The genus Plantago – Ribwort plantain and greater plantain

Discover the many edible and medicinal uses of plantains. We humans have known about the edible and medicinal uses of plantains for tens of thousands of years.

Follow in the footsteps of your  ancestors – get to know the edible and medicinal uses of plantains.

It would actually take a book of its own to do justice to the many edible and medicinal uses of plantains. Much like other very common herbs covered here in these pages, such as shepherd’s purse and yarrow, humans have been foraging plantains pretty much for ever.

The genus Plantago contains two of our finest medicinal plants here in the UK and two other good edible species well worth knowing. Here they are:

Plantago lanceolata / P.major / P.ovata / P.coronopus / P.maritima

Ribwort, Greater plantain, Hoary plantain, Buckshorn plantain & Sea plantain

Plantaginaceae Family

Worldwide, there are approximately 200 species of these mainly weedy and  sometimes invasive annual, biennial, and perennial plants in the genus Plantago. Their generic name Plantago comes from the Latin Planta – soul of the foot.

Here in Britain, you will easily find at least four of the plantain tribe growing wild. Two of them almost exclusively live and flourish by the coast and estuaries. The other two are found in 99% of the country and are two of the most useful medicinal plants you can get your hands on. These are fantastic plants and easily identified.

Greater plantain was familiar to both Neanderthal man and early Homo sapiens, who knew of the edible and medicinal uses of plantains.

It is likely that you are already familiar with ribwort (Plantago lanceolata) and ‘greater plantain’ also known as ‘rats-tail’ (P.major). These two plants are very common perennial herbs. They are never too far away in pretty much any urban and country setting. It may be that our long and intimate relationship with the plantains, through more than a few turnings of the great celestial wheel, has ensured their large numbers and close proximity. Before you can begin exploring the edible and medicinal uses of plantains, you need to be able to identify them.

Botanical descriptions 

Ribwort is a low-growing plant, with lanceolate leaves, approximately 15-25 cm long. Rats-tail plantain has much wider, broadly oval leaves with a noticeably wider and longer petiole.

Both species have distinctive white, raised veins on the undersides of the leaves. Stringy fibres are easily noticed when tearing the leaves They form basal rosettes before and during flowering.

Flowering spikes of both species can reach up to 45 cm high. These, and the buds are often being covered in fine silky hairs. The stems can be deeply furrowed in appearance.

Greater plantain’s inflorescence is larger than ribwort’s, occupying a greater ratio of the whole stem, but ribwort’s flowering stem is often larger in overall size yet with a much smaller, more delicate flower-head than the rats-tail.

The flowers of both species are produced without the need for petals. Initially the green buds give rise to pale creamy / yellow anthers. The flowers eventually turn brown when seeds are ripe.

Ribwort and rats-tail are very variable species. They will adapt their habit to environmental factors, being erect in tall vegetation but prostrate under grazing pressure. They can establish by spreading through vegetative means, ribwort especially so, and often appear in dense patches.

Neither of these plants are exceptionally frost hardy, but in our milder winters of late I’m seeing lots of ribwort persist, especially round the Atlantic coast.They both flower from April to August, and seeds ripen from June to September. The flowers are hermaphrodite and are pollinated by wind, flies and beetles.

These plants are noted for attracting wildlife; and so surely are worth a place undisturbed somewhere in your garden for this reason alone. Saying this, it will probably be impossible to completely eradicate the common plantains from your plot!

Their seeds contain a water retaining ‘gel’ made from mucilage, enabling them to germinate and grow in dry soils when other species cannot. If conditions are not favourable, the seed is long-lived and can sit in the soil for months or years waiting for the right conditions!

Habitats to look in when foraging plantain.

Plantain’s can grow on most soils including alkaline and nutritionally poor soils up to around 840 metres. They tolerate maritime exposure, establishing themselves in a wide range of conditions.

Ribwort plantain is often a significant component of flower-rich grasslands. Indeed, the plantain’s have been suggested as the most constant and widespread component of natural and semi-natural grassland in Britain. 

They are found in all but the most acid grassland, appearing in meadow communities, grazed pasture, lawns, sea cliffs, and sand dunes. Although ribwort is frequently prominent in a grass sward, it is not dominant in the sense of excluding other species or limiting diversity (as shown by its constant presence in the most diverse grasslands). If you are not sure if the plantains are growing near you (they are!), then take a look at this map.

