Foraging in January. Winter wild foods to find and try!

Savour the flavours of winter with this short guide to foraging in January.

13 wild foods to look for when foraging in January. 

Foraging in January. Of course! Its more worthwhile than you may have thought, well, that is if you’re not snowed in! If we also think of seaweeds and seasonal sea food here, as well as plants and fungi, then we have a substantial wild larder to explore.

With surprisingly little effort, once you can identify the plants and places where they live, you can gather ingredients that make food come alive with the taste of the wild. Plant I/D can be fast tracked by using the patterns that plants produce. 

Knowing which plants and what plant parts are in season becomes easier over time as you get to know plants. This can now be helped even more with my at-a-glance harvesting charts. These alphabetically listed, season-by-season charts are colour coded, showing 8 different plant parts. They feature more than 80 species, and are available as a download.

13 plants to look for when foraging in January

Down by the rivers and estuaries you are likely to see wild celery
wild celery is found at the estuaries and on river banks

Wild celery. (Apium graveolens) Mainly available from river and estuary habitats, plus ditches on water meadows. You can forage leaves and leaf stalks now, and may still find some of last years seeds available (ready for mixing with salt).  The wild plant will taste much stronger than blanched shop bought stuff. It offers fantastic flavouring for casseroles and soups. Great for a new year bloody mary cocktail! 

 

Baby dandelion leaves with red veins are an easy salad leaf to find if out foraging in January
Baby dandelion leaves with red veins are less bitter

Dandelion. (Taraxacum officinale) Can be found everywhere in the UK except the highest mountains. High in Vitamin C and potassium, as well as other important nutrients. The baby leaves (especially the red-veined specimens) are good tossed into dressed salads. Roots from larger plants can be used as a vegetable, after first leaching out their bitterness in cold water for 24 hours. Cook by par-boiling and roasting in the oven in oil or butter. Read more on dandelion here.

 

Bittercress offer peppery punchj to winter salds. There are different, similar-looking bitercress species you can find, dependent on habitat, when foraging in January
Bittercress offer peppery punch to winter salads

Bittercress (Cardamine species) Its very difficult to find yourself far away from one of the different species of bittercress. Choose any of the available species (usually up to 4 depending on your area) for a good peppery addition to salads. They also go well in a salsa verde, or simply as a garnish. Make on-the-go snacks using bittercress and the odd leaf of wall pennywort or sorrel, all rolled up in new wild garlic leaves. Powerfully punchy!

 

Wild watercress has more flavour and health benefits than shop bought

Watercress. (Rorippa nasturitum-aquaticum) Found growing in and around water, this nutritious plant is packed full of pungent flavour, and a great basis for soups or salads. The wild version is way more full of flavour than the nutrient-soaked plastic wrapped imitations. Raw leaves are packed with powerful medicine. Some of the the benefits and risks of foraging and eating raw watercress are discussed in a previous article.

 

Common sorre is relatively easy to spot in January. Its sharp tasting leaves are thirst quenching
Common sorrel is easier to spot in grasslands during January

Common sorrel. (Rumex acetosa) A really lovely addition to any salad. This is a remarkably thirst-quenching and refreshing herb, great to find on warmer days when out foraging. The sharp, tart flavour of sorrel marries exceptionally well with fish dishes. This plant coud be one to avoid if you have kidney stones, due to the oxalic acid content. Saying that, you would also have to avoid many other plants, wild and cultivated, because oxalic acid is one of the most common plant constituents.

 

Sow thistles. (Sonchus species) A plentiful plant found in numerous settings.

Sow thistle leaf rosettes are found in a wide range of settings

Gives edible leaves, stems, flower buds, and flowers, almost all year round. My favourite parts are the stems and flower buds. Buds have a surprisingly nutty taste when young and tightly packed, The stems are great when peeled and plonked into a pickle vinegar, or served raw in salads and coated in a tangy vinaigrette. You will notice that a few days continued frost will knock plants back, but until then…

 

Salad burnet is a grassland specialist with fresh cucumber flavour

Salad burnet. (Sanguisorba minor)  I adore this lover of grasslands. It may initially be difficult to find this rose family plant, because its a small delicate-looking herb. The light green, oval leaves are close to the ground at this time of year. This plant lacks in stature but not in taste. Salad burnet has a refreshing, distinctive, cucumber flavour. If you look in damp grasslands or water meadows you can also find its very similar looking relative, ‘greater burnet’ (Sanguisorba officinalis), which is a bigger plant with larger flower heads.

 

The crown of a large jack by the hedge

Jack by the hedge. (Alliaria petiolata) This brassica family plant be found as basal rosettes when you are foraging in January, and sometimes you will find large clumps. All parts are edible. My favourite part in winter is the tap roots, and they are easy to lift. Read more on this wonderful plant, and how to make a great horseradish sauce replacement.

 

Three corner leek. (Allium triquetrum) 

Dense patches of three corner leek are increasingly common

Found growing all through the winter, this highly invasive plant can create huge patches when left unchecked. Great! This offers us great onion/garlic/leek flavours with some of the associated medicinal benefits of the Allium species, and just when we need it most, in winter. Read more about three corner leek in this article and discover how to make a quick and tasty pesto, all winter long! 

Ground ivy. (Glechoma hederaceae)

Crushed ground ivy leaves are my ‘go-to’remedy against nettle stings

A brilliant aromatic herb. Aside from its remarkable ability to soothe nettle stings, ground ivy gives us complex, savoury tones with a hint of mint, even when it hasn’t recieved much sunshine. The range of scent from this plant can seem like a hybrid of thyme, rosemary and oregano. Its bitterneness falls away through cooking. Ground ivy is great with meat, pulses, soups and stews, and work well in salads when finely chopped, so as to not overpower the taste buds. Makes a very refreshing herbal tea too!

 

Bay leaves are evergreen and distinctly aromatic when crushed

Bay leaves (Laurus nobilis). Not strictly wild, but its planted and growing happily in so many places, especially the urban environment, that its super easy to find. You will see bay out-muscling their original intended homes, bursting out through garden fences and walls from the suckers that appear from its base. So really, why buy this quintessential ingredient for currys, soups and stews this winter? Best results are from dried leaves. 

Lime tree buds are often red and about 1 cm long

Lime tree buds (Tilia vulgaris). A common tree of parks and gardens, lime tree buds are another favourite wayside nibble when I’m out foraging in January. The most commonly found species is the ‘common or European’ lime. This plant produces numerous suckers from the base of the trunk from which the buds can be easily picked during the winter months. When eaten raw, they offer a lovely crunch before encountering the soft and gooey mucilage-rich inside. They are a bit fiddly to harvest, but are worth spending some time on. You can add to salads, or better still, pan fry with some spices or soy sauce for a minute or two, as you might sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Read more about the medicinal and edible lime tree here.

 

Mushroom Foraging in January:

Can you see the young ones?

Velvet Shanks – Flammulina velutipes. This clump forming winter mushroom will be stimulated into fruiting by cold and frosty weather. Its slimy, shiny-looking cap is typically a two-toned brown, lighter at the edges. The stem has a soft dark brown covering, especially towards the base, and feels velvety, hence its common name.

It has creamy white gills, that are well spaced, not crowded. The spores are white (helping to safely I/D this mushroom and distinguish it from a couple of the poisonous lookalikes).

It loves to grow on cut and damaged willow and alder. I first met it, and still mostly see it, on willow. These mushrooms are delicious served simply on buttered toast. Its flesh is somewhat sweet and meaty.

More resources to help your foraging in January.

You can find additional plants to explore in the winter and spring seasonal wild food guides. Recent articles on alexanders, thistles, and sea purslane may further whet your appetite for foraging in January,  Then after those juicy morsels, why not fine tune your searching skills with a guide to habitats and where best to forage for plants

If you are interested in learning practical foraging and wild food skills, then browse my upcoming courses for events near you

More wild foods are coming in February. Until then, happy foraging!

 

 

 

 

Foraging for Alexanders. A versatile & abundant wild food.

Foraging for alexanders. Another never ending wild plant affair.

Dense patches are a common sight when foraging for alexanders. This patch stretched on like this for more than 100 metres

No matter the time of year, it is always time to go foraging for alexanders

Foraging for alexanders, just like many other plants I cover in these pages, is a never ending affair, offering us all year round harvesting opportunities. This plant deserves our attention. In fact, invasive plants such as alexanders demand my foraging attention because of their abundance as well as thier versatility in the kitchen. Although their impact may be well known, their nutritional and medicinal virtues need highlighting, especially with austerity defining our economic zetigeist. Invasive edibles need harvesting, processing, experimenting with, and eating.

