Lessons from the Plant World
It now seems likely that families will be home through the end of the school year. The plant world offers a rich resource of practical lessons that are educational, too. Being outside and exploring the wild plant world can make us feel stronger and less vulnerable in times like these.
It’s important to teach children that the plants around us can be used for various things, which leads to a greater respect for the plant world. For example, tall, straight Loblolly pines were once used for the masts of tall sailing ships used in commerce.
Another important lesson: while plants can provide us with food there are some that contain poisonous substances. This is something that I stress to my young grandchildren—only certain plants can be eaten. It’s also a good idea to show children botanical field guides and how to use them.
One of my favorite plants in bloom from April to May is wintercress, Barbera vulgaris, which is edible. Its cheery bright yellow flowers radiate sunshine when you see it in farm fields, at the edges of woods or disturbed ground. It has a basal rosette of leaves just prior to bolting with yellow flowers. It is a versatile spring succulent with glossy-looking lobed leaves in the Brassica family, the same family that includes cabbage, mustard and broccoli. It grows all across the United States in shady places with good soil and reasonable moisture throughout the year.
Wintercress is only about half the height of field mustard which looks very similar and is also edible. Wintercress is high in vitamin C and beta-carotene and contains the phytochemical glucosinolate. Many health benefits are linked to glucosinolate, also found in other members of the broccoli family.
Wintercress has historically been eaten by Greek, Italian, Russian peoples and many Americans in Southern states. It is also known as yellow rocket, bittercress and creasy greens.
The leaves of the first-year plant have a terminal or end lobe that is larger than all the other lobes. The second year, wintercress bolts or flowers when the temperatures reach 50 degrees. It sends up more stems that are ridged along their length. The flowers have four petals in clusters of bright yellow. The leaves are lobed all the way to the midrib of the leaf.
To eat wintercress, gather the leaves and flower tips and cook them in boiling water for about three minutes. Drizzle olive oil and lemon juice over them and enjoy.