Britain’s three other common plantain herbs.

Amongst other plantain’s you may stumble across here in Britain will be the ‘Hoary’ plantain (Plantago media). This plant has ovate-lanceolate leaves, sort of halfway between greater plantain and ribwort. Leaves with 5 prominent ribs and flowers with purple tinged stamens. I still confuse hoary plantain leaves with fat ribwort leaves from a glance.

Hoary plantain has to be the prettiest plantain of the lot to my eye, looking more similar in form to ribwort than the rats-tail, but with gorgeous mauve anthers. Hoary plantain can often be found nearer the coast-line and can freely occur inland as well, but nowhere near as frequently as ribwort.

Hoary plantain is absent from most of Cornwall and Wales, but can be found elsewhere under elevations of 520 metres. I’ve seen a few on the Downs near the Gorge in Bristol, another maritime climate and setting.

Perhaps more exciting for wild-food foragers, is another native British plantain, the ‘Buckshorn plantain’ (Plantago coronopus). This species will also be found quite easily on and around our coastlines. This distinctive-looking plant will occur in coastal towns and villages, on shingle beaches, or on sandy grassy edges and all manner of different cliffs. Keep an eye out for it in grasslands in cities that are technically coastal, such as Bristol and London.

Buckshorn plantain has deeply divided, bi-pinnately-lobed leaves, with linear-lobed segments. The leaf shape provides easy identification. Both its name and branched foliage give rise to an allusion of antlers. Its flower is small, initially drooping and then producing a lovely little yellow display.

This may have been the plantain that old texts refer to when mentioning plantain’s use as a ‘sallet’ herb. Certainly, the other plantains mentioned are edible, but only the very youngest leaves are in any way enjoyable raw. Usually our two common plantains here in Britain are often too bitter anyway, no matter their size, unless the younger specimens are used.

Buckshorn plantain is a coastal lowland species and can be found at altitudes of 340 metres although sometimes on salt treated roads inland.

Along the coastline and estuaries you will come across the ‘sea plantain’ (Plantago maritima), which is another reasonably succulent wild salad or pottage herb.

As well as the drier areas of salt marsh, this plant enjoys shingle beaches, as well as sandy and rocky dunes and edges. It primarily loves the coastal environment, because the numerous cliffs and estuaries offer many niche habitats for a range of tasty edible plants. Sea plantain will sometimes provide an extensive covering of leaves.

Sea plantain has narrower leaves than ribwort. It is a more succulent-looking leaf. On the back you will see a singular, prominent, central mid-rib. The leaves are all attached to a woody crown. Its flowerering stem and flowers are more similar to the rats-tail plantain.

Edible and medicinal uses of plantain.

 

Parts used Leaves. Pre-flowering buds, seed husk, seeds.

Harvest Leaves, any time from spring to autumn.

Key constituents Mucilage; glycosides (including aucubin); tannins; minerals (including silica, zinc and potassium).

Actions Vulnerary, mildly anti-bacterial, bitter, anti-septic, astringent, demulcent, mildly expectorant, haemostatic, diuretic.

Pharmacology and uses  The edible and medicinal uses of plantains are well documented. All of our well-known Western herbalists and herbal writers champion their virtues.

Both ribwort and greater plantain can be used to combat a number of ailments including catarrhal conditions, where rather than suppressing the symptoms, they can enable the body to deal with the causes of excessive catarrh.

On mainland Europe, ribwort is widely applied for hay fever and allergic conditions, where the mucous membranes are dry and or hyper-sensitive. It is of much use treating respiratory conditions.

Both plantains help to provide long term improvements in respiratory health. They can be recommended for a number of respiratory ailments, such as bronchitis, nasal catarrh and sinusitis, as well as middle ear complaints. Both plantains are particularly effective in treating these conditions in children. Once again this is due to their mucilage content.

Plantains act as calming, soothing expectorants, helping relax irritating coughs, especially where accompanied by general tightness of the airways. Ribwort tea is a wholesome, satisfying, tonic of a tea.

John Parkinson (1567-1650) documented that either of the plantains relieve “spitting of the blood” (one of the symptoms of tuberculosis, alongside irritation of the mucous membranes), and “for bloody or foul water by any ulcer in the kidney or bladder”.

