April 17, 2014

Chandra L. Mattingly

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Cruisin' for Cress
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly   
Friday, December 14, 2012 4:59 PM


Are you tired of paying high prices for grocery greens?

Now's the time to go cruising for cress! Wintercress, a wild mustard, grows along roadsides, in pastures and in otherwise empty lots this time of year. If the weather stays as mild as it's been, the wild green may be available throughout the winter; if not, it will sprout new leaves in late winter or early spring.

Right now is a perfect time to try this plant, as its flavor will be mild. The leaves can be added to salads or lightly steamed, and are rich in vitamins C and A. Come spring, gather it early as it grows more pungent and even bitter as the weather warms and it buds and blooms.

To identify the plant, look up Barbarea vulgaris, its species name, in a resource book or on the Internet. Just remember while looking at photos of the plant that its appearance in winter is a rosette of basal leaves, quite different from how it looks when it blooms, shooting up a rocket of yellow flowers!

Have someone familiar with wild plants identify what you gather the first time – a wise idea with any wild foods! Purdue extension offices usually are a great resource.

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You don't have to stop with cress collection. Chickweed also is quite abundant this year, sometimes growing into mounds of green.

Excellent in salads and far more nutritious than cultivated greens, chickweed can be found in open woods, in many yards, and along sidewalks in town! Just pick the long, leafed stems, wash well and enjoy. The stems are slightly crunchy. As with cress, they also can be lightly steamed. Both plants can be added to soups and stews.

Stellaria media, as chickweed is scientifically known, has 10 times as much calcium and iron as spinach, twice the Vitamin A and six times the Vitamin C, and is a good source of magnesium, potassium and other minerals.

Other wild foods continue to grow through mild winters and sometimes even bloom. Violet and dandelion flowers will add color and vitamins to salads, and the leaves of both are edible, as are dandelion roots.

The latter have their own fan base, with a reputation for healing all kinds of health problems – check that out on the Internet if you're interested! Both the roots and greens are bitter, but also are chockful of nutrients, especially Vitamin A in the leaves.

And if you really dig collecting wild foods, you can tackle cattail roots. Supposedly as nutritious as potatoes, they were a mainstay of some Native American diets.