I only believe that Spring is here when I’m able to gather and eat the delicious and nutritious wild greens that abound in our area. I’ve just eaten a salad that included two of my favorite plants.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). The dent de lion (French for “lion’s tooth”) is a useful and attractive plant that people spend millions of dollars trying to eradicate instead of enjoying. Easily identified by oblong jagged-edged leaves that narrow at the base of the plant where they form a rosette. Yellow flowerheads (which actually consist of many minute ray flowers) appear on hollow stems that exude a milky sap.

Dandelion greens need to be gathered from young plants that have not flowered (or else they will be too bitter). These can be used raw in salads or briefly cooked. Vinegar or lemon juice improve the taste and reduce the sharpness. These leaves have been known since ancient times as a blood cleanser and a tonic. They help open obstructed organs, are a gentle laxative, and a lymph cleanser. Nutritionally, dandelions are very high in vitamin A and, along with other minerals, contain large amounts of calcium and potassium.

Collect the whole plant when harvesting dandelion. The white crown between the root and above-ground greens is a particularly delicious vegetable that is tasty raw or cooked. Contained within the blanched leaves are the developing buds which are another enjoyable edible. The thin white roots, peeled and cooked (some recommend two changes of water), are comparable to parsnips or turnips. These roots make a good coffee substitute: roast them at a low temperature in an oven until they are dark brown and brittle. Grind them up and use as you would regular coffee (but a slightly smaller quantity). And, of course, the flowers can be used to make dandelion wine.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus). A relative of dandelion (both are in the composite family), young chicory leaves are often indiscriminately collected with dandelion greens. Equally tasty and nutritious, this “mistake” is quite beneficial. Chicory has oblong, slightly lobed, coarsely-toothed leaves that cluster in a rosette at the top of a long perennial taproot. It is differentiated from dandelion in that the leaves have less pronounced lobes, and midribs and stems have a purplish tint. During the summer, a single flower stem (up to three feet tall) arises from the cluster. It contains short branches, hairs, and slender, clasping leaves. Many ragged-edged light blue flowers appear on the stem; these flowers usually close by the afternoon.

Young chicory leaves are a delicious salad green as well as a cooked potherb (the older leaves do get bitter). In Europe, the plants are raised in the dark, and clusters of blanched white leaves are formed. This delicacy is called Barbe du Capucin. These clusters can be collected in the field by cutting chicory several inches beneath the ground surface.

Several million pounds of chicory are raised and prepared each year as a coffee substitute. It is made the same way as dandelion root. Friends of mine from Louisiana tell me they prefer coffee mixed with chicory to straight coffee. With the extravagant price of coffee, coffee lovers would be wise to use this natural beverage.

High in Vitamin A, chicory contains calcium, phosphorous and potassium. It is a tonic and blood purifier and is useful for liver disorders.

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