Nicolas Culpeper (1616-1654) wrote that “plantains are special herbs for “staying all manner of the fluxes in man or woman” and are “singularly good herbs for those that are troubled with consumption of the lungs, or coughs that come of heat. He also mentions plantain herbs as “a good wound herb, to heal fresh or old wounds or sores, either outward or inward”.

The aucubin present in the leaves is anti-bacterial and is known to increase uric acid excretion by the kidneys. The micro-nutrient silica is known to promote lung tissue repair and zinc aids general healing and natural defences.

The mucilage content provides a relaxing expectorant action, and combined with the tannin content, provides a local, soothing effect on the gut lining and the skin.

The plantain herbs are indeed outstanding wound herbs. Like other traditionally used plants such as yarrow, plantain offer excellent first-aid, on the move, with no need for tears, plasters, first-aid-kits or nurses. If you cut yourself when out foraging, either ribwort or rats-tail will likely be near-by. Sorted!

To use in the wild, simply gather and chew a few of the leaves, then apply this ‘spit poultice’ to the afflicted area. Bleeding stops very quickly and broken flesh is rapidly ‘glued’ together due to the astringency of the tannins and demulcent mucilage components. The plantains are also mildly anti-septic, preventing infection.

The plantains can also be used against insect bites and stings. Once again simply scrunch the leaves until you get the juices flowing. Both the plantains are especially good for treating children suffering from these recurring afflictions. 

Eating plantain. Ideas on how to use plantain in the kitchen

During a forage walk I hosted in Oxford, I met a Korean gentleman who reminisced about eating the rats-tail plantain leaves as a child at home. He mentioned that they cooked it as you would spinach, and said it was a commonly used vegetable in rural areas.

Ribwort plantain flower bud tapenade, with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

The esteemed forager Pascal Bauder demonstrates his method of cooking plantain that produces a seaweed-like texture. Other plantain recipes utilise the earthy, mushroom like flavour of leaves and flower buds. I like using plantain buds in May. I can quickly gather enough to make a tapenade, mixing olive oil, lemon juice salt and pepper, either in a pestle and mortar or nutri-bullet. Add more oil and or a splash of water to mix to a fluid paste consistency. Add to humus about half and half.

Sea plantain, a great coastal vegetable and pickle. It looks like tough grass, so will take a keen eye to spot it at first!

Try using sea plantain leaves in a pickle after blanching in boiling water for 30 seconds, or served as a lightly steamed sea vegetable served with pepper and a good squeeze of lemon juice.

If you harvest specimens with leaves still attached to the base stem, and cut them so the majority of them remain attached, try dunking in a spiced batter before frying and serving with a sweet chilli and soy dip. The battered plantain look like octopus on the plate!

Buckshorn plantain can be almost hairless or quite hairy. Found around the coast

Buckshorn plantain has recently become an increasingly popular addition to commercial salad production in South West England. You may find it called ‘minutina’ or ‘erba stella’ in seed catalogues. Its succulent crunchy leaves are good, given favourable conditions.

I have noticed that buckshorn can be almost hairless, or alternatively, almost woolly. They can approximate succulence every now and then, complete with a salty tang, but can also be liable to their fair share of stringy fibres, and sometimes taste bitter. Try the plant from numerous locations and times of year.

Plantains also offer us nutritious seeds. These can be added to meals as you might with linseeds, and ground into flour to make flat breads. The seeds of Plantago lanceolata are nutty and just big enough to be bothered about.

Globally known edible and medicinal uses of plantains  – ‘psyllium’.

Psyllium is the name given to husk from seed of Plantago psyllium and P.indica and is freely available from many ethnic grocer shops as well as pharmacists. This remedy has been used for millennia in Asia, where it is known as ‘asashwagole’ as well as in North Africa and Europe. If necessary, say in a survival situation, the seed and husk could be collected from our native plantains, but it will take you quite a while to harvest the product.

Parts used Seeds

Key constituents Muco-polysaccharides within the mucilage (approx 15% total weight); proteins; fatty acids (linoleic, oleic, palmitic, stearic); sterols; tannins.

Actions Demulcent, bulk-forming laxative.

