Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eat Your Yard


Urban foragers need not worry about pesticides, herbicides, and other nasty contaminants if they simply harvest the bounty of their own yards—provided, of course, they themselves don't apply such nasty contaminants. Today's salad consists of bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), cat's-ear (Hypochaeris radicata), and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), all picked in a matter of minutes just a few feet from the back door. Oh, and a few salmonberry blossoms to make it purty.

Sure, I could have gone to the hippie mart and picked up some expensive organic greens with French-sounding names. But why burn oil and greenbacks when I can get an equally delicious salad with far greater nutritional value for free right in my own backyard?

Cat's-ear should be familiar to those of you who don't insist on a grassy lawn (and probably those who do, much to their chagrin)—it's the indestructible weed with a seemingly mile-deep taproot that looks a lot like a dandelion but shoots up a thin stalk with a less robust yellow flowerhead. The leaves are dandelion-like except for a profusion of tiny hairs. And it's quite the succubus, sucking the surrounding lawn dry of water and nutrients. Cat's-ear is just as nutritious as dandelions, less bitter, and has a longer season. You can harvest leaves in winter in our climate.

Bittercress is another common weed, with many different varieties at the species level. I'm pretty sure ours is Cardamine hirsuta, a European invader. The common name is a misnomer, however, that dates back to Linnaeus. Bittercress is hardly bitter—it's crunchy and sweet, making it an excellent addition to salads.

Dandelions I've already covered in previous posts.

Now one thing: I don't want to oversell this here salad. Wild greens, like meat, are gamier than what you're probably used to. The flavor is delicious to some, a little peculiar to others. Try mixing in a few wild plants with a regular domestic green salad you're first time out of the chute, then work up to an all-wild salad. This isn't meant to be some sort of exercise in penance.

To my readers in the Puget Sound region, I highly recommend the 2nd edition of Arthur Lee Jacobson's Wild Plants of Greater Seattle (although it's most useful if you have some basic plant knowledge). For the rest of you, a little surfing around the web should help you locate similar guides with a regional emphasis. For the last several years I've been trying to improve my botanical skills. The best approach is to learn the families and genera; identifying plants to a species level can be quite difficult, and nearly impossible with field guides that cover the entire continent. You're much better off studying the basics and then working with a local guide.

If you really want to go crazy in the PNW plant kingdom, pick up the bible: Hitchcock & Cronquist, a cool $60 ($48 at the 'zon); this is the key to pretty much everything that grows around here, but you need to know your taxonomy.

Happy botanizing!

19 comments:

Becky said...

Is peppercress the same thing as bittercress? I should really stick with Latin, common names are so confusing.

LC said...

Becky - Lotsa weeds go by peppercress. There's a mustard in genus Lepidium, field peppercress (Lepidium campestre). Also a few others found in sandy soil or near beaches. Where'd you find it?

Michael Natkin said...

Does the Wild Plants book do a good job of alerting you to potentially dangerous ones that might look similar?

audrey said...

Great post. From the looks of it we just ripped out a big patch of Cardamine, though undoubtedly more will be back soon. And cat's ear -- I've been waging a losing battle with that plant for years. For weed control I once tried cooking them with boiling water, but maybe eating will be the trick.

LC said...

Michael - I just checked the entry for poison hemlock and then re-read entries for other carrot family plants (cow parsnip, sweet cicely, etc.) and only under water celery did it caution about poison look-alikes, so I guess the answer is "no."

To be honest, some knowledge is necessary--common names or families--to make this book useful. The illustrations are b&w. I'll do some research to recommend a beginner book for those who come to this w/o any prior experience.

LC said...

Audrey - You're right, the bittercress will be back in no time. Also, I think it's supposed to be a good cover crop (nitrogen fixer), so I wouldn't worry too much about it. As for cat's ear, I've waged my battles and given up. Even tried vinegar. Unless you're willing to use commercial herbicides (please don't!), they're here to stay so might as well dine on 'em.

ladyflyfsh said...

Lang, have you ever eaten lambs quarters? Had tons of that in Montana.

LC said...

Ladyflyfish - That stuff is wicked nutritious (was just talking to a friend from Boston) and tasty too. Should be popping up soon around Seattle. How do you like to prepare it?

wyldthang said...

Hi! I was going to ask if the bittercress is also peppergrass(funny to hear different name variations, I can't see your photo well enough to tell). Was munching on peppergrass when I was weeding my garden. Thanks for the cat's ears info.

ladyflyfsh said...

just like spinach or in salads...

Camille said...

I always call bittercress peppercress instead because it actually tastes a bit peppery. I think it's my favourite tasting edible weed, but not that great for texture as it can sometimes be stringy. I realllly like sheep sorrel. It grew around my parent's yard when I was growing up and I called it "sour grass".
Apparently curly dock and plantain are good raw too, but I've never bothered. I'm sure I'll get around to it eventually.

Carroll said...

Wowza, this is fantastically inspiring. Found you just now from Food Gawker, and boy am I ever going to look hard for someone who could give me a tour of local (Bay Area CA) edible wild plants. What an overlooked resource.

Like your other commenter, I'm nervous about mistaking something edible for something dire -- even with a good photo, I'd love to find someone knowledgeable who could point out the nuances in person.

Thanks so much for getting my head pointed in this direction!!!

esmaa said...

"Unless you're willing to use commercial herbicides (please don't!), they're here to stay so might as well dine on 'em."

Hear, hear!

I get so much from your posts. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Patricia said...

I have tons of the cats ear! I've been pulling it and throwing it in yardwaste, but this weekend I'm going to pull it and eat it! Between that and the purple dead nettle that's growing, I should have a tasty tasty salad.

Thanks for the info and all of the pictures!

LC said...

Camille - I'm still not sure if bittercress & peppercress are the same thing--that's why botanists are always urging us to learn our Latin! But I took French in HS... (sigh).

Carroll - Thanks for dropping by! You raise a good point. I can't say enough how important it is to learn first-hand from *another person who knows what they're talking about* and not just from books. Books are great, but when it comes to IDing plants and fungi, get out into the field.

Esmaa - Thank YOU for being a regular part of the discussion 'round here!

Patricia - My advice for the first go-round: braise your cat's ear leaves (garlic, chicken stock, olive oil, apple jelly, soy, whatever) and eat with a piece of fish or meat or tofu. Then try raw, first in small doses with other domestic greens, then perhaps in an all-wild salad if you dig it. Report back!

Martha Silano said...

JEE-sus, Lang, you are afoot with your leafy greens! How in the heck did you have time to harvest how many kinds of watercress this and salmonberry that--before or after chomping down waaaaaaaay too much kettle corn at the M's game???? My favorite description: cat's ears as succubus (or would that be succubuses? succubi?). Oh, and gotta love the way you arranged those blossoms on top of those luscious greens. I wanted to dive right in. Must be a really nice camera. Did you get it as a present or something?

LC said...

Marty, are you effing with me? What'd I do now?? Have fun in Spokane little Miss Poet Who Knows It.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Damnit, Lang! I just "ate my lawn" last weekend and was going to post on it. Oh well, as we are more than a month ahead of you in the growing season (our bittercress is WAAY bitter now with 95-degree heat), I will post anyway. We have a different set of plants here I can take note of...

wyldthang said...

HI! I have a question for you if it's ok, I have that yellow spotted dead nettle and was wondering if it's okay to eat for greens. I can't google up any info that it is okay--other than people in Germany and Sweden do eat the white version for greens. I also see it's an invasive weed in Seattle(so they don't like it). Just curious what you thought--if it is indeed fine to eat, maybe we could help eradicate it by eating it?