Dandelions, Violets, Morels, Wild Asparagus
Song of Solomon 2:10-12 Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away, for lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come………
I call May the Dandelion Moon. Every nook and cranny of the land is ablaze with blossoms brighter and yellower than Van Gogh’s sunflowers. The landscape is dramatic with minty greens and muted pinks and golds as the trees flower and fresh baby leaves break forth on every side.
There is a whole new surge of activity in the plant kingdom. The forest floors are carpeted with ephemerals who enjoy but a fleeting moment on the stage. Spring rains and temperatures in the 70°s and 80°s combine to bring on the morel mushrooms. Wild Asparagus graces the fencelines along the roadsides. Summer weeds like Lambsquarter and Wild Amaranth are tender young seedlings. There is just so much available now, we truly live in a garden, a remnant of Eden. The Creator of heaven and earth is recklessly abundant in His sowing and planting. May is a beautiful time to be alive……….
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinalis)
Dandelions are one of the tragic dichotomies of the plant kingdom. Praised and exalted by herbalists and old world housewives, cursed and oppressed by farmers, gardeners and groundskeepers. Dandelions are the proverbial posterchild for the herbicide and lawn chemical industries, and indeed the absence of Dandelion in a park or rolling green is a key indication of chemical maintenance practices. In other words, if I don’t see Dandelions growing, I don’t harvest anything there! Fortunately, there are advocates like Peter Gail of Goosefoot Acres in Ohio who has made it his life mission to raise the much-maligned Dandelion to its rightful place as a powerful ally to mankind.
Ridiculous as it sounds, we might be better off nutritionally if we threw away the crops
that we so laboriously raise in our fields and gardens
and ate the weeds that grow with no encouragement from us
—indeed they grow despite all our strenuous efforts to eradicate them.”
The first two weeks of May are the height of Dandelion season, although the greens and roots are available all year long. They truly have dominion over the fields, roadsides, lawns, parks, and every other nook and cranny with enough dirt to support them. They even come up through the cracks in the sidewalk!
||I use every part of the Dandelion in the kitchen: flowers, buds, leaves and roots. It’s possible to create an entire menu, including dessert and beverages from this one plant. I have two cookbooks in my kitchen that are solely devoted to Dandelions, everything from Dandelion lasagna to Dandelion chiffon pie to Roasted Dandelion root ice cream…….
I will talk about each part of the Dandelion separately as each has its own personality and usefulness in the kitchen and the medicine chest.
Dandelion leaves are used world-over as a vegetable, however most Americans are pretty hesitant to use them because of their bitter reputation (pun intended).
I use the greens all year long. The tender new growth in early spring is pretty mild but they tend to increase in bitterness as the buds and flowers appear, probably a natural defense to protect their progeny.
Even after they get large and bitter it’s not difficult to leach out the bitterness with repeated changes of boiling water. In the fall after a good, hard frost they seem to get sweet again and are available until the snow covers them over in late November.
I harvest large quantities of greens each year for the freezer, usually at the same time I am digging roots for coffee. To freeze them, I simmer them in boiling water (more than just a quick blanching). If they seem too bitter on tasting, I pour off the water and simmer again. Dandelion greens cook down substantially. A gallon or so of greens can easily cook down to a couple of cups, so gather plenty! (Shouldn’t be too hard to do as prodigal as they are!)
I occasionally add the mild young greens to salads raw, especially pasta salads or antipastos, but they seem to be more all-purpose cooked. When I harvest them, I cook them down right away and store them in a tupperware in the fridge. This way they are ready to use in any dish during the week. I slip them into all sorts of recipes—casseroles, lasagna, soups, quiche, you name it. I also have recipes I’ve developed with Dandelion greens in the starring role.
Cream of Dandelion Soup
Pumpkin Dandelion Soup
Dandelion Egg Salad
Dandelion Pasta Salad
Dandelion buds are a cool little vegetable by themselves. You have to pick them when they are still tightly closed and kind of round. Once they get white fuzzy stuff inside or elongate into a more oblong shape it’s too late. The best ones are found deep inside the leaf rosettes, pale green and very tender and sweet.
The buds are good sautéed with butter and garlic or cooked into a cream sauce and poured over pasta or rice. I add them to soups for texture. They are also good steamed slightly and then chilled and marinated in a nice vinaigrette.
I’m sure there’s lots of ways to use the buds that I haven’t discovered yet. The point is, don’t overlook them as a wild vegetable! Unfortunately they have a relatively short season, being most abundant in April and May when the Dandelion blossoms are in full swing. Other times of the year they are sparse and difficult to collect in quantity.