If requiring a bulk laxative, there are typically just two main herbal choices that stand out; psyllium or the endangered slippery elm. In both cases the resultant effects are due to the high concentration of mucilaginous, polysaccharide substances.

Herbal pharmacologists advise the soaking of plantain husk in warm water for several hours before using. This is probably due to the nature of long chain mucilage sugar units requiring time for them to be fully ‘loosened’ from the action of water.

Some studies have shown that fecal matter can be substantially increased by psyllium. For people with constipation, increases in the frequency of defacation will (hopefully) occur. Psyllium is indicated by herbalists for use following anorectal surgery and for the management of haemorrhoids and in cases of diarrhoea.

As a bulk laxative there is a chance it will cause minor flatulence and temporary abdominal pains. Do not attempt to swallow psyllium husk dry, for the drug may cause an obstruction in the throat!

For more information on other plants in season now, simply visit our seasonal and monthly wild food guides.

If you are wanting to come and learn the arts and crafts of the forager, then my upcoming foraging walks may be happening near you soon 

Foraging lesser celandine -The Spring messenger

Foragers identification guide to the edible wild plants of Britain

Foraging lesser celandine ( Ficaria verna syn Ranunculus ficaria) Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family.

Lesser celandine will be found in full bloom during March and April

In Germany not so many years ago, it was common for country folk to go out foraging lesser celandine in the very early part of spring. You didn’t have to travel far to find the plant in well-wooded countryside, and get to the high levels of Vitamin C found in the leaf. 

It could be possible that here in Britain we have gone foraging lesser celandine more for its medicinal astringency found in the roots, helping us in a fight against troublesome haemorrhoids and varicose veins. We know our ancestors went foraging lesser celandine for food and medicine. 

Lesser celandine is said to have been William Wordsworth’s favourite flower. The Lakeland poet (1770 – 1850) paid homage to it in more than one poem…” I have seen thee, high or low, thirty years or more; and yet t’was a face I did not know”.  Did he have piles and need the plant? Likely, given his reported love of opium! Read two celandine poems at the foot of the page.

Carpets of small green leaves and a profusion of yellow flowers

With favourable temperatures and sunshine, the lesser celandine can bloom en massé in March. Formerly known here in Britain as the ‘spring messenger’, you can spot this plant from a distance during early spring. Look for the carpets of small green leaves and a profusion of golden-yellow flowers,  noticeable as we move through February and March.

Extensive populations of celandine leaves are found in late winter/early spring. They are a glorious sight in dappled woodland light, even more so if joined by one or more of:  Wood anemone, wild garlic, cow parsley, wood avens, stitchwort, and if really lucky, some bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).

If brave and adventurous you can go foraging lesser celandine leaves in December!
Lesser celandine in December. Found in a stream-side habitat.

Lesser celandine is one of about 700 species to have been placed in the genus Ranunculus. Its previous generic name is derived from the Latin word rana – for frog, because this genus of plants are found in the same damp, wet, and marshy habitats as amphibians. The plant’s specific name ficaria is derived from the Latin for fig-ficus, because its tubers were said to resemble bunches of figs! Recently, the plant has been placed in a separate genus, named Ficaria.

The ancient name given to lesser celandine before the present  system was ‘Ranunculus foliis cordatis angulatis petiolatis’ – or the ‘buttercup with cordate leaves and angled petioles’. I think the older Latin classification for plants is a beautifully descriptive method, full of words we can recognise from our modern languages of English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Who said Latin was boring and pointless?

Botanical description to help when foraging lesser celandine.

With the glossy, two toned, mottled-green appearance greeting you when foraging lesser celandine, you can soon distinguish it and other plants with heart-shaped leaves.
Glossy, hairless, and two toned, mottled-green appearance

Lesser celandine has long-stalked leaves, 4-6 cm wide, produced each year from the small underground tubers. The leaves are glossy and hairless, and often found with a distinctive two-toned, mottled appearance. 

At least one variety or sub-species has carbohydrate-rich bulbils in the leaf axils. These are a surprise double harvesting bonus for the sharp-eyed when foraging lesser celandine!

Lesser celandine leaves are found with entire margins in most of the populations I’ve come across. However, certain sub-species (essentially regional variations) of lesser celandine, in various areas of the country, will be found with crenated and almost frilly margins. 

