Some Cool, Pretty, and Useful Wild Plants (Early Spring)

It’s spring, it’s spring! And despite the craziness of the human world right now, the plant and wild animal world is waking up once again. Step outside – not into human public places, mind you, but outside of your doorstep – and take a look around. Trees are blossoming, your lawn (ugh) is growing back, and some really beautiful and cool plants are, hopefully, trying to make their way through that ridiculous sod in your yard. (And, in our case, our newly hoed beds. Sigh.)

Today, I’m going to talk about some of the wild plants that may be growing in your own yard, and show you some of the cool stuff growing in ours that we didn’t plant ourselves. Many of these are edible, which may be a welcome boon if you’re holed up in your house without much access to fresh vegetables.

Before I go into any of these plants, however, I have disclaimers. Oh yes.

  1. I am an amateur forager, which means I am no expert telling you what to put in your hands or mouth. Don’t go eating stuff without cross-referencing it with expert opinions. Unless I’ve specifically said so, I also have not tried every use for these plants that I list here, either, so you’ll be learning with me should you correctly ID and try some of these plants for yourself.
  2. Find expert opinions. I cross-reference everything I find before I eat it: I’m using what I’ve learned and recorded from foraging courses I’ve taken, a Peterson’s Field Guide, a simple plant identifying app, and a fabulous cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Cookbook. At best, you should find a foraging expert or a course led by one who actually takes you around to look for edible plants (or just plants in general – it’s good to identify all of them!). At the very least, get yourself a reputable guidebook or five. Do not use Google Images to determine whether you should eat something or not, or only my guidance (refer back to #1).
  3. Identifying plants (and, therefore, edibleness) requires observation not only of what they look like, but of other factors that require multiple senses (notably, smell, touch, and, always lastly, taste). This is why Google Images is not a replacement for a guidebook – it’s handy to see a color image of something that might be what you’re looking at, but only after references from experts.
  4. Many plants have poisonous lookalikes. Still others have not been identified at all (which is pretty cool, but also a reason to slow down). This is why following disclaimers #1-#3 is vital. Also, if you’re actually in a pinch/survival mode (as in, you have literally nothing to cross-reference and you’re starving), and want to know if something is edible, always use the Universal Edibility Test before gobbling anything down.
  5. Less a disclaimer and more a common sense thing: if you do, in fact, correctly identify and want to eat an edible plant, make sure it’s growing far away from roadsides, poisonous plants, polluted water, and any other sources of possible contamination. You’d better believe that if the plant grows in it, it’s harboring it, as well.
  6. Lastly, if you do find an edible plant, take only what you need at one time. Don’t be a jerk and take everything you see – leave some for others, and enough for the wild plant to re-populate. Many sources say take no more than 10% of what you see, which is a pretty good rule.

That all being said, don’t be afraid to try your hand at plant observation and foraging. Even if you don’t actually eat the plants, you can still have a great time finding and trying to identify what’s growing in and around your home. It’s also a fantastic activity to do with children, who are probably suffering more from cabin fever than you are, and they’ll be learning something useful in the process. (Again, and especially with children, refer to the disclaimers.)

Today, I’m also focusing on plants that are relatively easy to identify (like dandelion), so you can perhaps learn something new about a familiar friend. Without further ado, here are some cool wild plants for early spring!

Dandelion

Ah, dandelion – the bane of lawn mavens everywhere. But in case you didn’t know, dandelion is 100% edible – leaves, flowers, and roots. The leaves are peppery and can taste quite bitter to some (especially when mature), and are super versatile. We’ve used the leaves for making pesto and wild greens pasta, and for mixing with other salad greens. Others use the flowers for fritters (which I’m so trying this year), and the roots to make dandelion coffee.

Wild Onion

I’ve talked about these before in a previous post (quiche, anyone?), and these buggers pictured here are the bigger versions, which are a lot easier to pull up and clean than the first shoots and clumps. This is a super important one to identify by both looks and smell – if it smells like onion, it’s probably wild onion. If not, don’t eat it. These can be used in anything a green onion or scallion goes into, and are delightfully garlicky and lightly oniony.

Clover

There are different kinds of clover, but I’m going very general here. Early spring is the best time to harvest and use clover, as the leaves become more bitter as the weather warms up. It’s advisable to blanch or cook it first, as it can be more difficult to digest raw. You can also make tea from the dried flowerheads. (Also, from the picture, the clovers are the round leaves in groups of three, as opposed to the mock strawberry, which have toothed leaves.)

Common Blue Violet

This is all over our yard right now, and loves to creep into our vegetable beds. It’s also quite edible! Use the young leaves for salad (mix them with dandelions, as they’re much blander by comparison), braise or boil them for cooked greens or as a thickener (like okra), or dry them for tea. The flowers, which are lightly sweet, can be eaten in salads, candied, and used as edible garnish.

Pennsylvania Bittercress

Also spread all over the yard right now, they have little white flowers atop long stems. Can be used as a salad green.

Persian Speedwell

This is a new one for me, and it’s all over the beds. Apparently, it’s edible, as well as good for medicinal tea, but may not be particularly palatable for some. Very pretty to look at, however, and easy to pull up if they are, in fact, taking over the vegetable beds.

Grape Hyacinth

(Or may also be Musk Hyacinth). Like the speedwell, this guy is all over the beds right now. Bulbs are sometimes boiled or roasted, and flowers can be bitter but are used for pickling by some. I may leave this one for looks.

Purple Dead Nettle

The most metal-named of all the plants I found these past few days >:) Also everywhere, this guy is in the mint family, and is apparently called such because it resembles stinging nettle, but without the stings (hence the “dead”). Young leaves can be used for pesto and salads. It’s also well-known for several medicinal properties, as well, including use as a poultice for wounds, which is pretty cool. (Mock strawberry makes another appearance in this photo, too!)

And, just for fun, a couple more flower blooms (daffodil and azalea) for your enjoyment.

Got any other cool spring foraging plants growing in your neck of the woods? See any egregious mis-identifications? Let me know in the comments!

Happy spring, friends!

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