Split Pea-Dandelion Bud Soup
Cream of Dandelion Soup
Dandelion blossoms are dessert in my recipe book! I use lots of them when they are in season and love to show off at potlucks with Dandelion Blossom cake or Dandelion baklava! Yes, it’s true!
I harvest the flowers when they are fully opened on a nice sunny day. On cloudy or stormy days they tend to shut up tight as a button and in many ways they are a better weather forecaster than the man on the TV. If the Dandelions are closed, roll up your windows!
It takes about twice as many blossoms as the measure needed; for instance, if the recipe calls for 2 cups Dandelion petals harvest at least 4 cups.
After you harvest them, you need to sit down and pull the petals out from the greens sepals, yielding a fluffy yellow mass of flower petals. Don’t worry if you get a little green in there, it won’t hurt a thing.
These petals can be added to just about any batter. I put them in pancakes, muffins, cakes, and cornbread. Even what seems like a large quantity sort of melts into the batter and folks would never be the wiser if you didn’t tell them.
I also put up several pints of Dandelion Blossom Syrup each year to use as a sweetener. Unfortunately this syrup is made with white sugar so it’s sort of a Dandelion junk food, but the added nutrients make up for this in a roundabout way. I’ve tried to make this syrup with honey but it just doesn’t seem to turn out very well.
I use the syrup to replace any honey in a recipe. I use it on top of my Dandelion Blossom pancakes, over vanilla ice cream, as a sweetener for my Roasted Dandelion Root coffee, and in many of my wild salad dressings and mustards. It makes lovely Christmas presents as well!
Dandelion Blossom Syrup
Dandelion Blossom Cake
Dandelion Blossom Pancakes
I harvest large quantities of the root every year in early May to make Roasted Dandelion Root Coffee
. This incredible coffee substitute is an awesome alternative to the morning java routine. Not only does it taste surprisingly close to coffee, but it is extremely nutritious and has a number of positive effects on our health, with zero side effects!
* The bitter
flavor stimulates the appetite and the entire digestive system; virtually priming the pump for a good healthy breakfast.
*A rich treasury of minerals and micro-nutrients
help to build strong bones and teeth and keep the body’s metabolism in balance.
*Dandelion root is a well-known diuretic rivaling any drug, with the added benefit of having high levels of potassium to replace any that leaches out in the process. This potassium loss is a major problem with pharmaceutical diuretics.
*Dandelion root contains an abundance of a substance called inulin
that is being researched as a blood-sugar stabilizer.
Not only do I drink Roasted Dandelion Root Coffee with cream and sugar the way I like to drink coffee, but I’ve also developed Chai recipes and other tea mixtures that are really, really good! I’ve even discovered a recipe for Roasted Dandelion Root Ice Cream!!
It’s possible to slice and boil the roots as a vegetable, but I find the bitterness difficult to neutralize so I don’t usually bother. I do, however, use them in one of my favorite herbal vinegars each year.
More Dandelion recipes:
Chamomile Times: Cooking With Dandelion
Mountain Breeze: Dandelion Recipes
Seeds of Knowledge: The Garden Path
Making Dandelions Palatable-John Kallas
So as you can see, as a food plant Dandelion is quite valuable, but it also rates pretty high as a medicine!
There is a list a mile long of the medicinal effects of Dr. Dandelion!
Gardens Ablaze: Dandelion Medicine
Health Benefits Of the Dandelion
We spend millions on herbicides to kill the dandelions in our lawns, while we pay millions more for diet supplements to give ourselves the vitamins and minerals that dandelion could easily furnish.” Euell Gibbons in his essay on Just How Good Are Wild Foods
Of course, we couldn’t talk about the virtues of Dandelion without saying something about Dandelion wine! Traditionally the wine is brewed in May during the blossoming season, and aged until the Winter Solstice when the return of the sun in the darkest time of the year is celebrated with this bottle of liquid sunshine.
Here’s a link to everything you ever wanted to know about Dandelion Wine:
Jack Keller's Winemaking: Dandelion Wine
Dandelion in the Ecosystem
As if the health benefits to humans wasn’t enough, Dandelion is also an incredible medicine for the earth! Most of our common weeds that grow in what is called “disturbed ground” in the field guides are nature's first aid plants. Amazingly, they function to restore and heal scarred and ravaged lands.