No stipules are present on the buttercup plants, which helps to distinguish them from say, rose family plants which do have these small, leaf-like growths at the base of a stem / stalk.  Read more on the various easy-to-remember, plant family patterns and fast track your foraging learning.

Lesser celandine flowers will close up to rain and dark windy days

In flower lesser celandine has solitary stems that reach around 25 cm high. Lovely glossy yellow flowers erupt among carpets of leaves. The flowers will close-up on rainy or dark windy days. When meeting the sun, its flowers are between 2.5 – 4 cm wide. They have three sepals, and anywhere between eight-twelve petals,1-2 cm long. The inner part of the petals and the stamens are coloured yellow-orange, giving the flowers a two-tone colour also.

The fibrous roots produce lots of spindle-shaped tubers, some 3-4  cm long. The majority of tubers are small and present an extremely fiddly task in preparing to eat. The tubers are for me, strictly survival food, or something I will maybe use as a garnish if I’m wanting an unusual talking point for a paleolithic diet discussion.

Extensive carpets of leaves can be found in late winter/early spring. They are a glorious sight in dappled woodland light, more so if the bluebells and stitchwort are out also. Lesser celandine also has rapidly creeping underground stems, enabling it to quickly form dense lush mats of growth.

Habitats to look in when foraging lesser celandine.

Try any hedge-banks, verges, riversides, roadsides, and woodlands at altitudes up to 750 metres. This natural woodland species finds a home in almost all parts of Britain, and will be found in many urban settings as well. Foraging lesser celandine s a nationwide and simple affair. This distribution map will help you appreciate just how common the plant is.

The plant has evolved to complete its flowering cycle before the tree canopy is fully open, taking advantage of higher light levels found in February, March, and April. By June it will have retreated to the underground until the very end of the year. Keep your eyes peeled in milder spots from December.

Parts used Roots, leaves.

Harvest Leaves from January. Roots are best when plant is dormant from May-June onwards, or just emerging in December and January.

Key constituents Lactones including anemonin; protoanemonin (not present in the dried product); triterpenoid glycosides; saponins; tannins; vitamin C.

Actions Astringent. Slightly bitter.

Phamacology and Medicinal uses This plant has traditionally been chiefly used as a medicine for haemorrhoids, for many hundreds of years. It was specifically used for internal or prolapsed piles with or without haemorrhage. Lesser celandine is generally used by topical application as an ointment or as a suppository.

We know that our ancestors looked at the plant’s knobbly tubers and saw, with a sympathetic magic mindset, a resemblance to piles. We used this ‘signature’ of the plant to determine our course of action medically. A system based on viewing the microcosm and macrocosm of ‘Gods creation’ and applying plant medicines based on a ‘Doctrine of signatures’ soon took hold in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many ‘discoveries’ still apply today, and this plant is one such case. 

I wish to discuss the relevance of plant signatures today, in a later article. No sniggering at the back. What are your views?

The fact that few clinical tests have been done with pilewort does not detract from its efficacy as demonstrated by long-standing traditional use. Anti-haemorrhoidal activity has been documented for the saponin constituents. Its general astringency will also contribute to this effect.

Edible uses The leaves are high in vitamin C. A cautionary note when foraging lesser celandine: You need to know that for absolute foraging safety, the leaves require cooking due to the presence of an irritant compound, protoanenomin, which is found in many buttercup family plants.

I would like to see any scientific studies regarding the build up of this compound (first isolated from one of the Anenome species) in the leaves and roots. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the leaves contain highest amounts when the plant is in flower. Your individual tolerance dictates what course of action to take when eating this plant, as it does for all plants.

My experience of Protoanenomin is that concentrations do alter, and that I am happy to eat lesser celandine leaves raw in a mixed dressed salad from when they first begin to re-emerge, and for a month or two, until most leaves are out and flowers appear.

If it’s a warm sunny March day, and the leaves are used as a trail nibble, lesser celandine will almost certainly irritate. Remember here that sorrel is for thirst-quenching, mallow is for soothing, and lesser celandine needs dressing or cooking! I do cook lesser celandine occasionally, as a ‘spinach’ green but prefer foraging nettles as they begin to come through in the early spring.

For sure, eating raw will ensure the highest Vitamin C content in the leaves. The leaf’s previous importance to the Germanic people is evident in the fact that the German common name for this plant translates to ‘scurvy leaf’. Did they eat it cooked? It isn’t difficult to see our ancestors gathering lots of leaves for the pottage broth.

