A Medicine Woman’s Best Kept Secret…
I remember walking through the misty gardens at daybreak in early May, in learning with the crone of the village. She talked about the medicines and wild foods of the forest as we walked down by the rushing creek that day. We descended a rock-lined path through the tangled groves of mountain laurel, which ended at a bright opening. We came to the main vegetable garden, a small field of about an acre. As the crone guided me to a patch of what appeared to be glorious weeds, we stopped and bowed to the gardens and gave an offering of herbs to the four directions. She plucked the top of one of the pretty little plants, held it to my lips to taste and said, “Rapunzel is a secret to many of my most coveted culinary delights; a must have for a cool, crisp salad on a warm spring day.” I was surprised by the smooth texture of the deliciously mild and nutty flavored leaves. I set out to grow this food of the Goddess and have continued ever since. As a medicine woman, shaman and mother of the forest, the old crone always told everyone, “I will share my secrets with you… if you promise to teach them to the world.”
I was pale, however, in the light of the beautiful Indian lady who lived on Clear Creek, for she was the holder of an intimate knowledge of the plants and wildlife. She kept the secrets of the forest, streams, creeks, flowers and fauna in the Southern Appalachia. I absorbed everything I could from her until she passed away a few years later.
Rapunzel, also known as corn salad or mache, is one of the most divine salad greens you will ever eat. Despite the fact that it is an easy-to-grow weed, it is found in the most expensive of restaurants and kitchens of chefs and culinary connoisseurs.
“Corn salad (Valerianella locusta (Linnaeus) or Valerianella olitoria (Moench) — the synonym Valeriana is obsolete but appears frequently in older texts) is a small dicot annual plant of the family Valerianaceae. It is also called Lewiston cornsalad, lamb’s lettuce, fetticus, field salad, mâche, feldsalat, nut lettuce and rapunzel. Corn salad was originally foraged by European peasants until the royal gardener of King Louis XIV, de la Quintinie, introduced it to the world. It has also been used as food in Britain for many centuries and appears in John Gerard’s Herbal of 1597 but only became commercially available there in the 1980s. The common name corn salad refers to the fact that it often grows as a weed in wheat fields. Like other formerly foraged greens, corn salad has many nutrients, including three times as much vitamin C as lettuce, beta-carotene, B6, B9, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids. It is best if gathered before flowers appear.” (Wikipedia)
Growing your own food is an extremely rewarding experience, no matter what scale you do it on. It is something that I have been fortunate enough to experience throughout my life. It is incredible to watch a small child see the process of life and death take place in a growing season. They earn the fruits of their labor (literally), while learning about responsibility, consequence, impermanence and the importance of appreciating the simple things in life. When we neglect or ignore the needs of the plants, the garden suffers and dies. It takes love to make things grow. This shows children that when we are responsible and nurture life, it nurtures us back. Sometimes things die or get run over by a lawn mower, but through the seeds of labor come more abundance and life! Feeling the silken earth sift through your fingers and seeing the results of love and patience are two of life’s greatest treasures and I am honored to share my experiences with anyone who cares to listen!
How to grow salad greens in a container:
I live in Zone 7, so I start a 3’ x 3’ garden patch at the first signs of spring (Mid-February this year). If there is danger of frost, I can cover a small patch. Enrich the soil with compost and add a gallon of sand. Two weeks later, plant another smaller patch and at least one
container of a combination of mache and heirloom mixed salad greens. I plant them in the fall, since it is very cold hardy and lasts through a Tennessee winter without problems. I bought heirloom Mache seeds a long time ago (so that I can save them myself) and I haven’t had to purchase them since!
Planting heirloom lettuce & mache in containers is as easy as 1, 2, 3:
1. Fill a large container or planter at least 6 inches deep with good quality potting soil or a mixture of garden compost or manure, potting soil and a few tablespoons of organic fertilizer for vegetables. A fertilizer high in nitrogen is preferred, since you don’t want the lettuce to flower. Over the years I have learned that Mache loves sand, so I also mix in a cup or two of that.
2. Scatter lettuce and mache seeds over soil generously, and then cover the seeds with a fine layer of soil (1/2 inch). Keep soil moist, but not wet. After seedlings appear, you will want to thin them when they get to be an inch or two high. Thin to an inch apart.
3. As plants mature, use organic fertilizer such as manure tea or a store bought organic fertilizer for vegetables. Fertilizing once a week should be enough, depending on the strength of the fertilizer, and as I said earlier, I prefer fertilizers high in nitrogen for growing lettuce.
Rapunzel & Mixed Greens with Strawberries, Toasted Almonds and White Wine Vinaigrette:
From the Forest Elders Kitchen….
WARNING: This salad is really, really good!
A big bowl of salad greens & rapunzel (substitute with spinach) – washed, air dried and chilled.
Sliced fresh strawberries, dried cranberries, toasted almonds or pecans and optional chives or scallions.
In a small sauté pan, toast sesame seeds & almonds (can do together or separate) over medium low heat for 3-5 minutes until golden brown, stirring very frequently.
White Wine Vinaigrette:
¼ – ½ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup cider vinegar
¾ cup canola oil (can use peanut oil or sesame oil – NOT toasted)
½ – 1 tsp. minced shallot or onion
¼ tsp. paprika
¼ cup sugar
Whisk ingredients together & toss a little with spinach and/or mixed greens right before serving. Bon Apetit!
Omit the onion, whisk in some raspberry preserves and use agave instead of sugar.
Use toasted pine nuts, gorgonzola and dried cranberries.
Or use oven-roasted pecans and mandarin oranges.