingly like hickory nuts.
Another flower used in greens is the bluebell, which grows in moist rich bottom lands. It has a smooth erect stem one to two feet tall and large floppy leaves. The flowers are pink when opening and later blue or lavender. Like the violet the flower can be cooked but is not pretty in the greens. The tender leaves and stems can be used in greens. Both the bluebell and the violet are two of the richest sources of vitamins.
The pungent smell of the wild onion seems to fill meadows, thickets and moist wooded slopes near the river during the summer months. Wild onion is easily recognized not only by its smell but by its sharp slender leaves and pale yellow flowers. Its soft grass like leaves are usually shorter than the stem. The bulbs, one of the most important parts of the plant, are small and in short supply. Sweet and palatable, they are an excellent seasoning for a mess of greens. The bulb for cooking is found in the late autumn or early spring.
The next section of greens are those that are located in pastures, fields and along roadsides.
Though many people regard the dandelion as just another pesky weed that takes over yards and gardens, the dandelion is a useful plant. Besides being used to make dandelion wine, it is also a tender green that can be used almost all year round. The dandelion can range from one to twelve inches in height. It grows from April to November on a short stem with large basal leaves that are deeply lobed or saw-toothed. The bright yellow heads of the flowers are about one and a half inches across. The early spring dandelion is the best to pick for a mess of greens, although some of the fall dandelions can be just as tender and good in salads. The leaves of the dandelions that grow in lawns have a stronger flavor than those growing wild. This can be remedied by cooking in several waters. Besides being used as a green, the young sprouts can be used as a potherb, and its dried roots are used as a substitute for coffee. The flowers can be cooked just as the violet and bluebell but are not pretty in a dish of greens. The buds make a dish of their own. Ellen Gibson describes the taste as being quite similar to brussel sprouts. Dandelions grown in the basement during the winter will produce fresh crisp leaves for salads until spring.
Chickory, a pretty roadside weed, is not often thought of as a useful plant, but the fried roots of the chickory are used in coffee, and greens can be prepared from the tenderest succulent growth. It is commonly found in fields and along roadsides. It is an erect plant often reaching more than three feet in height and on its upright rigid branches are bright blue flowers. The flowering season lasts from May to October. The lower leaves of this plant are three to six inches long and vary from toothed to lobed, tapering to the long stalks. Those upward along the stem have clasping bases. Some varieties are cultivated either as a leafy green or for the valuable roots.
When it comes to trying to pick the most widely known and picked green, it seems poke is the unanimous winner. Otherwise known as pigeonberry, pokeberry or inkberry, poke is a tall branching perennial herb with greenish white flowers and juicy deep purple berries. The plant flourishes in wastelands, roadsides and along fence rows. The stem growing from four to twenty feet high is reddish purple and sturdy. The roots are poisonous to man as are the berries, a favorite of birds. The broad leaves reaching from five to ten inches are scattered along the stem and branches. The leaves may become mottled by a virus carried by insects. In this case the plant must then be cut off below ground level to kill it. The young shoots and tender leaves may be used as greens and can be prepared like asparagus. When picking, choose only the freshest tenderest leaves of the new growth. Be careful when picking after a frost to be sure the leaves haven't been ruined by the cold. Usually after a frost new pink stems and light green leaves will appear. Feel safe to pick these for they will be undamaged. The freshly growing roots can be dug up, covered with dirt, watered and kept in a warm cellar as a source of new young sprouts throughout the winter. This green can be frozen successfully.
One of the most common wayside weeds is shepherd's purse which grows almost everywhere and with such persistency that it has earned the nickname pickpocket. Its title arose from its small seed pods that were said to resemble small change purses. Shepherd's purse found in fields, along roadsides and near rivers, blooms from about April to August, and grows from four to twenty-four inches tall. The leaves on the stem are arrow shaped, while those near the root are clustered, incised and toothed. The tender leaves may be used in a mess of greens and the seeds may be used to season soup and other dishes.
Another quite popular and bountiful green is the wild mustard. The large, thick and toothed leaves are a deep green in shade. The greens may be harvested when tender. If the leaves are not harvested, the plant stalk becomes strong and unfit to eat. The flowers are bright yellow and grow in clusters. This plant springs up anywhere and grows from spring to late summer.
Red clover which grows from eight inches high and is found in open fields, meadows and lawns can be used in a dish. The tender tooth-edged leaflets are good food used in greens. If you wish, you can also eat the roots and the globular flower heads made up of many flowerets.
One of the most frequently found greens in the garden is lamb's quarter which appears about when your garden does but has more food value than garden lettuce. All of the tender plant is used for greens. Nicknames for this plant include pigweed and goosefoot.
The seeds may become a nuisance to the farmer if they become mixed with grain seeds, but the seeds are also put to practical use in pancakes.
Purslane is another often ignored plant. Its reddish purple stem and small fat leaves are familiar to anyone with a garden. The young leaves and stems when cooked make a far better dish than garden spinach. Sometimes called pigweed parsley, this green cooks down rapidly and requires a good mess of other greens to mix with it. After a summer rain, purslane can be found popping up everywhere. The thick fleshy leaves and stems are easy to find. The leaves can also be used raw in a salad and the succulent stems make a good dill pickle. Purslane is a truly versatile plant.
Related to the spinach family is swiss chard, a common garden plant that grows all through the summer. The seeds are sown in the spring. Chard has small woody roots that cannot be eaten. It has large fleshy leaf stems and the large outer green leaves which are harvested as soon as they appear. Later the inner leaves are used. Some varieties have pale yellow leaves. The harvest can continue until frost kills the plant. Chard is an excellent source of vitamins A, B and C.
As the garden begins to grow, garden sorrel begins to appear. The leaves have an arrow shaped leaf within itself and are good used with other greens.
Shawnee is a very nourishing plant. It cannot be picked when you first begin to pick greens, but comes in later. It cannot be used when the stem becomes milky. It makes an excellent green to mix with others.
Although these are by no means all of the greens that can be found, these are some widely used regional favorites. So sometime when you're driving home along a country road, hiking in the woods or walking along the riverbank, see if you can spot any of these greens. If you are lucky enough to find some, gather yourself a mess and have a delicious vitamin-filled supper.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.