A flick through antiquated gardening books will show that alexanders is one of numerous wild edible species that were formerly consigned to the compost heap of history, but thanks to a resurgence in interest in our wild foods, are  now rightly regaining favour in the kitchen of the adventurous.

When foraging for alexanders, I uprooted a plant growing happily on top of concrete. See the right angled root growth at the top

Brought to Britain from the Mediterranean by Romans, who knew it as the ‘rock parsley of Alexandria’, this biennial plant took an instant liking to our rich fertile soils, especially around the coast. It can now be found in large, often unmanageable numbers, in these habitats.

This plant is endowed with some extraordinary abilities to thrive. I once picked a specimen, from what I thought was soil covered by leaves, only to find a large concrete slab just a couple of inches below the leaf mold. Yet a substantial tap-root had adapted to these surroundings and grown in an ‘L’ shape and was as big as if grown vertically in a rich, loamy soil.

The tender young leaf shoots are a favourite foraging nibblee, and will be found all winter when foraging for alexanders

Permaculture designers as well as foragers can utilise this vigorous growth, and other useful competitive advantages. These includes the setting of copious amounts of freely germinating seed and a winter/spring growing season. Both of these traits ensure that masses of plants establish themselves early each autumn.

Because of its vigorous/invasive nature, foragers are likely to discover that simply asking landowners if you can uproot the plant (a legal requirement), will be greeted with “Please! Take as much as you want”!

Botanical description to help identification when foraging for alexanders

As a member of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) family, extreme caution should always be exercised before picking. 

The yellow compound umbel flowers helps to stand this plant out from the crowd of similar-looking umbellifers

Aside from their well-documented potentially poisonous qualities, their photo-toxicity needs mentioning. And while it is true that a number of the umbellifers are deadly poisonous, alexanders offers the beginner an easy introduction to identifying these notoriously difficult plants and becoming acquainted with the carrot family as a whole. 

Alexanders is a hairless and aromatic plant, containing its essential oil glands within the leaves. This contrasts to another aromatic family (Lamiaceae – mints) which tend to produce external glandular hairs. So when seeking out the aromatics unique to a species, crushing and sniffing a leaf is, as ever, vital. More information on medicinal plant constituents and their actions can be found here.

The generic name Smyrnium alludes to the myrrh-like aromatics, whereas the specific epithet olusatrum refers to the black colour of the mature seeds and the skin on the roots.

The basal leaves are on large petioles – sheathed at the base, and often found with a pink-tinge. The hollow petioles are shaped like flattened cylinders, and covered with thin lines. Upper stem leaves are sessile (without stalks).

When out foraging for alexanders,it is possible that untrained eyes may confuse it with wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) or wild celery (Apium graveolens), which can both be found sharing the same coastal habitat.

On close inspection however, you will notice a number of clear differences. Alexanders leaves are triangular-shaped – like numerous umbellifers, but the leaflets appear in groups of three (ternate) – in contrast to many other relatives with pinnate divisions (pinnae: Latin feather).

This short video explains how to identify pinnate-leaved carrot family plants 

Alexanders leaflets are in groups of three and on close inspection reveal tiny white hydathodes on the serration tips.

The glossy lime-green leaves of alexanders are able to be identified with a single characteristic: the tiny white hydathodes (glands that exude water on the teeth or tips of a leaf). These are not found on any other umbellifer in Britain. The leaflets are oval(ish), with rounded crenate-serrations.

Fully grown angelica leaves will reveal 3 or 4 pinnate divisions, typically with a purple tinge to each leaflet margin as well as the leaf stalk. Where as celery has glossy, once pinnate leaves, with lobed leaflets, on deeply grooved and ridged petioles. The distinctive celery smell immediately sets it apart from other umbellifers.

A typical sight if foraging for alexanders in spring…a mass of yellow flowers on stems that are now unfit for harvesting

Alexanders produces young flowering stems in February and March. These are solid at first, becoming hollow with age. When cutting you can briefly see a white latex. The stems are branched and slightly ridged with green vertical stripes.

The umbrella-like inflorescence quickly unfurls in early spring sunshine. The yellow flowers have five petals, and are followed by the large aromatic seeds – green at first, turning black when ripe. More information on identifying plants using their observable plant family patterns can be found here.

Cookery ideas using alexanders

The leaves can be added to soups or used sparingly in salads when chopped. The young emerging leaf shoots with their tender white bases, are great steamed, stir fried or battered in rice and gram flour.

A jar of rhubarb and alexanders jam

I think the tender young flower stems are delectable when harvested at the right time. This timing will always be site and specimen specific, as my article on the edibility of edible wild plants discusses. Stems need to be picked well before the flowers are out, to ensure tenderness. When steamed, they are magnificent served simply, with cracked black pepper and butter or olive oil.

In other pages I have created a guide to harvesting wild plants as well as a discussion on how the timing of harvests greatly influences edibility.

Alexanders and rhubarb jam on sourdough bread. A lovely late winter / early spring wild food treat

For lovers of preserves, the stems also make a superb late-winter jam when combined with early forced rhubarb. Somehow, the two plants produce a melon or kiwi fruit flavour! I recommend leaving the thinner stems unpeeled, as the stripes add more visual impact in the finished product.

The stems can be candied if you fancy, just like angelica, but most of the aromatics are lost with repeated heating, and its a fiddly, time-consuming business. Better still, the very young, tightly packed flower buds can be made into an unusual aromatic fudge-like sweet, with muscavado sugar, vanilla pods and butter, and they make a great wild replacement for cauliflower in a tangy piccalilli (Thanks Anna!)

With seven plant parts to use, there are lots of reasons to go foraging for alexanders
The jet black seeds of alexanders were formerly used as a seasoning, before pepper became widely available

I use the roots in soups, or par-boiled, before being sautéed or roasted. They have a somewhat floury texture when roasted, but will retain a hint of bitterness. Upon flower initiation (up to five weeks before we see evidence), the roots will begin to become more fibrous, so early specimens are best.

Alexanders seed are a great hedgerow spice! They can be made into a pickle, lacto-fermented, or used just as they are, where their volatile constituents and bitter green tones offer slightly different flavour profiles than the mature, black seeds.

They offer similar textures and a hint of a pepper-like top note. If pan roasted first, the flavour profile softens and balances out further, similar to using its family relatives coriander, cumin, assa-feotida, and fennel.

A selection of my wild food recipes, including alexanders and rhubarb jam, can be found here.

This plant is another of the 52 featured species in my foragers playing cards – a perfect way to learn and play! These cards together with my other sets of wild food cards, are available from from the shop.

Happy foraging!

A Few Foraged Ideas for Rustic Christmas Decorations

Some festive ideas for rustic Christmas decorations

During the run up to the mid winter holidays, foragers can also turn attention to the decorative virtues of plants. Have you ever tried your hand at foraging and making a range of rustic Christmas decorations? These few wild ideas can brighten up the hearth and home during solstice and yuletide celebrations, during the darkest days of the year.

As well as continuing our year round harvesting of plants for their culinary or medicinal uses, at yule-tide, we can further step outside the consumer gift-wrapped box for nature-based creative inspiration, and add some locally sourced festive cheer to brighten up the darkest days of the year.

For centuries until the advent of readily available petro-chemicals and plastics, we have gone out foraging Christmas decorations to brighten up our homes and hearth, during the mid winter festival. Once again, the urge is for using natural materials. Numerous shop and garden centres seem to stock their range of rustic Christmas decorations and crafts almost as soon as Hallowe’en is done.

Some of the plant species traditionally used to celebrate the ancient winter festivals will be well known to you, for they are intrinsic to our current cultural celebrations based around the winter solstice. Other species are perhaps less well known, but will be easily found by sharp-eyed foragers.

These include misletoe (Viscum album), holly (Ilex europaeus), ivy (Hedera helix), and any one of a number of evergreen, needle-bearing conifers such as fir trees (Abiaceae), or pine trees (Pinaceae).

