“In green-up time our fathers go afield
To plow the stubborn slopes their fathers plowed
Planting in green-up time gives greater yield
They work in sun beneath the wind and cloud.
In green-up time our mothers walk by streams
To pick the water-cresses from creek bottom…”
So go the lyrics to a poem about Kentucky, lyrics which probably described farms all through the country.
Green-up time is a colloquialism for spring when plants emerge from beneath the earth and bask in the warm sunshine. One can look through the woods and see a pale green color in the trees as leaves begin to put out. It also refers to the time when winter grown plants “green up” with warmer weather as with winter wheat. In the early 20th century Agricultural Bulletins farmers reported on when the grasses and wheat began to green up each spring. When families raised their own food grass to feed farm animals was as important as plants to feed families.
“Everything looked hopeful. The garden was greening up beautifully; the hens were laying or sitting; we should be all right if we could keep our heads above water and keep out of debt.”
In times past when families had nothing but canned, salted, dried or smoked food from fall to mid-spring green-up time was eagerly awaited so that the enlightened country cook could gather from Mother Nature’s store house a variety of fresh greens. Whether cooked separately or several varieties combined to make enough for a “mess”, those greens were mighty welcome especially when prepared with some side meat or bacon grease and served with hot cornbread.
“Soon after sassafras time, it was green-up time, with the first shoots coming up out of the ground. We watched the sprouts hopefully, for this was the time of year for Granny to go to the fields and woods to pick her wild greens, the “sallets” of the old frontier. Granny Fanny taught us all the plants, and how to tell the good greens from the bad. We gathered new poke sprouts, always being careful not to snip them too close to their poison roots; and we gathered “spotted leaf,” leaves of “lamb’s tongue,” butter-and-eggs, curly dock, new blackberry sprouts, dandelions, and a few violet leaves.
Green-up time was also ramp season, but Mama wouldn’t let a ramp come into the house, for the ramp is a vile-smelling wood’s onion whose odor, like memory, lingers on. Some of our neighbors and cousins hunted ramps every spring and carried them home in gunnysacks to boil and fry. In the spring down at school, the teacher would sometimes have to throw the windows wide open to air out the smell of ramps, wet woolen stockings, and kid sweat.” — McNeill.
Greens meant different things to different people depending on where they lived but probably the most common included poke, dock, dandelion, nettles, cowslips, chickweed, lamb’s quarters or pigweed, milkweed, plantain, purslane, watercress, ramps, mallow, mustard, greenbriar, chicory, sorrel, bracken, clover, young blackberry shoots, etc. Dandelion is an excellent example of a green that escaped its boundaries and began to grow wild.
Sometimes turnips left in the field would throw up new greens when the weather turned nice and these could be added to the mix. Cabbage and collard stalks that weren’t treated too badly by Old Man Winter likewise produced sprouts for the pot. While usually not technically a wild food, young hop tops were common greens.
Perhaps the most often eaten wild plant in my family was poke. The tender young shoots were parboiled, then cooked with meat or drippings, and when a little larger the stalks were peeled, sliced, battered, and fried like okra. Foragers today think they’re going to die if they eat poke, but if that were true few country families would have survived the Depression era. In the spring mama even canned and froze it to last through the year.
“Poke Sallet and Branch Lettuce. Cowskull Mountain. This is the time of year in the hills when the jaded appetite turns to turnip greens and poke sallet, speckled dock and branch lettuce. To mountain folks, weary from a dreary winter-long diet of store bought vittles, it is a very special season. They call it green–up time. And in the hills green–up time, which comes when spring starts bustin’ out all over, sends folks into the old fields and along the branches in search of wild greens.”
Before I wish you my usual Blissful Meals, I will beseech you to get out this weekend and enjoy green up time. While out and about look for those first tender leaves of spring and consider feasting as your grandparents probably did.
Bib: Stuart, Jesse. “Kentucky is My Land”. 1952.
McNeill, Louise. “The Milkweed Ladies”, page 45 and 46.
Parris, John. “These Storied Mountains”. 1972.
“Saturday Evening Post”. April 15, 1911.