Ground ivy. How to find, identify and use.

A guide to foraging ground ivy  (Glechoma hederaceae) – Lamiaceae

Savoury mint aromatics and the number one remedy to soothe away nettles stings.

Ground ivy is such a beautiful and useful herb, far too often overlooked. Even with its gorgeous flowers, remarkable powers and intriguing scent, this plant produces mixed feelings from gardeners, as it’s habit is to take over where it’s not wanted.

Extensive patches of ground ivy can occur in grasslands. Here its on top of old sand dunes

Although only a small wee thing, it makes a big impression on the eye when in flower. During the spring you can find large patches of land adorned with splashes of blue-purple, often lower than the tops of the grasses it finds itself in.

By learning the key identifying characteristics of this plant, you will also find yourself with the keys to identifying unknown mint family relatives when you meet them in the wild, or out in zones 00-5.

Ground ivy botanical description 

Ground ivy leaves are kidney-shaped, with crenated margins and a low trailing habit are all characteristic identifying traits to look for.
Ground ivy is a commonly found member of the mostly aromatic mint family 

Glechoma hederaceae is a perennial plant, and another useful member of the large and mostly aromatic mint family.

When identifying the mint family plants, you will soon find that the key plant family patterns to look out for are: an aromatic plant with square stems, opposite pairs of simple leaves, five pointed calyx, and two lipped flowers, which often have long corolla tubes.

Fine bristly hairs cover the square stems of ground ivy.

Ground ivy’s stems are covered in fine bristly hairs. The kidney-shaped, deep green leaves are typically scalloped, or crenated, and slightly undulating at the margins, with essential oil glands on the undersides. The leaves are borne on long petioles.

The upper leaf surface has a covering of very small downy-bristly hairs. The leaves can often be a slight purple hue, depending on soil, site, and time of year. Ground ivy can be found in all but the harshest winters. 

A typical sight during March and April is ground ivy in full bloom, among dandelions and daisy.
Ground ivy will be found in full bloom during March and April.

It comes into flower around early spring. The main flowering season is late March or April until May. As with all its relatives, these distinctive, almost orchid-like flowers have a two-lipped corolla. On ground ivy, you will usually see two or three flowers appearing from the leaf axil. The corolla tubes are quite long (approx 10-12mm), with nectar at the base. These flowers are great wildlife attractants.

At a glance, this plant could superficially be mistaken for purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and henbit dead nettle (Lamium amplexicaule). Both those plants are related and edible. Touching, engaging, and smelling are, as ever, vital in helping you distinguish between species.

Only when ground ivy is in flower will it be found growing upright and erect. Even in flower I don’t often see ground ivy flowering much above 8-10 inches high, except in the longest of vegetation.

Ground ivy grows on runners, and has a creeping habit, making it effective, useful ground cover

It’s trailing habit comes from the nature of quickly spreading runners’ (horizontally growing stems, just above the soil surface that can produce roots and shoots from every node). This adaptation makes ground ivy an exceptional coloniser of bare soil and darker, shady areas of the garden.

A similar method of growth is employed by mints (Mentha) but their stems are found just under the soil surface, carrying the same capacity to root and shoot at every node.

Habitats to look in when foraging for ground ivy

This plant can be found in a number of settings up and down the land. You might find this distribution map from the online flora of Britain and Ireland helpful, to aid your searching.

Ground ivy loves field edges, hedgerows, woodlands and grassy banks, especially the shadier ones. It is not particularly fussy about soils so has been found in more than 85% of the UK, aside from the extreme North and North West of Scotland.

Parts used – Leaves and flowering tops.

Harvest – Just before flowering is best, though leaves and flowers can be taken for medicinal or culinary use at any time.

Key constituents – Amino-acids, flavonol glycosides (including rutin, isoquercitrin). Flavone glycosides (inc luteolin), Sitosterol, saponin, tannin, wax, volatile oil (inc linalool, limonene, menthone, terpineol, alpha-pinene, pulegone, rosmarinic acid.

Actions – mild expectorant, anti-catarrhal, vulnerary, diuretic, astringent.

Traditional uses – Many herbal authors of old, such as Gerard (circa 1597), noted its use and action on the mucus membranes, thus employing the plant as an expectorant and a cure for colds. Ground ivy’s aromatics really remind me of sage or thyme and mint. I love the scent, but they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.

