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.