Among the trials of growing up are coming to grips with your shortcomings and to terms with your environment. In my case, they're the same thing.
I have neither the knack (nor the knees) for gardening. I have more things growing in the refrigerator than along the porch. But as advertising designers know, concept is the key. One man's weed is another man's potion -- and my weeds, redefined as radical chic, can be as trendy as any anemone. And it eliminates the embarrassment of a bumper crop of dandelions. If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em. Once you get the habit of browsing through the back yard, expand your horizons. A little vacant lot loitering, and you could double your herb dose. Even beyond the fringe elements, there are flavorful flowers -- a whole new dinner outside your door. Especially for summer entertaining, when the heat argues for salads and such, flowers offer both a challenge to the palate and color to the palette.
I've never drunk dandelion wine, but that would certainly be going from the silly to the sublime. More simply, the greens can be used for salads, and the yellow heads as edible garnish. The plants age from tangy to bitter, so best to pick them young; to ensure good flavor, shade the plants before they're full grown, and they will turn pale and languid as a Tennyson heroine.
Wild chicory makes for salad greens, too, and is extremely chic (radicchio, after all, is just Italian designer chicory). So is endive, both the curly varieties or the broad- leaf type -- which is what's marketed as escarole -- and so is sorrel, a cult passion that makes superb soup as well. Some people prefer to blanch wild greens, which can mean either plunging them briefly into boiling water or drying them for a couple of days.
The spring onions in your yard are exactly like the ones rubber-banded in the grocery, and you should take advantage of them. In fact, they tend to be a little sharp, and are great in the marinades of those kebabs and steaks you're planning to grill.
Watercress is haute cuisine where I come from; every spring we waded up and down the dams picking cress for sandwiches, and I'm already on the lookout around here. Cress is part of the nasturtium family, a relative of mustard; what we usually call nasturtiums -- this is tricky -- is really named tropaeolum, but never mind. Those flowers, stems and leaves make good eating, too; the bitter flavor gave them the "nasty" name, but when it comes to greens, bitter is better than bland.
As any mint enthusiast knows, the untended mints of abandoned lots and back alleys seem to have even better flavor and fragrance. And look around the yards in the neighborhood: Some regenerating herbs, such as thyme and sage, may have survived some previous inhabitants. How about roasted cattail cobs instead of breadsticks?
Some smaller flowers can be tossed whole into salads or casseroles or even desserts -- try honeysuckle flowers, or violets, or rosebuds (or rose petals). The saucer- shaped borage flowers are common fodder in Europe, more often candied here; but the leaves can be used to flavor cold drinks and the like (in moderation -- it's also a mild natural laxative).
Day lilies are self-contained three-course meals. The prebloom bud, a sort of okra-sized pod, can be consumed raw or steamed as a veggie (I predict a new craze in cold pasta -- rotelli with fresh tomato dice and day lilies). The flowers can be saut,eed, stir-fried (use them last, so they retain their look) or even served tempura style; and the tubers sliced water- chestnut-style.
The Chinese say steamed tiger lily bulbs taste something like an artichoke, and the Japanese are prone to nibble the majestic gold- banded lily; but several varieties, including Easter lilies and the misnamed lily-of- the-valley, are noxious and even toxic. Southern ladies are not the only fatal flowers.
As a matter of fact, there are far more deadly blooms than delicious ones. Among them are buttercups, daffodils, wisteria, iris, may apple, foxglove, the ominously named angel's trumpet and the more straightforward deadly nightshade. Oleanders, jerusalem cherries and mistletoe are Brand X, along with black locust and yew trees. (Sassafras tea used to be praised as a cure-all, but now scientists believe that in great quantities it can be carcinogenic.)
Skunk cabbage isn't cabbage, and it smells almost too bad to pick anyway, but it's poisonous unless boiled; poke, as in pokeweed or poke sallet, has extremely toxic berries and stems, and also has to be boiled. And the phrase "wild asparagus" covers a multitude of stems; what some people are talking about is poke, and it's bad news.
As for wild mushrooms, I would say that abstinence makes the heart go longer. Even experienced 'shroomers make mistakes. I prefer to stop and swallow the roses.