Ok, I admit it and I am not ashamed. Throughout the year I occasionally pick flowers for arranging at home. Some people may advocate ‘no picking’, but I don’t agree, and don’t know any other responsible foragers who do! I love the delicate beauty of our abundant wild flowers, rather than the showy, often ostentatious ornamental cultivars bred specifically for floral displays. If I’m living in an urban area, I will always have easy access to a vase full of colour all year round, just a short step away from my front door.

But the darker months limit the foragers choices; although on balance, the stunningly sweet and strong vanilla-like fragrance of the inedible winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), helps makes up for the lack of diversity.

I get a bitter-sweet feeling from the timing of its flowering. The short racemes are a sign of us being in the depths of winter, when we are a long way from summer, yet its beauty always hints at the inevitable return of spring, no matter how long away it seems.

You will notice this particular winter specialist in bloom from December onwards. It is found in woodlands, along roadsides and pathways, by hedgerows, and popping up here and there in darker spots where most plants can’t survive. Its inflorescence is similar to butterbur (Petasites hybridus), a significantly larger plant. 

Gorgeous winter colour and vanilla scent, make this well worth while collecting for the table

At first glance, its leaves are a similar shape to the family relative coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), although Petasites has minutely crenated margins, unlike coltsfoot. and lacks the coating of downy white hair on the undersides.

Rustic Christmas Decorations for the Tree

When thinking of decorating your Christmas tree, why not consider utilising nature’s designs and start foraging for rustic Christmas decorations from your local park or street? For example, you could replace imported baubles with the fruits of the London plane (Platanus x hispanica). These  trees produce abundant numbers of pimply, spherical fruits that even come on their own string!

 

London plane fruits are great Christmas decorations when wrapped in shiny foil or painted with glitter paint!

These natural baubles can be wrapped in bottle tops or coloured silver foil or simply dusted with glue and glitter. Although these christmas decorations are better collected in mid autumn, preferably when the fruits are still a bit green, you will be able to find some in December

 

London plane trees are one of our most widely-planted amenity trees, due to its abilities to withstand pollution. It is easily identifiable with its alternate red buds; large palmately-lobed leaves, very similar to a sycamore (Acer psuedo-platanus), and a distinctive flaky bark, which when mature, produces a characteristic mottled appearance.

Other pretty Christmas tree decorations include the translucent seed pods of honesty (Lunaria annua). This Brassica family herb was named after its striking oval-round pods, which are typically grey/silver looking. These can be tied onto the Christmas tree with cotton, ribbon, or shiny thread.

A large number of parcels and packages are sent by post during December. By using the leaves of the New Zealand flax you can add a rustic touch to your gift wrapping. 

The long tapered leaves of a New Zealand flax are easy to peel apart for twine

This large landscaping favourite is a monocot, like all the lilies and grasses. Because all monocot plants have parallel veins in the leaves, they can be carefully peeled into very thin strips. Prepared like this, New Zealand flax leaves are strong enough to be used like string or ribbon.

Home-made wreaths. Rustic Christmas decoration for the door or wall

Making Christmas wreaths can be fun for children and adults alike. Anything can be potentially woven onto a wire frame, but traditionally, it was holly (Ilex europaeus), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and various conifers (Pinus / Abies species) that made up the bulk of the greenery. But it’s your decision how minimal or garish you finish it!

 

For speed and bulk, try using the divisive evergreen urban hedge plant, Leylandii. These leaves are in plentiful supply on almost every street and can quickly be woven into the frame, to provide a backdrop for the more colourful touches of say, variegated holly.

A wreath of bay, leylandii, spruce, holly and marjoram

Most people who celebrate Christmas know the song ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. These two evergreen plants continue to decorate our walls, ceilings and doorways, and are often hung from the beginning of Advent. To our ancestors these plants would have represented the everlasting spirit and nature of life.

 

Mistletoe (Viscum album), although less common than it once was, is still easily found when you are in the heart of the countryside. It loves apple orchards and lime trees, hawthorn and poplars. By hunting some down, climbing up trees and cutting sprigs of this semi-parasitic plant, you are following in a tradition the Druids knew of well, and connects you to your landscape once more, as well as getting you kisses from all visitors to your house over the holiday season!

Mistletoe loves apples and Lime trees especially. An essential christmas decoration for many people

If you are lucky enough to have an open fire or wood burner, with access to a woods nearby, then you can impress your guests when setting a yule log fire by using the sooty black fungus known as King Alfred cakes as natural fire-lighters. When dry, they hold a spark or flame immediately, if you blow on the porous, glowing fruit body.

Feasting and family walks are great traditions of Christmas. With a little forethought, you can use one activity to enhance the other! When walking in the woods, or even around town, you will almost certainly come across one of the abundant herbs of winter, which can add familiar flavours to your Christmas eating and drinking.

Wood avens (Geum urbanum), is also called clove root, for reasons that are obvious as soon as you crush and sniff one of its thin fibrous roots. I sometimes call it Christmas root. You can’t help but find it, and winter is a great time, because there is little vegetation competing for your attention.

Clove root’s aromatic compounds contain some found in cloves, so can be used as a replacement in festive food and drinks

Look for rosettes of lobed leaves with a large, roughly-oval terminal lobe. All parts are hairy. In flower during spring it produces a branched inflorescence with solitary, terminal flowers. The five green sepals tend to reflex. Its yellow, oval petals surround a mass of stamens. 

This rose family plant contains small amounts of salicylic acid derivatives (compounds responsible for the scent of meadowsweet and proprietary anti-inflammatory products such as ‘Deep Heat’). The volatile constituents responsible for the aroma are lost on drying so the root needs to be fresh.

Many people enjoy a glass of mulled wine at Christmas. Typically the spices will include cardamom pods and oranges, alongside cinnamon and star anise. For a change this festive period, how about trying the aromatic seeds of hogweed? Almost everyone who has tried them on my foraging courses, has enjoyed the citrus/cardamom-like flavour.

Hogweed’s citrus-cardamom aromatics  and architectural shape make this perfect to use in mulled wine and cider. 

You should still be able to find the brown oval seeds of hogweed in numerous places, whether you live in town or country. It is a plant that can still be found in flower at this time of year, as long as hard frosts are kept at bay.

 

I can only imagine that last feast day, also known as ‘Three Kings day’ was especially celebrated by the serfs and peasants, for the next day they would be required back at work!

Happy foraging, yuletide felicitations, and enjoy making your rustic christmas decorations!


Foraging Garlic Mustard / Jack-by-the-hedge / Alliaria Petiolata

Foraging Garlic Mustard – The Creme of the Hedgerow

Learn about foraging garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) Brassicaceae

Wild food hedgerow walks in winter are almost guaranteed to throw up opportunities to go foraging garlic mustard. For me, it’s one of the best wild food resources you can find in the hedgerows.

This plant is also mentioned in my winter foraging guide, and features in my foragers card game sets. The subject of cooking with and foraging garlic mustard needed an article all to itself, so here goes. You can find a recipe for a garlic mustard creme  in the wild food recipes page.

Why go foraging garlic mustard?

Abundance, and simply because it doesn’t really stop giving. There are 8 different plant parts you can use throughout its gradual metamorphosis, and as the seasons pass, you will almost always find something to harvest.

  • Tap roots
  • Leaves
  • Petioles from new growth in spring
  • Stems, when young and tender
  • Flowering Shoots
  • Flowers
  • Seeds
  • Microgreens

Foraging garlic mustard can offer us similar health benefits to those we know from some closely related species, such as horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) and hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale).

When we go foraging garlic mustard we are helping to keep in check a plant that is counted in certain parts of North America, where it has no natural predators, as a virulent invasive weed, proving so far impossible to .

Botanical and sensual description to help I/D when foraging garlic mustard

Garlic Mustard is an annual or biennial herbaceous plant.

Remember that in practice, the terms ‘annual’ or ‘biennial’ are often ambiguous, and are frequently used as purely descriptive categories for the nurseries and gardens to explain cultivation.

Annual’s – are mostly used to describe plants that complete their life-cycle in less than 12 months. However, these plants can sometimes grow longer than 12 months. Some of the plants  grown in the UK are treated as annuals, i.e. chili peppers,especially when they originate in sub-tropical climates.

Biennial’s – Taking more than one whole growing season to complete life cycle. can often be found over-wintering as a basal rosette. However, many seeds germinate in July and August, and can be in flower by  the next summer.