The majority of my eating lesser celandine has been as a raw leaf, albeit in a dressed salad, and cooked as a pot herb. You can find more pondering on the wider context of wild plant edibility, within the field or the kitchen, and in my foraging hacks page. If you want to try your hand at cooking with wild plants, then head over to the wild food recipe page, where there are an increasing number of recipes.

I’ve been exploring lesser celandine tubers a little this winter, doing a few time and motion studies as to how long it takes to harvest, prepare and cook them, and frankly they are a survival food for when the shit has really hit the fan! Other than that, you basically get scant reward for the time and energy spent on getting them to the table.

Look-a-like plants to know when foraging lesser celandine

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) can superficially look like lesser celandine and especially so at a distance.

Although it’s not particularly frequent, winter aconite is a plant scattered in its distribution across mainly Southern and Eastern Britain. This buttercup family plant has a similar flowering period, flower colour, size, and display, but the leaves are quite different to each other.

The winter aconite has what looks like a ruff of leaves under the flower. The leaves are deeply divided, more or less palmately-lobed. Winter aconite also producers small tubers, more round in shape than lesser celandine. The flowers are 20-30 mm across.

Winter aconite will happily grow in woodlands, by roadsides, in hedge-banks, and in parks and gardens.

Lesser celandine is one of more than 80 species covered in my colour coded harvesting charts, a handy set of pdf’s giving you an at-a-glance guide to what’s in season .

If you are wanting to discover more about foraging and wild foods, then don’t delay and book a place on one of my upcoming foraging walks.

Meanwhile, here’s what William has to say…maybe muse on them when foraging lesser celandine.

To the Small Celandine.

“Pansies, lilies, kingcups, daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there’s a sun that sets,
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are violets,
They will have a place in story:
There’s a flower that shall be mine,
‘Tis the little Celandine.

Eyes of some men travel far
For the finding of a star;
Up and down the heavens they go,
Men that keep a mighty rout!
I’m as great as they, I trow,
Since the day I found thee out,
Little Flower!–I’ll make a stir,
Like a sage astronomer.

Modest, yet withal an Elf
Bold, and lavish of thyself;
Since we needs must first have met
I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
‘Twas a face I did not know;
Thou hast now, go where I may,
Fifty greetings in a day.

Ere a leaf is on a bush,
In the time before the thrush
Has a thought about her nest,
Thou wilt come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless Prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun,
When we’ve little warmth, or none.

Poets, vain men in their mood!
Travel with the multitude:
Never heed them; I aver
That they all are wanton wooers;
But the thrifty cottager,
Who stirs little out of doors,
Joys to spy thee near her home;
Spring is coming, Thou art come!

Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit!
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost show thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood,
In the lane;–there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ’tis good enough for thee.

Ill befall the yellow flowers,
Children of the flaring hours!
Buttercups, that will be seen,
Whether we will see or no;
Others, too, of lofty mien;
They have done as worldlings do,
Taken praise that should be thine,
Little, humble Celandine!

Prophet of delight and mirth,
Ill-requited upon earth;
Herald of a mighty band,
Of a joyous train ensuing,
Serving at my heart’s command,
Tasks that are no tasks renewing,
I will sing, as doth behove,
Hymns in praise of what I love!”

And  The Lesser celandine…

“There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite -then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner -behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!”

Happy foraging!

Common sorrel and other docks

Wild Food Foraging Guide to the Edible Wild Plants of Britain.

Foraging Common sorrel and other edible docks. Hard to miss, easy to identify, nutritious, medicinal herbs

Foraging common sorrel, sheeps sorrel, curly dock, broad leaf dock, water dock

Common sorrel and other closely related dock species are all plants you can find without looking! Just as easy to spot in towns as they are in the countryside, these plants are constant foraging companions.

Common sorrel grows in clumps of untidy rosettes from its perennial tap roots
Common sorrel grows in clumps from a perennial tap root

They are members of the large Rumex genus within the rhubarb family, Polygonaceae. This common plant family also contains japanese knotweed, buckwheat and bistort. The Rumex genus consists of 200 species of annuals, biennials, and perennials.