Ground ivy has therapeutic essential oil in glands on the surface of leaves and flowers 

Its chemistry has been quite extensively documented. The essential oil plays a majar part in ground ivy’s therapeutic ability. The astringent activity is reportedly due to rosmarinic acid, whilst terpineol is known to be antiseptic. Astringency and anti-inflammatory actions of ground ivy are usually associated with the tannins and flavonoid fractions.

Pulegone is the abortifacient agent responsible for the actions of Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) where it is found at concentrations of 1-2%. However, it is not present in this plant in high enough concentrations (0.03-0.06%) to be considered harmful.

The terpene-rich volatile oil of this plant indicates it will be an irritant to the mucous membranes of the stomach as well as other parts of the gastro-intestinal tract and kidneys. Irritation is not necessarily harmful because the C.N.S is kick-started into producing responses we desire from it.

More detailed information about medicinal plant constituents and their actions will be found in a previous article here.

Ground ivy soothes away nettle stings like no other plant I’ve met

Without question this plant is the best antidote I know of for nettle stings. Simply crush and squeeze the leaves and rub the expressed juice on the afflicted area. I have a hunch that its the thicker essential oil components partly responsible for soothing the reaction to the nettle stings. Read more on nettles, stings and medicinal use of urtication in this article on foraging nettles.

As a food, ground ivy makes a good addition to pies, soups or broth. Stuffing mixes and wild salsa verde are enhanced with ground ivy. Flowers can be added to salads for sublime splashes of colour. The somewhat bitter leaves can be used in salads, but I think they need finely chopping  before mixing in, because of their strong flavour.

This plant would have been especially welcome to our ancestors, more so in the late-winter-to-early spring period, when fresh new leaves are scarce. Its leaves cook down like spinach and the volatile oil lends a mild sage/mint-like flavour to dishes.

For the home brewer ground ivy is well worth foraging for during spring. It lends an aromatic bitterness and has renowned abilities to clarify ale, for which it was once popularly used.

If you are wanting to learn more about wild food foraging then you can book a place on to one of my upcoming foraging walks and courses. If you would like to read more about the easily found plants of late winter and spring, then check out my seasonal wild food guides, as well as my new monthly foraging highlights.

If you are planning lots of foraging adventures this year, then you may want to read this article on harvesting wild plants. You need never miss a trick during the new foraging year with these colour coded, seasonal harvesting charts, and with this set of pocket-sized, waterproof I/D cards, youcan get instant I/D help. The cards have ben designed to help you begin to confidently identify plants in the field.

Happy foraging!


Foraging Rock Samphire. Full-on coastal flavour!

A guide to foraging rock samphire. (Crithmum maritimum) Apiaceae family 

Foraging rock samphire, a brilliant excuse to go to the seaside!

An exploration of Britain’s southern and western rocky coastlines will often quickly bring us face to face with the unforgetable rock samphire. A unique-looking wild plant, on these shores at least. I can’t think of another plant that carries its features.

Rock samphire was formerly well known and eaten in vast quantities, but then fell away from popularity. It was once known as ‘poor man’s samphire’, but the plant is anything but poor in my mind. It offers us harvests potentially through most of the year, especially if you live in the more protected coastal areas of South West Britain.

Harvesting rock samphire was once a means for poorer country folk to make a scant and very precarious living. A couple of hundred years ago, foraging rock smaphire was a hair raising and difficult occupation, involving men and boys dangling off cliffs attached to ropes, battling with whatever weather the coastlines threw at them. More than a few died in this process, which led to Shakespeare describing harvesting rock samphire as “that dreadful trade”.

Today’s forager of rock samphire is likely to be someone who has no real awareness of the extreme trials of the people in whose footsteps they follow. We pick the plant for the simple love of acquiring a unique wild vegetable and spice, that can’t be bought in the shops.

Rock samphire botanical description:

Rock samphires foliage is unique mong the British flora and cannot really be misidentified
The fleshy blue green leaflets of rock samphire are unique among UK flora, and make it easy to I/D

This member of the carrot family is one of the easiest to identify. It has blue-green fleshy leaves growing in an overall triangular shape. This triangular shape is a pattern of the carrot family, as are the tell-tale, repeatedly divided sets of leaflets.

Rather than the typical pinnate leaf divisions found on other members of the carrot family, the leaflets are more or less trifoliate (in sets of three’s). The fleshy leaflets are usually linear-oval in shape, with rounded and occasionally forked tips.