Garlic mustard produces overwintering rosettes of simple, kidney-shaped leaves, found on long petioles. These typically grow to approximately 10-15 cm across and can be a darker green colour during the winter. The leaves are net-veined with wavy and crenated margins.

 

Its’s leaves give off a recognisable pungent garlic / cabbage aromas when crushed. This is due to the presence of volatile sulphurous compounds, which as I mentioned in the watercress article are proving to be more than efficient at arresting the growth of some common cancers.

A large number of the Brassica family plants are identifiable from smell alone. Given that this family are all edible, then you can proceed to experiment when you know you have a brassica. Other recognisable Brassica  family patterns in the flowers, and the leaves will soon become apparent when you begin to use this easy-to-learn system for identifying plants.

As the seasonal weather patterns change here in the UK, due to human’s increasingly stark effects on the climate, flowering times may become somewhat erratic. Currently, we see full blooms of garlic mustard during April and into May. Flowering stems have a number of branches.

Leaves are alternately spaced on the stems, and gradually become more refined in size and shape, with a much smaller leaf stalk. They are soft apart from in winter, when they are somewhat more coarse – a necessity I suppose, given the lack of available sunshine coupled with the lower temperatures. Something worth noting for quite a few hardy herbaceous species.

The broccoli-type floret heads soon expand to reveal the pretty white flowers. These get to 10 mm across. Both are a beautiful wayside nibble. More moments to enjoy ambulating consumption!

All brassicas display flowers similar to a mini broccoli type head. Foraging garlic mustard will quickly bring you up to speed
Foraging garlic mustard flowers from March through April. Thy are a familiar brassica display of a broccoli type head

 

A common scene of ripening garlic mustard seed pods in late spring, having taken over municipal beds

 

Long, thin seed pods eventually form, that will split in two, revealing lines of brown seeds. These seeds are a mini cigar-shape, rather than round as found in many other family relatives such as mustard. Pods are held at angles on the flowering stem. The seeds are pungent when crushed.

During the early summer the seeds mature, pods wither, and eventually split to reveal their treasure. As many as 8000 seeds per plant are produced, which reportedly converts to a staggering potential seed bank of 100,000 seeds per square metre!

Germination en masse is the inevitable result  of this tactic, by a plant from the superb brassica family, for these plants are well-known for their indifference to soil, and without need for mycorrhizae. In the plant kingdom you can forage for a multitude of these plants on poor soils by the sea and estuary, together with the Chenopodiaceae family of beets, goosefoots, oraches and samphires. On these types of soil, mycorrhizae won’t be found, or for that matter, any soil humus. In this harsh environment, both these two plant families are reliable exponents of mass germination, and can sometimes offer a plentiful source of micro greens.

Garlic mustard can appear as small carpets of microgreens from the thousands of seeds each mature plant can produce

Habitats to look in when out foraging garlic mustard

This plant can be found in a number of settings. Unsurprisingly for a plant that has the word ‘hedge’ in a couple of common names, its favourite habitat are hedgerows.

You can also find it at woodland edges, shady grass banks, on waste-ground, at the base of walls and fences in urban settings, and as a common weed of cultivation.

More distribution information, including a map, its ecological requirements and other nuggets can be found on the British and Irish online flora. Another great Scientific resource for garlic mustard and other plants is the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International

Culinary uses of garlic mustard

Cultures from around the world have long used this plant, primarily the European people, because the plant is native to the NorthWestern region.  Its abundance wherever happy to grow means the leaves or other things are always available to add to the pot.

You may have already seen numerous recipes online for pesto, soups and salads based on this ubiquitous plant. I like a pesto, but prefer the leaves of this plant as lightly cooked greens dressed with olive oil / butter and lemon juice.

At some points of the year I inevitably throw them in to a well seasoned and spiced gram flour batter, along with a dozen or so different plant leaves, to make a wild leaf pakora. Look out for mass germination carpets of microgreens during late summer/early autumn, or in spring.

From mid to late spring, the flowering spears appearing everywhere are fantastic, being juicy, sweet, crunchy and peppery. I think they’re perfect raw, on the hoof, or in salads. These are my favourite food.

But the best medicinal part the plant are the tap roots. This then is my cream of the Garlic mustard crop. The root has no garlic flavour though. What you get is a poky blast of horseradish-like, sinus cleansing, microbe-killing heat! Brilliant, that’s any germs or beginnings of infection killed too!

 

The result of two minutes foraging garlic mustard roots. An easy to find, sinus blasting replacement for horseradish
The result of two minutes foraging garlic mustard roots

 

It takes just minutes to collect and only 15 mins or so to wash, scrub and chop the roots, before making something I reckon you will regularly want on your dinner table. Alliaria creme sauce.

From malicious to delicious. Alliaria creme sauce

The recipe for this simple condiment is going up soon on the foraged food page.

Happy foraging

 

 

 

 

Foraging watercress…the raw facts you need to know

Foraging watercress to eat raw in Britain? What you need to know about liver fluke…

Type in ‘Foraging watercress’ in any search engine and you may find websites either advising against picking watercress from the wild, or telling you how it needs to be cooked to be safe. The first statement can be dismissed as a scare story, while the latter only tells some of the truth.

This article hopes to shed more light on what remains a contentious issue amongst foragers here in UK. The question of whether to eat watercress raw from the wild.

You may think “what’s the point of taking the risk”, especially when cooking the plant kills the parasite, and the plant is freely available in supermarkets, but field grown, sometimes nitrate soaked watercress is bland and it disinterests me.

More importantly, I am seeking the maximum health benefits from wild herbs. With this one, like other pungent plants, including garlic, the medicinal goodness comes from the aromatic and flavoursome compounds that don’t survive cooking.

We will come to the icky parts of the liver fluke life-cycle and the dangers of contracting fasciolosis in due course, but firstly, how to identify watercress in the wild.

Botanical description to help identification when foraging watercress.

When foraging watercress you will find it growing by or in flowing water, typically appearing as a mass of stems
Watercress as will be commonly seen; a mass of stems and leaves in flowing water.

Watercress is a glossy-looking, mostly hairless, medium-sized, aquatic or sub aquatic perennial plant.  It has alternate, compound-pinnate leaves, typically with 7-9 oval shaped leaflets per leaf. The terminal leaflet is usually larger than the lateral ones.

Identifying brassica plants usually only takes a quick sniff.  Their unique smell is one of their plant patterns. The majority of the plants in the family are pungent with a peppery, mustard-like or sulphurous tone, which will be easily revealed by crushing a leaf. So when foraging watercress, and in the right habitat, you can quickly discover if you have the right plant.

The stems are hollow and almost circular-shaped with ridges. Numerous rooting hairs are found just below the waterline. Water-loving plants adapted to submerged life contain large air-filled cells; a similar tactic to estuary plants.  At the base of the stems are a mass of fibrous white roots.

Watercress flowers first appear as mini broccoli type heads
Watercress flowers first appear as mini broccoli-type heads

This plant often grows in dense patches, so much so that it is classed as an invasive weed in some countries. In flower it can reach about 1m in height. It’s inflorescence will be a typical brassica display, appearing at first like a small broccoli-type head.

Soon after budding it will reveal numerous small white flowers, approximately 10 mm across. The four petals, like all cruciferous plants, are arranged in the shape of a cross.

Flowers soon give way to long thin seed pods, similar to numerous other related species. These spiral up the flower stem, eventually split to release their two rows of small red-brown seeds.

For more information on its botany and its global distribution, you may want to use this useful online fact sheet. For UK foragers, the online flora of Britain and Ireland contains useful distribution maps.

Habitats to look in when foraging watercress

Watercress grows alongside streams, ditches, springs and rivers, although won’t be found in stagnant water. It has a preference for alkaline soils, such as limestone or chalk.  This is a plant you will almost exclusively find in the countryside, although the more unspoilt parts of larger towns may also harbour some. My urban foraging guide may be of use here.

Watercress is known for overwintering  and therefore can be harvested at any time of year. This makes it another plant that comes high on my list of top plants to harvest, especially during the less verdant autumn and winter months. A general guide to the do’s and don’t’s of harvesting wild plants can be found right here.

Dangers of contracting liver fluke from foraging watercress.

Firstly, yes it goes without saying that waterborne plants such as watercress can potentially be infected with the cysts of liver fluke.  However, they will only be on the parts that are below the waterline, and this will realistically only be a problem on the plants near the edges in slow moving water, adjacent to damp grasslands. This is because of the life-cycle and host requirements of the parasitic organism.