The name ‘dock’ is derived from the old English ‘docce’ – simply meaning ‘course large-leaved weed’. Hence, the unrelated burdock was ‘the coarse, large-leaved weed with burs’!

The edible and medicinal docks dealt with here are notable for their yellow-coloured tap roots. This colour suggests the reason why docks were previously instinctively thought of as good for the liver, and for bilious conditions.

Sheep sorrels leaveshave distinctive side lobes but taste the same as common sorrel
Sheep sorrel’s leaves have distinctive side lobes

My favourite edible docks by far are the sorrels, with common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) being the most plentiful; whereas sheep’s sorrel (R.acetosella) is locally common in some areas. When out walking or foraging you will soon spot just how common sorrel and other docks are.

A bite size look at common sorrel.

 

Botanical description of common sorrel and other docks.

Common sorrel has arrow-shaped leaves, with the winter ones being thicker and tougher.
Common sorrel has arrow-shaped leaves with white mid-veins and downward pointing lobes

At a glance, the sorrels have noticably arrow-shaped leaves. Their leaves are smaller and more narrow than most other docks. Common sorrel will be found with downward-pointing basal lobes and a notable white mid-vein (these two features separate the tasty sorrel from the dangerous lords and ladies – Arum maculatum). Sheep’s sorrel leaves are smaller and identified by prominent side lobes at the base of the leaf. 

The distinctive papar sheath or ocrea, found on all rhubarb family plants

One of the key diagnostic features for the whole rhubarb family will be found on the stems. There you will see a pronounced angled joint, always initially covered in a papery sheath, or ocrea. You can see this family pattern repeating across all the various members of the family. 

Curly dock with its narrow and ‘ripply round the edges’ look

All our docks have quite broad leaves on long petioles. The curly dock (R.crispus) has oblong-lanceolate leaves with distinctly wavy or crispy margins. These are tapered inwards at the base.

Broad leaved docks are occasionally found with red stems

The broad leaved dock (R.obtusifolius) has larger, more oval-oblong leaves, displaying less of a wavy edge. They are cordate at their can base.

Water dock grows in abundance on some rivers. Lovely long acidic  leaf stalks.

The stem leaves of broad-leaved dock become increasingly narrower on the flowering stem. Often the stem leaves will have stipules at the base of the petioles.

The very young leaves will have a slight hint of oxalic acid like their relative, the sorrel. Water dock (Rumex hydrolapatham) long leaf stalks are very acidic. This plant can grow in dense stands on mudflats and riverbanks 

All docks have a very similar looking inflorescence. Their flowering stems are green but can also carry a red-stripe. The broad leaved docks are occasionally found with completely red stems. 

The stems are smooth, round, and fluted, with a solid, pithy core and few hairs, if any> Dock flowering stems branch at acute angles towards the top.

Curly dock flowering clusters

The flowers are individually small and don’t really catch the eye unless in close quarters. They are green or red, dependent on species.

They have six, green, petal-like sepals. Three tiny outer ones, and three larger inner ones, surrounding the ovary. Typically 5-10 mm long, the flowers emerge from the upper leaf axils, growing on small stalks in dense whorled clusters, on branches 5-20 cm long.

The clusters of deep crimson pink flowers on a broad leaved dock are similar to the flowers found on common sorrel
Clusters of deep crimson pink flowers on a broad leaved dock

Dock flowers are scentless and often carry red ‘wart-like’ growths on the inner sepals. It is the size and shape of the sepals, plus the presence and shape of the ‘warts’ that helps distinguish between the numerous and similar looking dock species.

Habitats to look in when foraging common sorrel and docks

The gorgeous common sorrel flowers can be found in late spring throwing thread-like wisps of pink across meadows and fields
Common sorrel flowers. Waving wisps of pink across meadows and hedgebanks in late spring

The common sorrel shares nearly all its habitats with other close relatives. Look in fields, woodland clearances and woodland edges, hedgerows, coastal locations and wastegrounds in urban serttings. You won’t need to look too long.

Parts used Root, leaves, stems, leaf stalks and seeds.

Harvest Roots: early spring or autumn. Leaves: when small and young.

Key constituents Tannins; flavonoids (including quercetin, lutin); anthraquinones (emodin, chrysophanol); phytosterols (beta-sitosterol, daucosterols); phenolic acids (isovanillic acid, p-hydroxycinnamic acid).

