3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: WINTERGREEN

(Gaultheria procumbens)


Tiny Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) shrub is easy to overlook in the winter landscape.

Probably one of the tiniest shrubs, we generally think of Wintergreen as an evergreen ground cover. Although you can find this sweetly fragrant plant year round, I associate it with the coldest months of the year and winter woodland walks. I have delighted in leading each of our four children to discovering its tasty wonders at a time when the Earth seems to be sleeping and our taste buds have become dulled by stews and starchy meals.

If you have tasted Teaberry gum then you are familiar with the flavor of Wintergreen. Both the leaves and berries are edible and have this delicious flavor. Each plant produces two to five 1-2 inch long leaves that are thick, shiny, oval, and very slightly toothed. It spreads by underground runners so you will often find them in little lines or clusters of individual miniature shrubs. It’s fun to think of them as towering fairy trees if you like to engage in childlike imaginings. In July and August in our area tiny white, bell-shaped Wintergreen flowers can be found dangling beneath the leaves. Later the red berries often persist until the next flowering season. Wintergreen prefers acidic soils so I generally look for them around Pine trees in our woods and I am almost always rewarded. It likes to grow in the same places that wild Blueberries or Huckleberries like to grow.

Wintergreen 2

Nice little village of Wintergreen lining up.

Wintergreen can be eaten (leaves and berries) as is, which is my favorite way, or brewed into a sweet and delicious tea. Since it contains methyl salicylate, a compound similar in structure to the active ingredient in aspirin it would be contraindicated for those with aspirin allergies. I have found Wintergreen tea to be a wonderful headache tea for my own children along with some Chamomile flowers. I would like to point out that Wintergreen essential oil comes with many warnings about toxicity. This highlights the fact that the form in which an herb is used matters. Steam-distilled essential oils are highly concentrated products and should not be used interchangeably with fresh or dried herbs. I have read that a single drop of essential oil is equivalent to 28 cups of brewed tea from that same plant, which explains why what seems like a “small” dose like 1/4 tsp. can really be a huge one. Additionally, essential oils are structurally different from whole plants. Both are useful, each in its own appropriate application. Research, positively identify, and educate yourself before ingesting anything.

When gathering take only one or two leaves from each plant so they can continue to photosynthesize and flourish. Be conscious of the population of the Wintergreen tribe, taking from only 1 in every 5 or more plants. Sustainable and respectful wild-crafting practices will assure there is plenty of Wintergreen for generations to come. Sometimes, especially in winter, leaves become tinged a reddish color. Both red and green leaves are equally tasty.

Given the common name Teaberry, this plant was obviously used historically for tea. Author Ellen Zachos, in her book BACKYARD FORAGING: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, says she also likes to use it to flavor ice creams and liquors. She has several recipes but I think I may try this one: Fill a small jar with leaves, cover with good quality rum and allow to macerate for several weeks to produce a delicious winter aperitif.

According to Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James A. Duke, Wintergreen tea is traditionally used to treat colds, headaches, stomach aches, and fevers. Externally it is used as a wash for rheumatism, sore muscles, and lumbago. It is analgesic(pain relieving), carminative (flatulence relieving), anti-inflammatory (reduces inflammation), and antiseptic (prevents the growth of disease-causing microorganisms).

Now that is a cup of tea worth brewing and a leaf worth chewing!

Wintergreen 3

Leave a comment »


Today’s blog post is somewhat of a two-for-one special. I will write about two plants in response to the many questions I get every summer starting around this time. There is a lot of confusion about the prolific red berried plants showing up now and continuing through the summer into fall. Some say it’s toxic and some say it’s delicious. In a sense, both are correct because there are actually two plants that are frequently confused. Both have shiny red berries, both have similarly shaped smooth-edged leaves, but there are easy to spot differences that can help in identification.


Asian Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii and other L. spp.)