So, let’s take a look at the life cycle of liver fluke (Fasciola hepatica). In the diagram below, you will see that the sheep contracts the cysts by eating infected grass. The cysts develop into the adult fluke which then lays eggs in around three months time, and these  will be deposited in manure. The fluke can lay thousands of eggs every week.

The Liver fluke cycle

 

The snail host of liver fluke

The eggs hatch into the first of a few embryonic and larval stages. If suitable environment conditions exist, such as prolonged damp weather, warm temperatures and a suitable wetland habitat, they can quickly find and enter the freshwater snail species – Galba trunculata.

Inside the snail host, the larvae will undergo more developmental changes until leaving and attaching to vegetation. Cysts are just about able to be seen by the naked eye, and more easily with a small magnification lens.

 

If we or our livestock eat vegetation with cysts on, then in a few weeks the adult liver fluke will be consuming our blood, possibly blocking the bile ducts and ruining  our livers, as shown below.

Cow liver showing the adult fluke and damage to bile ducts

Because grass is a monocotyledon plant, with only one seed leaf, and a growing meristem at the base, the cysts will eventually be found to be ‘moving up’ the blade. Whereas on dicotyledon species such as watercress, and without a growing meristem at the base of the plant, the cysts will remain where they were deposited.

Numerous liver fluke cysts aggregating on grass leaf blades

This is why foraging watercress in fields with streams, and damp meadows where sheep or cattle are regularly grazing, potentially leaves you at risk.This is why I forage for watercress quite a distance above the waterline, mostly using the very tops.

But what are the actual risks for us here in Britain? How many people in the UK have contracted liver fluke from foraging watercress from the wild and eating it raw?

 

Well, evidence for cases in humans are extremely rare here, unlike in parts of Asia, China and Africa. In the 10 years to 2008, only 6 cases in the UK were recorded.

During the following year, with heightened surveillance after a large increase in livestock cases, 11 people were reported to have faciolosis in England. This mainly involved people from North African and Middle eastern countries with a tradition of chewing the imported stimulant plant khat (Cathula edulis).

It is likely that our pre-industrial revolution forefathers would have had more of an issue with liver fluke, because many more common folk were forced to forage to supplement meagre wages or their field grown sustenance crops.

Whatever the dangers are currently, recent studies conducted for the NHS show that with our wetter and warmer summers here in the UK, the possibility of fasciolosis infection could  rise.

As with many myths surrounding foraging here in Britain, and foraging watercress in particular, the endless echo chamber of social media serves to inflate and hype any real dangers, with myriad keyboard ‘experts’ telling people not to pick wild stuff and certainly never to eat it. I have been told on more than one occasion by watercress growers and sellers at markets how dangerous it is!

Watermint grows in similar places to watercress, so could harbour liver fluke
Watermint is another sub-aquatic plant you may find when foraging watercress

Yet watermint will also be found in similar habitats, so I wonder why I can’t find many reports online about the dangers that this plant may bring, aside that is, from the odd well informed foraging website I visit.

Essentially, the rule not to eat watercress raw, could logically be extended to a large number of plants that live near waterways and the water’s edge, but the reality is that its hardly ever discussed amongst foragers online.

I have eaten plenty of raw wild watercress, especially over the last ten years, albeit from reasonably fast moving water, as found on rivers such as the Thames in Oxfordshire and the Avon in Somerset and Wiltshire, and having taken note of the improbable chances that cysts will be present in such conditions.

I always take leaves from well above the waterline, for reasons given earlier. Common sense is my best friend when out foraging, alongside arming myself with facts, not heresay!

I want the health promoting neutraceutical compounds that are now under investigation by pharmaceutical companies, and I continually weigh up the risks in the area I’m picking, with the risks of me smoking tobacco, occasionally drinking coffee and regularly enjoying  alcohol.

So although not recommending you go pick and eat raw watercress willy nilly, I do encourage you to take greater note of your local environment, assess the real dangers present, given what else you can find out about the local agricultural practices, and learn to decide for yourself what and where is safe.

Watercress is a much loved vegetable, and rightly so. There are many ways to use this tasty herb, such as this quick and easy-to-make soup, for which a recipe will be found on the wild food recipe page. Meanwhile…Happy foraging!

 

Three corner leek. From pest to pesto

Three corner leek pesto – A quick and tasty recipe from a highly invasive non native plant.

Three corner leek (Allium triquetrum)  Liliaceae

Invasive plants evoke heated feelings. Certain plants, whether we appreciate it or not, are evolutionarily disposed to the rapid colonisation of land, especially bare soils. When wandering the British countryside, you will notice that some of the flora found here can be aggressive colonisers of ground.

So if the plant is edible and tasty, its a no-brainer right? Surely we eat em to beat em?!

The 3-corner leek is native to the Mediterranean area. First introduced to cultivation here in 1759, it was found well established in the wild less than a century later. With a late autumn to spring growth cycle, the plant found a profitable niche here, and when coupled with a handy seed disposal relationship with ants, it gives the plant an advantage when establishing in new sites.

The plant will be found in a number of lowland settings in the UK, particularly loving life in our moist South West counties such as Devon and Cornwall, and commonly appears throughout Southern England except around Salisbury Plain.

Scattered populations are increasingly recorded in town and country throughout the UK.

The abundant winter foliage and copious spring flowers are increasingly found in urban areas

Large dense carpets of this bulbous perennial are not uncommon. With salt-tolerance, it also enjoys various coastal settings up and down the isles.

It re-appears when most of our herbaceous plants are either dormant or overwintering. Keep an eye out in October and you will see quite a bit of new growth rising from their small white bulbs, which are often right at the surface of the soil.

How to identify three corner leek

Each bulb typically produces 4 or 5 strongly keeled, glossy-green leaves with parallel veins, entire margins, and leaf tips that are often acutely pointed. When looking underneath, the mid-vein is prominently ridged.

Toward the base, its hairless leaves are distinctly triangular in structure. If chancing upon a large stand of the plants, you will find the foliage tends to drift in the same direction, creating a pleasing long-grass sward effect.

3 corner leek is invasive and will make dense swards
3 corner leek spreads rapidly and can quickly take on the appearance of a lushious dense grass sward.

If you crush a leaf, the unmistakeable, sulphurous Allium chemistry will quickly be detected. You might well find that the strength and quality of the aromatics differ dependent on soils and temperature…at least the strongest and most pungent stuff I have foraged, came on cold January days from acid soil in Devon and on Barnes common, SW London.

Flowering occurs during April and May, like a number of our native ephemeral Allium species. The distinctive triangular flower stem will grow to around 45 cm, eventually producing a drooping, delicate, bell-shaped inflorescence. 

The white sepals and petals have thin green vertical stripes, making these flowers easily identifiable from similar-looking plants white bluebell cultivars (Hyancinthoides non scripta ‘Alba’), or the summer snowflake ( Leucojum aestivum) .

The green striped corolla of three corner leek

The corolla displays typical lily family patterns of three stamens and a fused, three-lobed stigma can be seen. Seeds are similarly produced in groups of threes, initially green coloured, then finishing black.

This larger than life shot shows the remains of the petals surrounding the seed pod. Young green seed pods are similar in size to petit pois peas
Dried seed pods eventually open to reveal three black seeds
Summer snowflake appears with blunter leaf tips and without the pronounced keel undersides. The corolla is tighter, without stripes, and with a yellow center

Foragers might say that they can know an Allium from its smell. You cannot rely on this diagnostic characteristic when harvesting large amounts.

The nature of essential oils means we inevitably transfer them onto our fingers, so how do we know that we are not accidentally picking poisonous daffodils, snowdrops, or crocus, growing amongst them?

You need to know the leaf structure, the colour, the texture, and other aesthetic and mechanic qualities that can only come from engaging with the plant.

With very similar-looking plants, close study of numerous features becomes vital, especially when the plant is young. Our brains can quickly file this range of information presented to them, merging it with observations about the landscape, soil, habitat, micro-climate, and time of year; while observing the habit of the plant itself.

So, knowing the blue green colour and blunt-tips of daffodil leaves, and the length and width of crocus or snowdrop leaves compared to this particular garlic relative, helps to ensure that even on auto-pilot, and working at speed, the key check points are covered when harvesting.