Actions Astringent, anti-bacterial, cholagogue, alterative, tonic, aperient, anti-oxidant.

Brown seed laden dock plants are everywhere in the summer, including common sorrel
Brown, seed-laden dock plants are everywhere in the summer

Pharmacology and uses These plants are a somewhat recent addition to the European herbal pharmacopeia. However, they have been a mainstay in the medicinal repertoire of Native American indiginous people.

North American physicians brought these plants to the attention of western herbalists in the latter half of the 19th century. Previously the plant had enjoyed centuries of use by the indiginous people.

The reported anti-bacterial action stems from phenolic acid components, whilst the flavonoids are known for anti oxidant activity. Members of the Rumex genus are gentle laxatives, or aperients. It is likely that the small amounts of anthraquinones are responsible for this action as they are in rhubarb. Read more about the important medicinal plant constituents and actions.

Broad leaved dock coming into flower

Alterative herbs such as dock, act in a non-specific way on the digestive tract and liver. Through helping the liver remove toxins, alteratives are known as blood purifiers. They are often employed to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, boils, eczema, and for any conditions where skin eruptions and itching are prominent.

Docks help the digestive system by enabling the increase of gastric juices, including bile, and by encouraging bowel movement. This is partly due to their bitterness. Culpeper mentioned that ‘bloodroot’ (as docks were often called), ‘purified the blood and strengthened the liver’. By detoxifying and tonifying, the liver becomes less congested and stronger. In days long gone, docks were also used to treat scurvy.

With a high concentration of iron, docks are helpful in treating anaemia. The root has been used as a poultice for this very reason. The tannins and thier astringent qualities mean internally irritated membranes will be soothed and protecte. Externally the root will be useful in treating haemorrhoids.

Many people have heard of using docks for treating nettle stings, and the majority of them might agree that rubbing dock leaves on the stings was very nearly pointless. That’s because it’s the gel from the new leaf shoots at the centre of the plant that help with stings and burns, not the leaf. I still prefer ground ivy for nettle stings, but finally I’m appreciating docks, thanks to Monica Wilde.

Sheep’s sorrel is becoming increasingly well known as one of the herbs in Essaic tea. Manufacturers of Essaic tea point to the use of sheep’s sorrel in fighting cancer, and aiding cellular regeneration. 

All of the Rumex genus have completely edible above-ground parts, though not many are tasty when eaten raw, like the sorrels. The common sorrel has been celebrated in France, where numerous recipes exist for sorrel soup and sauces. The sour and tart flavour of sorrel make it a superb accompaniment to fish dishes. It’s distinctive sour flavour is due to oxalic acid. The plant family as a whole are noted for higher-than-average oxalic acid content. People with kidney stones should avoid foods that are rich in oxalic acid

Docks are nutritious food, but the majority of them are too coarse for salads or tender spinach. In a survival situation, the docks will be one of the first going in the cooking pot.

The wood dock (Rumex  sanguineous) and the water dock are two other plants in the genus that I will freely eat. Young wood dock leaves carry hints of oxalic acid, similar to sorrel, whilst older leaves quickly become bitter and more fibrous. The leaves contain a higher nutritional punch than spinach, containing roughly one third more iron. Docks have more fibre and Vitamin A than an equal amount of carrots.

Baby wood dock leaves, a more tender, annual dock

The wood dock has a somewhat delicate leaf when picked small and young. These somewhat more tender leaves usually offer  more noticable sour tones.

The water dock will be found with leaves up to 1 m long, and growing on 30 cm leaf stalks. When young these are worth using as a rhubarb replacement with pronounced crunch.

The blood veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus var sanguineous) has become a popluar salad variety, and will occasionally be found growing naturalised in the UK. This plant is essentially a red-veined version of the wood dock, and doesn’t replace sorrel for flavour or texture.

Discover more  foraging tips and hacks to fast track your success. Know at a glance which plant and what plant parts are in season, with this downloadable set of colour coded harvesting charts.

If you would like to learn the practical skills of the forager, then book a place on any of my upcoming foraging courses. There’s no better time to start learning than today!

Ground ivy. How to find, identify and use.

A foraging identification guide to the edible wild plants of Britain.                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, you can 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. 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!