I remember…I remember sitting on the slanted roof of my little friend Betsy’s garage, gossiping about our fellow fifth graders, and mindlessly reaching up to pull mulberry after mulberry off the tree that arched over the white structure. Fueled by sweetness and sugar, we’d jump off the roof and then use the mulberries as ink to write on the side of the building—organic graffiti. Sometime we sat on the grass, Indian-style, making whistles out of wide pieces of grass split down the middle and munching off the sweet-tart little weeds that sprung up around us.
This spontaneous snacking on random plantlife never gave us pause. It was only when the whatever-ness of childhood fell away that we stopped snacking on nature’s treats and started buying instead.
Even today, with the magnifying glass firmly focused on issues of sustainability and the lure of local, eating a salad made from backyard weeds sketches people out a bit. Kate Hodges of Foraged and Sown credits the media with doing a bang-up job of turning us all into expert shoppers. “The media instills a lot of fear,” she said. “Like you’re going to die if eat something from nature.”
Walking up to Hodges’ home in North Linden, 6-year-old Darren greets us and then gleefully points out different plants and herbs. The yard isn’t the ’50s fantasy carpet of green, but a tumbling abundance of herbs, fruit trees, various weeds, and spots of grass. “I grew up gardening with my parents and sisters,” Hodges said. “I had a lot of exposure to plants, so I grew up with no fear. Food comes from plants.” Also, don’t forget to forage your flowers. Marigold leaves are citrusy, and nasturiums add a zing of color and flavor.
To that end, we cruised Hodges’s backyard buffet and made ourselves a nice little salad, without ever having to go to the market:
Wood sorell, which looks a lot like a clover but isn’t. It has heart-shaped leaves and sends up yellow flowers. It’s tart and is great minced on top of fish.
Dandelion greens are the gateway green into backyard eating; not the most delicious, they’re bitter.
A handful of mulberries.
For a salad, we’ll mostly focus on lamb’s quarters—it’s really palatable and easy to identify. If you turn the leaves over, there’s a white powder. Some people call it wild spinach. It has two to three times the nutritional value of spinach because cultivated plants have been bred to be sweeter—we want the sweetest corn, the least bitter kale—but vitamins are lost.
The blossoms of clover are really sweet and add color to a salad.
People get really excited when they see these because they think they are wild strawberries, but they are actually false strawberrys. They are edible, but they taste like seedy water.
This is called a plantain, but it’s not the banana-ish plant. They send up white flower heads that everyone recognizes. The flavor is mild and the leaves come in broad or lance form.
Another mild green is the lady’s thumb. The leaves have this mark on them and they send up pink flowers. Everyone has these and complains that they can’t get rid of ’em, but they are good to eat.
Tip: Foraged greens and plants are sweeter after a drought.
Hodges brings all sorts of herbs, berries, and other edibles grown in her backyard to the Clintonville Farmers Market on Saturdays. She also leads foraging walks through City Folk’s Farm shop. Check the website for details, cityfolksfarmshop.com.