Foraging Rose Hips

Discover the medicinal benefits of roses and why you should still go foraging rose hips

Rosa canina / Rosa rugosa – dog rose / hedgehog rose

Rosaceae family

If you are of a certain age, then foraging rose hips will possibly be something your grandparents may remember with fondness. During the second world war, mass State sponsored foraging saw tonnes of the high Vitamin C fruit collected by tens of thousands of people, and weighed in for cash reward.

These common hedgerow plants belong in a genus comprising approximately 150 species of mostly deciduous and semi-evergreen shrubs and climbers. They are distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world, and their cultivation goes back thousands of years.

The generic name Rosa is apparently derived from the Greek roden – meaning red, or the Latin ruber – also meaning ruby or red. Roses are a plant that became synonymous of the ancient Mediterranean region. The roses that grew in this area were reportedly a deep crimson colour, which gave birth to the legend that the flowers sprung from the blood of Adonis. 

The roses have been important since ancient times in the preparation and use of cosmetics, medicine, ritual, and perfumery. It is known that the Greeks, Persians, and Romans employed many kinds of rose as medicines; in 77 AD the Roman diarist Pliny recorded more than 30 disorders that responded positively to rose preparations.

Different species of Roses were widely grown in medieval apothecary gardens. Rosa laevigata was mentioned in medical literature as being used by the Chinese around 470 AD.

Image of rosa rugosa flowers
Rosa rugosa flowers, commonly found in towns and cities as an amenity plant.

The commonly planted urban hedging species, Rosa rugosa, has historically been used to a lesser extent, and is reportedly a fairly recent addition to their materia medica. It is believed to have been first documented during the period of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The plant then reached Europe around the 19th century from its original homeland of China and Japan.

Wild, scrambling roses such as our dog rose (Rosa canina), are one of the quintessential hedgerow staples of British countryside.

Image of dog rose flowers
Dog rose flowers are a quintessential part of Britain’s hedgerows

Identifying features to look for when foraging rose hips.

The dog-rose is a variable, deciduous shrub native to Europe, West Asia and Africa. It loves to grow in woodlands, copses, and hedges throughout Britain, but not higher than around 550 metres. The gloriously rampant roses are recognisable by their arching, green, thorny stems that can climb high into trees, as well as for their beautifully simple flowers.

The stems bear pinnate leaves which are divided into 5-7 oval-shaped leaflets approximately 6-7 cm long. Beautiful pink-white blooms are borne singularly or in clusters of 2-4 from late spring to mid-summer.

They are around 5-6 cm in diameter. Alas, the splashes of pink and white adorn our hedges for a short time only because the petals are easily blown off by winds.

The flowers give rise to the familiar fruits known as ‘hips’, which duly ripen to their glorious rich scarlet colour during early autumn. This provides a sporadic and welcome visual interlude in the hedgerow alongside the hawthorn berries, from the dominant brown and yellow leaves of late autumnal decay.

Image of rose hips in autumn
Autumn hedgerows come alive with the masses of splashes of scarlet in hedgerows from September.

In contrast Rosa rugosa (an introduced species, and now a schedule 9 invasive plant), is a vigorous shrub; having very dense, prickly stems and deeply veined leaves. Once again, the leaves are pinnate; although in this instance bearing an average of 9 narrow, oblong leaflets growing to 3-5 cm long.

The flowers of Rosa rugosa are often a magnificent bright pink, being larger than the dog rose at 8-9 cm in diameter, and swiftly giving rise to globular, almost tomato-like red hips,. They are much fatter than the dog rose, but almost the same length. An introduced species; the hedgehog rose can be found growing at altitudes of up to 400 metres. All roses can be grown in sunny or light shade and thrive in well-drained, slightly acid soil.

If foraging rose hips in towns and cities, then you will probably find that the hedgehog rose is the species most commonly encountered, as this plant is very popular as an amenity planting in parks, cemeteries, gardens, around tower-blocks, and many development complexes.

This plant has hips that are bigger and ready earlier than the dog rose. Either can be used, but resist the temptation to get the hips off the showy roses in your garden. They have substantially less vitamin C in them and are not worth bothering about.

No matter which species used, be careful with the irritant seed hairs within the fruit. These are the basis for itching powder, found in joke shops. They will need to be strained off if boiling the fruit in the traditional way of making rose hip syrup

Parts used Petals (occasionally) and ripe hips (with seeds and irritant hairs removed).

Harvest Fruits when ripe. The dog rose-hip in late September-October, the hedgehog rose-hips in late August-September. Dog rose-hips are better after a frost.

Key constituents Vitamin C (one cup-full of rose hip pulp reportedly has between 40-60 times as much vitamin C as oranges); vitamins A, B, D, and E; flavonoids; tannins; sugars; acids; pectin; carotenoids (lycopene); volatile oil; essential fatty acids; resin; minerals (including magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sulphur, zinc).

Actions Astringent, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, diuretic.

Pharmacology and uses The high vitamin C content is useful in preventing and fighting infection, colds, flu and pneumonia. The astringency of rose-hips helps relieve dysentery and diarrhoea. In addition, the various flavonoids and substantial amounts of Vitamin C in rose hips, have potent antioxidant action help protect the body from numerous internal and external stresses.

As previously mentioned in my article on medicinal plant constituents and actions Vitamin C and bio-flavonoid molecules always appear combined together in nature. This is how our bodies experience vitamin C when eating fruits. Rose-hips are rich in this vital chemical complex.

Image of Rosa rugosa hips
Rosa rugosa hips are fatter, rounder, bigger, and available earlier than dog rose, typically from August.

Together, these molecules help to strengthen body tissues as well as helping to build and maintain a healthy vascular system. They also prevent damage to fragile capillaries. As life cannot go on without vitamin C, it almost goes without saying that regularly consuming plants such  as roses, as a prophylactic, will be of more benefit the older you are.

During the mid 17th century, Culpeper, prescribed rose hips for ‘consumptive persons’, as well as for ‘tickling rheums’, ‘breaking the stone’ (in the kidneys) and to help digestion. Rose-hips have mild laxative and diuretic properties as well as being of help in the treatment of urinary infections.

In Ayurvedic medicine, roses have long been considered ‘cooling’ to the body and a tonic for the mind, and Native American Indians are said to use rose-hips to treat muscle cramps. Rose petals were included in the British pharmacopoeia as an astringent until the 1930’s.

The discovery of the nutritive power of rose hips was due to World War II. During this period there was a shortage of citrus fruit in England, and the British government organized the harvesting of as many rose hips as possible in England as a substitute vitamin C. This eventually highlighted the importance of rose-hips as a superior source of the vitamin and began its worldwide popularity.

Preserving rosehips can be done in a few ways. Traditionally, sugar and alcohol have been used. Making a rose hip syrup with sugar can be achieved through boiling and straining the fruit, or, more simply, and perhaps with more eventual Vitamin C content, by a cold infusion, as can be seen below

Image of cold infusing rose hips, layered with sugar
Layers of sugar and rose hips, will in time produce a thick floral rose hip syrup, without need for boiling.

