Spring greens in Appalachia

Common Serviceberry tree in bloom, Wikimedia Commons, by Fritzflohrreynolds — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Recent popular culture has given currency to the phrase, “winter is coming.” My progressive migration southward over the last four decades has rendered that adage nearly toothless, on top of the warming trends of climate change.

Winter was harsh reality growing up on the Blue Ridge escarpment in southwest Virginia. Minnesotans or upstate New Yorkers may still find that assessment laughable; relativity in all things. But crisp memories remain of routine sub-freezing and even sub-zero Fahrenheit conditions (below minus 18 Celsius), lasting days or weeks. Snows were serious business too, with windy conditions whipping up drifts measured in feet, not inches. In the winter just preceding my birth, a freak confluence of conditions hammered the region with multiple storms and impassable drifts from mid-February to late March.

Snow in Meadows of Dan, Virginia, March 1960. Blue Ridge Parkway archives; source unknown.

I recall those windblown drifts and iced-over windowpanes, reputed to be overnight stealth artistry by Jack Frost, as part of a vast library of seasonal imagery saved in neural circuits.

Because of winter’s severity, springtime in Appalachia bore a special appeal, bringing welcome relief to the housebound. Sarvice blooms (serviceberry trees, Amelanchier arborea) were among the first signs of winter’s end, followed by waves of intense pink redbud (Cercis canadensis) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) blossoms, which tracked warming temperatures up the mountain slopes. Spring, like the other seasons, was vitally marked with natural history signposts. An early classmate once told me that her mother would let her run barefoot outside as soon as she could count twelve wild violet blooms.

Common Wood Violet, Wikimedia Commons, by Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Old timers held the view that winter cold thickens the blood, which needed thinning come springtime. Routine concoctions called bitters or spring tonic were the ticket. My own grandmother told me about her “bitters,” a tincture of collected wild herbs and other plant parts extracted in ethanol. Two components I recall were wild cherry bark, and a plant she called “rat’s vein,” also known locally in southwest Virginia as rat’s bane, elsewhere known as spotted wintergreen, pipsissewa, or striped prince’s pine (Chimaphila maculata). The total components, proportions, and process of making that tincture are lost to history, I’m sorry to say.

Spotted Wintergreen, Wikimedia Commons, by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA — Chimaphila-maculata0958, CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the most keenly anticipated use of spring plants was culinary, providing welcome updates to canned and staple goods. Table greens are a standard feature of Appalachian food, both cultivated and foraged varieties. Preparation ranged from eating fresh to cooked. The wilting process of “wilted lettuce” derived from pouring hot, liquefied pork drippings over the leaves, and the lettuce itself could be anything from a horticultural variety to wild greens.

Among the most storied of highland table greens is poke sallet (salad). This delicacy was traditional throughout the southern United States, and a special spring prize in Appalachia. My mother would not miss an opportunity to harvest the emerging green shoots in early spring, always before they exceeded a foot in height, preferably even shorter. Preparation and consumption of American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is fraught with risk. All parts of the plant contain a mixture of toxins that many wildlife species tolerate. Birds gorge themselves on the dark purple berries, which reportedly can intoxicate them during late season, if the berries become fermented. But in humans, consumption of all pokeweed plant parts can cause vomiting, spasms, and worse, up to death from respiratory failure in severe cases.

American Pokeweed, Wikimedia Commons, by Jerzy Opioła — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

I ate passels of poke sallet growing up, but it was only those young spring shoots, boiled and drained several times to remove the toxins. I can still remember the unique, pungent smell of poke cooking on the stove, and the anticipation of a mess accompanied by soup beans and cornpone. And the “pot likker” from those poke greens served every bit as well as, and more distinctively than the same from mustard or turnip greens. Didn’t seem to hurt me none, as far as I can tell. At least not yet.

If you decide to try poke yourself, do so at your own risk. Remember that you can’t sue me, because I’ve already told you that the wages of poke may be death. But for those further interested, I highly recommend this piece about the enduring culture of poke sallet in the American South. And if you do want to venture forth on a dish, you will do well to have a look at these instructions first.

Several other wild plants were foraged for spring greens. Another notable example in my area was “creasy sallet” or creasy greens, the cooked leaves of Upland (or Land) Cress (Barbarea verna). This plant, native to Eurasia, has been cultivated in England since the 1600s. Afterward it became naturalized, and cultivated, in North America. Upland Cress is so cold hardy that it can even provide fresh greens during winter in some areas, and certainly no later than early spring. The leaves have a peppery flavor, and can be eaten fresh, cooked in stews, or sautéed. A typical Appalachian preparation involved the latter, in pork fat.

Barbarea verna, a.k.a. creasy greens, Wikimedia Commons, by Salicyna — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Several other foraged wild greens appear as traditional mountain foods, from wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.) to lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) and wild violets. For a long time, the biggest mystery green was unknown to me, a plant my grandmother called “shonny lettuce.” I remember asking her about it years ago, but by that time she did not know of a local patch to show me. After some digging, I think I’ve found the answer.

A 1967 article in the journal Economic Botany, titled “Ethnobotany of the southern Appalachian Aborigines,” was the key. The author, Earl L. Core, writes

Hydrophyllum virginianum L. The English name Shawnee salad or Shawnee lettuce refers to use of young leaves as greens.

Otherwise known as Eastern or Virginia Waterleaf, it grows all over southwest Virginia, including the counties surrounding home. The young leaves are edible, raw or cooked. The article’s title, as well as the plant’s common regional name, strongly imply that early European settlers learned about this plant from Native Americans, as they did many others.

Virginia Waterleaf, a.k.a. “shonny lettuce,” H. Zell — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Now that I know the identity of shonny lettuce, some of the next patch I find back home, if it’s early enough in spring, will go onto a sandwich or into a salad!

Do you have recollections or recipes for foraged spring greens? Please share stories in the comments!

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.