Saturday, April 15, 2000

Dandelion Days: Edible weeds and old trees still blooming

White blossoms covering the skeletal form of the apricot tree in front of the vet clinic presaged the spring snow. For a day the snow weighed heavy on the daffodils and covered the newly emerging leaves on the crabapple tree. The snow melted and the daffodils lifted up again like hope. The cedar waxwings are heavy into the wrinkled crabapples now, grabbing them as others are falling off the tree. Dark-eyed juncos stopped by too on their way back to Canada ...

Some dandelions are just beginning to form flowers, so there is still time to dig them out of the lawn before they flower and become bitter, whenever you can get to them between the snow melting and the sun shining. High in calcium, potassium and Vitamin A, the botanical name says it all: Taraxacum officinale: the official remedy for disorders. Your neighbors will probably be delighted to let you yank theirs out too, until they recognize their virtues too. On a day that is dry, the roots dig out easily with a trowel. Winter cress leaves, too, are still to be found, just starting to send up flower shoots. These little buds look and taste like broccoli, and the leaves spark with earthy flavor.

White violets are blooming. The humble violet is only humble in the sense of its affinity for humus. No humility in its tremendous Vitamin C content or its lovely flowers that serve as edible adornments to salads. The leaves are rather bland so they're good mixed with dandelions and other greens. Where I saw a clump of violets growing wild near a tree in my backyard, I cleared away the other little plants so as to encourage them to grow and spread.

The intense flavors of greens cooked or raw wake up the tastebuds. They can be mellowed by adding the leftovers the next day to eggs, burritos, casseroles, stir-fries and soups.

In these days of convenience, gathering plants in the wild may seem strange. You can go to the supermarket and get your veggies pre-cut and scrubbed. Tops even had dandelions for sale recently. But the experience of roaming the extravagant aisles in Wegmans produce section does not match the total experience of being outside and in tune, aware of the air dense with birdsong and, of digging the plant from the ground carefully and easily, remembering with a smile all the enemies of dandelions, while watching the work of the earthworm, whose presence is a good sign. A time for the no-rush attitude... of movement flowing with mind, purpose with play.

In a previous existence, it was a matter of survival to gather food when available and to process it immediately. Now it feels a like a deep luxury to take the time to act on the produce the day it is at its freshest. No longer a physical survival need, it has become an inner necessity, a spiritual need, an act of resistance to a culture which has stripped us from our connection to nature. To some, it is drudgery to pull weeds and sort them according to what goes to compost and what will be saved to eat, and then to separate out the best leaves from yellowed and rotted ones and from the grass blades mixed in and tear off the dark roots, and then to plunge them into a cold water bath, swish them around and lift them gently out into a colander. They're all ready to cut up. The water clinging will be just enough. To me that's life.

The weeds that have been following humans around for millennia need not be our enemies. The penchant we have for clearing land only invites them. By making use of them and appreciating their beauty we make our peace.

In the planted garden, as opposed to the semi-wild world, the lettuce is up, spinach, arugula and mustard, green onions and now the peas and snow peas too. Garlic is doing well over in the community gardens. The Walla Walla sweet onions sowed as an experiment in the fall have sprouted bravely bearing witness to the milder winters we are experiencing.

The venerable old cherry tree that anchors the neighbor's yard is opening its first white blossoms, and even the pink flowers on the frail peach trees in my own yard are waking up for yet another year. Old for peach trees, they will never achieve the girth of the cherry tree. The trunk is splitting and oozing sap; they have lost so many dying limbs to pruning over the years that the branches remaining are twisting and reaching out like dancers suspended -- The robin likes to sit in its branches late in the day facing the setting sun; its breast burning red seemingly from within.

Someone told me once that this neighborhood was originally populated by Italian workers after the swampy land was filled in back in the twenties. It is to them we have to thank for the many fruit and nut trees still growing and spreading their seed. The mother of my daughter's friend remembers coming to my house to visit her friend long ago (when I was living far away), and seeing her friend's father planting sticks in the ground. They were doubtful when he talked of the fat peaches to come. Now those peaches in jars in the basement bear witness to the miracle.