Alternatively the fruit could be treated like others and made into a fruit leather, which can keep for months. As well as this, I like to make rose hip brandy for those chilly winter evenings round the wood burner. The better the brandy you buy, the better the product will be. Simply steep the hips in brandy with some sugar to sweeten a little. Leave until the new year if you can!

Image of rose hip brandy infusing
Rose hip brandy. A warming way to get some rose hips into your life!

The iron in rose hips make them an excellent supplement for menstruating women, whilst an oil extracted from the rose is of value in reducing scar tissue and stretch marks caused by pregnancy and birthing, due to its tissue regeneration properties. 

Rose hips are one of the plants covered in my Autumn set of foragers friend identification cards, available very soon in the foraging resources shop.

Another foraging monograph next week

Foraging St John’s wort

Hypericum perforatum  (St Johns wort)

Hypericaceae family

This summer-flowering medicinal plant grows wild and free throughout many areas of Britain. With a liking of numerous settings it will be easy for foragers to find St John’s wort, and with unique observable characteristics, it is simple to identify. You can find out more about plant identification on my foraging walks and courses.

The scientific name for the genus, Hypericum, is thought to originate from the two Greek words – hyper, meaning above, and eikon, meaning ‘picture’.

The bright yellow flowers, which many centuries ago were felt to be symbolic of the sun, or spirit, were placed above religious pictures, specifically St John, to help ward off evil spirits during the celebrations of the midsummer Christian festival. Church leaders placed their festival onto the ancient summer solstice festivities (since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this has traditionally been celebrated on 24th June, previously falling on or around the 5th July).

The extractable red flower oil was previously meant to symbolize the blood of St. John. The species name perforatum is derived from the Latin word meaning perforated. Visible translucent perforations on both the leaves and the petals are visible with the naked eye.

The blood red stems of young spring growth on Hypericum perforatum.

Botanical description of St John’s wort

St Johns wort is a native British perennial, from a genus containing over 400 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials; deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen shrubs and trees. This plant grows throughout Europe.

St Johns wort is a clump-forming perennial which can grow to a height of up to 90 cm in flower. Re-appearing each year from its crown, it produces numerous red stems that eventually branch towards their upper parts. The stems bear small and hairless leaves, which are opposite and mostly oblong, but always sessile. The leaves typically grow to 3-4 cm long.

If you hold the stems up to the light, close inspection will reveal the leaves have numerous translucent glands, as well as a few dark ones at the edges on the undersides. The lanceolate petals and shorter sepals in the flower are also marked with dark dots.

The presence of the dark oil bearing glands, as well as the slight, opposite ridges on its round stem are crucial identification factors between this and one of more than half a dozen other Hypericum species that populate Britain.

The bright, glossy yellow flowers are similar in size to a buttercup. They have five petals and are borne on a corymb inflorescence. These types of flowering displays are often referred to as umbel-like.

When in full display, the shiny, showy blooms are noticeable for having more than fifty stamens spraying out from the centre of the flower. These are fused in the lower part into three bundles.

Hypericum perforatum flowers

Flowering Period

The flowering period for this plant is usually lengthy, and occurs between June and September, with the seeds ripening from late July to October. The self-fertile flowers are pollinated by bees and flies.

Soils and Habitats

St Johns wort absolutely delights on calcareous (alkaline) soils, as will be seen by the propensity of it when visiting chalk grasslands such as around Winchester and in West Sussex on the South Downs. It’s not a completely fussy plant, so will also be found on mildly acidic ground.

It can do well on waste-ground and some woodland edges, and is often seen happily populating pastures, as well as roadsides and occasional hedges. This is a lowland plant, so will be found at maximum altitudes up to around 480 metres.

St Johns wort can grow in the semi-shade of light woodland, or will be even more happy in full sun. The large tap-root helps it to flower right through the summer, even during periods of drought.

Although the plant can set viable seed, regeneration also occurs through its creeping lateral runners, arising at various points on the rootstock.

Parts used Leaves, flowers.

Harvest In summer (Flowers only for an infused oil).

Key constituents Hypericin; pseudohypericin; flavonoids (including hyperforin, kaempferol, luteolin, quercetin, rutin); phenolic acids (including caffeic acid, ferulic acid, chlorogenic acid); xanthones; mono-amine-oxidase-inhibitors (MAOIs).

Actions Anti-depressant, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, mild astringent.

Pharmacology and uses The chemical composition of St. John’s wort has been well studied, especially in the last thirty years. Documented pharmacological activities include anti-depressant, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial effects. These provide supporting evidence for several of the traditional uses stated for St John’s wort.

In terms of the recent history of British herbal healthcare, St Johns wort has had a somewhat meteoric rise to prominence. Many of its pharmacological activities remain unclear, although a number of actions have reportedly been attributable to hypericin and the flavonoid constituents.

Evidence from a number of randomised controlled trials during the 1990s, highlighted and confirmed the efficacy of St John’s wort extracts over placebo’s, in the treatment of mild-to-moderately severe depression.

St. Johns wort and extracts of it have been shown to be effective against short-to-medium term mild depression, but not long-term or severe depression. As with a lot of plant medicines, there is a need to further assess the efficacy of St. Johns wort, compared with that of standard anti-depressants.

Although the anti-depressant actions of this plant were only elucidated during the last 40 years or so, this plant had an acknowledged ability throughout history to relieve melancholy, as was noted by Gerard in his Herbal (published 1597). Folk medicine records also show many lay-people knew of its power to cure nervousness and low spirits, so it was also used it as a general tonic.

St John’s wort and mono amine oxidase inhibitors

St Johns wort contains molecules known as MAOI (mono-amine oxidase inhibitors). As their name suggests, the MAOI action is an inhibiting one. These molecules are known to increase the availability of mono-amine neuro-transmitters such as serotonin in the brain (thereby helping to combat feelings of depression). This plant is known to increase deep sleep and can be useful in cases of insomnia. 

Hypericin – a weak MAOI, but exerting effect on other neurotransmitter sites.

Interestingly though, the MAOI in this plant are weak and have been shown not to be responsible for the anti-depressant effect of St. Johns wort! However, what scientists do know about hypericin and the flavonoids are that they exert a number of effects on both the GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) and Glutamate receptor sites in the brain. These neurotransmitters are directly involved are in feelings of well being and in helping our central nervous system relax.

A number of concerns have been raised by allopathic practitioners over possible dangerous interactions between St John’s wort and certain prescribed medicines (including warfarin, ciclosporin, theophylline, digoxin, HIV protease inhibitors, anti-convulsants, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), ‘triptans’ and oral contraceptives).

