Wild greens are one of early spring's healthiest foods, and, in days gone by, they were very important. In those days, winter usually meant a period without vegetables, and the first green shoots of spring were welcomed with great joy.

Most wild greens are far richer nutrictionally than their cultivated cousins. They might even have super strength because they grow without human help. I know people sneer at these free vegetables and scorn them, saying things like, "I'm not reduced to eating weeds." Truth is, I'm not reduced to eating weeds either, I'm expanded by it. And I like the way a lot of them taste.

A plate of dandelions, fresh, young, cut with their crowns intact, and sauteed in garlic and oil, is a lovely dish. They're not as bitter in the spring as they are later; I see it as an unusual flavor.

Dandelions contain more protein than most garden vegetables. They're richer in calcium and phosphorus, and have almost twice as much vitamin A and as much iron as spinach. Try adding some to chicken broth, with other vegetables, and you'll turn it into a supercharged brew.

And this good food is a gift. Dandelions do so well in the wilds, try to pick yours in spots where they haven't been blasted with weedkillers, and keep away from highways, where they might be polluted with lead. Chances are, most dandelions you find will be freer of toxic chemicals than most vegetables in the supermarket.

Sheep sorrel is easy to identify, and good-tasting too. It grows close to the ground on poor soil. The leaves are shaped like small arrowheads, and the flavor is tart, similar to sour grass or French sorrel. A handful of leaves tossed into a salad adds a refreshing touch. It can also be cooked or made into soup. Sorrel is a European favorite, but it grows wild in much of this country.

Wild onions and garlic are always rampant in spring, but they have to be used sparingly, as they have a stong flavor, which can stay with you for days. The thicker wild leeks, or ramps, have a milder flavor, and can be cooked like asparagus.

If you want tea to wash down your greens, watch the woods for pokeweed, burdock, lambs quarters, amaranth, and the king of wild vegetables, asparagus. And nature will provide a wealth of fruits for desert.

If you can find someone in your area who gathers wild foods, do your best to get friendly -- it's the easiest and best way to learn. Tag along on forays, and you'll learn more than books can teach.

But study books, too. Try to find one with clear pictures, and study them. Never eat a plant you can't identify, unless you're close to identification, and taste is an important clue. Then try just a small bite. Taste it. Spit it out. Think about it for a while.

As soon as you can identify a plant, sit down close and meditate on it. It's an American Indian practice, and they used it to get in tune with the plants. Even if you don't succeed in tuning in, this mediation will help you. It will make sure the plant's image is stored in your brain. The next time you see it, it will be an old friend.