Dandelion acts as nature’s rototiller by breaking up, aerating, and creating drainage channels in compacted soils. It also attracts earthworms who are master rototillers as well. I always find earthworms clinging to the roots when I harvest my coffee. Any savvy farmer welcomes a healthy population of earthworms to his land.
Dandelion also restores mineral health to abused and depleted soils. We see this problem of soil depletion as a result of our modern industrial agriculture practices, which literally mine the soil of its nutrients. A few fallow years with the aid of Dandelion would work miraculous changes in the health of the soil.
Dandelion is an important food source for bees, at least 90 different insect species, wild birds, and many animals both wild and domestic.
Orchards benefit from the presence of Dandelions as well, because Dandelion gives off an ethylene gas that helps to ripen fruit for harvest! We have a lot of orchards where I live and they have an annual practice of spraying for the purpose of ripening the apples.
The bio-dynamic farmers use special Dandelion preparations on their fields every year and also create formulas to add to their compost piles to help activate them.
So next time you’re tempted to curse your Dandelions, think again!
Violets (Viola Odorata and other spp.)
Winds wander, and dews drop earthward,
Rains fall, suns rise and set,
Earth whirls; and all but to prosper
A poor little violet!
While Dandelions are illuminating the fields, parks, roadsides and lawns, Violets are gracing the woodlands. They like to grow right alongside the trails and edges of the woods, offering themselves to all who pass by. They grow in clumps or clusters that I like to call “baskets of violets”. The flowers come in purples, whites, and yellows where I live, all of them equally edible and useful.
There are people who develop a special love for violets and there are actually violet societies out there with newsletters, websites and forums all about the virtues of violets!
The Violet Society Journal
The American Violet Society
|| I use Violets for both the table and for medicinal purposes. The flowers add charm and beauty to any salad recipe. The leaves are exceptionally high in vitamin C as well as other nutrients. I mostly use them raw or fresh but they can be added to soups as well. They tend to be a little bit mucilaginous (slimy, reminiscent of okra) when cooked, so choose recipes accordingly!
The leaves are mild-flavored enough to use as a lettuce substitute for salads. You may want to chop them up some for the salad bowl because they are not exactly bite-sized. An attractive way to prep Violet leaves is to take a handful at a time and cut them into thin ribbons. The leaves also blend easily into dips, spreads, and salad dressings.
Creamy Violet Dressing
I have seen recipes for crystallized violets, but haven’t had any luck making them. Somebody with a crafty touch might succeed in making these. They would make a precious little earthly treasure for gifts and decorating cakes and cupcakes and such.
American Violet Society: Crystallized Violets
Sweet Violets: How to Candy Flowers
Unlike many wildflowers, the violet is not harmed by picking its blossoms, for these showy flowers seldom
or never produce seed anyway. Apparently they are produced out of sheer exuberance, so take all of them you want,
for the more you pick the more the plant will give. Euell Gibbons
Some folks experiment with making Violet jelly. The flowers don’t really have much flavor but impart a royal purple color to the jelly, as well as their sweet essence. It takes quite a lot of flowers to make a batch which can be tedious unless you have a crew of flower-pickin’ children along to help you.
Prairieland Herbs: Violet Jelly
Sweet Dreams: Violet Recipes
There is also a Violet syrup on the market that could just as easily be made at home:
Monin: Violet Syrup
Sean L. O'Toole's Violet Syrup Recipe
I make use of the mucilaginous properties of the Violet to make a cough syrup. I use the entire plant, roots, flowers and leaves. In the language of plants, this mucilaginous quality is generally indicative of a soothing, coating ability, both for the skin and the internal organs. Violet syrup can be used to sooth a sore throat, calm a cough, or coat an overly acidic stomach.
Medicinal value of violets:
Gardens Ablaze: Medicinal Uses of Violets
Holistic Online: Wild Violets
May is Morel season in Wisconsin. It is a wonderful excuse to get out and roam the coulees. The ephemeral gardens are in full bloom and the forests are still open enough to wander in. By the end of May they get so overgrown only folks with a mission wander off the trail. There’s hardly any pesky mosquitoes……yet!
Morel hunting is a big sport here. Everyone is tuned in to the harvest. Locals become expert phenologists as they watch for signs. They say the first early Morels pop up when the oak leaves are as big as squirrel ears which is around the same time that the wild plums blossom. By the time the lilacs bloom, the Morels are in full swing and the hunt is on! The season lasts until the end of May, but by then the undergrowth gets so tall it’s difficult to find them anymore.