This plant is fruiting all over our property and in our area right now and birds will be distributing their seeds through droppings all summer. It is considered invasive and is mildly toxic to humans. It was planted extensively in the 1950’s as part of an erosion prevention program as highway systems expanded into our state as well as others. It was also heavily promoted as an ornamental for home gardens and landscaping. I have known of one case personally of a young child consuming an unknown, but likely a large, quantity and experiencing symptoms consistent with poisoning. The child’s mother called me for identification purposes and then called the Center for Disease Control to confirm toxicity, which they did. Since her child was vomiting and experiencing diarrhea they directed her to not go to the hospital to have her stomach pumped since she was already purging but to monitor her temperature and for signs of dehydration. Thankfully, the child was completely recovered within 24 hours. Although the flowers are considered edible the berries are not. To be clear: THESE BERRIES ARE TOXIC TO HUMANS AND SHOULD NOT BE EATEN!

On the other hand, Autumn Olive berries are not only edible but delicious and nutritious. Read on to learn the important identification differences.


AUTUMN OLIVE (Elaeagnus umbellate)*

In late summer and early autumn this plant will produce lots of juicy red berries that are tart and sweet. Originally brought to the United States in the 1800’s for useful purposes, it has escaped into the wild and established itself.



Note the silvery backs of the leaves and the speckled scales covering the berries. These are identifying characteristics.

Although the fruiting times for these two plants overlaps some and they both have red berries and similar (although not identical) leaves there are simple ways to identify positively and you can practice applying botanical terminology in the field. Asian Bush Honeysuckle has opposite and entire leaves. Opposite leaves means that for every leaf that appears along the stem there is another leaf exactly opposite it. Entire leaves  are ones that are smooth along the edges rather than toothed or lobed. Here is a graphic to help differentiate the various types of leaf margins:


The leaves on Autumn Olive are alternate and entire. Alternate leaves are arranged along the stem in a staggered or alternate pattern. This is known as the leaf arrangement and here is another graphic to help note the differences:


Using appropriate botanical terminology assists tremendously in accurate identification. Although I get many phone calls and e-mails asking me to identify a “real green plant that’s pretty big with medium sized leaves” obviously it is not possible to do so. Practicing using these terms along with a field guide or key is a self-teaching tool that will serve you for a life time. Stepping off soap box now and getting back to a wonderful wild edible…

Additionally, the leaves on Autumn Olives are notably silvery, whereas they are not on Asian Bush Honeysuckle. Although both species are considered invasives, Autumn Olive is highly beneficial to humans in many ways if we chose to avail ourselves of them. One of my main references (and favorite resources) for information on Autumn Olive is INVASIVE PLANT MEDICINE: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives by Timothy Lee Scott. Scott says that it is, “…full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-cancer components, the fruits of this tree are a deeply nourishing, plentiful food source…is a most appropriate addition to supportive chelation therapy [therapy to remove heavy metals, such as lead, from the body]…In addition, Elaeagnus berry is strongly active against many pathogenic influences, including cancer and many multi-drug resistant strains of microorganisms.” Scott is always thorough and exhaustive in his research and provides the scientific study references for these claims. I will happily send anyone interested a photocopy of the list of references upon request. Or better yet, invest in this fabulous book and read about this potent healing plant along with others. My favorite quote from his book in regard to Elaeagnus is this:

“[this plant] in the landscape sends us messages of renewal and strength to continue on in a devastated world. The tree’s presence rejuvenates soil with its nitrogen-fixing capability, and it nourishes wildlife with abundant fruit. There may come a time when humans will be thankful for Elaeagnus, the sacred olive tree [which is what Elaeagnus means in Greek], and its widespread presence on our lands. Then the tree will be recognized, just as it was in ancient times, as a healer of disease and restorer of health, lifting the spirit with the sweet fruit it provides.” 

The non-edible berries of Asian Bush Honeysuckle are bright red, smooth and semi-translucent. They contain numerous small seeds. The edible berries of Autumn Olive, which will appear in late summer or early fall, are speckled with whitish scales and contain only one seed. These berries can be made into syrups, jam, or butters.


