March begins wildcrafting season, when greens from “nature’s salad bowl” are tender and tasty, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.

Spring greens from the woods can add nutrition and flavor to your diet.

March begins wildcrafting season, when greens from “nature’s salad bowl” are tender and tasty, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.

Wildcrafting, the gathering of plants from the natural or “wild” habitat, is a throwback to our early ancestors who were hunters and gatherers. Their winter diets lacked the diversity of fresh produce enjoyed today. Therefore, when spring arrived, they combed the woods for wild edibles to add flavor and nutrition to their meals.

Trinklein cautions new wildcrafters to study plant identities before they begin.

“The cardinal rule to remember when hunting wild greens is to be certain to know what you are gathering,” he said. “If in doubt about the identity of a plant, definitely pass it by.”

Trinklein recommends the Missouri Department of Conservation’s book “Missouri Wildflowers” by Edgar Dennison as a reference to identify plants. He added that beginners benefit from going with seasoned wildcrafters until they learn what plants can be eaten safely.

Avoid roadside hunting, Trinklein said. Roadside plants may contain residue from vehicle exhaust or pesticides from adjoining cropland. Wash all plants at least twice after gathering, changing the water each time. Check for insects and debris. Eat small amounts when trying a new plant, he suggests, to avoid possible allergic reactions.

Prepare wildcrafted greens by putting them in a saucepan with a little water and salt. Cook until tender, but do not overcook. Mix bitter plants with sweeter ones. Add pan drippings, vinegar or lemon juice to taste. Drain water before serving. A common “working man’s diet” in the past included soup beans, fried potatoes, cornbread, raw onions and wild greens.

Trinklein recommends the following common Missouri plants for wildcrafting:

• Cutleaf toothwort (also known as crow’s foot). This low-growing plant is found in woodlands and on wooded slopes. It bears five narrow, deeply lobed leaves that look like the toes on the foot of a crow. The leaves are edible, but cutleaf toothwort is prized for its rhizomes. Their spicy, radish-like flavor livens up salads. Some ferment toothwort to sweeten it; others boil it.

• Dandelion. Gardeners hate them; wildcrafters love them. Dandelions are rich in vitamin A and iron. Their flavor peaks during March and April. To gather, cut off the whole crown close to the soil, pluck out the flower stem and sort out any “trash” or debris.

• Lambsquarter. This later-producing green, also known as wild spinach, is high in vitamins and minerals. Its oval- to lance-shaped light green leaves fare well throughout the summer. Pinch off young plants just above the ground and use the entire plant, or harvest just the leaves.

• Nettle. Known for its unsocial behavior, stinging nettle is a popular source of springtime fare. It bears egg to oblong-shaped leaves with a heart-like base and toothed, bristly margins. Wear gloves to gather this green. Nettle tastes best in the early spring. It loses its bristly margins when boiled and tastes like spinach.

• Shepherd’s purse. Named because of the shape of its seed pods, it springs to life from a prostrate rosette of deeply cut, lance-shaped leaves. It has long been used to pep up the taste of less savory greens like lambsquarter. Use it raw in tossed salads. “Legend has it that old-time raftsmen floated downstream in great flotillas of logs to gather shepherd’s purse from riverbanks because of its pepper-like taste,” Trinklein said.

• Watercress. Related to mustard and radish, watercress floats on the surface of ponds, pasture creeks and cold springs. Its bright green leaves taste best April to June. Its pungent taste works well as a salad or meat garnish. Its high ascorbic acid content, along with other vitamins and minerals, made it a favorite with early pioneers to prevent scurvy.

• Wild lettuce. This plant grows in lowland pastures and along stream banks. It becomes bitter after early April, so enjoy it in March and early April. Its smooth, deeply lobed, light-green leaves set it apart. When broken, the leaves produce a sticky, milk-like sap. Eat it raw or as wilted lettuce salad.

• Winter cress. Called “creasies” in days gone by, it grows in fields, gardens and waste places. It is a superb potherb picked and enjoyed by generations, Trinklein said. Mature winter cress becomes bitter, so gather early in spring.

Trinklein also reminds wildcrafters that pokeweed is not on the list of recommended plants. Relished as “poke salid” in the past, its toxic compounds make it unsafe for consumption.