Spring is almost here, and that means the plant nations are beginning to, once again, make an appearance. Whether you are trying to return to a more traditional diet, or if you want to learn more about the plants around you, there are a multitude of spring plants that can improve your health, provide creative recipe ideas, and save you some cash.
Wild vegetables and fruits contain far more nutrients than those we purchase from the store. Dandelion leaves, for example, have five to seven times more nutrients than spinach! Once a particular food is harvested, it quickly begins losing nutrients (and flavor). By the time an apple reaches your home, it has probably traveled over 1,500 miles to get there—and those grapes on your plate? They probably traveled over 2,100 miles! That is a lot of lost vitamins and minerals. If you harvest wild foods from the right areas, you can avoid the copious levels of herbicides and pesticides that are used on store-bought fruits and veggies. So, why aren’t we eating wild foods every day?
Contrary to popular belief, traditional Native cuisine was flavorful, diverse, colorful, and creative. A simple fare of meat and potatoes is a wholly new concept, and this lack of diversity in our diets is largely responsible for the multitude of illnesses that plague Indigenous Peoples. Here are three spring plants that are found commonly all over Turtle Island, are chock-full of phytonutrients, and are easy to incorporate into your everyday meals:
Chickweed (Stellaria media): If you have a flower garden, you are probably familiar with chickweed. It loves to invade flowerbeds, where it will cover the ground in a vibrant green blanket. The plant is often ignored, pulled out, or composted, and that is a shame. Along with being delicious, chickweed is incredibly high in protein and potassium. It is a mildly flavored, green vegetable that may be eaten raw in salads and salsa, or you might want to use it to top off your favorite burger. You can also eat chickweed cooked in scrambled eggs and fried rice, or just throw it into your juicer and add it to your morning smoothie.
3 cups plain yogurt
2 cups chickweed, chopped
2 cups frozen pineapple
1 cup frozen peaches
1 ripe avocado, cubed
Blend until smooth and serve cold. You can substitute any of your favorite fruits.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica): If there is such a thing as a “superfood,” nettles are it. Young nettle leaves are high in iron, calcium and B-vitamins, and while they’ve earned the name “stinging” nettles (due to tiny, stinging hairs that are all over the plant), the stinging effect goes away with cooking or drying. Many people, including myself, will harvest nettles bare-handed, because the stinging effect is known to both prevent and relieve inflammation due to arthritis. Harvest nettles in the spring while the leaves are still young and tender. Blanch them quickly in boiling water (and then drink the water like tea… no need to waste it!) and use the blanched nettles in everything from lasagna and soup to pesto stir-fry.
1/4 pound stinging nettles
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup pine nuts, walnuts, or acorns, toasted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Blanch the nettles quickly in salted water. Remove them from the boiling water, let cool and squeeze out as much water as possible. Add the nettles to a food processor or blender with mint, garlic, nuts, and lemon juice. Process until this mixture forms a paste. Slowly add olive oil while processor is still running. Remove from food processor and add the grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper.
Lambs quarters (Chenopodium spp.): Lamb’s quarters, a.k.a. “goosefoot” due to its distinctive leaf shape, is one of the tastiest spring edibles around. Most people actually prefer it to both spinach and lettuce. The leaves are high in Vitamins A and C, and make a yummy steamed accompaniment to steak, chicken, or seafood. You can also eat the leaves raw as a salad with a simple balsamic dressing.
Creamy Lamb’s Quarter Soup:
3 tablespoons butter
1 small, sliced onion
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk
½ cup half and half
½ cup chicken stock
3 potatoes, cubed
2 cups young fresh lamb’s quarter leaves, blanched
Pepper to taste
Cheddar cheese, chopped scallions, crumbled bacon for serving
Sauté onions in butter until translucent, add flour and cook until mixture is lightly brown. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat for five minutes. Add milk, half and half, chicken stock, potatoes, and lambs quarters. Heat gently until potatoes are tender. Serve sprinkled with cheese, scallions, and bacon.
Linda Black Elk (Catawba) is an ethnobotanist and restoration ecologist. Her research focuses on indigenous food sovereignty, medicinal plants, and eliminating food deserts. Linda is an instructor at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, and in her spare time she loves to hunt, forage, eat and heal.