Medical advice in Britain and America usually states that patients taking the aforementioned medicines should not take, or stop taking St John’s wort! Before embarking on a course of St Johns wort, and especially when on other medication, you need to seek advice from a pharmacist or another healthcare professional with detailed knowledge about these potentially dangerous adverse interactions!

Concentrating on the anti-depressant substances in St Johns wort could detract somewhat from the many other traditional applications for which this plant has been used.

Interestingly, a book by Gabrielle Hatfield and David E Allen, titled ‘Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition – An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland’, which was published almost 10 years ago, suggests that the reputation St. Johns wort has for healing cuts, grazes, and more serious wounds and burns, is likely to be more attributable to all of the Hypericum species found in Britain, rather than the one species under discussion in this monograph.

A different Hypericum species on a limestone cliff in the Gower, south Wales

Moreover, St John’s wort is a name given to more than one Hypericum species, and judging by maps of the British flora, H.perforatum won’t be found in all the areas that records of ‘St Johns wort’ use has been documented.

In their fascinating book, pieced together using information from before mass public travel and transportation, and sourced notably from unconnected areas of the UK and the Isle of Man, the authors report that various Hypericum species have been used, and seemingly with much effect.

St Johns wort oil has long been known of, for its topical pain relieving and soothing action on burns and scalds, ulcers, inflammations, and various forms of muscular pain.

Tutsan – Hypericum androsaemum. Likely to have been used medicinally in lieu of St Johns wort.

The red-coloured infused oil, extractable from the petals, has been used for these and other related complaints. St Johns wort can be usefully employed to treat conditions such as neuralgia, fibrositis, sciatica, excitability, anxiety, and as a general nerve tonic.

St Johns wort also aids the regeneration of granular tissue during healing of wounds. Indeed, Nicolas Culpeper, described in the 1640’s that it was “a singular wound herb” and that “it closes up the lips of wounds”.

Today, St Johns wort is a well known species and one of our most widely used herbal remedies. Contemporary uses have built on the fragments of traditional folklore collated from these islands. It is one of the staples of any Materia Medica here in Britain, and due to it being so common, one you can easily harvest, process and store each summer.

Nettles Monograph for Foragers

Foraging nettles can help you help your prostate!

Urtica dioica/ Urtica repens 

Stinging nettles – Urticaceae family

Although nettles are well known by everyone on this island,  many do not know that this common plant has a remedy for a common accompaniment of ageing, an enlarged prostate.

The genus Urtica includes about 50 species of annuals and perennials that are widespread throughout the temperate regions.

The generic name Urtica is the old Latin name given for the plant. Our most common nettle derives its specific name dioica from the fact that this species has male and female flowers on different plants. The other nettle species that grows here – Urtica repens, takes its specific name from the Latin word for creeping.

Urtica dioica is perennial, rising each year from a creeping, underground network of yellow-coloured rhizomes, and can easily attain heights of 180 cm given good growing conditions.

Nettles are often a sign of fertile, if neglected land, and are found usually en masse, on waysides, roadsides, hedges, in fields and woodland edges as well as gardens, parks and waterways, up to 850 metres.

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Can be found and harvested in towns, thanks to mowing and strimming, as late as November.

Nettle leaves are simple and cordate, with dentate-serrate margins and pointed leaf tips. The leaves sit in opposite pairs on square stems and typically reach 7-12 cm long. All these features are also commonly used to describe members of the mint family as well, but we know that floral characteristics are often vital for correct identification. Nettles have a different inflorescence compared to mint family plants, which places them in a family of their own.

simple-nettle-leaves

Nettles also display tiny stipules at the base of the leaf, where it meets the stem. These small, leaf-like growths are not a characteristic of mint plants, so can help you identify between nettles and the similar looking dead nettle tribe of the mint family, even without the flowers.

Nettles were reportedly first introduced to Britain by the Romans and were used by the soldiers as a flogging aid to warm them during long cold nights and as an aid for sore, stiff bones and joints! This practice, known as ‘urtication’, is regaining popularity, especially on the continent in places such as Germany, where a lot of the most recent research into nettles, and other herbal remedies, has been carried out.

Nettles have very fibrous stems that have formerly been processed into cloth, as well as cordage. Native Americans and other indigenous cultures have woven nettle fibre into cloth and bags. German soldiers had uniforms made from nettles in the First World War. The British army are known to have used the green dye extracted from chlorophyll-rich nettle leaves, for making camouflage. 

Nettles are also a well known green manure crop for the garden and allotment. The nitrogen rich leaves are added to comfrey for a balanced liquid feed.

Parts used

Leaves, roots.

Harvest

Leaves: in spring, choose just the tops. Roots: best in autumn.

Key constituents

Leaves: contain up to 20% minerals (especially iron, calcium, potassium, sillic acid); phenolic acids; flavonoids (including kaempferol, quercetin); histamine; volatile and resinous substance glucoquinone; Vitamin C. Roots: contain lignans; lectins; sterols; polysaccharides, and several phenolic compounds.

Actions Nutritive, haemostatic, astringent, circulatory stimulant, galactagogue, hypoglycaemic, diuretic, anti-prostatic.

Pharmacology and uses Nettle leaves contain high concentrations of iron and minerals and are therefore highly recommended for cases of anaemia and other deficiency conditions.

The tannins present in the leaves exhibit astringency. An extract of nettle leaf has been found to slow the heart of laboratory animals, as well as helping to dilate, and constrict, the blood vessels, alternately under different conditions.

Nettles increase the excretion of uric acid and are mildly diuretic. The leaves are full of protein and make an excellent fasting tea to help flush out toxins from the kidneys and the rest of the elimination systems. With notable concentrations of Iron and Calcium, nettles are a very useful supplement for pregnancy and breast feeding.

The sometimes painful and irritable nature of nettles and the silica stinging hairs can be counteracted through one of the various plants easily found around nettles. I personally find the creeping ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae) far more soothing and relieving than any other plant I’ve tried so far, including the useful plantains (Plantago species) and docks (Rumex species). You can find videos on both plants on my youtube channel

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Baby nettles will still sting!

As an alterative, the leaf can aid the clearance of acne and other skin complaints as well as reportedly helping counteract the overproduction of dandruff. As an astringent it can be a useful wound staunching herb for the nose.

Nettles can significantly help to reduce blood sugar levels in the treatment of ‘type-2’ or ‘late onset’ diabetes mellitus. The presence of glucoquinone reportedly helps to account for the perceived hypoglycaemic action. Other indications for nettle use include the treatment of arthritis and gout. In Germany, there is a tradition for making beer and wines from nettles in the spring, specifically to treat arthritis. 

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Nettle roots and the prostate

The root contains the most medicinal magic as far as men are concerned. Rich in plant sterols, sugars and other medicinal compounds, the root has repeatedly shown to arrest benign growths of the prostate.

The prostate is special to men. So special in fact, that the majority of males wouldn’t know where to go looking for it. It sits behind so as to surround the urethra, which as we know, carries urine from the bladder through the penis to the outside world.

