Creasy greens (Barbarea verna, Brassicaceae), also known as wintercress, is a common weed in the Southeast and the pacific Northwest. Its close relative, Barbarea vulgaris, has a more widespread distribution, occurring throughout most of temperate North America. Here in the southern Appalachians, they grow side by side and I seriously doubt that many people pay attention to which species they are picking for food. They are both edible, and to my palette, taste identical.
The number of lobes present in their basal leaves easily differentiates both species, with B. verna possessing 4-10 pairs of lateral lobes and B. vulgaris possessing 1-4 lobes. Both species of wintercress are Eurasian natives, and can be found in fields, roadsides, and gardens. The leaves, flowers, and flower shoots are edible. It has a lively pungency when eaten raw as a zesty addition to a mixed baby green salad; when sautéed or steamed the greens mellow in flavor. Winter cress grows more spicy and bitter as the season progresses; it can be added to milder cooked greens when its flavor begins to intensify.
During the winter we find this plant in its basal rosette stage (all the leaves emerging from a central point on the ground with no erect stem). The leaves are smooth with rounded lobes, and have an obvious mustard-like aroma when the leaves are crushed. In the winter, depending on where you live, the older leaves can be quite fibrous and intense in flavor. Pick the tender new leaves all winter if you live in a southern climate, and if you live in colder country wait until very early spring to pick the succulent fresh greens. When the ground begins to warm, the plant sends up a flowering shoot that can be used like a mini broccoli or broccoli-raab while still young and tender. After the flowering stem begins to toughen, I simply use the bright yellow flowers to garnish salads and other dishes.
Creasy greens are a traditional early spring delicacy in the south and still can be found in some rural grocery stores. Apparently the name has its origins in the old European term cress, which is a synonym for mustard; cress slowly transformed into creasy (rhymes with greasy) over time. One can buy seeds of this extremely cold-tolerant plant as winter cress (the Yankee name used in most wild foods books) and grow it all winter in an unheated greenhouse or under little hoop houses covered with clear plastic or floating row covers (also sold as frost blankets). If you’re lucky enough to have it already growing near you, simply let it flower and go to seed and your patch will increase. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale), also in the mustard family, looks somewhat similar but grows in waterways and not on land.
Wild turnip or field mustard
Wild turnip is one of the most common field weeds here in western North Carolina; it has become a major weed of the temperate world, following closely on the heels of agriculture. When field mustard flowers the hayfields and bottomlands light up in golden glory, inspiring many a painter and photographer.
Wild turnip is in the mustard family, or Brassicaceae, and has the characteristic smell and flavor of the piquant mustard oils found in all members of this ubiquitous plant family. The winter ground leaves are arranged out from a center point; botanists call this a basal rosette. The overwintering leaves can be fibrous and bitter, so look for the tender new growth in the center of the rosette. Depending on where you live, the new growth may appear all winter, or the plants may wait until temperatures warm a bit. In early spring the flower shoots begin to appear; these tender shoots are edible, and can be prepared like a thinner version of broccoli stems. Quickly they age and loose their supple texture. You will not be able to eat them when they toughen, unless you want to chew each bite one thousand times. But the yellow flowers, tender flower bud tips and stem leaves are tender and edible.
The flavor of wild turnip greens is reminiscent of mustard or turnip greens. If you are not a fan of mustard’s pungent bitter flavor, try mixing wild turnip with milder greens, or masking its flavors with copious garlic and lemon. And then there’s always the option of feeding it to the chickens.
Brassica rapa has been cultivated by people in Europe and Asia for at least two thousand years, and has taken on many forms through breeding. In Asia, this species has given rise to the vegetables bok choy, pak choi, mizuna and napa cabbage. In Europe, it has been bred into the turnip and broccoli raab. In addition field mustard has been cultivated as animal fodder, and a forage crop for sheep, cattle and deer. It has also been grown as a cover crop and as a fail safe against famine.
Purple dead nettle
Purple dead nettle is a cold hardy annual native to Eurasia, found growing in gardens, fields, cities and roadsides throughout most of North America. Dead nettle’s interesting name originates from its resemblance to stinging nettle, but without the sting of nettle, hence it is “dead”. In the mint family, dead nettle (Lamium purpureum, Lamiaceae), possesses a minimal level of essential oils and minty flavor and scent. Truly subdued compared to most members of the mint family, it is one of the few members used as food, rather than as a spice or medicine. The tender new leaves and growing tips are edible in moderation raw or cooked, and in my experience, best enjoyed cooked with other greens, or as small portion of a salad. I think of purple dead nettle as a nibble sort of edible, and don’t eat it in large quantities. Whether this is due to the hairiness of the plant, or its inclusion in the mint family (which generally does not produce vegetables), or intuition, I am not sure.
Remember to always pick from areas that have not been contaminated with herbicides and other harmful chemicals, and do your gathering at least 30 feet from the road. Even seemingly fallow hay fields may be treated with herbicide to kill the broad-leafed weeds. One of the fields across the street from my home, which had been untended for years, suddenly came under new stewardship. The new “stewards” decided to spray the field with herbicide, and then fancying themselves good Samaritans, proceeded to spray the entire stream to kill all the “weeds”. It can take a week for some herbicides to kill a plant, so a field could conceivably be sprayed recently, unbeknownst to you, and you could be picking seemingly healthy looking greens. Another common sense caveat: be absolutely positive of your plant identification and know what you are harvesting and eating!
Happy Foraging! May all beings be fed!
Pecan Feta Wild Greens pesto
- Half of an onion
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 4 cups of washed coarsely chopped wild greens (wild turnip, wintercress, and purple dead nettle)
- 2 cups of raw coarsely chopped chickweed tops
- 4 ounces of extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup of tahini (sesame butter)
- Half a cup of freshly toasted whole pecans
- 3 ounces of Feta cheese
- Half a cup of chickweed
- Salt to taste
Sautee the onions and 2 cloves of garlic in the olive oil until the onions begin to turn translucent, then add the green and sauté until the greens are tender. Take off the heat and set aside to cool. Add the chickweed, pecans, olive oil, tahini, and feta to the blender or food processor. Add 1 to 2 cloves of garlic, depending on your love of garlic, and then add the greens when they are cooled a bit. Blend by slowly adding the greens, blending, and adding more greens until your pesto is coarsely ground. Feel free to add more olive oil for a creamier consistency. If you’ve ever blown the motor in a blender, you know how important it is to not stress the blender to overheating.
This pesto has a pungent flavor reminiscent of arugula or wild mustard. If that’s not your cup of tea, try cucumber sandwiches. Seriously, you can mellow the flavor by adding more chickweed and less of the mustard greens. Serve as a dip with crackers and veggies or as a spread on a pizza crust or flat bread. Another option is to toss over pasta or veggies. Feel free to substitute other nuts for the pecans, and seasonal wild or cultivated greens for the greens featured in this recipe.