Those of you that took part in our Autumn foraging school will recall that many of the fresh leafy perennials are best picked in the Spring and preserved for later use.
In your part of the country it may well be several weeks before shoots began to appear on the tress and break through frozen ground but during this time their are things you can be doing to ensure you are ready for Spring.
One of the earliest harvestable plants are the Nettles (Urtica dioica).
They are a widely neglected and considered a persistent weed, but instead of applying pesticides, consider managing your nettle patch to ensure there there is always fresh young growth that will yield a few handfuls of tops for a nutrient rich soup.
The early spring is the best season to pick the tender young leaves, due to the fact that the plant is releasing stored nutrients and energy into the stems and leaves.
Pick a handful of fresh leaves with your gloves on to avoid to many stings. At home wash them thoroughly and cut small. They can be prepared just as spinach or added to a soup a few minutes before it is done. Once they are cooked they don’t sting anymore.
Nettles are especially rich in iron and thus make a great spring cleansing food, that will help to dispel the sluggishness and tiredness often experienced at this time of year, which is usually due to too little exercise and toxicity built up in our bodies from a heavy winter diet.
For salad greens scan the ground for the very early growth of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Chickweed (Stellaria media) and Daisies (Bellis perennis).
Dandelion leaves are especially healthful, being rich in potassium, and since they grow abundantly almost everywhere there is no danger of eradication.
The older leaves become too bitter and tough to enjoy but the young tender leaves have a pleasant slightly bitter bite that goes well in salads or cooked in goose fat with lashings of fresh garlic and finished with roasted nuts.
They make a great spring cleansing remedy. Once it starts flowering the season for the leaves is over, but the flowers can be used to make a delicious herbal wine. The roots too are used for food and medicine. They can be roasted and ground to make a healthful coffee substitute that is especially beneficial for the liver.
Many of its closest relatives, such as Hawkbit, Cats-ear or Nipplewort are also edible, which is just as well as their leaves are often hard to distinguish before their flowers appear.
Yarrow leaves are also best in the very early spring when they are still soft and tender. Their fernlike appearance is easy to identify even long before the flowers develop. Once they get older they tend to get a little tough and bitter the taste is nowhere near as good.
Chickweed can be harvested almost all year round, though the little leaves give neither much bulk nor flavour. However, those who encounter it as a weed in their gardens will be pleased to know that instead of throwing it on the compost it could be added to a soup or salad instead.
Daisies usually grow abundantly almost throughout the year. The young leaves and flower buds before they become hairy can be used in salads. Though not much used by modern herbalists, this is another wonderful detox a ‘spring cleansing’ herb, which stimulates the metabolism and cleanses the blood.
Watercress usually grows abundantly in or alongside streams, but never pick from stagnant water or where there is agricultural run-off from pastures to avoid any danger of infection. Watercress is an exception to the rule of picking young fresh leaves – the older ones have far more flavour. Wash well before adding them to the salad – they go best with a fruity salad, e.g. mixed with apples or oranges, and nuts.
Garlic Hedge Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), which can be found abundantly growing in hedges, combines a garlicky and mustard taste and is especially good early in the year before the leaves become too bitter.
Shamrock or Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosa) is also an early spring herb which can be found in woodlands. The tender leaves have a refreshingly sour bite that can go well mixed among other salad herbs. However, the leaves contain oxalates, which can be irritating to the kidneys and thus should not be consumed in large quantities and should be avoided by those who suffer from any kind of kidney problems.
Another early perennial to emerge in the spring is the Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and both the leaves and rhizomes are edible. The leaves are rich in Vitamin C and the roots are starchy, though quite small and not especially tasty. Medicinally they can used to make an ointment for haemorrhoids.
These are a selection of my favourite Spring herbs and there many more herbs that could be mentioned here and their local availability largely depends on the climate and habitat.
The plants mentioned above are common and can be found in hedges and meadows in the early spring in most regions of the UK. If you enjoyed reading this post please share with your friends and follow Foraging School for more tips and foraging advice.