It hasn’t felt like fall these past few weeks. Daytime highs linger in the upper 70s to low 80s. The average date of first frost in our area is October 15th, but right now overnight lows in the 30s are only distantly in the forecast. The trees are slowly, reluctantly, changing to their autumn reds, browns and golds.
Despite the uncharacteristically warm weather, familiar faces of fall have begun popping up in unclaimed regions of fields and yards. The eagerness and reliability with which they return each year makes me wonder why I struggle to grow greens and protect them against cabbage worms (Pieris rapae) when effortless food surrounds me. Here are just a few of the faces I’ve seen recently.
Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola)
Well, not that I personally eat everything which volunteers itself! But prickly lettuce could be eaten. Prickly lettuce appears to be the main wild lettuce that grows locally, and even at its youngest the flavor is too bitter for my palate. The flavor intensifies as the plant grows, so make sure to harvest the leaves when the plant is young.
To make sure you found wild lettuce, rather than a similar looking plant, remember to check for the small hairs along the rib.
I have never found solid evidence that prickly lettuce offers the same medicinal benefits as Lactuca virosa, the wild lettuce whose sap allegedly has properties similar to opium. If anyone is aware of research I have missed in this matter, please leave a comment letting me know!
Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)
So early in the season, this cool weather annual is far from purple! And in my opinion, this is also prime season for eating purple dead nettle. The leaves are small but the stems are tender, meaning the whole plant can be chopped and added to whatever dish you are cooking.
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)
Henbit is a close cousin to purple dead nettle, with the same square cross-section on its stem, and paired leaves opposite each other. (All members of the mint family share these physical characteristics.) Compared to dead nettle, the heart-shaped leaves are more deeply lobed.
Henbit can be used in a similar fashion to dead nettle. In addition to cooking, both plants can also be eaten raw, but personally I find them a bit furry for salads or other raw uses.
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta)
Wood sorrel’s three-part leaves bear a passing resemblance to white clover (Trifolium repens), but they are much smaller and have a pronounced heart shape. (Luckily white clover leaves are edible too, just not as tasty!)
With its delightfully sour flavor, wood sorrel leaves make a tasty topping to sprinkle on salads. You could also incorporate them into a compound butter, although personally I find sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) to be more effective for this application because it has larger leaves. (Note that sheep sorrel isn’t on this list because it has been hanging around all summer, and its edibility remains the same regardless of the season!)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Technically dandelions (like sheep sorrel) have been here the whole year, so they haven’t really “returned” in the fall. However, with the sun’s strength waning, dandelion leaves have started growing larger. Areas of active plant growth have a lighter color, which is yellowish rather than dark green, indicating leaves likely to be more tender and less bitter than others. Plants growing in full shade also produce leaves that are more pleasant to eat.
As a bonus, shade also encourages larger leaves. The above photo showcases leaves suitably sized to use for dandelion chips.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Right now you can harvest the first year leaves of this biennial invasive. In addition to the very round shape , check for the pungent, garlicky smell of a crushed leaf to confirm your identification. When harvesting, pull the whole plant to discourage its spread. Garlic mustard is particularly insidious because it cheerfully occupies both full sun and shady habitats, and its roots emit allelopathic compounds that suppress competitors.
(Obviously the dead nettle and chickweed in this photo are unfazed by the garlic mustard’s competition-suppressing powers.)
Garlic mustard can be eaten both raw and cooked, although some might find the flavor overwhelming if you use too much of it at once. I like mixing the leaves – torn into small pieces – with other, more conventional cooking greens. Garlic mustard also makes a delicious pesto. One of my goals for this winter is to update my pesto recipe to leverage high protein (and locally harvested) black walnuts.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
My favorite winter salad green, chickweed has just started it to make its ubiquitous appearance. I accidentally-on-purpose let chickweed go to seed in my garden last year, and now I face an onslaught of this crunchy, tasty green.
Luckily my backyard hens also enjoy “chick” weed, so maybe it’s as smart a use of garden spaces as my ultimately doomed fall brassicas!
Funny how none of the plants mentioned above a) needed my help to plant them, b) required any supplemental irrigation to grow, or c) succumbed to insect infestation when I got too busy to protect them!
What fresh faces are you seeing pop up in your area?