Morels are one of the four safe mushrooms that are just about impossible to mis-identify. They are considered a gourmet item on the market and sell for exorbitant prices. They have proved impossible to domesticate as many failed experiments can testify to. Some Morel hunters fetch a pretty good seasonal income from the little fungi. If you really get into it there are several Morel events that go on each year.
It takes a trained eye to hunt them well. They have a funny way of hiding and eluding an unseasoned hunter. Old-timers claim they can smell ‘em and have developed keen eyes, an acute sense of timing, and well-honed tracking devices to follow their migration from the sunny southern ridges and slopes to the northern slopes and bottom lands at the end of the season.
Morels can pop up virtually anywhere. My neighbor here in town finds them in his lawn in the backyard some years. They can be anywhere in the woods, in seemingly random spots here and there. But some of the more likely places they fruit are around old apple trees, both in the wild and in the orchard. Dead elm trees with the bark literally falling off the trunks are another hotspot. Late in the season ravines and creek banks are worth checking.
In the kitchen, discard any off-colored or mushy Morels. Cut off the base of the stems if any dirt is clinging to them, and they are pretty much ready to use. I know some who soak them in slat water to draw out any little slugs or critters who might be hiding in their myriad crevices, but I’ve never had a problem with this.
Everyone has their favorite Morel recipes. It’s as much a part of the sport as hunting them is. You can use them in just about any mushroom recipe. They are also very stuffable, having a hollow interior.
To preserve them for winter, you can dry them, can them or freeze them. I have never canned them, but to freeze them I sauté them until well done and then store them in freezer containers. Here’s a great link on preserving morels:
The Great Morel Site: Preserving Morels
There’s lots of great websites devoted to Morel mushrooms. Here’s few to get you started:
The Great Morel Site
The National Morel Hunters Association
Morels Gone Wild
Mushrooms and More
Please see my article "A Word About Mushrooms" for some advice and precautions about harvesting wild mushrooms.
Wild Asparagus is a well-kept secret amongst country folks. There is simply no comparison to commercial asparagus or even many garden varieties. For some reason the Wild Asparagus gets HUGE! I have picked Wild Asparagus that was nearly 2 feet tall and easily an inch thick at the base and tender for most of its length. No exaggeration!!! While this particular harvesting spot is likely at the large end of the spectrum, most all the Wild Asparagus is impressive for its size. In the Upper Midwest the Wild Asparagus tends to grow along the country roadsides in the vicinity of farms and farm fields. I’ve seen it elsewhere, like in Washington State, along grassy riverbanks.
In mid-May or thereabouts you can spot the tall feathery plants towering above the grasses and herbs from your car if you are paying attention and driving slow enough. They tend to grow along the outside of the fences, lucky for us since we don’t have to climb over the barbed wire to harvest the spears.
The feathery ferns are asparagus spears that didn’t get eaten, but rather matured and unfurled their leaves and reproductive equipment. It’s impossible to find the spears before a few of them mature into visible markers unless you have previously flagged a known patch the year before. Asparagus is a perennial herb and grows in the same place from year to year. The Wild Asparagus doesn’t seem to spread much, one rarely finds a large patch. A good spot will yield plenty for the table, though.
When you spot a feathery Asparagus plant, pull over and look carefully among the grasses within 3 or 4 feet of the plant. Cut your spears near the base and voila! You need to stay ahead of the mowing machines and keep in mind the possibility of roadside spraying, especially if plants are looking brown, pale, or otherwise suffering rather than vibrant green.
It's pretty hard to find a roadside Wild Asparagus patch that you could slap an organic label on, unfortunately. Always the compromise. I like to justify it in that the wild foods I eat keep my body functioning at such a high level that it’s able to filter out a few unwelcome chemicals now and then.
In the kitchen, Wild Asparagus is used exactly like domestic. I like it lightly steamed or blanched, just enough to tenderize it with no added condiments, just as is. A little garlic butter makes it fit for a king. (Note: European Wild Asparagus is a bit different from our version of Asparagus, so if you use foreign cookbooks you may want to note the difference.
Here’s some good sources for Asparagus recipes:
Nichols Farms: Index of Asparagus Recipes
In The Kitchen: Wild Asparagus
Conscious Choice: Astonishing Asparagus
Asparagus Root is used in herbal medicine as a diuretic, particularly in Chinese traditions. I’ve never used it myself, but I do believe that the asparagus spears themselves act quite well as diuretics, essentially helping to flush the system in the spring when all those good tonic herbs are doing their job of routing out all the impurities and such built up over the winter. I just hate to dig up a good asparagus crown when dandelion does such a good job as a diuretic.