| Gardeners certainly, and most people in general, hope winter's
worst in now behind us. Regardless how cold or wet it may be this month or
in February, at least the days are lengthening again. Despite our
recent landslides, heaps of snow, flooded basements and other wintry jolts,
we still enjoy a relatively benign climate. And luckily the vast majority of
us don't live on floodplains, nor perched atop unstable bluffs.
Therefore, most Seattlites can, if they want to, get along through our winters
with minimal suffering.
| Gardeners here can landscape using winter-blooming plants which
are only dreamed of in really cold climates. There is also a vast array
of decorative non-flowering plants which thrive here. My personal
preference is to grow numerous fragrant and edible plants, especially
those suited for salads. Let my garden look like it will, so long as it
supplies wholesome nutrition and fragrance. On January 9th, I cheered myself
by making garden salad guaranteed to afford a warm glow of satisfaction.
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, 8 roots, 3 berries, 1 nut and 1 flower. 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 and I was flying with elation. 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 had been 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 Clinopodium and a mint that tastes exactly like candy canes. All of
these mint relatives must be eaten sparingly, being pierceingly 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, nipplewort).
| The umbell family (Umbelliferae) supplied carrot greens, celery,
angelica, fennel, cilantro seedlings, and 3 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, there were six
sorrels and a buckwheat relative called dock. These give an acidic, sour
zing, familiar to those who've had sorrel soup. But one must use these
plants 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 are sliced as
thin as possible.
| All of the other 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 which 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 & chicks and
stonecrop give crunch. Quail bush is salty. 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. Three kinds of berries were still available: wintergreen,
lingonberry and evergreen huckleberry.
| 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
350 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, since 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. So, although
highly nutritious and delicious to eat, the 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, 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; 2) the mixture of flavors
and textures to be palatable. 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; the available plant parts
ebb and flow. Look out: 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 at first, 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.
|(originally published in The Seattle Weekly, January 1997)