I work with the premise that I also get two further opportunities to check the leaves; firstly during preparation of the plant, and finally, on the chopping board, or as I add to the pot.

Using 3 corner leeks

All Alliums and all their parts are edible. 3-corner leek, with its luscious leaves tender stems and crunchy flower buds and bulbs, is particularly versatile. If you can eat all parts of the plant, it’s in season all year – what more could you want!? With a strong onion-leek flavour, this plant can be added to many dishes.

Three corner leek pesto, with soaked sunflower seeds, 2 cloves bulb garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, basil, salt, pepper. Photo: Tobias Snow. View more on Instagram.

I harvest leaves throughout winter, from November onwards; to add to sauces, salads, pies, pesto and soups, then harvest the first of the sweet, pungent flower buds for lacto-fermentation in March. 

Bunches of pre-flowering stem ‘leeks’ can also be harvested in late March and April, before the flowers eventually open. These can be used in salads or as garnish. The young, green, and crunchy seeds can be eaten raw, fermented, or dried.

From late May onwards, as the plant enters its dormancy, I harvest the small marble-sized bulbs for preserving. Juicy and crunchy, these are quite fiddly and time consuming to prepare, but are simply stunning when lacto-fermented for a couple of weeks!

Medicinally, we could potentially use 3 corner leek like a milder version of garlic, but I always reach for bulb garlic out of instinct – often carrying a clove – so don’t employ the other species for medicine. The Allium essential oils are known to be antimicrobial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and antiseptic, so this plant will likely show some activity in these areas.

This delicious plant is one of the featured species in my foragers playing cards, and the ‘top trumps’ style card game. You can find these in the foraging resources shop. 

Happy foraging!

 

Foraging Sea Purslane

Sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides). Learn about foraging this fantastic evergreen perennial wild food.

Plants that are able to be harvested all year round, such as the salty sea purslane, are some of my most treasured wild foods to forage..

This plant is a member of the completely edible beetroot family (Chenopodiaceae), and as such it’s a relative of those other great gourmet foraged foods – sea beet and marsh samphire.

Perennial crops are intrinsic components in successful nature-based-design. They are also some of the best species for foragers to concentrate on. The numerous longer-growing plants are of great value in the garden, allotment and permaculture plot due to their low input and potential high yields.

These traits also apply in the wild stock, and are typically what attract foragers. For foragers and gardeners alike, the array of perennials available point to the promise of repeated harvests throughout the years to come.

Where to look for Sea purslane

Sea purslane really is an unmistakeable plant and only found in a few habitats . It will form huge carpets by estuaries and on salt marshes, particularly loving the natural saline ecology between coastline, rivers and land.

The grey-green, elliptical-oval leaves of sea purslane.

Rooting just below the high tide mark, this plant, together with the various species of marsh samphire, plus sea aster, sea couch grass and a few others, help to stabilize the silt deposits from the ebb and flow of tides, essentially creating new land.

Sea purslane can also be found growing on rocky cliff shelves but not in the numbers found on salt marsh or estuary

You can also occasionally find sea purslane on rocky coastal cliff shelves, although nowhere near in the same numbers as found on saltmarsh and estuaries.

Sea purslane botanical description.

Its fleshy, grey-green leaves can grow up to 6-7 cm long. They are elliptical-oval, found in opposite pairs, and are covered in mealy bladder hairs. These unicellular hairs appear as a dusty shiny coating, and are a typical feature of many plants within the family.

New stems are tender and pale green, older stems are brown and woody. The thin woody stems snap easily.

In late spring the thin flower stem appears, slowly revealing its tiny, alternately-spaced clusters of yellowish flowers.

The yellowish flowering spikes of sea purslane appear in the late spring

The flower bracts are fleshy, and there are no sepals present. In the middle of the flower there are five stamens surrounding two stigma, which are attached to a single ovary.

Sea purslane grows where many plants cannot. As a lover of mud flats and salt marsh, it can often be found partially or wholly submerged for some of the day. To do this it employs three tricks.

  • Its roots have specialised air filled cells ( aerenchyma – cells with large internal vacuoles to facilitate the free movement of air.)

  • They have evolved cells which contain a higher internal concentration of salt in their cells, than is found in the adjoining salty water, thus enabling them by osmosis to take on board H2O.

  • Their fleshy leaves are covered in a waxy cuticle layer of cells, as are many estuary specialists. This helps prevent desiccation from the often violent saline wind.

For the gourmet food lover this all results in a taste sensation, especially from spring harvested leaves. Sea purslane is crunchy, juicy, and salty, with a hint of sweetness.

Another interesting development in recent years has been the exploration of the plant’s secondary metabolites by the cosmetics industry, searching for novel anti ageing properties.

Contemporary edible use of sea purslane

The leaves are a versatile ingredient. It is a plant that enhances vegetarian, lamb and fish dishes. It can be used as a stand alone vegetable dish, or as a condiment, being particularly lovely when pickled.

As with many wild plants, sea purslane is high in vitamins and minerals.  Moreover it contains significant amounts of omega fatty acids.

I like to ferment the leaves in a salt brine with approximately 3-4% salt, and especially like them preserved in a slightly sweetened cider vinegar, alongside some red peppercorns and a few mustard seeds. Check out my recipe on the foraged food page

With the vinegar pickle I heat the spices and vinegar for a few minutes before packing the leaves into small leaves. The red peppercorns give the pickle a lovely festive look. The plant can also be deployed as a stuffing, a garnish, or blended into mayonnaise and sauces.

When harvesting, you will need to take a knife or scissors. If trying to use just your hands to harvest, you may find that the stems come up from the soft mud. Oh, and ideally, you will take a friend. Mudflats can be very unforgiving environments, and you cannot take them lightly.

Although the plant can be harvested all year round, spring is the best time. During these months of fast new growth, all you need to do is pinch out the fresh new tops. In winter, and for speedy harvesting, I tend to harvest the plant further down into the woody stem, and then stripping the leaves off at home. Try and cut the plant at just above a node because this is best for the plant, as the new buds directly under the node can soon get away.

Sea purslane is one of the featured plants in my ‘foragers friends’ cards, available  in my website shop, together with my foragers playing cards and ‘top trumps’ style card game.

Foraging Sweet Chestnuts

Foraging sweet chestnuts in the UK

One of the great delights of autumn is foraging sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) from your local woodland. European people have been collecting these delicious and nutritious little food parcels for thousands of years.

These tasty nuts are now a staple of Autumn and winter high streets, being readily available from fire heated braziers in many major cities. But buying them can only ever offer a fraction of the pleasure as foraging.

With the majority of wild plant foraging, you mostly need to spot the plant you are after, and simply harvest by cutting or pinching out the leaves, stems, or flowers.

Whereas with sweet chestnuts, you will find the need to search on the forest floor, excitingly scraping back fallen leaves and the carpet of open shells found under larger trees, all the while concentrating and looking around in expectancy, or hope, for its shiny dark brown fruits to reveal themselves like gems.

Their yields can be heavy in a good year, enabling you to find lots of them in a small patch of the ground directly under the tree.  So foraging sweet chestnuts can be a fun family treasure hunt.

Although some authors may try and say that September is the start of the season, there is really no point in foraging sweet chestnuts earlier than October, because any that have fallen will have no real flavour when green and unripe.

You will need gloves to handle the spiny nut cases when foraging sweet chestnuts
Sweet chestnuts are typically found in clusters, and have a dense covering of spiny shells.

You can begin looking for the ripe chestnuts in early October following a period of windy weather, when numerous green spiny shells will be easily found under and around the base of the tree.

However, many of these may also contain nuts that haven’t yet quite ripened, and naturally require a period of a few more days in their shells to finish off their brown colouring. Handily, the green nut shells begin to brown and split of their own accord when the fruits are pretty much ready for picking.

This plant is not to be confused with the inedible and potentially toxic horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which sometimes grows in close proximity to the sweet chestnut in park-lands and larger gardens.

The two trees are completely unrelated, even though the nuts look similar at first glance. Sweet chestnut is in fact related to the oak and beech trees, in the family Fagaceae. My article on horse chestnut covers the basic differences.

Botanical description to help identify Sweet chestnuts

Sweet chestnut cuts a distinctive figure in many parklands.

