Foraging for Wild Winter Greens

I recently spotted an unusual looking patch of green growing in our big wildflower field. It caught my attention because the field has been mowed, allowing a clear view of the ground. Bright green in color, I wondered if this little plant was a cressie green, a product of my childhood. I dug one up and went in search of an answer. I asked my mother who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. She advised that while the plant did resemble a cressie in appearance, it lacked the telltale bitter taste and smell. She suggested that it was most likely a weed. Consulting a field guide, I'm inclined to think that my "weed" is land cress (Barberea verna).  A member of the mustard family, it is indeed edible. The tiny plants remain green throughout the cold winter months. Other common names include American cress and upland cress.

A few days later, I gathered some from the field and made a salad (for one). Nibbling on the leaves, I thought about my ancestors who probably relied on such foods for valuable nutrients during the late winter. Color is one sign of a food's nutrient content - the brighter the color, the greater the nutrients. Fruits and vegetables that are vivid shades of orange, red, purple, and green are rich sources of beta carotene, omega 3s, and valuable micronutrients. Likewise, the egg yolks of pastured hens contain higher levels of beta carotene than storebought eggs. This is evident by the deeper-hued egg yolks of grass-fed chickens. 

But back to cressie greens. Nowadays, with the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides on fields, cressies have become a rarity. That's too bad because wild foods are healthier and more nutritious than their domesticated counterparts. In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan writes, "Two of the most nutritious plants in the world are weeds - lamb's quarters and purslane - and some of the healthiest traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean, make frequent use of wild greens."

Other wild edible greens include dandelions and common chickweed. Rather than attempting to eradicate these plants from the landscape, perhaps we should start eating them. (No kidding.) I don't claim to know how much omega 3 or beta carotene I consumed with my simple salad, but I'm convinced it was a healthy dish. It wasn't bad, and I've since tried the leaves on a sandwich, in place of lettuce. My taste for greens has been revived.