Its leaves are sheathed at the base, like other species in the family. During the colder months, it is common to find the leaf tips with a bronze or red tinge, likely as a result of the piercing cold winds that winter can bring. 

The yellow green flowers of rock samphire are resent most of the summer, and help make this plant an easy umbellifer to I/D
Masses of yellow flowers are a common sight on rock samphire during the summer months

You can find rock samphire in flower from late spring. Its flower stems are solid, unlike many that are found here in the UK. As a member of the Apiaceae family, it produces a compound umbel inflorescence. This will typically have more than 12 rays, and the flower heads are approximately 15 – 20 cm wide.

The compound umbel has narrow bracts below and the individual umbels have bracteoles. Flowers are yellow-green, with five petals, approximately 2 mm across. 

Its seeds are plump and often purple-coloured at first. They are oval-shaped, about 8-9 cm long with thick vertical ridges. They eventually turn brown when ripe.

The seeds of rock samphire provide interesting aromatics, well into the winter.
The aromatic seeds of rock samphire seeds can persist well in to the winter

All parts of the plant are aromatic, especially the seeds, which I can only describe as being a cross between carrot, citrus, celery and parsnip.

More than alexanders, this plant  is a pretty safe umbellifer for beginners to forage for, because there really aren’t any plants that it could be mistaken for. Engage your sense of smell, touch, and your sense of place, as these are all as important as closely observing plant dimensions, features and colours. 

For beginners, its well worth noting that the various species in the carrot family tend to smell quite distinct from each other, but they don’t always look so different! With this particular family, if you don’t take note of the subtle chemical clues, you are missing out on vital information.

For a more detailed discussion on the other members of this important family for foragers to know, take a look at the first part of my carrot family article series

If there are any other plants to look out for on a cursary look when foraging rock samphire, it would be one of the water dropworts (Oenanthe species), namely the parsley water dropwort (O.lachinelli). This plant also displays narrow leaflets, and is also found in coastal regions, where it enjoys brackish water.

However, rock samphire has much more fleshy leaves that aren’t pinnately divided, plus it has yellow flowers not white, and lastly but most importantly, smells quite different.

If you want to learn more about the plant family patterns, then read this worksheet on 12 of our common plant families and start fast tracking your plant I/D skills.

Habitats to look in when foraging rock samphire 

The craggy copastlines and rocky cliffs of our south western coastlines are a great place to find rock samphire
Rocky cliffs  and coasts like these in the Gower in South Wales, are a perfect place for rock samphire

Rock samphire is a lover of the numerous crags and shelves on rocky cliffs and will also be found on shingle beaches. You will also find the plant growing on walls and stone work by sandy beaches as well as decorating harbour walls. It won’t generally be found inland or on the eastern coasts of England which tend to be much more sandy.

This plant isn’t really bothered about type of soil. As a rule of thumb, you are likely to encounter rock samphire in the UK from Suffolk, clockwise round the coast to the Scottish Hebrides. Check out this distribution map from the brilliant online flora of Britain and Ireland for more details.

Rock samphire culinary uses

The plant was formerly and perhaps most famously used as a pickle ingredient. Barrels of rock samphire were packed off to London for trade in the markets and for sales on the street.

rock samphire has been harvested and processed into a pickle for many hundreds of years
Rock samphire pickle. A tasty aromatic condiment, it goes well with a number of dishes

For a tasty pickle, simply dry salt for a few hours (to help retain its crunch), and place in a spice-infused vinegar of your choice. I often heat up the samphire in the spiced vinegar, as this quickens the infusing. Typically I like to add mustard seeds, peppercorns, a few cloves, a couple of bay leaves and some chilli flakes in the vinegar infusion. 

As a vegetable, I find its best to prepare and cook it quite simply. During the spring and summer months you may be able to use all of the leaf, including the stalk. But in the autumn and winter I tend to snip off most of the leaf stalk, which otherwise can be too fibrous.

To cook, I generally par-boil in salted water for a few minutes, then fry in butter or olive oil for another two or three minutes. Cooking this way helps to dampen the strong aromatics, which are not to everyone’s palate. 

Cooking twice in water will further reduce its bitterness, while frying in oil or butter off-sets and compliments the taste. The flavour of this plant, like all other plants, can be affected by the growing conditions prior to harvesting.

Lots more plants to forage in winter are found in my summarised seasonal guides, and the new monthly guides that started with 13 wild foods to find and try in January.