Saturday, March 18, 2000

Report from the Wild West End

The Full Worm moon arrived on the night of the nineteenth, just hours before the vernal equinox on the twentieth. Spring is here! Red maple trees lining Washington Park are bursting with red blossoms clearly distinguishing them from the other maples. Tight yellow flowers festoon the twisting limbs of the Cornelian cherry. An immigrant from somewhere in Eurasia, the Cornelian cherry makes its home happily in the city along with the native red maple, as it can take pollution.

A very helpful resource for identifying trees around town can be found at Click on "Interactive mapping", and then click to zoom on a location of the map, and soon you can click on a tree icon on a map, and find out the name of the tree.

Spring seems to be lurching wildly with the advances and retreats of snow and temperature, but the planet is serenely on its course; the days inexorably lengthening. The air is clear and cold as a bell, yet when the wind stops for a second, the sun hints warmly of caresses to come. For weeks, we've been watching the increasing activities of the birds. The robins are eating the crabapples. They join the starlings, crows and cardinals to check what's in the garden that was mulched with leaves last fall. They throw the leaves around in their search for seeds and worms. In one brief interlude of 50° weather, I raked the leaves off one of the garden beds to get it ready for planting peas and lettuce, spinach and carrots. On the suddenly naked soil surface, worms coiled and flipped in surprise and grubs turned suddenly into vulnerable invitations to birds. With the next snow, I regretted removing that protective layer... but soon the sun will shine and warm up the soil.

In the thirteen years I've been gardening here and keeping records, there's usually been a moderate spell the last week in March and the ground's been dry enough to work. The earliest I've ever planted was March 19; the latest April 17. Yes, it gets colder again, but the seeds swell up whenever it rains, and wait for that moment of warm enough to burst forth.

I'm longing for something new and fresh, tired of the old winter squash, discouraged to see the potatoes are sprouting. Squash soup for dinner doesn't yield the same zest or comfort it did back in the late fall. The appetite yearns for the fresh greens of spring. Fortunately there was a garlic bulb left in the garden that is thick with broad blades of garlic. Succulent with garlic flavor, I sliced them last night onto store-bought Romaine lettuce.

Early in March when the weather was mild, I found a bunch of winter cress over at the community gardens. Considered a weed, no one grows it on purpose, yet it is here and there lushly available at this time of year, when otherwise only the grocery stores can make such boasts for nutrition and good taste in produce they import from far away. I must have arrived at the community gardens shortly after someone pulled a couple of large plants of winter cress and threw them in the compost bin. I pulled off a few leaves that were still good. More winter cress was found around the compost area where many weeds grow the best, and spotted here and there in rich, abandoned gardens. I only took the largest leaves so the smaller leaves would get a chance to grow. Euell Gibbons, in that classic work Stalking the Wild Asparagus, noted that one of the earliest signs of spring near his home in suburban Philadelphia was to see the Italians out roaming the fields and ditches collecting winter cress.

After coming out of the renewed onslaught of winter weather in mid-March, greedy for more signs of spring, I went back to the community gardens again the last day of winter. Now the winter cress plants that had been thrown so diligently into the compost bin had taken root, revitalizing the bigger leaves that had been wilting when last I was there and sprouting new young leaves. In another bin, a thick growth of cleavers was luxuriating. I tore off the tops, leaving some to re-grow for someone else. The cleavers that grow along my fence at home are not so well enriched and well-advanced.

Here's my favorite recipe for cooking up greens: rinse the leaves and cup them up. Mince up a bunch of garlic cloves. Heat up a little bacon grease, or maybe some canola oil with a dash of toasted sesame oil. Throw in the garlic and stir for just a few, then add the leaves with a little water still clinging. Stir, splash on some tamari, add some bacon bits if you're so inclined, lower the heat, cover, let cook for a few minutes. Taste til it's cooked to your liking. Splash on some balsamic vinegar (or whatever kind you've got), and eat to your health!