The prostate gland enlarges as men get older, although usually not starting until after the mid-thirties. It then tends to enlarge in middle to late old age due to excessive growth of the glandular cells it contains. This growth is benign, not malignant, and has often been linked to decreased sexual activity. Gradual enlargement has been recorded in slightly more than 50% of males over 50 years of age in the UK and up to 75% of all men over 75 years of age.

The most common disorder is benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or prostate enlargement. The other is known as prostatitis (prostate inflammation). This condition is more prevalent in older men but can be present in young men also. Prostatitis can be passed on to your sexual partner and in women can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.

Typical symptoms of prostate enlargement:

  • Bladder obstruction with need to urinate more frequently and at night

  • Incomplete emptying of bladder

  • Pain, burning and difficulty in starting and stopping urine flow

  • Presence of blood in urine

  • Sometimes associated kidney damage and bladder infections

Typical symptoms of prostatitis:

  • Pain between scrotum and rectum

  • Discharge from penis

  • Frequent urination with a burning sensation

  • Aches and pains in back, rectum and between the legs

Prostatitis can develop leading to increasingly difficult urination, as well as premature ejaculation, blood in the urine, and impotency. Be warned! This condition, if left untreated will eventually obstruct the bladder outlet resulting in blood in the urine. Ouch! Prostatitis is believed to be hormonal in nature.

As one of the major health issues for males, allopathic medicine continues to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into research for new drugs to combat cancers and to help arrest BPH. Western drug treatment will usually involve drugs such as Alpha-blockers and 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors.

Alpha blockers work by helping to relax the muscles at the neck of the bladder and in the prostate. 

5-alpha-reductase inhibitors work by blocking the conversion of testosterone to another substance, dihydrotestosterone (DHT) that is known to have a key role in prostate growth.

Should either of these two prove unsuccessful, then they are usually combined and added to other drugs. Doctors also often employ hormonal therapy, although this carries side effects, including change of libido and mood swings! Yet evidence is already out there which points to the power of nettle root extract to inhibit certain enzymes in the body which ordinarily affect our levels of male sex hormones.

One particular enzyme which affects the levels of testosterone is the sex-hormone-binding-globulin (SHBG). This is an enzyme that the body produces more of with age. SHBG tends to bind more readily with testosterone compared to oestrogen, thereby reducing the amount of ‘free testosterone’ available to find receptor sites and consequently decreasing libido. This may eventually lead to possible enlargement.

What nettle root does, or more specifically, a lignan fraction within it, is to inhibit the binding action of this enzyme, thereby ensuring that more testosterone can bind at its receptor sites. Nettle’s lignans have also been shown to reduce cell proliferation in prostate tissues.

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The fat-soluble extract of nettle root is pharmacologically active in fat tissues where androgen hormones such as testosterone are produced. The more water-soluble methanol extracts exhibit the greatest BPH arrest, with resultant high levels of inhibition of prostate growth.

Nettle root also increases urinary flow and urine volume.Nettle root can be as effective in arresting prostate growth as finasteride, a pharmaceutical 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, although nettle root does not demonstrate this particular type of inhibition.

Research is continually being carried out to determine the precise nature of a number of other different active compounds, yet the many successful treatments with nettle root extract are already testament to the demonstrable abilities of this plant.

netle beer
Nettle beer, traditionally made to help relieve arthritis, and a lovely spring fizz

Undoubtedly a medicinal food, nettles are one of the most nutritious greens we can eat. Lucky are the urban foragers because they have the opportunity to easily gather nettle tops in different spots from March through to late November in most towns. Remember to only take the succulent sweet and tasty tops.

Nettle soup is the classic way of eating this herb, combined with onions or leeks and potatoes and seasoning. Many people like adding blanched leaves to pesto, and a friend of mine makes an interesting nettle chutney. The leaves also work well as a general spinach replacement in many other dishes such as ‘saag aloo’.

Comfrey Monograph for Foragers

Foraging for comfrey in the UK.

Symphytum officinale  – Comfrey

Boraginaceae family

Comfrey has traditionally been one of the principle remedies in any materia medica. Comfrey is an elegant plant, common to our inland waterways, and one of more than 25 species of coarsely hairy perennials within the genus.

The common name Comfrey is derived from the Latin ‘conferva’, (to join together) which begins to tell us how the Romans knew of and used the plant. Similarly, its scientific generic name also alludes to this ‘bringing together’ (sympho- from the Greek meaning to unite; phytum from the Latin, meaning plant), whilst the specific name officinale denotes its use as an official apothecary herb of old.

This plant is distinguished by its large, broadly lanceolate leaves (up to 30 cm long and more) which rise each year from a rhizomous rootstock. Its leaves are set on long, relatively thick petioles coming from the crown of the plant.IMG_4737

Comfrey initially grows as basal growth, but can we actually call that often untidy mass of leaves a rosette? Comfrey’s large leaves are coarse and hairy, with curving, and upward-sweeping, netted vein patterns, arising from the mid-vein.  On the growing flowering stems the alternately spaced leaves have progressively shorter stalks, becoming sessile towards the top.

The leaves are quite similar to its family relative’s borage, lungwort, and the green-alkanet. Lungwort has white blotches on its leaves so cannot be readily mistaken for comfrey, though both borage and more especially the green alkanet could be. If you snap comfrey’s leaf stalks, the mucilaginous properties are quickly revealed.

Knowing comfrey from foxglove!

One of the most dangerous misidentifications that a forager can make is mistaking comfrey for another well-known, also medicinally potent, yet poisonous and unrelated species – the foxglove. This plant belongs to the figwort family and has an extremely similar looking leaf to comfrey, even on second glance.

foxglove leaf
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) leaves with crenated margins

I have heard tales of inexperienced foragers picking foxglove leaves, then eating them in fritters, only to wake up a week later in hospital from a coma! This possibility should install some vital diligence in making absolutely sure of identification. To help in this, the reader is advised to become familiar with both plants.

comfrey comparison
Comfrey leaves with entire, or featureless margins

The foxglove leaves will be seen to have minutely-crenate leaf margins, which comfrey does not have. Furthermore, the foxglove leaf veins do not curve out and sweep upwards. Rather, they rise at a more acute angle from the mid-rib.

It is also worth touching and holding the two plants. The two plants, whether it’s the leaves, stems, or petioles, all feel quite different to each other.

During flowering, the plants are much less likely to be confused. Many people will know the foxglove inflorescence. The glorious purple hooded flowers are borne on spikes and look totally different to comfrey’s inflorescence.

Another way of helping to distinguish comfrey and foxglove from afar is to observe and evaluate the habitat you are wandering through. If you are near streams or rivers or on wet ground below 320 metres, it is very likely the plant will be comfrey, for it delights in areas such as these.

Foxgloves can survive in sub-alpine conditions, and elevations of up to 1650 metres. The foxglove abounds by hedges, roadsides, and waysides, and especially by old, crumbling stone walls. They are often found within their classic lowland habitat of woodlands, where it will thrive at the edges, and within any well-lit glade.

