Fall is upon us in the mid-Atlantic region. Despite the unseasonable warmth of the past few days, cool weather and several freezes has ended this year’s gardening for many folks locally.
If you don’t have a fall garden, for whatever reason, you can still enjoy fresh cool-season greens if you have a safe location to forage. By safe, I mean a location that is relatively chemical and pesticide-free (I’m not sure “100% pesticide free” exists anywhere anymore), and where you won’t be in physical danger while you forage. Highway roadsides, for example, aren’t very safe!
Most of these plants are common backyard weeds, and can also be found in parks, gardens, and pretty much everywhere people don’t want them to be.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) has invaded my garden. I only mind because this is the bed where I will plant garlic and perennial onions for harvest next summer! If you harvest from the growing tips of the plants, rather than pulling them up by the roots, chickweed will last through the winter in this region.
Chickweed is a great green to enjoy raw. Try it in a supporting role in a salad where other ingredients are the stars, or use it to add a juicy crunch to a sandwich. And if you have more chickweed than you know what to do with, it makes a great treat for backyard hens. (Hence the name!)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is also popping up in my garden, along walkways and borders, and, well, basically everywhere! Fall dandelions are generally more tender and mildly flavored than ones you might pick in summer, although individual plants may vary greatly due to growing conditions. Like chickweed, dandelions can be a continuous source of greens. If you cut all the leaves off but leave the roots, it will send new leaves out several times.
Young, small leaves which are still flexible can be added to salads for an extra pop of flavor and nutrition. Older leaves may fare better with cooking, and their firm texture makes them a great addition to a variety of dishes. You should combine dandelion with other greens however, so the slight bitterness doesn’t overwhelm unsuspecting taste buds.
While none of this week’s plants are native to North America, the others no longer draw attention as invasive species. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) however has significant ecosystem disrupting properties because it emits allelopathic chemicals into the soil which suppress the growth of native species. Garlic mustard can also flourish in a variety of habitats, spreading its destruction to forest floors and fields alike.
Garlic mustard has a pungent, garlicky, peppery flavor with a variety of culinary uses, many of which I have covered previously. Best of all, eating garlic mustard now prevents it from going to seed next spring, thus slowing its spread across the landscape.
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) is also making an appearance with its frilly leaves and dainty flowers.
Henbit’s mild flavor makes it a great way to add greens to a dish without overwhelming it. All the above-ground parts of henbit are edible, and this early in the season tender enough to chop stems and leaves together for cooking. My hens are also big fans of henbit as a snack!
In the fall, henbit can sometimes be confused with purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), and they are often found growing in the same areas. (Later in the winter, when purple dead nettle flowers, they are much easier to tell apart.) Both are members of the mint family, sharing a square-shaped stem and opposite leaves.
Purple dead nettle can be used in the same manner as henbit, so just use them the same way if you can’t tell them apart (or if they are growing so entwined that you can’t separate them). I used to try picking just the leaves but they are so small, and the stems are edible too, and I finally realized it wasn’t worth the extra effort to harvest just the leaves!
Bonus plant! Apparently ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is edible as well. I stumbled across this information today because it too can be confused with henbit and purple dead nettle. The leaf shape is similar, with much more deeply scalloped edges.
After nibbling a few leaves though, I’m not sure I care for the flavor and texture. Apparently it was introduced to the US by European colonists for its medicinal uses, which may be what I end up using it for as well.
What are you foraging as the weather turns cooler?