Volume III, No. 3, Spring 1976
Greens-gathering, while still enjoyed in the Ozarks, was almost a ritual for my grandparents at the turn of the century. Standing in the log cabin door, Grandfather used to say, "Hear that old bullfrog? There should be sticky thistle growing in the fence rows."
It was then that the winter sun rays were lengthening, and the lingering snow was melting on the Ozark hills to join the spring stream, where all winter long brown oak leaves were huddled. Now the over-flowing spring sent them gliding away like gondolas. Clusters of watercress, bleached by the covering leaves, quickly started greening up.
Sticky thistle was the first cooking green of spring, and the gathering belonged to Grandfather. Although the season for this particular green was short, he never missed the timing. With a homemade basket and a sharp knife Grandfather followed the rail fence rows in quest of his favorite green.
Grandmother, knowing there would be greens for supper, put a piece of hog jaw to boil, and waited Grandfather's return. When the basket of greens arrived, she picked them over, and washed them many times in cold water before cooking. She lifted the pork, juicy and tender by this time, out of the broth and put it aside "to set."
Into the boiling liquid, Grandmother dropped the crisp greens by the handful. The "stickers," as the tiny white briars were called, disappeared as the greens simmered and stewed on the shiny, black wood stove. And, in the red hot oven, cornpone baked--each little pone bearing the imprint of Grandmother's fingers.
When all was ready Grandmother drained the greens, mixed in little cubes of the white, fat pork and heaped them into a large bowl.
As everyone enjoyed the greens Grandfather told of what he had seen, "Oaks budding pink, the creek brim full, red cedars turning green and squirrels hopping like popcorn in a hot skillet."
Grandfather had met spring in the Ozark hills. Most small girls learned to gather greens, and since Mother was busy with little brother and baby sister, it fell to Grandmother to teach me to discern the good, the "just no good," and the poison greens.
As the days were growing longer and warmer, Grandmother and I set out to find more of the "green sass." First, we brought home snappy wild lettuce and juicy wild onions. The lettuce was best when wilted with hot bacon fat and vinegar, and "just a mite of sugar," as Grandmother said. Cleaned and placed in cold water to crispen, the onions looked like small knitting needles. But no one complained of the task of cleaning them so hungry were we all for something fresh and green.
Spring brought many responsibilities, but none concerned Grandmother more than the well being of her little yellow-headed granddaughter always tagging at her heels. Looking at my sun flushed face she'd say, "Not becoming for a lady to be sunburnt and freckled. Fetch me that scrap basket and I'll make a calico bonnet."
Starched and airy, this little bonnet with a long tail to cover my neck and wide strings to tie under my chin, certainly defied the Ozark sun. Grandmother also fashioned little mitts from the tops of my worn out, black ribbed stockings. While protecting my hands from sunburn and bramble scratches, the mitts were also hot.
"A little sweating will not hurt anybody," Grandmother often said. So I consoled myself with the thought that sweating would whiten my hands, and I was that much nearer to becoming a lady.
As spring progressed Grandmother mixed and cooked the young plantin, dandelion, poke, slick thistle, square stem and three kinds of dock. Mixing the greens was most important. She added the curley leaf and the sour narrow leaf docks in good accounts. However, because of its laxative properties, she added the broad-leaf dock with caution.
Wild flowers grew everywhere and were much more to my fancy than assorted greens. Grandmother didn't hold to picking wild flowers. Nor did she ever gather the marigolds, touch-me-nots and poppies that marched in long rows across her garden. With gentle admonition for my fervor in gathering wild flowers, she finally gave me permission--providing I didn't disturb the roots.
Late spring gave us lamb's quarters, wild mustard, sharp tongue grass, wild sage and shepherd's spray. And, along the creek bank crow's foot and colt's foot grew in abundance.
The month of May brought an abundance of sheep sorrel. These little sour, clover-like leaves mixed with wild strawberries made excellent tarts or jam, thus putting greens in the desert class.
Another delightful part of greens-gathering was the awareness of wakening life. The hills and valleys came alive with a moving population--flying bugs and butterflies, hopping frogs, nesting birds, creeping lizards and terrapins.
Each year from the sun-lit valleys and over the hills, spring comes, bringing new life to the Ozark hills in the same way as in Grandfather's day.
Flowers bloom in profusion of color. And, the same tender, edible greens are there for the taking.
As Grandfather said, "There's a lot to learn about Almighty God when it's a-coming spring."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.