In the Wild
My father used to pay me a penny for every dandelion that I dug up out of his lawn. He was a post-war suburban homeowner, anxious to remove those blights from the carpet of green he worked so hard to create. His penny could not be had without the entire root of the plant. Just pulling out the leaves was not worthy. The plant had to be pulled up and out, never to be seen again. For that, he taught me the proper way to dig up a dandelion, using a tool similar to a long curved knife but with a pointed, forked end that looked something like a devil’s tail. I loved the opportunity and found that in no time at all I could earn a dollar, which was good money back then for a ten-year-old.
My parents were not rural folk so they likely had never heard that some people further out in the country enjoyed dandelion greens at the dinner table. Or perhaps they had heard of it but I’m sure would never indulge or even think of doing such a thing, even in hard times. For them, vegetables came from the garden, or from a can. Anything picked from the wild was suspect, though I don’t know suspect of what. Today, anyway, wild is preferable to domesticated, as in my memory, those dandelions growing on my father’s lawn would have been riddled with all kinds of toxic lawn fertilizer and weed killers.
Recently I read that dandelion greens are selling for $9 a pound at trendy markets. Known in the trade as “yuppie greens,” purslane and lamb’s quarters have become just as desirable. It seems a very odd time to start charging high end prices for things that grow for free and were, for the most part, a cornerstone of survival for many during the Depression. Though it doesn’t seem like an odd time to start appreciating what grows in our yards and in the near forests. According to your own taste, there is an abundance of food out there that can be had for free.
For the record, I have tried dandelion greens but find them quite bitter and so I share my father’s view of them as a disposable weed. However, I have, over the years, sampled other wild edibles such as fiddleheads, ramps and milkweed shoots. Fiddleheads, the little curl of greenery that precedes the emergence of certain ferns, have never excited me. I know they have their fans and there is even a company in Maine that cans them and sells them on grocery store shelves. But, again, they seem dull to me, a little like vegetables that we were once forced to eat. Greens for greens’ sake. Plus, you need to work pretty hard to find a source of them and pick them just as the fern starts to unfurl. Timing is critical in the hunt for fiddleheads.
In the wild, I favor milkweed shoots and ramps. Milkweed shoots are easy, the only trick is getting to them when the shoots are ripe. Let them go by and they flower and then go into their poetic pods of late summer. The shoots can only be picked in the spring, like nipping back the basil or the zinnia, to keep it from going to seed. Nip those two young leaves in the center and you have the beginning of a wonderful meal. Milkweed shoots are like spinach only the leaves are more substantial, more rugged and if you add a bit of crumbled bacon after you have steamed them, you’ll find it the centerpiece of your plate. And, like other such plants, the more you pluck those center leaves, the more they come back.
Further, ramps are so desirable, at least in my view, that I had a dream about them recently. Ramps are sometimes confused with skunk cabbage as the leaves are similar but the roots are not. Ramps are actually wild leeks so if you pull up the whole plant, subterranean part and all, you get a nice white bulbous root that is sweet as any leek and good with anything you might add onions to — an omelet, a burger, draped over a roast as you tuck it into the oven, like that. Ramps, it should be known, grow wild near streams and in lightly wooded areas where sun might filter through. So they like damp and a bit of light.
I had found a likely patch beside the road, about a mile from here, and gone in to pull a few for my evening meal. But they are hard to pull and if you don’t employ a suitable tool (I think that such a tool would be the weeder my father used to uproot dandelions), the leaves tear off at ground level and you’ve lost the heart of the plant. So I went into that patch, all full of enthusiasm and sudden impulse but without the proper tool and I ended up with nothing but disappointment and sorrow that I’d interrupted the growth of these good congregants of the forest. That night, I dreamt that I walked into a field scattered with ramps that had already been uprooted. The leaves were a tender spring green, the roots bright white even down to the root tendrils. Perfect. And lots of them. They lay temptingly on the ground, ready to be scooped up. I was about to realize this easy harvest when I saw that I was sharing the field with a half dozen or so pigs who were the ones who had rooted up these ramps, or so I assumed. I thought that perhaps the pigs had contaminated the roots and reluctantly pulled myself back. I woke up feeling as frustrated as I had when I drove away from the ramps I’d yanked from their placid places beside the stream. I guess the moral of the story is that nothing comes easy. Except milkweed shoots. Watch for them before someone starts to charge $9 a pound for them.
Read more: Annie B. Copps on Fiddleheads, Ramps