Spring has arrived in Central Illinois and the weeds are beginning to sprout in my garden plots. However many of these weeds are actually wild herbs that are a tasty spring addition to a romaine tossed salad. The only difference between a weed and an herb is that an herb is a weed that has gained respectability by becoming useful.
A quick turn about my garden revealed that lush spring salad herbs were sprouting in my empty potato bed. I quickly collected a basket of tender new growth. Spring is the best time to enjoy wild salad herbs–when they are young and tender.
Several wild mustards grow in Illinois–Winter Cress, Pepper Grass, Shepherds Purse, White Mustard. They add a peppery taste similar to radish in salads.
Sour dock is the herb that sprouts tall green seed heads in late spring. This seed head then turns nutty brown by late summer. The seeds can be ground into a flour similar to buckwheat. Sour dock is in the sorrel family; the early leaves have a pleasant tart and lemony flavor.
Chickweed is more difficult to identify in spring if the small star-like white flower has not yet bloomed. It is a tender and lush salad herb.
Although dandelion likes to invade our lawns, it has many redeeming qualities besides being a tasty salad herb. The root can be roasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute. The flowers are also edible; many prefer them dipped in batter and deep-fried. Dandelion flower wine is also popular.
Creeping Charlie is in the mint family which explains why it is so invasive in my back yard. I try to pull it from my garden in early spring when the trailing roots come up more easily from moist soil. Try a little chopped in salads if you enjoy a slightly minty taste.
Garlic Mustard is another of the wild mustards that grow in our area. It adds a distinctly garlic flavor. However it is not welcome in Illinois and is labeled a destructive plant because of its invasive nature. Garlic Mustard casts many seeds and quickly takes over the forest floor, choking out other native plants. Now that I know it is coming up near my burn pile, I will eradicate it. I did not yet find any Lambs Quarters rearing its head above the meadow grass. Lambs Quarters is also known as wild Spinach. Chicory is another spring lettuce in the same family as Radicchio. The Chicory root is another substitute for coffee; identify it from its translucent blue flowers in early summer. Plantain, a very common “weed,” can also be cut for salad. If outside and you are stung by a bee, crush the leaves of plantain and apply to the sting. The histamine in the leaves will take away the pain.
All of this bounty is full of vitamins and minerals and was free for the picking. Pioneers would enjoy fresh greens in the spring after a long winter of only canned vegetables. The first spring salad was often referred to as a healthy tonic to fortify the body.
My grandmother would make a very simple dressing for spring greens by blending apple cider vinegar with sugar to taste and then adding cream. The vinegar would sour the cream creating a tasty sour cream dressing. Another variation was to blend hot bacon drippings with vinegar and sugar.