A Green Valentine to You
© 2010 Susun S Weed
Isn’t February fun! Ground Hog Day! President’s Day! Valentine’s Day! My birthday! February may be the shortest month, but it doesn’t stint on holidays. February is a good month for celebrating. And it’s a good time to reawaken your herbal taste buds.
Some of you, many of you, are thinking: “It’s still winter.” (It isn’t though.) “What herbs?” (I’ll tell you.) “Dried ones from the summer?” (No, fresh ones from field and forest.)
No matter what the date, there are always edible weeds available. I tested my belief by sending students into the streets and sidewalks of Amsterdam (Holland) on a breezy February day. Within an hour they had identified more than two dozen edible and medicinal plants — right there in the city. No matter where you live, there are greens available right now to sing a spring awakening song to your tongue and your heart and your spirit.
Listen to the trees. Here in the northeast, the maples are whispering: “Sweet, sweet.” Maple sap is flowing. Sweet aroma and an even sweeter flavor. Fresh, hot maple syrup is the sweet tas te of the spring warmth to come, magically created by the warmth of the wood we harvested last fall. While waiting for the sap to boil down, let’s chew on some pine twigs and needles.
Evergreen pine needles are rich in vitamin C and oozing with antibacterial resins. Just the thing to prevent, or treat, colds and sore throats. If you feel creative, stuff a jar with pine needles — I prefer to use white pine (Pinus strobus). Then fill it to the top with pasteurized apple cider vinegar, cap with a non-metal lid, and label with the date and contents. Your pine needle vinegar is ready to use in a day or two, but the longer it sits, the better it tastes. After two months, it is strong enough to be called “Domestic Balsamic Vinegar.” If you have several pines to choose from, make several wee jars of different pine vinegars as tasters. Some pine needles are too resinous to be palatable. You can usually get a good idea of how strong the finished vinegar will be taste by chewing a small clump needles. Pinon pine needle vinegar is exceptionally delicious.
Put your ear close to the ground. That humming you hear is the sound of underground bulbs waking up and sending exploratory fingers into the air and light. Wild garlic and wild onion shoots break ground all through the forest, in my meadow, and scattered on the neighbor’s lawn. Soon the wild leeks will raise their voices in colorful chants. What groundhog could sleep through the shouts of a wild onion chorus? Their sharp, intense green taste reminds me to breathe deeply. And protects me against the flu.
Look! Wild cresses. And so many different ones to choose from. There in the stream, where the sun warms the bank: watercress with its sharp, bitter bite and trilling song. There at the edge of the garden, hunkered down against the cold: dark green winter cress, also known as St. Barbara's cress, belting out jazz in a saucy rhythm. (Later, when it shoots up and flashes its sunny flowers, we’ll call it yellow rocket.) Look there, tucked in between the rocks: the grey-green leaves of tangy rock cress, murmuring mantras. And right here, under our feet, on this hillock that faces south, where the ground has warmed, the cabbage-tasting, petite, dandelion-shaped leaves of shepherds’s purse. Do you feel the smile in their song?
We’ll gather a little of each of those cresses — they all taste great — but the main part of our salad will be this prolific cress: garlic mustard. It tastes like a blend of mustard greens and fresh garlic. And, like the other cresses, it is evergreen, and available all winter long where ever it grows. When I walk in the woods in the winter, I can hear it in snatches if the snow is not too deep. Always sounds to me like a doo-wop ditty it’s singing.
Let’s ask this one if we can have its root, too. I’ll brush the dirt off, you try a bite. Yup! Quite the taste isn’t it! That’s why its alternate name is “wild horseradish.” It’s a real sinus-opener! I put a handful of garlic mustard roots in my blender with a little sea salt and some vinegar. It makes a great fresh horseradish condiment. I crave the mustardy flavors of the cresses more in February and March than I do later on in the year, and I think the taste better now, too.
One of my favorite winter greens — miner’s lettuce — grows too far away (about three thousand miles) for me to harvest it. But if you live on the west coast, you probably already know where the nearest patch grows. I look for it in damp areas, especially seaside streams and roadside ditches. It’s an easy plant to identify, with its perfectly round, neon-green leaves, each pierced through by a tender stalk. It usually grows with chickweed, another wonderful winter green in areas where the winter is a little milder than mine.
Alright, I will tell you more about chickweed on our next walk. But not now, I’m hungry. How about you? Shall we take our prizes back to the house and make them into a salad while the soup is heating? I’ll make some cheese toast. After we’ve eaten, you must tell me that story you hinted at. A fairy led you on a wild ramble, you said. I know how it ends — with green blessings — but I hope you’ll reveal what happened on the way to those green blessings.
© 2010 Susun S Weed
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