Confession: I haven’t mowed the front lawn in a while and with the warm days of late winter it’s staring to get a bit “shaggy.” The front yard had become a nagging and guilt-inducing chore when, just the other day its sad brownish hue burst into a soft pink glow. It was the henbit (Lamium ssp.), rosy pink and everywhere. The henbit convinced me to take a closer look and upon inspection I found an incredible diversity of plant species in what before had been a green blur. The grasses were just coming out of dormancy and there were sweet little flowers everywhere; the tiny yellow blooms of horse herb (Calyptocarpus vialis) and the tall white inflorescences of shepard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), the stellate blooms of chickweed (Stellaria media) and the tall shocks of the purple and pink spiderworts (Tradescantia ssp.). I was so glad I’d failed to mow… this was incredible! And as it turned out, just about everything growing in the yard that I could identify had long histories of culinary and medicinal use. Who knew there was a salad bar out there! Most of the species I identified were also classified as invasive weeds, mostly native to Europe, and that got me thinking about the relativity of the term “weed.” The descendants of those people who initially brought these plants across the Atlantic are those very people (“us”) classifying these plants as objectionable. It’s quite possible the seeds of many European plant “invaders” were unwittingly transported to the New World, but, seeing how useful most these plants have been to humans for hundreds of years, some must have been intentionally smuggled.
So my plan became this: eat the lawn, don’t mow it! I had heard of people blending the fresh herbs with juice as a smoothie of sorts or drying them to make tea. I opted to wilt the herbs in a little olive oil with a pinch of salt and serve them over rice or some other grain. I gathered a handful each of henbit, cleaves and shepherd’s purse and wilted them in my cast iron skillet on medium heat for only three to five minutes. It was mild, but not at all unpleasant and filled some primal need in me to hearken, by way of ingestion, the new season!
The most common henbit species (Lamium amplexicaule) is in the mint family. Like many of the plants we call weeds, henbit is a non-native and can rather aggressively fill large areas and often undesirable areas like cracks in pavement; I came across a common name “Driveway Mint,” which seemed particularly apt. It is an annual herb but reseeds readily. As a member of the mint family, henbit acts as a gentle digestive aid and has also been historically used as an astringent and vulnerary or wound-healing medicine (Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1997). Henbit is a mild herb in both taste and activity in the body and a welcome sign of spring. As one of the first plants to bloom in the late days of winter, Henbit is also an early and much needed nectar source for honeybees and other pollinators (http://www.ediblewildfood.com/henbit.aspx).
Last night I took the dog for a walk and when I got home I realized my ankles and her flanks where covered in long strands of cleavers (Gallium aparine). I had been previously acquainted with this close cousin to Velcro, having known it as “Stickywilly.” Never was there a more appropriate name, the tall stems of cleavers have intermittent whorls of long thin leaves and are wholly covered with tiny hooked hairs that attach themselves famously well to any surface. Cleavers is in the coffee family and the seeds are mildly caffeinated (Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2008). I have read of people making a “coffee” from the roasted and ground seeds. My interest was piqued by herbalist Nicholas Culpeper’s proclamation in his 1653 Complete Herbal, “(Cleavers) is a good remedy in the spring… to keep the body in good health, and fitting it for that change of season that is coming,” and in fact, modern herbalists still taut this herb’s ability to stimulate and tone the lymphatic system, which facilitates filtration and defense against pathogens in the body.
The identity of shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) was not immediately obvious to me and I found it difficult to describe this pervasive and oh-so familiar inhabitant of urban greenspaces. I finally identified it by its fleshy cordate leaves, which inspired the name shepherd’s purse, a personal accoutrement once more universally identifiable. Shepherd’s purse is in the cabbage family and thus a close cousin to the mustards and it certainly does have a peppery bite that I found rather delicious! I noticed that the neighborhood grackles did too! A flock of them seemed to be constantly grazing the area where the plants grow tallest. I casually noted this and then was intrigued to find that chickens that graze on shepherd’s purse have been known to lay eggs with darker yolks and stronger flavor (http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/s/shephe47.html). It has been known to unpleasantly taint the milk of dairy cows. All of this seemed to point toward some powerful medicinal properties of the plant and indeed shepherd’s purse is a strong styptic and haemostyptic, clotting bleeding in external and internal wounds. A dried tea is ingested or a fresh poultice applied (http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/s/shephe47.html).
Quite by happenstance I came across a reference to a Japanese festival called “Nanakusa-No-Seku,” or the Festival of the Seven Herbs. Traditionally one makes rice gruel on January 7th, mixing in seven early spring field herbs. The herb catalogue appears to be flexible, but shepherd’s purse and chickweed (Stellaria media) were both commonly included. The spirit of the festival is that of welcoming spring and setting an intension of good health for the coming year (http://www.essenceofjapan.net/?portfolio=nanakusa-no-sekku-festival-of-seven-herbs%E3%80%81%E4%B8%83%E8%8D%89%E3%81%AE%E7%AF%80%E5%8F%A5). The Japanese have been eating “Front Yard” Spring Tonics for millennia! So, though my inclination may not be novel it is perhaps natural to want to grab a handful of the front lawn and eat it. The act represents a physiological need for the nutrients of raw fresh greens after winter’s scarcity of such things and as a symbolic nod to winter’s passing and spring’s arrival.