Autumn Olive Butter sweetened with a little local honey and a touch of low-sweetener pectin.*

*Photo credit for all Autumn Olive plant and Autumn Olive Butter photos: Andrea Koutras Lay of Hidden Hollow Farm

May your summer be abundantly botanical! ~Leenie


Wednesday’s Weeds: PURSLANE


PURSLANE (Portulaca oleracea)

Purslane is the nutritional powerhouse that is a crunchy delight to eat and is a common food in Europe, especially the Mediterranean area, but sadly ignored in the U.S. Most people who attend my weed walks recognize the plant from weeding it out of their gardens and flower beds but few have tasted it. Nutritionally, this wild green is “pumping iron” with more than twice as many omega-3’s as kale and possibly more than any other green analyzed. Ditto for vitamin E, and watch out Popeye, this delicious wild edible has more iron than spinach. It also contains vitamins A and C, calcium, and phosphorus.

Purslane loves hot weather and stands up to drought like a champ. A 100+ degree day like we have forecast for our area today will find this lovely low-growing green cool as a cucumber and a welcome addition to our cold salads buffet on the dinner table tonight. The stems of Purslane are generally reddish and look somewhat like a network of pipes or tubes. The stems are just as delicious as the leaves and both are juicy, sweet and crunchy. This is a succulent plant with thick leaves and stems, which is one of the reasons it can retain moisture during dry spells and heat waves.

The flowers on Purslane are tiny (less than 1/4 inch) and yellow and each individual blossom lasts just one day. They eventually produce a small pod of shiny black seeds, which you can collect to spread into other dry, sunny areas to use as an edible ground cover.


Purslane flower


Purslane seeds

Since we are experimenting with many new permaculture techniques in order to deal with climate changes in our area, I’ve been observing the way that nature arranges plants into “guilds”, or mutually beneficial groupings, and following her lead. When I planted new strawberry beds this spring I included some Borage seedlings, which are said to improve plant vigor, disease-resistance and flavor in strawberries (and tomatoes). There were still bare spaces between the new plants and I planned to mulch after a few weeks. But before I did so Purslane began to pop up in the openings. It makes a lovely ground cover/living mulch that is also delicious and nutritious. In permaculture an important principle is that every plant must serve multiple functions for the ecosystem to thrive.


Happy plant guild of Purslane, Borage, Strawberries & Lamb’s Quarters


Newly planted permaculture bed filling in with Strawberries, Borage & Purslane

Purslane can be enjoyed in salads, cooked in a stir-fry, steamed or added to other cooked dishes. The older stems can be pickled just as you would green beans or cucumbers. The tiny black seeds are nutritious as well and can be added to baked good or ground into a flour.  If you are feeling adventurous you can try a traditional Mexican dish called Verdolagas con Queso, a sort of Purslane soft taco. Simply saute (some people steam the Purslane first) Purslane with Garlic, onion, chopped tomatoes and chilies. Add some eggs and scramble a bit along with some crumbled salty white cheese like feta or queso blanco. Fold into a warm tortilla and serve. Yes, it’s on the evening menu for us!

            Munch! Munch! ~Leenie

1 Comment »

21-Day Real Wild Food Challenge & Ponderings


A generous gallon-sized  colander serves as my gathering basket three times a day and returns to the kitchen loaded with both organically cultivated and wild-crafted foods.

I have a penchant for challenging myself to look at my own assumptions, perceptions, and perspectives. When I reach that jaded, all-too-familiar point where I think I know what comes next or how things work…every time…I like to shake things up and turn my world on its head so I can look at it with new eyes and come to it with a beginner’s mind. So, a few days ago I decided to challenge myself to 21 days of eating only real (mostly from our garden and farm) and wild foods. The goal is not to lose weight or even “clean up my diet.” Rather, it is an exercise in awareness.


Blueberry and Red Raspberry leaves, Nettles tops, and Lemon Balm destined for the teapot 

Like many of these “games of awareness” I like to play, this one was designed and embraced in a flash of a moment of insight, seemingly out of the blue, and was led by a cluster of little “What if…?” questions. Because I said yes to the inspiration, I spent almost no time in planning or setting up parameters. I am figuring those out as I go along and questions arise. I’ll describe the beginning phase of my challenge below but first here are some of my “What if’s…”:

What if…

…I look to the Earth and its provision daily instead of the weekly sale flyers, my budget, or coupon circulars to decide what to eat?