It can grow up to 35 metres. These trees are known for their broad crown, longevity and a massive trunk girth. Its narrow fissured grey-brown bark occasionally reveals blueish-green colours.

From a relatively young age, the plant begins to produce its distinctive spiralling bark pattern. In old age, the plant can produce beautiful gnarled burrs into eye catching shapes.

When foraging sweet chestnuts you can find their trunks exhibiting large burrs, sometimes making alluring shapes

Its glossy green leaves will reach 20 -30 cm long, with margins that are reportedly unique when comparing it with any other member of the widely found British flora. Each of the serrations has a noticeable curved tooth.

The leaves are simple, oblong-lanceolate, and are alternate on the stem, with relatively short petioles.

When foraging Sweet chestnuts, you can easily identify them from their pointy-toothed leaves
Sweet chestnut leaves have distinctive pointy toothed margins

The newer stems are ridged, usually a red-brown colour, and often heavily speckled with its array of lenticels. The alternate buds finish with a terminal bud close to a side bud.

This tree is one of the very last species to flower and set fruit, as well as being one of the last fruits to fall. Its long spikes of male catkin type flowers will appear late in the spring, typically around the 3rd week of June.

Smaller female flowers  will be found nearby found towards the base of the spikes. For a good few weeks in early summer you can spot the swelling spiky shells together with the skeleton male flower stalks.

Checking your tree for potential harvests should reveal the flower stalk and fruits sat together for a few weeks
Sweet chestnut fruits and skeleton flower stalks are visible on the plant for a few weeks

Habitats to look in when foraging sweet chestnuts

The plant is widely naturalised in many woodlands, though the larger more productive specimens will mostly be found in parklands and estate gardens.  It is known in the UK as an ‘honorary native’,  due to the ease in which the plant seeds and grows here.

The nuts are the new joy of October for me, just when any S.A.D may begin to kick in. During the last few years I have travelled quite a bit around Britain, but only this year have I found such a haul as I did in Devon just recently.

Harvesting sweet chestnuts

When foraging sweet chestnuts, you find them more easily on the floor although they will persist on the tree. If you want the nuts out of the bigger specimens, you will need to employ a stick, as always done with conkers.

Careful handing of sweet chestnuts is required when foraging and preparing.
Be careful when foraging and harvesting sweet chestnuts, as the spines on the cases are sharp!

Handling the spiny shells and freeing the prize can be a difficult business. You will likely need gloves, especially with the older fruits.  A strong heal on sturdy boots greatly helps in breaking the freshly felled cases open.

Inside the cases, the nuts from the true wild species will be present in twos or threes, whereas nuts gleaned from the cultivar known as ‘marron’, will be on their own and substantially larger than the wild ones.

Traditional and contemporary uses of Sweet chestnuts

In the kitchen, sweet chestnut is a superb and versatile ingredient. It is one of the few nuts that contain little fat; instead, they have a surprisingly large amount of water. This means they are not suitable for processing into oil, but do produce a great flour.

You can use chestnuts for a few delightful seasonal treats, including chestnut purée,  chestnut paté; turning it into flour for pastries and cakes, making chestnut stuffing,

On a visit to Devon recently, I was inspired by a friend into researching  and experimenting with chestnuts more. And so followed a wild mushroom and sweet chestnut paté, then with thoughts to the yuletide festive period and winter solstice,  we made a chestnut and port paté .  I won’t say how fantastic that was, as you can make your own quite easily, but I will say I’ve since made a couple more batches at different friend’s houses.

I’m currently hooked, making some sweet chestnut purée for all manner of festive dishes, essentially following a recipe from this interesting site, and began trying to make the delicious but rightly expensive Marron Glace

These delicious candied chestnuts when cooked in the traditional style, require some time and dedication.  My first attempt though followed the River Cottage recipe and video from Pam the Jam, but the end result is nothing like the fully candied Marron Glace that originated where the tree was plentiful. So more experiments are to come.

Sweet chestnut is one of the featured plants in my 2018 diary, and in my card games, available from my foraging resources shop.

Foraging horse chestnut

Discover the powerful medicinal benefits of horse chestnut

Aesculus hippocastanum   –  Horse Chestnut

Hippocastanaceae family

The horse-chestnut is an elegant tree which belongs to a genus of 13 species, all of them deciduous trees and shrubs. This plant is believed native to the Balkan Peninsula, and history tells us that it was introduced to Northern Europe during the latter part of the renaissance. It has been widely grown in Britain since the beginning of the 17th century.

Partly through an ability to self seed (although not freely), and mostly due to its popularity as an amenity plant, the horse-chestnut will be easily found throughout England, Wales and the more lowland parts of Scotland, at elevations of up to 500 metres. It is a common plant of parkland, large gardens, village greens, churchyards, and urban streets, and an occasional component of deciduous and mixed woodland. It can also sometimes be found in scrub and rough grasslands.

How to identify Horse chestnut

Most people will easily recognise this tree and it hardly needs a description here. The hairless new twigs terminate with large sticky buds, which are one of the characteristic identification features of this tree. Another is the noticeably large horse-shoe shaped leaf-scar on the previous year’s stem. According to some authors, this feature has given us both the scientific and common names.

horse chestnut just after breaking bud in spring

The large, noticeably glossy, and sticky brown leaf buds, break open in early spring to reveal their initially lime-green, compound palmate leaves. These are attached to the stem on long petioles. The leaves are often very large (up to 40 cm across in the common horse-chestnut found here), especially so in shadier areas. They commonly consist of 5-7 obovate-shaped leaflets, and have quite obvious serrated margins.

Horse chestnuts are identifiable from afar in winter due to their branches, which tend to curve out and upwards in a similar fashion to the unrelated and well known ash tree (Oleraceae family). In leaf, horse-chestnuts are almost unmistakeable.

Mature specimens, more often than not, show angled and curving fissures appearing to be wrapping their way around the tree in a spiral. These fissures become deep as the plant grows old, eventually splitting and flaking on very old specimens. These tall trees can grow to anything between 25-35 metres (depending on species) in a range of settings.

This plant is often the first large tree we witness to herald the coming of the new spring. Bud break is followed by the opening of their showy, white-pink coloured flowers that bloom soon afterwards.

The flowers are stacked 20-30 cm high in a cone-shaped spike. The individual flowers are 2 cm wide and borne on long stalks at the bottom of the raceme, appearing on shorter stalks toward the top. They are comprised of four or five petals fused at the base.

The resultant fruits are known to all in Britain as ‘conkers’, and to Americans as ‘buckeye nuts’. They are typically 6 cm wide. In Britain and Ireland, ‘conkers’ remains a traditional game still enjoyed by children (and adults!) These nuts are so well known in this country, coming in pairs in their typically spiny shell, that they surely need no other description here.

Be careful not to confuse the horse-chestnut with the edible sweet chestnuts (Fagaceae family) when out foraging. The sweet chestnuts have simple, oblong/elliptical-shaped leaves rather than compound, and their leaf margins are more finely serrated. Their distinctive nut husks are covered with a greater number of slightly thinner, yet sharper spines.

Sweet chestnut bark is grey-brown and more tightly fissured. Look around the woodland floor wherever you are and the leaves may well match the trees around you. In reality, the differences are so stark as to ensure that there should be no real danger of misidentifying them.

Pests and diseases attacking horse chestnut

Recently, the horse-chestnut has begun to succumb to the ravages of a few pathogenic organisms. Two species of mould fungi from the Phytophthora genus (Phyton is from the Greek for plant and phthora is Greek for destruction) are known worldwide for their mass killing of horse-chestnuts through infection and resultant ‘bleeding canker’ during the 1940’s.

These mould fungi are mostly pathogens of dicotyledons and reportedly responsible for approximately 11% of all bleeding canker incidences in Britain. Since 2003, a different species of bacterium, known as Psuedomonas syringae, has swept through horse-chestnut trees in Western Europe with a new spate of bleeding canker.

Over half of all horse-chestnut trees in Britain are reported affected and showing symptoms of some kind. This pathogen initially infects the cambium around the trunk and main branches. As it spreads, it cuts off the water supply to the crown. Trees weep from the bark, with gradual erosion of tissues. When the infection encircles the trunk, the plant will die.

The other major pest is a moth known as the horse-chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella). Many horse-chestnut specimens now show the tell-tale spotted and brown crinkled leaves which become visible early in the summer. These infections may well be the result of an exotic plant suffering the eventual fate of all exotic introductions, i.e. a population being brought under control by organisms to which there are either no natural predators or to which the plant has no natural defence mechanisms? Enjoy them while you can.