If you are interested in learning more about the practical skills of wild food foraging, then my upcoming wild food walks and courses will be worth a browse.

Remember  to sign up for my newsletter, for regular foraging news and alerts on new foraging courses! 

Happy foraging!. 



Foraging and cooking thistles, without feeling a prick!

Why you should start foraging and cooking thistles today! Foraging and cooking thistles can be done at any time of year, with different seasons offering their unique rewards.

A guide to foraging and cooking thistles. Cirsium species (Asteraceae)

Thistles are a bane of picnickers and campers throughout Britain.Who hasn’t trodden on the sharp, unforgiving spines of a thistle when out and about barefoot in grasslands? But what if we looked at them another way, and began foraging and cooking thistles?  For many people, relationships with thistles have generally been painful and irritable, but now you can get your own back!

You can find rosettes of spear thistles during winter. The availability of these leaf midribs are a great reason for foraging and cooking thistles
A spear thistle leaf rosette in winter.

One of the great things about thistles is that every single species is edible, so this is great news for foraging beginners! Even the closest lookalike plants found in Britain are edible – the sow thistles (Sonchus spp) and sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), so when working with the thistles, you can learn to identify and proceed to experiment with utter confidence from the outset. I have written about the UK’s poisonous and toxic plants in another article, which foragers may well consider necessary reading!

We have at least 14 species of thistle growing wild in the UK, mostly from the Cirsium (aka plume thistles) and Carduus genera. Thistles are found in numerous settings all over the UK, and can be a useful soil health barometer. Often their presence signifies that the land is fertile, and in many instances, neglected.

A woolly thistle rosette

I have eaten from a number of different species. These are: creeping thistle (Cirsium arvensis), spear thistle (C.vulgare), woolly thistle (C.eriophorum), marsh thistle (C.palustris), and welted thistle (Carduus acanthoides syn C.crispus). As you will discover, plants that have spines to offer protection against predators, have no real need for bitterness.

Identifying thistles

Its almost impossible to misidentify a thistle. One of the easy-to-spot botanical differences between thistles and their numerous relatives in the daisy family, is that the overlapping bracts (involucre) found directly below the flowers of thistles are always spiny. Simple!

The leaves of the numerous species will differ in size, shape and the density of spine coverage. Most have stiff spines on the margins, but some have soft prickles. You need to discover for yourself which are the more tactile!

When in flower, most thistles produce a lovely purple / mauve bloom, but some species are known for their yellow inflorescence (cabbage thistle – Cirsium oleraceum and the Carline thistle – Carlina vulgaris).

Flowers and pappus hairs on a spear thistle

In all of the thistles, flowers give way to copious amounts of fluffy hairs (pappus) attached to their tiny fruits, superbly designed for air-borne dispersal. 

A distinguishing feature between the two main genera is that Cirsium spp produce feathered pappus hairs, whereas Carduus spp only have simple pappus hairs.

Creeping thistle produces dense spines on its leaves, but very few spines or hairs on the flowering stems. Spear thistle has large, deeply-lobed leaves with large spines at the margins, as well as hairy,very spiny stems. You can discover the plant family patterns of the daisy family, plus other important famlies for foragers to get to know, in my ‘foraging fast track’ guide.

Creeping thistle leaves and stem. Note the almost hairless and spineless stem on the left

Marsh thistle looks somewhat like spear thistle at an initial glance, but without the large spines and leaf lobes, but usually with a thin, red, leaf margin. Woolly thistle is easily identifiable with large, deeply-lobed, evenly-shaped leaves, and very large flower heads, wrapped in a ‘cobweb’ of cotton-like hairs.

This particular species is the largest wild thistle I use, although if you have milk thistle (Silybum marianum), you can use that too, but you will need good gloves to protect yourself from its long spiny flower head! Eating milk thistle chokes would of course prevent you harvesting the exceptional liver-supportive medicine found in the seeds. If you are interested in more information on medicinal plant constituents, then read my article on the most common ones, right here.

Where to find thistles

Creeping thistle will grow in all manner of waste-ground, grasslands, verges and field edges. I also see a lot of spear thistle in similar habitats, although when found in grassland, its not as abundant the creeping species. The root systems explain why; spear thistle has a tap root, whereas creeping thistle grows on rhizomes.

