When the snow finally melts after a long winter in Colorado, it reveals a matted, grey, hungover-looking earth. Any glimmer of green elbowing its way toward the sunlight can catch the eye and steal the heart. Some of these emerald sprigs offer more than just eye candy and emotional rescue. Think of the ecstasy our ancestors in temperate climates must have felt as they gathered and ate the first fresh greens, after a thin winter of consuming only stored food and hovering near starvation.
Winter can be a stagnant time, when our blood flow slows and our energy wanes. The first greens of spring are bursting with vitality and all the right ingredients for moving blood and bile. As the season rolls over and sits up to greet the warmth of the sun, our bodies are also looking to rub the sleep from our eyes. In place of the starchy soups and roasted roots of winter, give us bitter greens.
Edible weeds tend to be more nutritious than cultivated vegetables. Domesticated plants get coddled with water and protected from predators and temperature swings. Wild plants are subject to these stressors, and they produce chemical compounds with which to protect themselves. These compounds make them more flavorful and nutrient-rich than garden-variety veggies.
For this reason, weeds are a great way to fit hard-to-get nutrients into your diet. Over-the-counter vitamin tablets are composed of isolated constituents, which in some cases aren’t very bioavailable or readily absorbed by our bodies. Have you ever taken a multivitamin and then peed a bright yellow color? That color is produced by water-soluble B complex that your body couldn’t assimilate. Nutrients in whole foods are easier for our bodies to make use of.
Here are a few of the most common edible weeds. Some grow in all corners of the United States. Some grow up through cracks in the concrete. Some especially enjoy our local flavor of the Southwest. Before harvesting and eating any plant, be absolutely certain of its identity and edibility.
Dandelion: Taraxacum officinale. While the leaves, roots, and flowers are all edible, the leaves are perhaps the most classic example of a bitter green. Try plucking a leaf and eating it while preparing your next meal. It makes the mouth produce saliva, the stomach produce acid, the liver and gallbladder produce bile, and generally readies the entire digestive tract to receive food. (This is true of anything that tastes bitter). Consuming a bitter taste before meals can ease all manner of digestive complaints, such as heartburn, gas, bloating, and constipation. Dandelion contains vitamins A, C, K, potassium, and calcium.
Mallow: Malva neglecta. This incredibly common plant is a bane to farmers due to its audacious, long, and stubborn taproots. Eating it provides the consumer with a nice dose of vitamins A and C, magnesium, potassium, iron, and selenium. The leaves can be a bit fuzzy and fibrous, so they’re best in smoothies, as tea, or in vinegar. The chopped roots make a fabulous moistening tea for dry skin, dry coughs, dry eyes, constipation, nursing mothers, and dry conditions of all kinds.
Alfalfa: Medicago sativa. Grown prolifically in this region, alfalfa is a favorite hay for dairy farmers because of its relatively high protein content and nutritional punch. It’s a good source of vitamins A, D, E, K, calcium, magnesium, potassium, selenium, riboflavin, and niacin. Eat the purple flowers raw (I think they taste like M&M’s), or steep the leaves in tea or vinegar.
Red Clover: Trifolium pratense. A relative of alfalfa, red clover is also a nutritional powerhouse, providing calcium, chromium, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, vitamin C, and phytoestrogens. Eat the flowers.
Spring tonic, or spring vinegar, is a traditional preparation that makes the vitamins and minerals found in plants more bioavailable, and preserves them for use all year round. It’s made by steeping nutritional plants (like those listed above) in vinegar for about two weeks, then straining the plant matter away. Vinegar is particularly good at extracting nutrients. As an herbalist, I often use spring tonic as a dietary supplement for people who need a nutritional boost. It can be imbibed straight, included in salad dressings, vegetable sautés, or anywhere else vinegar is called for. It is especially useful for people with chronic joint pain, as it provides nutrients necessary for repairing connective tissue, and helps flush excess fluids out of swollen joints.
There’s something holy about consuming plants that grow in the place we grow. We’re products of the same environment and subjected to the same conditions. It’s an act that can help us feel more at home. So honor the temporal shift of the season, honor the ancestors who survived those ragged winters, and honor yourself by eating your weeds.
1 pint jar with a lid
1 square of freezer paper
1 cup fresh plant matter (see article for examples)
1 ½ cups raw organic apple cider vinegar
Harvest the appropriate plant parts of any wild edible you can identify. Rinse and let dry thoroughly. Chop coarsely.
Put plant matter in the pint jar and compact with your hand or a spoon.
Pour vinegar over the plant matter.
Cover the jar’s open mouth with the square of freezer paper, cut large enough to allow the jar’s lid to screw shut over it. Seal the jar with its lid. The freezer paper keeps the vinegar from rusting any metal in the lid.
Label and store in a cool, dark place for two weeks.
At this point, the vinegar has extracted the vitamins and minerals from the plants. Strain the plant matter away and store your spring tonic wherever you store other vinegars. You can keep it in the same jar with freezer paper in the lid, or store it in another vessel without metal parts. It should keep for six months.
Take spring tonic by the tablespoon for a nutritional boost, or use it in recipes wherever vinegar is called for.