…the seasonal abundance informs my food choices rather than diet plans or nutritional philosophies?

…I trust that real food, just as it is, is really good for me?

…I belong here and my life, health, and vitality are supported by the Earth, the sun, the atmosphere (creating all these weather patterns and seasons), and beyond? 


What if…tea doesn’t come from a bag with a string on it, or a box or a tin? What if…it comes from my yard and garden? 

We have a fair amount of early greens, herbs and edibles in our permaculture beds now so I qualify this as “real” food. I know some wild food plants and I know that they are available and easy to obtain right outside my door so I qualify these as “real wild” foods that nourish parts of me beyond RDA’s, food pyramids or My Plate analysis and assessments. I don’t want this to be laborious or tedious so I allow things like olive oil, butter, grains, etc. When I purchase or obtain these from our pantry I simply ask myself, “Is this real?” If I can picture someone(s) gathering in a harvest of olives and pressing them, dairying that involves milking, culturing or churning, harvesting wheat or rice and minimally processing, then I deem it “real”. Just try to envision how that can of spray cheese comes to be and you get the idea of what my mind cannot wrap itself around as “real” although its existence is a pretty wild concept to me. Remember, this is a self-created challenge on the order of playmates deciding to “pretend we’re Robinhood and his Merry Men living in Sherwood Forest” so it is about the romp and the discoveries more than the science and theory.


Real & Wild Breakfast: a variety of braised garden-grown and wild-crafted greens (kale, spinach, dandelion, mallow, lamb’s quarters, garlic mustard, nettles, wild onion) with curried free-range eggs and a light crumbling of goat cheese; home canned peaches and fresh grapefruit; homemade corn crepe.

As I said, I am only a few days into my challenge. I am recording what I gather and eat, how I feel, and my reflections on the process. At the end of 21 days I will share some of these and welcome feedback and any ideas it might spark for others. I am taking pictures of many of the meals, plants, nature treks, and other inspired adventures beyond food…like making goat milk soap or cheese.



When a spring cold threatened in the family I asked, what if…pots of fresh herbal teas and rich Garlic soup (and rest) can address it as well as antihistamines and pain relievers? 

Lots of ‘What if’s…?” to explore and many discoveries lie ahead in the next few weeks. Wishing you a season of growth, abundance, and an awareness of your place in the grand scheme of life. ~Leenie

Leave a comment »

Wednesdays Weeds: LAMB’S QUARTERS


Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

Lamb’s Quarters is one of my favorite all-purpose greens for a variety of reasons, not least of which includes its wide and long availability through the summer. It’s popping up all over the garden and yard now and is under six inches tall but certainly big enough to toss into salads or other wild green mixes for cooking. Other common names include Goosefoot (Cheno=goose + podium=foot), Wild Spinach (spinach used to be classified in the Chenopodiaceae family but is now an Amaranthaceae member), Fat Hen, and Pigweed.

John Kallas, PhD in his book EDIBLE WILD PLANTS: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate, calls Lamb’s Quarters, along with Chickweed, Mallow, and Purslane, a foundation green for its mild taste, which makes it suitable to use raw in salads or pesto, cooked in almost any dish calling for greens. Lamb’s Quarters is crazy good nutrition. Several sources, including BOTANY IN A DAY by Thomas J. Elpel say that it contains more calcium than any other plant ever analyzed. How much? One cup cooked contains 46% of the RDA for calcium but it doesn’t stop there. It also contains 281% of vitamin A, 111% of vitamin C, and 7% of the iron needed. It is also low in saturated fat, and very low in cholesterol and is a good source of niacin, folate, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, potassium, copper and manganese. Basically, it is a wild super food!

When I first learned to identify, gather, and enjoy Lamb’s Quarters decades ago I didn’t have all the resources in book form and online that are available today. But I did come across an Euell Gibbons book (STALKING THE WILD ASPARAGUS) that contained a wonderful little chart comparing the nutritional analysis of wild verses cultivated vegetables and fruits. When I saw the difference between Lamb’s Quarters and garden Spinach, and I gave the wild version a taste, I was completely sold. Spinach registers 56% of the RDA for vitamin A, 3% for calcium, 14% for vitamin C, and 4% for iron. That is when I first started using the term, which I think I invented, primary wild foods instead of “weeds”. We all know that commercial agriculture focuses on ship-ability and shelf-life over nutritional value and flavor. No where is this more apparent than in the difference between Lamb’s Quarters and Spinach. I do grow and enjoy Spinach but I probably eat even more of the wild version.