The marsh thistle, as its name alludes to, likes damp conditions such as fens, marshes, canal tow-paths and riversides. Woolly thistle is a little bit more selective in its choice of soil and setting, preferring calcareous limestone or chalkland. It too enjoys grasslands. Welted thistle can be found all over the UK, especially loving clay soils. Read more about where to harvest wild plants in my article, here


Harvesting notes to remember before foraging and cooking thistles

The central spiny flower bud of spear thistle

Go prepared! Stiff gloves and a knife are required. Harvest the best leaf mid-ribs in spring when growth is plentiful and quick. Your specimens will be tender and sweeter.

Flowering stems will appear from late spring through into autumn. I only consider harvesting from plants whose flower buds are yet to really begin unfurling. Flower buds (chokes) are available all summer. The question of timing and choosing your harvesting, and how this impacts edibility

Foraging and cooking thistles helps ensure we get nutrient dense foods

In Portugal, a number of thistle species are still collected in spring and sold at markets. A recent academic study highlighted the nutritional value from eating thistles. The findings are contained within ‘Ethnobotany In The New Europe’ by Manuel. P de Santayana et al (Eds), published June 2010.

the peeled and stripped mid ribs from spear thistle are one of the tasty prizes from you foraging and cooking thistles
Peeled and stripped midribs from spear thistles, harvested in late winter

In the study, researchers noted the wide range of thistle species collected, and concentrated on the nutritional value of one particular thistle (Scolymus hispanicus.- spanish or golden thistle). This plant is collected by villagers in various areas of the countryside. Bunches of the stripped leaf mid-ribs are sold and bought in a number of markets in different areas.

Levels of certain nutrients were analysed and compared to some commonly consumed vegetables. Their findings came to show that the thistle contained consistently higher levels of important major nutrients than some of our commonly consumed cultivated vegetables.

Weight for weight, thistles come out higher in fibre, protein, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper, zinc, and other nutrients, which suggests foraging and cooking thistles is a great idea.

Is it likely that the thistles found wild here will be similarly endowed with a range of important vitamins and minerals? I’m more than happy to work on the assumption that this will be the case. Many other wild plant species are known to contain higher than average concentrations of important nutrients. 

How to use thistles

Preparing thistles is pretty easy. Simply choose the most tender specimens. If using the petioles, then cut and strip all the spines off, before peeling the outer, fibrous layer from the stalk. Use raw as crudités, pickle or ferment them, or chop into salads and serve them with a tangy vinaigrette. If cooking, they don’t require long!

The hollow stems are a perfect vessel forstuffing with mince or couscous. Another reason to try foraging and cooking with thistles.
This spear thistle is ready for harvesting the tender, hollow stems

Preparing the stems is similar, but they are hollow. These can be used in similar ways to the petioles, or you can stuff them, roast them, and braise them.

As relatives of the globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus), thistles produce edible, if smaller, ‘chokes’. These are the crunchy, immature bases, or technically capitulum, of the composite flower-head. As you would do with globe artichokes, peel away the bracts to get to the prize. I only choose the largest wild species for this. A growing selection of wild food recipes can be found in this post

Thistles are included in my new foragers playing cards, as well as the ‘top trumps’ style cards, and my SNAP cards. These can all be found in the foraging resources shop. They are ideal presents for plant lovers in any temperate climate!

Learn more about foraging and cooking with thistles on one of my all year round foraging courses. Book your place today!

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!

Water hemlock dropwort – Oenanthe crocata. A Forager’s photo guide

Could you confidently identify the deadly water hemlock dropwort ? Introducing a deadly poisonous plant - water hemlock dropwort

Key features to know when identifying water hemlock dropwort.

Water hemlock dropwort is one of the most important plants for foragers to know well, and I mean really well! Your foraging safety may depend on you knowing this and the other relatively few deadly poisonous plants that you are likely to come across when foraging.

Water hemlock dropwort is an umbellifer and all of the umbelliferae produce compound umbel flowers,
Water hemlock dropwort showing its faily pattern of a compound umbel flowers

Read on for botanical descriptions, photographs and videos to help you identify water hemlock dropwort. It’s a really common plant, and if you are anywhere near water, it’s one that will be found throughout the year, unless covered in snow.

If you are interested in foraging from the carrot family, and to be fair, it’s almost inevitable that you will be if you have fallen in love with wild foods, then it will  become absolutely necessary to know this plant, alongside it’s look-a-like relatives. This  will probably require careful and repeated study, at all stages of its growth, and often with the passing of a couple of years.