The flowering stems of the common comfrey typically grow to about 150 cm high, although larger is not uncommon. Its flowers are borne on numerous cymes on multi-forked stalks. The flowers are usually creamy yellow-white on the wild comfrey, occasionally pink-purple.

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Certain insects burrow through the comfrey flowers to get to the nectar.

Comfrey has distinctive, tubular or bell-shaped flowers, with a crenate finish to the fused petals. The seeds are little nutlets, which appear in groups of four. Comfrey’s root is thick and many-branched, from an often large crown. It has black skin with white flesh.

You can find out more about how to identify plants using the easy-to-remember- ‘patterns method’ in my previous article.

Comfrey self-propagates from its creeping rhizomes, and gardeners are advised to be careful when placing or removing common comfrey, for it will creep and take over patches of ground due to an ability to grow from any shards of root left in the ground. As a friend and I are all too aware, these quickly re-emerge and grow on.

A suitable comfrey cultivar for the garden can be acquired, which is known as ‘bocking 14′. This variety is clump forming and does not spread to anything like the same extent as our native species.

See what Mrs Grieves has to say about comfrey here.

Parts used Leaves, roots.

Harvest Root in autumn, Leaves throughout season. 

Key constituents Allantoin (up to 2.5%); tannins; mucilage; gums; resins; phytosterols; rosmarinic acid; pyrrolizidine alkaloids (including symphitine, cynoglosine, consolidine); inulin.

Actions Anti-inflammatory, vulnerary, demulcent, astringent, increases cell proliferation.

Pharmacology and uses Comfrey has been referred to as one of the chief plant medicines in the folk repertory of Britain and Ireland. It is an exceptionally effective mucilaginous healing remedy in any materia medica.

Comfrey has been popularly used for cuts, grazes, and lesions (though this is now discouraged), as well as to heal larger wounds, bone fractures, torn cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. The swift wound sealing action is mostly attributed to the allantoin, a recognised cell proliferant, and is partly due to the tannins and general astringency of the plant, enabling it to draw open wounds together.

The mucilage contains the remarkable allantoin. This substance is well known to promote constructive activity of different types of connective tissue such as chondroblasts (cartilage) and osteoblasts (bone) as well as flesh and skin. Allantoin also helps produce neural cells. It promotes keratin dispersal and has been used topically on psoriasis. Allantoin is highly diffusible and its presence means scarring is less likely.

It is because the plant heals cuts so quickly (but from the surface downwards), that comfrey is not recommended for deep cuts anymore. Instead, for these wounds, a number of other common vulnerary plants, such as plantains or yarrow can be more profitably employed. They will both ensure complete healing at the bottom of the wound, working upwards.

Be warned, because there are documented cases of comfrey being applied to baby girls as nappy rash ointments, that have then led to the vagina sealing up, such are its powers. As well as healing and sealing all types of tissue, comfrey also has a reputation for use on bruises and swellings. All parts of the plant yield an oily astringent juice, containing the mucilage, which can be readily applied as a poultice as well as being made into the classic comfrey ointment.

Comfrey ‘plasters’ and ointments for broken bones.

Traditional use for healing damaged limbs was by cleaning, peeling, grating, and then boiling the root. This process obtains a thick paste which is then applied like ‘plaster of paris’. The comfrey plaster acts much in the same way. It helps broken bones by setting the joint, whilst acting somewhat as a poultice, thus enabling the absorption of medicinal components from the outside inwards.

Of the folk records collected, almost half consistently refer to its use on fractures, sprains, and the like. Internal use of the root for the same problems is not documented, so please do not drink comfrey root thinking it will help set your broken bones as successfully. The tannins and resins actively combine with mucilage to help give rise to comfrey’s ‘plaster action’.

Much has been written about the dangers of liver damage resulting from internal use of the root due to it containing liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. This group of around 660 alkaloids are found in a large number of plant species, approximately 6,000 worldwide. The PA causing the most concern in certain comfrey species, is echimidine. 

Our native wild S.officinale typically has considerably smaller amounts of the toxic alkaloids than the very similar looking comfrey plant most people have in their gardens or allotments, the usually purple-flowering S. x uplandicum. Moreover it does not contain the notably harmful PA alkaloid echimidine in the leaf.

In North America and Canada, you can acquire over-the-counter comfrey remedies from Symphytum officinale, because it doesn’t contain echimidine. British Herbalists may still prescribe common comfrey leaf. In other comfrey species, the root can contain approximately up to 10 times as much PA’s as the leaf.

Suffice it to say here that the dangers of toxic doses from comfrey root, although cumulative in effect, remain very slim due to the minute amounts present per dose when used as medicine. Saying this, comfrey root is now contra-indicated by herbalists for internal use due to the alkaloids. Furthermore, European practitioners do not now recommend topical use on cuts and wounds. 

S. x uplandicum is a cross between S.officinale and S.asperum (‘rough comfrey’) and will show typical hybrid vigour in a number of ways. One of these manifestations may well be the greater production of what are essentially predatory-defence chemicals in the bigger, more voracious hybrid plant. 

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The majority of tests carried out into alkaloid toxicity are based on direct subcutaneous injection of the alkaloids into rats, rather than testing the whole leaf or root. This does not replicate what actually occurs when we consume and digest the plant.

It is also worth reminding here that salicylic acid from meadowsweet could easily be as harsh to the stomach wall as aspirin, were it not for the other components present in the leaf (such as the mucilage and tannins) combining with it and providing healing incomparable to what aspirin can do.

I therefore continue to eat common comfrey occasionally, especially in the spring when it is at its best, as well as using it as a topical medicine, for musclular-skeletal injuries.

Comfrey has also been greatly used in the treatment of respiratory conditions and digestive ailments. A water extract of comfrey showed increases in the release of prostaglandins from the stomach wall. This has been suggested as producing a direct action in protecting the gastric mucosa from damage. Rosmarinic acid is also known for reducing inflammation and provides a major component of this plant’s anti-inflammatory action.

Comfrey as Food.

Comfrey is an exceptionally nourishing medicinal food, as was discovered in the 1970’s, containing as much protein as some legumes! The younger shoots and leaves are best used, and if steamed or blanched, offer a texture of succulent, slightly crunchy and mildly cucumber-tasting leaf stalks alongside the pleasant earthy ‘spinach’ taste of the leaf.

Alternatively, and perhaps more well known is using the leaves in a fritter. Simply make a batter and dip a folded leaf in, then fry. Served when golden brown with a sweetened chilli-enhanced soy sauce or such like, they are quite delicious.

If you would like to learn more about identifying and using wild plants, then you can book on one of my courses, or get a set of my new pocket-sized, waterproof, ‘foragers friend’ identification cards.

