Adventures of a Citizen Scientist Among the Wildflowers

Posted: May 1, 2012

Grape hyacinth

It was an early spring and wildflowers abound.  A citizen scientist need not go far to see them!  This month’s article will feature several of the wildflowers currently gracing my yard in Bridgewater.

The Humble and Plentiful Dandelion

While a few dandelions bloomed all year, the yard is now bursting with this certain harbinger of spring. Old-timers and herbalists know that not only are dandelions bright and cheerful, but they also possess culinary—and possibly medicinal—properties.
The young leaves and flower heads can be eaten as greens. Then, there is the famous dandelion wine. I also found recipes for dandelion pancakes, dandelion stew and dandelion omelets.
Some people believe dandelion tea has diuretic properties and dandelion is a tonic for the liver and a skin toner. 

Purple Deadnettle

Another wildflower showing up in my yard has a Gothic name, purple deadnettle. They are also called red deadnettle and purple archangel. From the mint family, these are a stalked plant with heart-shaped fuzzy leaves and purple flowers. They were introduced from Europe and are now invasive in American yards and along roadsides. Although often considered a weed, these non-stinging or “dead nettles” have culinary and medicinal properties. I sampled a few flowers and leaves for this column. Though bland-tasting, I can see them making a colorful addition to a salad and they are said to have antioxidant properties and high iron content.

Grape Hyacinths

My yard is thick with grape hyacinths. These dainty little purple bells, trimmed in white, rest on short stalks. A member of the lily family, they grow from bulbs. The ones in my yard have escaped cultivation and are non-native plants that are now naturalized, but grape hyacinths are also available in cultivated varieties (I’ve been seeing them advertised recently in women’s magazines). Ironically, there are also many people looking to rid their yards of grape hyacinths. Grape hyacinths are not edible and the bulbs are toxic.

Blue Violets

Finally, I want to mention the violet, a symbol of love, faithfulness, modesty and springtime.  The common blue violet is one of my favorite edible wildflowers.  It tastes a bit spicy like black pepper. The leaves are rich in vitamins C and A.  But be careful; there are some look-alike toxic flowers. The flowers and greens can be eaten from the wild and the flowers can be made into fancy candies and jelly.  There are several types of common violets including the white and purple confederate violet and the bird-foot violet.

As with all wild food sources, those wishing to try edible wildflowers and natural medicines should consult reputable sources to learn what to forage and how to avoid danger. Check with a physician or pharmacist to make certain wild plant foods and medicines will work with other medicines you may be taking.

Learning More

Wildflower information is easy to find in print and online. I like best those sources with vivid colorful images of the flowers and authoritative text. Here are my favorites:

For wildflower lore, I enjoy Timothy Coffey’s 1994 work “The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers.”

To learn of potential medicinal uses for wild plants, you might refer to the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health’s herbal medicines web pages:

The Foxfire books are a go-to resource for all things Appalachian. “Foxfire 2” contains information on spring wild plant food. 
“American Indian Healing Arts,” published in 1999 by E. Barrie Kavasch and Karen Baar,  is another good source of traditional plant uses.

The field guide I used most for this project was “Wildflowers of the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains,” by Oscar W. Gupton and Fred C. Swope.

Finally, I found many tasty recipes using wildflowers in “A Naturalist’s Guide to Cooking with Wild Plants” by Connie and Arnold Krochmal 1974).

Stephanie Gardner is a Virginia Master Naturalist and special collections librarian at Bridgewater College. She provided all of the photos above, with the exception of the blue violets. Sounds like she picked all of those for a snack. 

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