If you’ve eaten pesto, spinach lasagna, or spanakopita at my home you’re likely to have tasted the wild cousin of Spinach since I use that more often. It grows all summer and keeps me busy blanching and freezing it as well as eating it fresh. The fine crystalline powder on the upper leaves, which also appears on garden Spinach, is an identifying characteristic. This white, waxy ‘bloom’ is not present on the otherwise similar looking Hairy Nightshade and Ground Cherry Nightshade (Solanum physalifolium, S. sarracoides, S. villosum).


Lamb’s Quarters in the Elecampane Patch


Hairy Nightshade 

This plant has similarly shaped leaves but never a white ‘bloom’ and the flowers, of course, are drastically different.


Lamb’s Quarters flower buds, which will later produce dark, shiny seeds

The seeds and the flower buds of Lamb’s Quarters are both edible but they need to be gathered at just the right stage and handled with care. The green leaves are the main way we enjoy this wild green. The possibilities for use are limited only by your culinary imagination but here are some images to spark ideas.



Fillo pastry is a favorite way to make Wild Spinach Pies (Spanakopita or Hortopita), whether as one large pie or small individual ones.


Wild Spinach/Lamb’s Quarters are a natural for summer salads


We like to make pesto using wild greens like Lamb’s Quarters and use that in place of tomato sauce for a unique summer time wild green pizza.


Sauteed as a green, a wild filling for burritos or crepes, added to fried rice…the possibilities abound. 

Enjoy! ~Leenie



There are finally enough wild greens up around my home to start using them in the kitchen in earnest. After attending an American Herbalist Guild sponsored webinar given by herbalist David Winston (“The Worst Weeds Are Your Best Medicine”…loved it!), in which he praised Garlic Mustard pesto so thoroughly that my mouth was watering, I had to go see if I could find enough wild greens to make the season’s first batch of pesto. Although everything is relatively small, most of the plants popping up are mild and tasty. I’m still eating Dandelion raw, hand-to-mouth style. Another week of warm sunny days and I will need to get more creative or simply enjoy the bitter bite this wonderful liver tonic offers.

This “recipe” will be one I use over and over all summer into fall. It freezes well for use through the winter. I really don’t measure anything but I have given approximate measurements below. Pesto is traditionally made with only fresh Basil leaves, as Pistou is made with Parsley.  Neither of these herbs is available to me yet as mine are all still in the tiny seedling stage in my greenhouse. Actually, I did throw in little bits of Parsley, Oregano, and Tarragon from leaves I pinched back off my seedlings but it probably didn’t total even 2 tablespoons among all the other wild greens. I’m sharing photos of some of the wild primary foods (a.k.a. “weeds”) that I gathered, so it forms a bit of an impromptu “Weed Walk” as well.


Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

This plant, like many of the others I use, could be said to put the “pest” is pesto since it is much maligned and hated as an invasive weed. I won’t go into that here but I will say that I purposely planted this “invasive” weed around our home nearly 20 years ago when we built. I planted it all around the woodland edges so that it could naturalize and, while it comes back, I generally only have enough to gather for a few salads and/or a few batches of pesto or other dishes such as quiches or green lasagna. I have also read that that it inhibits the growth of other plants around it. I can only ponder, then, one of its British common names, “Jack-by-the-Hedge,” as well as my own experience of a couple of decades where it seems to continue to grow well in mixed wild communities. (I note 5 different species of plant in the photo above.) I do USE Garlic Mustard frequently so perhaps this is part of the reason it has not proven to be a problem around our home? At any rate, this is the plant I gathered the largest quantity of for our pesto. According to ethno-botanist Ellen Zachos in Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, “This plant is insanely nutritious, higher in fiber, beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and zinc than either spinach or kale. It’s also very high in calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.”


