More wild edible plants, on the way

By Tom Seymour | May 05, 2020
Photo by: Tom Seymour Wintercress ripe for picking

Before covering the latest batch of edible wild plants, let’s look at timelines in a different way. First, while March saw above-average temperatures, April was mostly below-average.

That means plants that would normally be ready at a certain time were held back by the cold and at times, snow. Nonetheless, the succession of plants as represented in this column remains inviolable. What might happen, though, is that the space between different plants becoming ready for harvest may get crunched, in that we’ll probably see a whole number of plants coming out in rapid succession.

Also, since this column runs in papers in three counties, Waldo, Knox and Lincoln, there are marked differences in growing conditions between, for example, places such as Jackson in Waldo County and Boothbay in Lincoln County.

Hopefully, interested readers will have saved previous columns and can refer back to them as the different plants emerge. These installments, when taken as a while, offer a good representation of what is available in springtime in Midcoast Maine. With that in mind, here are this issue’s top plants.

Wintercress

Ask any Mainer over age 70 if they recall when people went out in spring and picked, “mustard greens.” We do, of course, have wild mustards in Maine, but they are not now and never were, overly popular. What a lot of those old-timers sought was a mustard look-alike.

Wintercress is the name of this mustard-like plant. Wintercress, however, is a cress, related to watercress and other spicy, wild offerings. Wintercress should be available, at least in limited amounts, this week.

Upper leaves on wintercress are shiny and clasping, meaning they grip the stalk directly, having no stem of their own. Basal, or ground-level leaves are rounded and lobed, while upper leaves have sharply defined “teeth.”

While not a true brassica, wintercress is still a crucifer, meaning the flowers have four petals. I enjoy nibbling on the leaves raw. The sharp, cress flavor is quite pronounced. Also, the leaves make an interesting potherb when boiled until tender.

The unopened, tightly packed clusters of flower buds can be picked and cooked the same as broccoli. The taste is not as strong as the raw leaves and I consider these among the finest of wild foods. Even better, the buds don’t all go to flower at once, meaning that even on a plant where some flowers have appeared, there will still be some unopened buds.

Wintercress comes packed with vitamins, vitamins C and D among them. The late Euell Gibbons had wintercress analyzed for vitamin content and the Penn State lab results showed that the plant contains an average of 152 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams of fresh leaves and a whopping 5,067 international units of vitamin A per 100 grams of leaf. Try finding a cultivated vegetable that can match these statistics. It will be a long search.

Trout Lilies

One of the first spring wildflowers, trout lilies (a member of the lily family but sometimes called, “dog-toothed violet,”) form huge mats of green-and-yellow along roadsides, wet ditches, streamsides and in woodland settings with damp, loose loam. Trout lilies require a mixture of sun and shade.

The upright leaves are rather trout-shaped and even have speckles, reminiscent of a brook trout’s markings.

The leaves make a delightful, if ephemeral, potherb when simmered in water for only a minute. When drained and served with butter, Smart Balance or Olivio, and a light trace of salt, these delicately flavored leaves make the centerpiece of a special meal.

Here’s a tip for picking. While trout lilies grow in dense colonies, it is unadvisable to pick all the leaves from any one plant. For the continuance of the colony, only pick one leaf from each plant and the plant won’t know the difference.

The leaves are perhaps five inches long and half as wide, so it is easy to harvest a small basket full in short order.

I hope you enjoy learning about and eating these free, healthful plants. It sure beats going to the store in this time of trial and stress.

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