Cattail rhizome, garlic mustard root, dandelion root, day lily tubers, watercress, chickweed, and marsh marigold
Cattail rhizomes will be in season for the next several weeks, until the shoots start getting fairly tall. But, like most root-type veggies, they are best harvested early in the spring. As the shoots and leaves emerge, the plants are trading their stored, below ground food for above ground parts. So the larger the above ground parts are, the less nutrition there is in the roots. Cattail rhizomes can be processed for starch. The are also good roasted, especially over an open fire.
Garlic mustard rosettes are some of the first rosettes you will see in the spring. Look for large, robust plants that seem to be growing faster than average. Those large plants indicate a big, healthy root. Garlic mustard roots are a bit hotter in spring than in fall. They make an excellent horseradish-like condiment if you mince them up and mix them with a bit of salt and vinegar or salad dressing. But you have to dig them out before the plant gets too large. Once it uses up all the stored energy, all thats left is a withered, stringy, rather bland tasting mass of fibers.
Another plant that makes rosettes early in spring is dandelion. This one was hidden under the garlic mustard plant, so when I dug one root up I got a second root for free! Dandelion roots are somewhat bitter and earthy. They can be used in stir fry, but most people prefer to use them in beverages rather than foods. There are a couple of different commercial beers that use dandelion root. However, they are most often lightly roasted and ground for teas. They are known to stimulate the liver, and so dandelion root tea is often used by herbalists for general health and to help detoxify the body.
Day lily tubers are one of the few “root” veggies that can be harvested in any season. Even a small patch of day lilies can contain thousands of tubers. So as soon as the ground thaws enough to dig, there is plenty of starchy goodness to be found. These little tubers are good just about anyplace you would normally use diced potatoes. Be a bit cautious the first time you consume day lily, though. Some people experience a mild allergic reaction to this plant. And you may be allergic to only the below ground or only the above ground parts. So taste a little and wait to see if you notice any itching or tingling in your mouth or throat before you eat a whole pile of mashed day lily tubers.
Watercress is also beginning to show up in the streams. There is some concern about liver parasites on aquatic vegetation, so it is important to find a source that is clean. That said, the chances of getting sick from properly foraged watercress is probably less than the chances of getting sick from imported lettuce. Look for headwater streams, upstream of any agriculture. Cattle and horses are the biggest concern since they are warm blooded. Once you find a patch, don’t harvest large amounts. Watercress doesn’t keep very well and whatever you don’t eat right away will start to rot. So harvest just what you will use in a day or 2, then go back and get more.
Anyone who has a garden knows chickweed. This plant likes to take over everything in the spring. And fast. But don’t get frustrated, make a salad. Chickweed has a very mild flavor, somewhat like spinach. It has to be rinsed well if you are going to consume any quantity, since it likes to hold onto sand. But once you have it cleaned up it is an excellent fresh green. In a few weeks you will be able to add violets, spring beauties, and redbud flowers and have a beautiful spring salad. In the mean time, try stuffing a bunch of chickweed into a ham sandwhich. Nothing says spring like leftover easter ham, chickweed, watercress, and garlic mustard horseradish on some nice fresh bread.
One of my favorite cooked greens is marsh marigold, also called cowslip.Like most dark leafy greens, it is very high in vitamins. It is the first potherb of the year that can be harvested in quantities large enough to base an entire dish around. It needs to be boiled with a couple of changes of water to remove the bitterness. So by the time you eat it, it isn’t much more than green mush. But it is delicious green mush. My favorite uses for marsh marigold are Indian recipes, where the mushiness of the plant simply becomes a part of the dish. Try a marsh marigold version of palak paneer. You’ll be hooked for life.