Wild foods are a form of nourishment bequeathed to us to enjoy, for free. Enjoy the following herbs, spices and wild foods regularly in your weekly menus and discover how fun it is to feel healthy and self-sufficient.

Ginger isn’t something many of us grow, as it is a strictly tropical plant that needs great warmth, sunshine and humidity. And though we can sometimes discover knotty, small wild ginger roots, they are few and far between and not something most herbalists encourage using a lot of. But thankfully we are lucky to find the delicious cultivated ginger root in almost any vegetable market, and it keeps well. Incredibly versatile and enjoyed in a wide array of the world’s top cuisines, ginger root adds warmth, spice, and an incredibly deep tone to any food.

Ginger’s warmth properties make it a wonderful medicine (which we’ll learn about in the article Holly’s Top Ten Medicinal Herbs), but for our purposes here—which are culinary—we’ll discuss how to enjoy it as a food, and beverage.

Chop ginger coarsely to add to stirfries or to many Thai dishes. Make a strong ginger tea and use half tea and half water when cooking rice for an Oriental meal. Toss a slice of ginger in with the beans while they’re soaking or pre-cooking, as this helps them be more digestible. Candy ginger slices by lightly steaming them and then dipping in a simple sugar syrup.

Finally, make and enjoy ginger root tea. Best made from dried ginger (with the peels on), this tea is strong, enlivening, and perky. Steep one teaspoon of dried chopped ginger with one cup boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Strain and add honey and/or lemon juice (in the winter) or add honey and/or mint leaves (in the summer). Be ready to be active after drinking it!

Are we past 10 yet? Quite possibly, but I can’t stop. There are so many wonderful edible plants that are ready to be tried and enjoyed. Greek oregano is one, and it’s so easy to grow all you have to do is throw down a few seeds in the garden and by fall you’ll be weed-whacking you’re way through the dense, lush, Mediterranean-scented oregano patch.

It requires sandy, well drained soil that’s also somewhat rich, with full sun but it tolerates shade. Sound contradictory? It is, simply because oregano likes to grow in virtually any habitat south of the Arctic and north of the South pole.

Culinarily, Greek oregano (which differs from Mexican oregano) gives pizza that piquant flavor of Italy and lends pasta sauce that pizzazz we all expect from tomatoes. Used fresh, it makes a lovely addition sprinkled onto your favorite Roman dishes, but the real flavor comes after the oregano leaves are dried. Store them in an air-tight container and use within a year.

I have to mention watercress simply because it did me the favor this late winter of being the first wild plant to present itself for my edible enjoyment. I often enjoy watercress but don’t consider it one of my top ten, but apparently it wants to be included on this list, so I’ll oblige.

Watercress is a cress, a member of the mustard family, which is why it exhibits that familiar sharp, mustardy taste. All cresses are edible, but they vary in how bitter they are; some are so bitter that even with multiple boilings and changings-of-water, they still cannot be eaten. But watercress graces us with sharp tanginess without much bitterness, and it’s a joy to snip off the new growth, rinse away the slugs and snails, and munch that bright crispness in the earliest days of spring. Look for watercress where the water stands on the ground: marshes, wide creeks, and shallow ponds. It likes to keep not only its feet wet, like elderberry, but its whole body wet.

Use watercress in fresh salads or as a munch pick-me-up during the day, straight from the colander you washed it in.

Red Clover
Red clover is a perennial favorite with adults and children alike, popping up its sweet head at the edge of every meadow and field. Though its cousin white clover is seldom used in culinary applications or in western herbal medicine, red clover (Trifolium pratense) is prized, partly because it makes a truly delicious tisane, and partly because it is a virtual medicine cabinet in itself.

To enjoy red clover’s unique talents, harvest several handfuls of the tops—the flower blossom plus the three little green leaves directly underneath them. For a lightly sweet tisane, or light tea, brew a handful of blossoms with 1 cup water for 5-8 minutes; sweeten with a touch of clover honey if desired. Children love this tea because it is sweet and lightly fragrant; adults love it because it is soothing and regenerative. In fact, red clover is considered an alterative or adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps the body adapt to stress and alter the way it reacts to outside stimuli.

Shred fresh blossoms into your salads and onto fresh fruit and vanilla ice cream. Try dipping large fresh blossoms into a chocolate sauce they way you do strawberries. Shred the blossoms into a vat of chocolate, add almonds if desired, and spread on a sheet of parchment paper on top of a cookie sheet. Place this in the refrigerator for an hour, then break or slice into bars or bark. Enjoy!

And of course, the last edible is actually at the top of my list, one of the most delightful and important herbs I can mention, and one of the ones I simply must include with my spring meals. Dandelion greens are wonderfully bitter, sharp, crunchy, tasty, and bright. They offer a depth of flavor that, in my opinion, is only matched by cultivated broccoli rabe.

Dandelion greens can, of course, be eaten raw, right where you’re standing in the garden, or where you get out of the car between the road and the house. Of course you don’t spray your yard, so unless they’ve been the unfortunate visitor from the family dog, they should be fine to eat. Early spring dandelion greens are more bitter than their fall leaves (same plant, different harvest) and are collectively known as “spring bitters” or cleansers, since they are hepatic and help the liver do its job of removing toxins and cleaning out from a long, sluggish winter. Raw dandelion greens provide iron, toxin removing support for the liver, and plenty of minerals to make them a top choice for your evening meal.

You can also cook them. They don’t need much—just a swish around a hot skillet and they’re ready to be sprinkled with vinegar. Or top your pizza with chopped dandelion greens and add goat cheese and garlic, and whatever mushrooms you have available. This makes an excellent change from spinach pizza and gives a boldness that we don’t often expect. I also chop dandelion greens and toss them in with pasta or sauce just before serving, so they are lightly wilted and soft but not fully cooked.

Author's Bio: 

Holly Bellebuono is speaker and an award-winning herbalist with www.vineyardherbs.com, an author with Shambhala Publishers, and creator of Healing Across 6 Continents--a fascinating documentary exploring the heritage of medicinal plants and the women who use them. She will open her educational training school for medicinal plants in the spring 2012, "Heritage & Healing Herbal Studies Program." To learn more or to schedule her to speak at your event, email her at holly@vineyardherbs.com