During the first warm days of very early spring, before canning became widespread in the Ozarks, people anxiously combed the fields and streams looking for the first signs of wild greens. After a long winter of their monotonous diet of salt pork, stored potatoes and corn bread, they were very hungry for something fresh. Long before garden lettuce and onions were ready, cow parsley and poke gave a delicious and nutritious change in their menu, as well as serving as a sort of internal spring cleaning agent whether used cooked or in fresh salads.
Watercress, a member of the mustard family, is one of the most familiar river greens. Many a weary hiker, coming upon a clear running spring filled with tangy watercress, has plucked a handful of the tender leaves to make a tasty sandwich. The growing season for watercress usually lasts from May to October, but if warm weather prevails, it may begin to come in as early as February. Watercress ranges from four to eight inches in height, and grows in mats on the top of the water, its roots reaching down through the water. Besides its snappy flavor which tastes somewhat like a radish, the watercress also contains many important vitamins. In picking this plant take only the leaf and tender stems. Never pull up the whole plant because this can destroy the root system. Mid-spring is the best time to pick this green when its flavor is at its peak. Caution should be taken to pick only the watercress that is growing in a continuously running stream where there is no danger of pollution. Watercress is identified by its smooth shiny leaves, long slender stems and small white flowers. If carefully transplanted in dirt and watered frequently, watercress can be grown as a winter crop, assuring crispness for salads all year long.
Found in early February if the weather is warm is cow parsley. Cow parsley is a long lobed plant looking like a close relative of the watercress. It can be picked until the first of May or until the stalk becomes milky looking. The stems and leaves are good greens and can be picked until they begin to become coarse. Cow parsley is usually found near the river in in marshy locations.
The dock family is one of the most popular families of greens in the Ozarks. Narrow leaf dock (curly dock) and broad-leaf dock (sour dock) are two favorites. Dock can be found not only on riverbanks, but some of the best bunches are found in ash piles, along roadsides and in other waste places. To be at their tenderest the young leaves should be used when they are a foot or less in length. Tender dock tips are tasty boiled and served like spinach. In fact, many Ozarkers prefer dock to spinach because of its superior taste and greater vitamin content. Sour dock adds a lot of flavor to a mess of mixed greens. Curly dock can be found blooming from June to August. The plant grows almost anywhere and ranges from one to four feet tall. The leaves have curly, crinkly edges. Dock was one of the many native plants used for medicinal purposes. Cleaning the liver was its main value.
Another quite popular and bountiful green is the wild mustard. The large, thick and toothed leaves are a deep green in shade. The greens may be harvested when tender. If the leaves are not harvested, the plant stalk becomes strong and unfit to eat. The flowers are bright yellow and grow in clusters. This plant springs up anywhere and grows from spring to late summer.
One of the most frequently found greens in the garden is lamb's quarter which appears about when your garden does but has more food value than garden lettuce. All of the tender plant is used for greens. Nicknames for this plant include pigweed and goosefoot.
When it comes to trying to pick the most widely known and picked green, it seems poke is the unanimous winner.