This is the “anxious season.” A few days of “January thaw” brings a hint of spring with its relatively balmy days — and mud and/or slicker’n snot sludgy snow.
We’ll soon be ordering our seed catalogs which we will dream through with visions of cucumbers on the vine, watching for the green houses to open, planning the burning of garden debris and haunting the seed racks in the stores, picturing in our eyes red, warm sun-ripened tomatoes and pansies.
But before any of our planted flowers and vegetables are ready for the vases and dinner plates, Ma Nature still has February to dump on us. March isn’t much better but brings those warm-sun-through-the-car-windows promises that spring will come, though never too soon.
We Mainers wait — and wait — through April and May, knowing it’s never safe, no matter what, to plant before Memorial Day. But spring gifts us with a plethora of free plants while we’re waiting. Pussy willows are one of the earliest and will fill vases along with the sun-bright forsythia branches.
Come April, the sun reaches high enough in the sky to start giving us a few hours of the ‘good’ sun rays, the UVB, providing us with what we call ‘vitamin D” or ‘the happy vitamin.” (It’s actually not a vitamin at all. It’s a hormone that the body produces by taking in the UVB rays.)
For eating, the fiddlehead is the first best edible green that pops up along stream beds. This delicious plant is not only great for eating steamed, with vinegar, butter, salt and pepper, but also makes a great soup with leeks, mushrooms and butter, or even fiddlehead donuts. Packed with vitamins A and C, and minerals like phosphorous, it’s also just plain good for us.
Next, overnight, our lawns are filled with the lowly dandelion, also known as dent de lion, (French for “lion’s tooth”, referring to the leaf’s toothed edge, and pissenlit (French for “pee in bed” due to it’s diuretic action) is the first popularly known green dug for the pot. On one hand, it’s the most despised and maligned of weeds and on the other, it is perhaps one of the most valuable plants on earth. Certainly it’s the most versatile, being included in the list of just about every ailment as a helpful herb. Every part of the plant has its use except its smell. (Come to think of it, I don’t think it has a smell.) The blossoms make a mighty fine white wine.
At the same time, our woods will be full of sarsaparilla. The Indians knew that the sarsaparilla root makes an excellent spring tonic that, along with the aforementioned greens, go a long way towards flushing the winter sludge that has accumulated in our system over the long winter months.
Speaking of the dandelion, this mightiest of gifts from Mother Nature is also the most maligned. The first spring lawn/chemical ads invariably use the poor dandelion as an example of those pesky weeds you surely want to kill. While some are spraying poisons on their lawns to kill the king of "weeds," I take advantage of it’s every stage — including waving the fluffy flower heads to spread the seed for next year — from the leaves for a mess of greens with butter, vinegar, salt and pepper, to the new little flower buds before they open (steamed or sautéed, they are so mild and sweet — a real treat.) Then the blossoms which are great cooked with a light tempura batter can be made into one of the best white wines you can find, hands down. Then, come fall, dig up the roots, dry them, grind them and put them in a jar to use for a coffee-like drink. Now what other plant has so many uses? And that’s not even mentioning the ‘medicinal’ constituents. It’s also great to sneak in salads and soups and stir fries for those that think they don’t like dandelions. I snip the raw, new leaves into small pieces and they think it’s just a bit of spinach.
Then, after we do get our seed in the ground, we find the plants that pop up first and throughout are “weeds.” The most prolific and hardy seems to be pigweed. I let it grow big enough to have a good 'mess' before hauling it out for the vegetables to have room.
It's starting to get a heads up as a "gourmet" dish in fancy restaurants but, of course, they call it by its other name: amaranth. Who's gonna pay to eat "pigweed"?
It's great cooked like spinach or made into a soup. I prefer just a bowl of greens.
And look around in your flower pots. You’ll likely find the little yellow sorrel with its clover-like leaves and tiny yellow flowers. I chew a few sprigs for its oxalic acid. It’s peppery and a little in salad is tasty but it should only be eaten in small amounts at one time.
So Ma Nature provides us with free foods and tonics as soon as winter’s back is broken. We'd be wise to eat them with gratitude. They clear out the winter sludge that finds us, at this time of year, feeling a bit cabin-feverish.