“When you eat a leaf you are taking into your body – into your very being – that wonderful source of energy and vitality that powers life on Earth…..Freshly picked raw leaves in particular are teeming with activity and vitality.” pfaf.org (Plants for A Future)
This time of year I begin getting a craving for fresh-from-my-garden greens and the supply is sometimes pretty limited. I did notice a couple days ago, however, that my nettle patch is covered with vigorous green growth, as are the volunteer borage plants in the garden and the arugula volunteers. A couple months ago I vowed that this year I am going to introduce a few new greens into my diet, but have usually thought in terms of the usual annual/biennial vegetables you see in seed catalogs.
Instead, I began to think more like a permaculturist and wondered what permanent plants do I have or could I grow that would supply nutritious edible leaves in winter. Here are a few that I already have growing here – in January. I’ll bet you have a bunch of them growing “like weeds” in your garden this winter. Nearly every one of these also has medicinal uses, which I will leave for another time.
French Sorrel: A nice textured leaf with a lemony flavor. Add just a few to liven up a salad or stir-fry, or a smoothie.
Redwood Sorrel: Also a lemon-like flavor – but small leaves that can be sprinkled in a salad or stir-fry, or a smoothie.
Violets, violas, pansies: Both leaves and flowers can be eaten. Mild flavored young leaves and the flowers (when they bloom) taste like they smell! Wonderful! Certain butterflies use them for their larval stage.
Dandelion: (much less bitter in winter) A good thing to remember is that “bitter” herbs/leaves are actually good for you (think “bitter tonic”…). Winter and early spring will find the leaves of dandelion much less bitter so you can get away with adding a bit more to smoothies and salads as well as soups, etc.
Miner’s lettuce – Montia Perfoliata: (late winter) This is an annual but prolifically reseeds so you will always have some. It grows for many months. All parts of the plant, including roots are edible raw. The taste is mild and refreshing. Good any way you eat it raw or cooked. They are up all over my garden right now and although immature, I can still add a few to salads and smoothies.
Chickweed: (mild and sweet) Another annual that reseeds well. Chickens like it too -surprise! “Very nutritious, they can be added to salads whilst the cooked leaves can scarcely be distinguished from spring spinach” pfaf.org
Chicory or Italian Dandelion: ”leaves are much less bitter in winter and make an excellent addition to salads at this time of year” – pfaf.org Lots of medicinal uses.
Red Dead Nettle – Lamium purpureum: Young leaves – raw or cooked. Another excellent medicinal plant. This has grown in every winter garden I’ve ever had in the Northwest.
Self Heal – Prunella vulgaris: This wonderfully decorative plant is not only edible but has a list of medicinal uses as long as your arm!! It volunteered in my garden and when I found out what it was I welcomed it. I have added it to an area where I grow a “flowering lawn”, and used mats of it to edge the frog pond. It’s very pretty when it blooms – like ajuga! It was great finding out it’s not only pretty but food and medicine too!! Wow!
Bittercress: Leaves and flowers – raw or cooked – has a hot cress flavor so is used mostly as flavoring in small amounts. I was happy to find out this plant is edible because it has seeded itself all over my garden! It’s not one you would eat a lot of because of its hot, bitey taste – but maybe I can convince the chickens to develop a taste for it too!
Chives and other sorts of perennial onions: Wonderful in salads, soups and as garnish. I planted clumps of these all over my garden and under every fruit tree. You could just grow it for the flowers it’s so pretty – cut back in summer it will bloom a second time and produce a fresh batch of greens for late summer salads!
Arugula and Watercress: “Young leaves – raw or cooked. A distinct strongly spicy flavour, the taste is best from fast, well-grown plants. A few leaves added to a salad are acceptable though the flavour is too strong for many tastes.” pfaf.org These are plants that flower prolifically in the spring and the bees love the cheery yellow flowers. So let a few of them bloom for the bees and then they will reseed and keep you in fresh arugula or watercress forever…
Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica – I watched a video from Wild Foodism that showed the author picking and chewing up a fresh leaf from a winter-growing plant! Just popped it in his mouth! I don’t think I have the nerve to do that – having been stung so many times – but in a smoothie or lightly stir fried they are very healthy. I use them in my fermented veggie mixes – although I learned not to squeeze them with my bare hands like I usually do my bowl of veggies when I am preparing them to ferment! Nettles have so many amazing uses that I won’t even try to list them all here. If you have the room for them – having a patch of your own to pick from is great! I highly recommend it.
Note: if you have wild dock or the ornamental Bloody Dock growing in your yard – and get stung by stinging nettles – just mash a leaf up and rub it on the area effected. It magically takes the sting out for many hours (then just do it again until the sting is gone – sometimes 24 hrs.)
“Let Food be thy Medicine and Medicine be thy Food” Hippocrates
And for next summer…
Doing an online search uncovered an overwhelming list of plants that we are already familiar with – we just never think to eat their leaves. Here is a list of common vegetables with edible leaves that we should all try next summer:
Beans – leaves
beets – leaves
broccoli – leaves
carrots – leaves
cauliflower – stalks and leaves
celery – leaves
corn – young leaves
cucumber – leaves and flowers
squash and pumpkin – leaves and flowers
sweet potato (DON’T eat white potatoe leaves)
kohlrabi – leaves
onion – leaves
okra – leaves
peas – leaves and shoots
radish – leaves
horseradish – leaves in stir fry and soups and ferments
“By growing some of the plants described here, it would be possible to have salads including many different types of leaves, some of which will have a mild flavour and can be used in quantity to form the bulk of the salad, others will have stronger tastes and will be used more as flavourings. These stronger flavours can be very sweet, often with a liquorice-like flavour. They can be rather acid, with a lemon-like flavour. Some of them have a more savoury taste, often with a garlic or mustard flavour, whilst others are pungently hot. Not only is there this wonderful range of flavours to choose from, but leaves are also the most nutritious of all the foods we eat. Amongst their many benefits to the health, they are rich sources of vitamins and minerals, contain a very good quality protein and supply essential dietary fibre.” Plants for a Future – pfaf.org