These are just two of the thriving mixed communities (also called “wild plant guilds” in permaculture circles) from spots where I originally planted and have gathered for decades. Along with the tender delicious bundles of Garlic Mustard in these two photos I can see Red Clover, Mullein, Ground Ivy, Sheep Sorrel, Cleavers and many seedlings too tiny to identify but I suspect are Lamb’s Quarters.


Chickweed (Stellaria media) peeking around the edges of Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina).

I added the little bits of sweet, mild Chickweed that I could find to the pesto greens. Soon I will be able to gather it by the basket full and it will form the base of all our spring salads. It’s crunchy like Romaine and as sweet and mild as Iceberg…only way more nutritious and delicious.


Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) and Nettles (Urtica dioica)

I added a fair amount of both of these. I don’t use gloves to gather the (stinging) Nettles but I do take care and stay focused on my task as I pinch back individual leaves and bundles between my thumbnail and index finger. The stinging hairs are easy to spot and avoid so long as you don’t grab by the handful. In any event, I find the “sting” to be mild and fleeting. It is a tingly feeling like when your hand or foot falls asleep. It is gone, in my experience, in about 15-20 minutes with no lasting effects. If you are very bothered by the sting, I have effectively used crushed Jewelweed or Yellowdock leaves as a poultice to remove the sting immediately for others. Why bother with such a plant? It contains 35% of our daily need for vitamin A, 12% for magnesium, 8% of our iron needs, lots of B-vitamins and a whopping 42% of our daily calcium needs in a mere cup. Oh, and it tastes deliciously green. The stingers, by the way are deactivated when cooked, dried or pulverized (as they are for making pesto).

Now, on to the pesto making…


These are the basic ingredients for my not-so-traditional pesto, which I will be making in endless variations all summer. I had about 2 quarts (8 cups) of mixed wild greens along with a little handful of cultivated herbs and greens thinnings from the greenhouse. I only had regular Olive oil on hand, which I use for soap-making, but I generally use extra virgin Olive oil (or EVOO) for pesto, salads, and cooking. I use up to 1 cup of this oil in a batch of pesto. About a half cup each of some sort of nut (Pecans were used in this batch.) and Parmesan cheese. I use whatever type of nut or seed I have and have used everything from pumpkin seeds to walnuts. A couple of cloves of Garlic, to taste.


In the food processor I grind the nuts and Garlic cloves until they are just short of turning into nut butter.


Now I give it a whirl with the addition of the Olive oil. Soupy nut butter!


Then I feed in my washed greens while the food processor is running. I like pesto thick but you can make it as thick or thin as you like. What a verdant, lovely green celebration of spring in the kitchen!


Parmesan cheese is the last thing to go in. I have used nutritional yeast in place of Parmesan for a vegan pesto as well.


Finished Wild & Weedy Pesto!

Kids may like to lick the bowl after mixing up batter for cake but my husband has dibs on the pesto “snickies”. I hand him a couple of pieces of French bread, a pita or some crackers and the food processor container comes back clear. We had some of this batch as a sauce over cheese tortellini along with a salad and some chapati. (Ethnically, this meal was all over the place but gastronomically it was home-sweet-home!)

In a nutshell, that’s my pesto recipe. I do it over and over all summer with whatever herbs and wild greens are available. I often use up to half fresh basil along with wild greens for a slightly more traditional flavor but this recipe is open to endless variations. Use mostly Dill and tangy, lemony wild Sorrel for a perfect fish or poultry sauce. Or try a heavy hand with Tarragon and Marjoram for a French take on sauce. Some ways we enjoy pesto is simply spread on French bread, used in place of tomato based sauce on homemade pizza, as a pasta sauce, in lasagna, stirred into vegetable soup, thinned down for use as a salad dressing, in various cold salads like cous-cous, pasta, or tabouleh. It freezes and thaws beautifully. My kids grew up loving pesto and it was the main way they enjoyed greens. Even when they were not so fond of a plate of steamed kale or spinach, they would gobble this treat up with abandon.

Happy Spring! ~Leenie