Foraging Coltsfoot

Foraging coltsfoot – An ancient and potent herbal medicine for the lungs

Tussilago farfara – Coltsfoot. Asteraceae family

We have been foraging coltsfoot for medicine for thousands of years, and its importance to our materia medica remains.

We know from Roman times that this herb was one of our ‘go-to’ remedies for respiratory disorders. Such was its prominence, if you were to walk into an apothecary in the 17th and 18th Century, you would recognise this flower immediately from the picture on the signage outside.

Coltsfoot is a small, creeping perennial herb, notable for its habit of producing beautiful yellow  dandelion-esque flowers in late winter and early spring, before its leaves appear.

We now know that coltsfoot flowers open before their leaves, giving rise to the old latin name Filus ante patrum, or, the son before the father. previously people foraging coltsfoot flowers thought they were harvesting a different plant to the leaves, because of the unusual floral display
The ‘son before the father’ was how coltsfoot was formerly described, due to its flowers opening before the leaves

As a result of this floral phenomenon, the ancient Latin name given to it by botanists of the renaissance period (before Linnaeus and his binomial classification), was Filius ante patrem, which means ‘the son before the father’. The ancient apothecary physicians used this flower as the emblem for their shops, and it is still used by many herbalists today. 

This plant is one of 15 different species in the genus. Many scientific plant names contain clues as to a plant’s origins, or its favourite habitat, and sometimes to a plants main actions or uses. With coltsfoot, the generic name Tussilago offers the hint towards its medicinal use.

It has been a popular anti-tussive (cough reflex inhibitor) herb for centuries and recent research is backing up some of the ancient claims. The specific name farfara, is apparently derived from the ancient name for the white poplar tree (farfarus) whose leaf colour and form resembles coltsfoot somewhat. Our ancestors obviously thought it looked like the foot of an animal, hence the name coltsfoot.

What to look for when foraging coltsfoot.

This is a hardy plant, native to Europe, West Asia, and North Africa. It re-emerges each year from a rootstock of stout, scaly, white (ish) rhizomes. These give rise firstly to its yellow flowers, before the long-stalked, somewhat hoof-shaped, sea-green leaves appear.

The leaves will typically grow somewhere between 10-25 cm long. They have a few, small angular teeth on somewhat undulating margins.

People who regularly go foraging coltsfoot, know that it can be found on the poorest soils.
Coltsfoot is happy finding a home on the poorest soils

The leaf surfaces when young are  covered with loose, white, woolly hairs, but those on the upper surface will fall off as the leaf quickly grows and expands. The broad leaves have angled, sometimes pink-tinged, main veins, running away from the central vein, akin to the burdock to which coltsfoot is not too distantly related.

Coltsfoot’s composite flowers are pretty similar in appearance to the dandelion at first glance, although the flower stems are quickly seen to be different. Coltsfoot’s terminal flowering stems are scaly and slightly woolly (unlike the dandelion), topped with striking yellow flower heads. More information on how to identify the daisy family can be found in my plant family patterns article.

These striking blooms consist of yellow disc florets and yellow linear ray florets (unlike dandelion which has ray florets only). The flowers will generally grow to no more than 20-25 cm high, and always appear before the leaves have emerged. 

As with many of the daisy family plants, coltsfoot produces a spherical seed head of tiny fruits (achenes), attached to downy white, silky, pappus hairs. Goldfinches were known to line their nests with these soft hairs, as were the Highland peoples of Scotland, who reportedly suffed mattresses and pillows with them.

This plant used to grow far more abundantly throughout England. Yet it can still easily be found on a range of sites up to altitudes of 950 metres. These include waste-grounds, along the sides of railway banks, on cliffs and dunes, and occasionally on roadsides. It grows as well in wet ground as in dry situations.

Nowadays however, with the ever increasing development in 21st century Britain, its abundance has been curtailed somewhat, especially in urban areas. However, when foraging coltsfoot, you will find it still thrives in towns, in any place that remains a little wild, rough, and unkempt.

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Young coltsfoot leaves, already displaying the angled margins without serrations

Be sure it is not the young leaves of Butterbur (Petasites officinalis, syn P.vulgaris syn P.hybridus), or the winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) you are collecting by mistake when you are foraging coltsfoot! To help your identification, I have covered winter heliotrope in my foraging videos.

Make sure you know the difference in the foliage between Petasites species and Tussilago when you are foraging coltsfoot
Winter heliotrope has larger leaves, without the angled margins or downy white covering

Both of the Petasites  resemble coltsfoot in flowering habit and leaf shape, although butterbur is less likely to be mistaken when mature, because its leaves are so much larger than coltsfoot’s. 

Both of the Petasites species have more rounded leaves, and without the slightly angled and toothed margins or the white downy fuzz. Butterbur can frequently be found dominating areas of canal and river banks.

Winter heliotrope will similarly be found in large carpeting expanses, be this at the edges of woodlands or hedgebanks, as well as other shady spots.

Coltsfoot loves life by the sea. On the Jurassic coast in Dorset for example, and repeated on much of our coastline, this plant grows in reasonably large populations. When I was there in 2011, it was clearly enjoying the North West coast of England close to the Lake District, enjoying the long stretches of sandy dunes and eroding field / beach edges to be found there.

Coltsfoot has been classed as an invasive plant not suitable to garden cultivation by the RHS, but to be fair, this organisation is not widely known for either their medicinal herb gardens, or specialisation in wild medicinal plants, or come to think of it, organic gardening principles.

You, like me, may think that invasiveness and rapid colonising of bare soil is a valuable asset in the medicinal herb gardener’s fight against weeds. If I had a medium-large medicine garden, then this plant, along with other effective ground-covering medicinal species, such as ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae), would be a most welcome  and valued addition to the medicine cabinet.

Parts used Leaves and flowers (the flowers were formerly much used, but not so today as you will shortly discover).

Harvest Leaves: when fully-grown. Flowers just before opening.

Key constituents Flowers: mucilage; flavonoids (rutin, carotene); taraxanathin; pyrrolizidine alkaloids (senkirkine, senecionine, tussilagine). Leaves: mucilage; flavonols (quercetin, kaempferol and their glycosides); tannins; inulin; phytosterols (sitosterol, stigmasterol, taraxasterol); sesquiterpene (tussilagone); zinc.

Actions Expectorant, anti-tussive, demulcent, anti-catarrhal, anti-inflammatory.

Pharmacology and uses Coltsfoot was formerly a prized pulmonary tonic and curative against emphysema, chronic bronchitis and whooping cough. There are still many reasons to go foraging coltsfoot.

Culpepper mentions that  “…the fresh leaves, or juice, or syrup thereof, is good for a bad, dry cough, or wheezing and shortness of breath”.

With the emerging flower buds and yellow flowers, foragers will know that its almost time to start foraging coltsfoot
The buds and first flowers signify that its soon time to start foraging coltsfoot.

The substantial amount of mucilage in coltsfoot confers the demulcent and expectorant activities.