In my previous post, you could learn about the exciting Apiaceae family, a.k.a the umbellifers. The key umbellifer plant patterns can be learnt quickly and easily, and  it’s possible to practise them almost anywhere.

The tell-tale ‘birds nest’ seed head from a  different umbellifer – wild carrot (Daucus carota)

Umbellifers are extremely common – an absolute staple of the countryside, and have therefore found homes all over our towns and  cities as soon as we moved in.

Leaf shapes and arrangements amongst umebllifers can be similar, as a close relative of water hemlock dropwort shows.
The remarkably similar leaf from a close relative Oenenathe pimpinilloides (Corky-fruited dropwort)

Aside from the half dozen or so close relatives in the genus Oenanthe (some also reportedly poisonous but not deadly), water hemlock dropwort has a couple of edible plants that it superficially resembles, and one plant that it’s almost a dead ringer for at first glance!

The look-a-likes often happen to live side-by-side in favourite habitats, so all the more reason for proceeding with caution.


Key features to look out for when identifying water hemlock dropwort.

Luckily for the budding forager, Water hemlock dropwort is easy to find! Pop down to almost any watercourse in Britain and you should come across it’s lime-green foliage. During the winter months it can be found growing happily away with basal rosettes of leaves. With so many other plants dormant, you should find it easier to spot during the darkest days of mid-winter.

As long as you are remembering to re-visit patches and plants through the seasons then you will get to know the plant.  Understanding a plant’s refinement in form as it develops to produce a flowering stem, will mean you are ready for the changes in appearance that this plant produces.

Botanical an Photographic guide to water hemlock dropwort (Oenenathe crocata).

  • Water-loving herbaceous perennial

  • Shiny, triangular, pinnate leaves, 3-4 times divided with oval – lanceolate leaflets


  • Water hemlock dropwort can grow in excess of  1 m 50 cm across  and 1 m 5o cm high 


  • The plant ‘over-winters’ by watercourses, so can easily be spotted

  • Leaflets with deeply cut toothed margins


  • Celery / Parsley scented herb



  • Petiole solid, with spongy pith, occasionally with white latex



  • Petiole sheath at the base
  • Petiole a flattened cylindrical-shape, with fine ridges


  • Hollow, cylindrical flowering stems, with fine grooves



  • White compound umbels, individual umbels displayed like pom-poms



  • Umbels 10-20 cm with many rays


  • Bracts and bracteoles are small linear, and will wither


  • Tiny (2 mm) pom pom white flowers with unequal petals and tiny red anthers in the flower



  • Fruits 4-6 mm, cylindrical, ridged




  • Fat, oval-spindle shaped tuberous roots.

Favourite habitats of water hemlock dropwort

  • marshes and moist ground

  • wet woodlands and woodland clearances

  • brooks, streams, riverbanks and canalsides


Edible parts

None of course!All parts of this plant are deadly poisonous – One bite of the root is apparently sufficient.

Wild celery is one of the look alikes of water hemlock dropwort
Wild celery (Apium graveolens) Note the singular pinnate leaf division.

Lookalikes – Other water-dropwort Oenanthe species, wild celery (Apium graveolens), alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), and wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris).

The look alike alexanders has leaflets in sets of threes, yellow flowers, and has a different smell.
Patches of alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) will be found by the coast, sometimes near to water hemlock dropwort. Alexanders has leaflets in sets of threes and a different smell.


Leaflets are oval on wild angelica rather than serrated with divisions and leaflet lobes, as found on water hemlock dropwort
Wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) has oval leaflets, often with purple tinges. Also found by riverbanks and in damp woodlands


Wild angelica leaflet, showing the regular serrations. Note they are without the leaflet divisions found on water hemlock dropwort

A quick video with water hemlock dropwort


Geographic distribution of water hemlock dropwort

Abundant SW England and Wales. Common West Scotland. Rarer to absent oN the drier soils of East England, the Midlands, and NE England. Check out the online flora for a map and other information

Now you have the photos, video’s and descriptive information, you shouldn’t ever be as reckless and ignorant as the foolish and ever so fortunate campers up in Argyll, Scotland.

If you would like to get to know the carrot family more, you can book on one of my regular foraging events, which include carrot family courses, or try my article  on getting to know the carrot family, available here.

Stay safe, happy foraging!

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, and with this one, like so many 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.

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, and if suitable environment conditions exist, such as prolonged damp weather, warm temperatures and a suitable wetland habitat, they can quickly find 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 foraged food 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.