In the coldest days of winter we turn to that group of plants known as the small salads. These minor greens were well known to our colonial predecessors but are too often overlooked by the modern gardener. In the autumn garden we were supplied with white mustard and garden cress, but these tender greens wither in the colder temperatures of mid-winter and are replaced by corn salad and winter cress; the hardiest of all the small salads.
Corn salad is also known by the English as lamb’s lettuce because it is one of the few greens that will survive the winter to be available to the spring lambs. The French call it mâche, and the Germans name it feldsalat (field salad) which recognizes its origin as a plant gathered from the wild, which mankind has been doing for a very long time. Evidence of corn salad has been found amongst the remains of Swiss lake dwellings dating from the late Stone Age and it has likely been gathered from the wild since prehistoric times. It is a small, tidy green with a faintly nutty flavor that, like spinach, is difficult to germinate in a warm soil so is best left for cooler weather. With the refinement of market gardening in the 19th century that made salad greens available throughout the year, corn salad, along with many of the other small salads, was largely abandoned. In 1821 William Cobbett wrote of corn salad in American Gardener: “This is a little insignificant annual plant that some persons use in salads, though it can hardly be of any real use, where lettuce seed is to be had. It is a mere weed.” Unfortunately, it is a reputation that has followed this useful winter green to this very day.
Equally as cold hardy is the winter cress, another northern European weed that long ago took up residence in this country as the ubiquitous Yellow Rocket, whose bright yellow flowers adorn American roadsides in late spring. Its wayfaring habit has long been noted. In 1597 John Gerard observed: “It groweth in gardens among pot herbes, and very common in the fields, neere to pathes and high wayes, almost every where.” It was also known as scurvy grass in Europe as it was one of few greens available in mid-winter to help prevent this debilitating disease. In the southern United States it goes by the name of “Creasy Greens” and its sharp, biting flavor may be used to liven up either the salad or the stew pot.
For a complete examination of the small salads you are invited to inspect Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners (Rodale Press)