Honey, I Ate the Yard
On January 9th, I cheered myself by making a garden salad. It was just the thing to counter such seasonal excesses as fudge and eggnog.Thoroughly covering my whole yard, I gathered 74 different kinds of leaves, eight roots, three berries, one flower, and one nut. Both wild and cultivated plants were included. They were all carefully picked, rinsed if needed, rendered bite-size, then tossed with Italian dressing. All told, the salad consisted of 87 different kinds of plants. The meal made my stomach joyous: What bliss to love plants, be green-thumbed, possess a big and varied garden, and live in a mild climate!Actually, the salad should have been slightly less mustard-laden. Most of us who grow winter-edible crops tend to rely heavily on plants of the mustard family (Cruciferae), such as kale, cabbage, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, arugula, etc. In my recent salad, mustard family additions included cabbages, collards, cuckoo-flower, garlic mustard, dame's violet, and radish. Many of these plants admirably tolerate great cold and our wet winters. The mustard clan bias aside, I found the salad perfectly refreshing. Of the 87 ingredients, the largest contingent in numbers was 19 members of the mint family (Labiatae). These include spicy standbys such as savory, sage, rosemary, and thyme, as well as oddities such as Monardella and a mint that tastes exactly like candy canes. All of these mint relatives must be eaten sparingly, being piercingly flavored.Sunflower family (Compositae) members tend to lend acrid or bitter properties, a good contrast to the usual fare and valuable for our digestion (albeit distasteful if eaten alone in quantity). Ten species were used, half of them mere weeds (e.g. dandelion and nipplewort).The umbell family (Umbelliferae) supplied carrot greens, celery, angelica, fennel, cilantro seedlings, and three varieties of parsley. All of these plants bring warm, vibrant flavor to the salad and help promote burping. Onion family (Alliaceae) relations were leek, onion, four varieties of garlic, and the seldom grown Allium senescens and Allium chinense -- two Oriental species. They all taste garlicky or oniony; using them with heedless abandon can turn a salad into a burning-flavored, tear-inducing trial. Too much garlic gives one gas.Rounding out the major unified plant families were six sorrels and a buckwheat relative called dock. These give an acidic, sour zing familiar to those who've had sorrel soup. But these plants should be used sparingly, as overindulgence can lead to kidney stones.Of the underground portions included in my salad, the only one available in markets is Jerusalem artichoke, whose knobby tubers multiply amazingly in gardens. To keep them from making more than you can possibly eat, plant them in part shade, which they loathe, being sunflowers after all. The other roots eaten were herb Bennet (clove flavor), queen of the meadow (wintergreen flavor), sweet Cicely (licorice flavor), honesty or money plant (hot radish flavor), hedge nettle (bland root flavor), and ground nut (nutty turnipy flavor). All roots were sliced as thin as possible.The rest of the ingredients come from the miscellaneous category. The one flower available was from Bergenia, a common cabbagey-leaved rockery plant boasting fearless pink blossoms. Cardamom barely had anything green left -- it is a cold-tender plant that few of us overwinter successfully. Yet its ginger-like flavor makes it worth extra effort. Fava beans are choice, as their hefty leaves and pretty flowers provide excellent winter fare well before the beans ripen in summer.Corn salad and chickweed supply lettuce-like bulk without strong flavor. Spiderwort gives a mild, slightly mucilagenous touch. Hens and chicks and stonecrop give crunch. Quail bush is salty. Three kinds of berries were still available: wintergreen, lingonberry and evergreen huckleberry.The one ingredient that I didn't expect at all was a black walnut buried by a squirrel. It was hard to crack, but choice. In the spring and summer it is easily possible to make a salad of well over 100 different kinds of plants. Over the years I've used more than 250 plants in my salads. I not only eat the obvious, familiar crops, but also many culinary herbs, wild plants, garden flowers, fern fiddleheads, grape tendrils, bamboo shoots, and some fresh tree leaves. Winter salads can be a pain if one strives for huge diversity.The material is often in very low supply, the leaves are frequently small, slug-ridden or soiled, and half the days -- it seems -- are rainy or otherwise dreadful for gathering. So, although highly nutritious and delicious to eat, these salads are usually time-consuming. Gathering, washing and rendering into bite-size pieces takes at least half an hour. The antithesis salad is to shred a store-bought iceberg lettuce and add some watery tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., for a plain, quick salad of relatively little nutritive value and utterly no excitement.For people who want to expand their winter salad fare beyond what is found in market produce sections, a practical compromise is to try growing well the few plants you really relish. In any case, the chef needs to select according to 1) the available kinds and 2) the palatability of the mixture.Within these limits the goal should always be as many kinds as possible. At any given time there will be a strong supply of some plants and precious little of others; late January and February are poor, lean months.A word of caution: some of us are allergic to certain plants. I may have a reaction to peas. If you don't know whether you're allergic to a plant, it is prudent to sample a small amount before eating a full serving. Also, don't eat plants if you are not sure of their identity and edibility. When learning about wild edible plants I more than once misidentified weeds and wildflowers, and ate some that I later learned were poisonous.