Parts used The fruits and less commonly the bark or leaves.

Harvest When they fall. Usually by mid / late September to early October.

Key constituents Saponins (including ‘aesin’ – a mixture of compounds); triterpenoid glycosides; coumarin glycosides (including aesculin); tannins; flavonoids; plant sterols (including sitosterol, stigmasterol and campesterol).

Actions Astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-oedema.

Pharmacology and uses Anti-inflammatory activity has been documented for the whole fruit as well as the extracted saponin fraction. Extracts excluding aescin also provide this action. The anti-inflammatory effect is thought to be due to a ‘sealing’ action on capillaries as well as by reducing the number and or diameter of capillary pores. The seed extract is also known to induce contractions in veins.

Because of these effects, horse chestnut seed extract has been clinically compared to allopathic medicines for chronic venous insufficiency of the lower legs. It has shown to be just as effective as many of the pharmaceutical medications available.

Preparations made from the horse-chestnut seed are used principally against circulatory disorders. It is documented to help tone and increase the strength of the veins especially. The renowned German Commission E approved its use for treatment of chronic venous insufficiency in the legs.

Used internally and externally, horse-chestnut assists the body with inflammatory, circulatory problems such as varicose veins and haemorrhoids. This has been partly ascribed to the inhibition of the action of hyaluronidase in the body (an enzyme that decreases the permeability of the veins), and as a result, venous fragility is lowered.

Externally it may be used as a cream or ointment for the same conditions as well as for leg ulcers and oedema (fluid retention and swelling under the skin). Some studies have shown it to be effective in treating eczema. Sunscreen creams manufactured in Europe often have aesculin as an integral component.

Consulting with a professional health care worker before any self administered dosage of horse-chestnut is advisable, as the circulation disorders and physical trauma associated with any swelling may be the sign of an underlying serious condition, which may not be treatable using the plant alone.

Another monograph for foragers next week… Happy foraging!

Foraging plants for the respiratory system

Reclaim your health autonomy by foraging plants for your respiratory system

The respiratory system is our interface and connection with all of life, via the gases that permeate our atmosphere before permeating our blood. Through the mechanisms of the lungs we receive oxygen in the form of O2, and release carbon dioxide (CO2), as a result of ongoing cellular respiration.

However, due to the open nature of the lungs we will also encounter a continual bombardment of foreign matter and harmful, disease-spreading, pathogenic organisms.

The respiratory system represents the following tissues, muscles and organs.

  • The nose and mouth – The beginning of the airways. Oxygen is brought in to the nose and down to the trachea. When carbon dioxide (CO) is expelled, it comes back through the trachea to the nose.

  • The pharynx – Part of the digestive system as well as the respiratory system, because it carries food and air.

  • The larynx – Otherwise known as the voice box. It sits at the beginning of the trachea and essentially is a short tube that contains a pair of vocal chords.

  • The trachea – Essentially a smooth muscle and pipe-shaped airway, it is protected by the sternum and spine. Divides into left and right bronchus tubes.

  • The lungs – They connect to and begin at the trachea. Acupuncturists view the tongue as an extension of our lung.

  • The bronchi – These increasingly small air tubes carry the CO2 / oxygen to and from the lungs from the trachea.

  • The diaphragm – This muscle contracts when breathing in, and expands when exhaling CO2.

The pulmonary system has its own circulatory system. Deoxygenated blood is pumped by the heart to the lungs where it becomes oxygenated. It then flows back to the heart and is pumped around the body and brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell.

During a normal day, we breathe nearly 25,000 times, and take in large amounts of air. The inhaled air contains mostly oxygen and nitrogen. But air also has things in it that can hurt our lungs. There are two major causes of problems with the respiratory system – pollution and smoking. Obviously there are diseases and other issues also.

Many illnesses of the lungs are as a result of infection. These can be in the throat, or in the airways down towards and inside the lung itself. The inner surfaces of tissues in the respiratory system are coated with a film of mucus to aid peristalsis higher up the airway, as well as facilitating the ejection of foreign particles which can come to lodge themselves in the lungs.

Some disorders of the respiratory system, with suggestions of herbs we can forage to treat it.

Be careful about reading health books – you may die of a misprint!” – Mark Twain (1835-1910)

To facilitate treatment of the respiratory system, herbalists usefully distinguish between the lower and upper halves. The upper consists of the structural conducting organs: nose, sinuses, larynx and pharynx, whilst the lower half consists of the conducting air-ways of the trachea, including the bronchus tubes, respiratory bronchioles and alveoli.

Pulmonary tonic herbs are plant remedies with a wide range of actions on the system, strengthening and restoring tissues and membranes. They include mullein, plantains, elecampagne, and coltsfoot and are typically recommended by herbalists for treating symptoms of respiratory disease and to strengthen tissues and function. Coltsfoot has been called the best remedy for children.

Coughs can be treated in a number of ways with various herbs exerting different effects.

Anti-tussives inhibit the cough reflex. Aside from the well known and controversial opium poppy (containing the effective anti-tussive opiate alkaloid -codeine), these herbs include coltsfoot – the plant named in honour for its all round abilities to alleviate coughing; wild lettuce – which specifically sedates and dampens down the cough reflex in a similar way to the opiate codeine (an ingredient in many cough remedies); and wild cherry bark (Prunus avium) which is believed to work due to the presence of saponins.

Expectorants are a wide range of plants used to facilitate and accelerate the expulsion of mucous or sputum from the bronchial tubes. These may be relaxing or stimulating.

  • Relaxing expectorants are useful for easing spasm and to loosen mucous from the airways. They usually contain some soothing mucilage and are of great benefit when treating dry and irritable coughs. Both Ribwort and rats-tail plantains, as well as coltsfoot, marshmallow, and burdock have all been traditionally used.

  • Image of rats tail plantain
    Rats tail or greater plantain is a traditional herb used to treat the respiratory system
  • Stimulating expectorants such as thyme, mullein, elecampagne and garlic are good for productive coughs. They work by irritating the bronchial tubes, which initiates a reflex to cough. Plants with either of these components help to reduce mucosal viscosity, thereby enabling sputum to be passed more easily up, out, and away, via what doctors sometimes call the muco-ciliatory escalator.

Demulcent herbs typically contain substantial amounts of mucilage. Plants such as comfrey, the plantains, coltsfoot, chickweed, marshmallow, and mullein will all soothe, protect and heal damaged, exposed surfaces of the respiratory system. These plants are often soft to touch, and broad-leaved. They often work through reflex action of the gut nerves, easing irritation in other areas such as the digestive and urinary systems.

Image of chickweed, an emollient medicinal herb that helps the respiratory system.
Chickweed is an emolient herb used to treat the respiratory system.

Anti-catarrhal herbs reduce the amount of mucous and phlegm produced. The following herbs have been used for centuries with success: Garlic, coltsfoot, yarrow, lungwort, plantains, elder, elecampagne, and mullein.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lungs characterised by wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. One proven and powerful herb useful for asthmatics is Ephedra sinica (Ephedraceae family). This plant is a well-known bronchial dilator, which helps dry up sinuses and decongests the bronchioles, allowing more air into the lungs.

Comfrey, coltsfoot, elecampagne, white horehound, and mullein will be of value, as will regular massaging of the chest and back with essential oils such as lavender or thyme.

image of Inula helenium - elecampagne, a popular remedy for the respiratory system
One of the finest respiratory herbs, elecampagne (Inula helenium) is also stunningly beautiful!

Anti-septic and anti-bacterial herbs for the respiratory system

Anti-septic herbs are useful for treating throat infections. Mullein, garlic, thyme, calendula, and coltsfoot are all traditional herbs for infections of the bronchial tubes. It can be beneficial to help the lymphatic system cleanse the blood following infection and so plants such as cleavers or burdock are helpful. Sage is a great anti-septic gargle when inflammation of the tonsils or other throat glands occurs.

Anti-microbial remedies are often combined with any of the above where infection has or is likely to occur. Thyme and garlic are renowned anti-microbials. Peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary and many other essential oil containing plants, when taken as steam inhalations, are also effective anti-microbial plants and antiseptics.

Find out more about foraging on one of my foraging walks or courses.

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