This is also true of other soft leaved plants, such as mallows (Malva spp) and mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and is something worth remembering when out and about foraging…namely, that soft-to-the-touch leaves, usually mean a soft and demulcent medicinal action when taken internally.

Previously, this meant that many people smoked the flowers to help with coughs. The ancients of Greece and Rome were known to advises this, including Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny. We now know that this method is not the best way forward, although you can still find coltsfoot in a number of herbal ‘tobacco’ blends.

Just like its relative elecampagne (Inula helenium), the roots and flowers of coltsfoot have been used to make a cough sweet. Boiled in honey or sugar syrup, a type of ‘rock’ made with coltsfoot was once a popular remedy to alleviate coughs and asthma, which was especially useful to people who almost unfailingly were to sit in dusty churches for a few hours, at least once a week.

The overall anti-inflammatory action of coltsfoot is reportedly similar to the pharmaceutical drug indometacin. The water-soluble polysaccharides are partly responsible for the anti-inflammatory action, as they are in a number of other species in the daisy family. The trace element zinc, reportedly found in reasonabaly high amounts in coltsfoot, also adds to the anti inflammatory action. 

The alkaloid tussilagine has been demonstrated as an effective cardiovascular and respiratory stimulant. However, as with a number of plants containing the pyrrolizidine alkaloids, liver toxicity from chronic low exposure has been demonstrated in tests, albeit mainly on rats.

Further to this, pregnant women are known to pass on toxic pyrrolizidine compounds to their unborn child, resulting in at least one reported case of fatal, hepatic veno-occlusive disease. This death was of a newborn infant whose mother had regularly taken cups of herbal tea containing coltsfoot and a Senecio species (a genus also known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids).

It is now believed the budding flowers of coltsfoot contain the highest concentrations of these compounds, so current advice from pharmacologists is usually that only the leaves should now be used in a tea, and not for prolonged use.

Coltsfoot has been shown to be anti-bacterial against bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus, Proteus spp and Psuedomonas aeruginosa.

It is also a mild diuretic and has been used to treat cystitis. There are no documented adverse drug reactions recorded for coltsfoot.

Coltsfoot leaves have also been used as a vegetable. The downy leaves can be simmered and blended with onion and potato into a thick soup, or the leaves can be steamed like spinach, then served with a knob of butter. Some authors have said the leaves have a liquorice flavour. I do detect a sweetness in coltsfoot leaves, but liquorice is pushing the description somewhat. Well, to my smokers palate at least.

Want to know more about foraging coltsfoot? Try the classic Mrs Grieves online herbal.

Discover lots more plants that can easily be found in winter and spring in my short seasonal guides.  Alternatively, you can peruse my monthly wild food guides, that began this January, in conjunction with these colour coded seasonal harvest charts, that are available as a download, so you never a foraging trick this year.

If you are wanting more help in the field with learning the arts and crafts of foraging, then check out these pocket sized, waterproof I/D cards, created in a field guide style, then pop over to my foraging courses page and find a course near you.

Toxic and poisonous plants.

Toxic and poisonous plants: To learn them is to leave them!

When starting out on your foraging adventures, plant identification books should always, always be used so that you can get to know the toxic and poisonous plants. Safety is paramount. If in doubt, leave it out!

The British Medical Association define a poison as “a substance that, in relatively small amounts, disrupts the structure and/or function of cells”. You can read more about the various substances and classes of molecules in this summary of medicinal plant constituents.

The subject of toxicity is an interesting yet by no means simple one. Simplicity would demand an answer to the question…What constitutes a poison? A famous name in medieval alchemical science – Phillip Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as ‘Paracelsus’ (1493-1541), recognised that…“it depends only on the dose whether a poison is a poison or not”!

Certain drugs, notably many anti-cancer agents (whether natural products or synthetics), are principally used because of their toxicity.

A number of our cultivated plants that we can safely consume in normal dietary amounts are potentially toxic, if consumed in larger quantities. We all know of at least some of the health benefits from eating regular amounts of cabbage or broccoli. However, the knowledge that excessive consumption of cabbages, kale and cauliflowers (all are cultivated varieties bred from the wild cabbage, Brassica oleraceae) can lead to swollen thyroid glands is not so widespread.

There are documented cases of rural communities reliant on brassica’s as staple foods, inducing thyroid-related illnesses from over-eating cabbage and cabbage relatives. The medicinally valuable glucosilinates are widespread in members of the brassica’s, and are toxic in large amounts. However, it is physically impossible to eat enough in one sitting.

Within the fruits of many rose family members are minute amounts of arsenic-based cyanogenic glycosides (in the form of prussic acid – hydrogen cyanide). Arsenic is known to be deadly poisonous. However, the concentrations are usually so low that they have beneficial medicinal effects.

Different plant parts will hold various concentrations of poisonous compounds. Typically the fruits, seeds and roots will contain considerably higher amounts of toxins than the leaves and stems. Some plants will also let you know by their smell that they are inedible. For example, the scent of elder leaves are unpleasant and do not invite eating.

Plant families can be usefully, if roughly, categorised as to their general edibility, medicinal value, and toxicity. Some families are edible and medicinal, others medicinal and toxic, whilst some are downright toxic.

Commonly found plant families; their toxic and poisonous plants.

The dock family.

Although these are edible, there is a need to point out the risks of eating plants with oxalic acid (see medicinal chemistry), the major constituent of sorrel (Rumex acetosa). Oxalic acid is a ubiquitous plant constituent. High oxalate consumption can lead to kidney stones or gout. As a foraged or cultivated vegetable consumed every now and again however, this plant, or indeed the family as a whole, presents little danger.

Oxalic acid is also present in Rhubarb (Rheum spp), as they are in many other plants in this family, along with numerous other unrelated plants. Be sure to wash the leaves of the dock family because they can have chrysophanic acid on the surface which can make the tongue numb. This property apparently gave them the common name of ‘smartweed’ in North America, as when eaten raw they could make the tongue smart!

The lily family.

Many bulbous plants in this family are edible and medicinal (Allium spp), yet bluebells (Endyion non-scriptus syn Hyacinthoides non scriptus) and true hyacinths (Muscari spp), contain toxic substances. The very beautiful, but poisonous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), is found in damp meadows and woodland, especially in a belt of central England from North Dorset up to Shropshire and across to Oxfordshire.

Closely related plants in the Narcissus genus (Amaryllidaceae family) are also toxic, though a substance found in daffodils is known to help with types of dementia. The gorgeous, spring-flowering ‘snakeshead’ fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), is poisonous due to its alkaloids. These plants are usually quite rare in the wild now, and vary easy to identify with their striking snakeskin pattern, so present no real danger of mistaken picking in reality. During flowering it should be unlikely to be mistaken for edible or medicinal species. Fritillaries do not offer us food or medicine but are a treat for the eyes when stumbling upon them.

The pea family.

