It has been a tradition in many different cultures for wise women to go into the countryside in springtime to collect fresh herbs and greens to revive the health of communities weakened by the restricted diet of a hard, hungry winter.
In China, wild herbs and spring greens were cooked in a communal pot and shared with every family to purify the blood and refresh the spirits. Barefoot doctors still perform this service in rural areas.
In Tibet, where women needed more than one husband to ensure the survival of their children, the elder husband was sent out in early spring to forage, exposed to the dangers of melting snows and avalanches.
In North America, 17th century settlers learned from Indian squaws the uses of skunk cabbage, which, despite smelling as one might expect, was one of the first greens to push up through the snow, and a rich source of iron, vitamins and antibiotics. It was also a first-line defence against scurvy.
In pre-medieval England, respected hedge-witches collected and sold these spring greens, a mixture of chickweed, cleavers, dandelions, daisy, strawberry and nettle leaves, primroses, Star of Bethlehem, buds and flowers of hawthorn and bark of birch, pine and willow. But later, they were persecuted by religious reformers as evil-doers, mischief-makers and heretics.
First Romans and later returning Crusaders had brought favourite potherbs from abroad to English home farms and monastery gardens, so this mixture was enhanced with goutweed, Alexanders, comfrey, lambs lettuce and milk-thistle. Most commoners knew and respected these plants: goutweed as a relief from dropsy and arthritis; comfrey for wounds, sprains and broken bones, and milk-thistle as a gift of Mother Mary for all the problems associated with womanhood and pregnancy.
Even fifty years ago, many Yorkshire and Lancashire housewives collected wild greens, mainly nettles, dandelions and burdock, and added a few leaves of bitter dock in a pudding which accompanied the first meats after Easter fasting. Many had forgotten the original purpose of detoxification and replenishment and saw it as a form of penance for the death of a Saviour.
As the grip of Protestant asceticism loosened its hold on the hearts of modern families, the merits of eating bitter dock pudding were relinquished with relief and the bland and sweet vegetables now familiar as ready-washed salads from supermarket shelves replaced the chore and ordeal of collecting, preparing and eating traditional Easter Dock Pudding. Today there are many hedgerow plants which could be used in such a pudding.
But there are also many dangers and difficulties. Many plants are protected by law. More grow where dogs and cats can soil them, or traffic and industrial dust and fumes coat them with toxic residue, such as lead and dioxins. The safest place to gather them is from the seashore or your own garden, where they grow with great ease. Instead of composting many of your weeds, your dandelions, nettles, burdock, chickweed, comfrey, ground elder and Alexanders, eat them, and good health to you!