These plants, or more specifically the seeds, are often inedible when mature and raw. The ornamental laburnum tree (Laburnum anagyroides) has extremely poisonous seeds. Many of the whole-foods commonly we commonly eat are seeds of this family. These include the soya bean (Glycine max) and kidney beans (Phaseolus spp) amongst others. These plants contain substances such as trypsin inhibitors and certain enzyme inhibiting substances which will otherwise interfere with our digestion and metabolism. Our common wild legumes, including the Vicia (vetches) and Lathyrus (sweet pea) genera, are known to contain trypsin inhibitors.

The nightshade family.

Aside from mostly being very pretty to look at, this family supplies us with a range of different foods, medicines, hallucinogens, and outright nerve toxins. A common nightshade family toxin is the substance solanine. This is a central nervous system toxin and causes dizziness, nausea, diarrhoea, and potentially delirium, shortness of breath, and coma. The well known vegetable aubergine (Solanum melongena), is toxic unless cooked. All parts of the potato (Solanum tuberosum) except for the tubers (unless green) contain solanine.

When foraging, we need to become familiar with the following poisonous plants:

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara); populates lanes and hedges throughout Britain. It has a twining, sprawling habit, decorated by its 8-10 cm oval leaves which often have two smaller pointed leaves at the base. From June to September the purple and yellow-coloured flowers are scattered in amongst the green leaves of the hedge and are followed by increasingly noticeable scarlet berries in the autumn. These shiny red berries look enticing, but are to be left for the birds!

The ‘deadly nightshade’ (Atropa belladonna) can be fatal if consumed, yet is reasonably rare outside of the South East of England. It can be identified by its pointed, 20 cm long oval leaves, and its distinctive flower and fruit. The flowers are produced singularly, or in pairs, and are bell-shaped with more or less parallel sides and blunt lobes. The corolla is striped with a brown-purple or green hue and is succeeded by the solitary, shiny black berry. The fruit sits with the five pointed calyx noticeably persisting behind it. This calyx/berry arrangement is happily unlike any edible berry and should not easily be misidentified for one.

The black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), is a common weed of agricultural fields and gardens alike and probably our most common nightshade. The green berries are poisonous, containing solanine, although the ripe black berries are edible.

The leaves of balck nightshade also contain variable amounts of solanine but this is destroyed by boiling so they can make an acceptable wild green. The leaves also contain the amino acid methionine, which is rarely found in plants.

Both henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) and the thorn apple (Datura stramonium) are used in herbal medicine practice, and both are controlled under schedule 3 due to their toxicity. These plants are therefore not advised to be used by unqualified people. Henbane has no resemblance to any edible species found wild in Britain, so is not of any realistic concern to the forager.

Datura on the other hand, although pretty uncommon, could be mistaken for one of the not uncommon beetroot family – the ‘maple goosefoot’ (Chenopodium hybridum). With a similar shape and outline to their leaves, confusion is not impossible even though the foliage of the goosefoot does not smell like Datura. It is safest to avoid picking the maple goosefoot altogether, just in case.

The buttercup family.

The vast majority of this family are quite unpalatable and poisonous to us. Have a nibble of a buttercup leaf and spit it out. They taste acrid, bitter and nasty and do not invite eating! Indeed, one of the most powerful toxins known to man is in this family. The monkshood, also known as wolfbane (Aconitum napellus), has a long historical use as a poison, especially as an arrow poison. It contains the deadly poison aconitine, present in large concentrations in the roots.

A very common climbing-vine known as ‘travellers joy’ or ‘old man’s beard’ (Clematis vitalba), is rare for a buttercup in that it has only four petals not five. This plant has also been documented as poisonous although the young tips are edible with cooking, as this breaks down the irritant compund protoanenomin, common to many buttercup family plants, such as lesser celandine (Ficaria verna). The other common name of this latter plant, ‘pilewort’, will tell you its primary medicinal use!

The carrot family.

The following are all documented as poisonous by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

  • Aethusa cynapium fools parsley –Found in most areas of Britain. Commonly a garden weed. Large prominent bracts.

  • Berula erectawater parsnip – Common by waterways. Tastes of parsnip!

  • Chaerophyllum temulum syn Chaerophyllum temulentum – rough chervil – Common.

  • Cicuta virosa cowbane – Very rare, except North-West Wales, Cheshire and South Lancashire areas. Absent South-West. Very poisonous!

  • Conium maculatum poison hemlock – Deadly poisonous and widespread over Britain.

  • Ferula communis giant fennel – Extremely rare introduction.

  • Oenanthe crocata water hemlock dropwort – Deadly poisonous and very common by water.

  • Oenanthe fluviatilisriver water dropwort – Locally common in South and East Britain. Not widespread.

  • Oenanthe fistulosa tubular water dropwort – Locally common in certain areas prone to winter flooding.

  • Oenanthe pimpinelloides corky fruited water dropwort – Uncommon but found in Somerset, Dorset, South Gloucestershire, and Hampshire.

  • Oenanthe silaifolia narrow-leaved water dropwort – Absent Scotland and Wales. Rare in England, absent in South West.

  • Oeananthe aquatica fine leaved water dropwort – Found sporadically from the Severn right along the welsh borders to the Mersey and some parts of East England.

  • Oenanthe lachenalli parsley water dropwort – Found around the coast, rarer inland.

  • Sium latifoliumgreater water-parsnip – Common by waterways.

  • Sium suave – Also (confusingly) commonly known as water parsnip! – Rare.

A number of these poisonous plants contain powerful nerve toxins. Poison hemlock and water dropwort hemlock are both deadly poisonous. They look distinct to each other, yet for the beginner they can appear very similar to a number of other edible umbellifers. This then is one of the overarching issues when foraging for umbellifers. The edible ones look incredibly similar to some of the poisonous ones. Saying this, each of the umbellifer species are said to be distinct to each other, and are not known to hybridize that frequently.

Extreme care and caution should always be exercised when foraging for the carrot family. Avoid foraging for umbellifers next to waterways until you know them really well, for this is where a number of the poisonous ones live. Let’s face it, no one wants to look silly by dying in a hedge after mistaking hemlock for one of the numerous other similar looking umbellifers!

Hemlock contains the extremely poisonous alkaloid, and nerve toxin, coniine. As a very inexperienced, naïve and reckless forager many years ago, I discovered this plant in my mouth seconds after misidentifying it from a peripheral glance as wild chervil, whilst strolling and nibbling on a mixed hedgerow salad (please, don’t ever be this stupid). Its bitterness rapidly turned into unpleasant sensations akin to stinging needles erupting throughout my mouth and I quickly spat it out. Thankfully, I had pinched off only the top inch or so and had yet to swallow, so got away with a short, sharp, shock!

The plants below are all documented as recording a range of photo-sensitive, dermatological effects. These are due to furanocoumarin molecules. If sap from the stems (produced in profusion when flowering) of these plants comes into contact with your skin under the sunlight, then mild blistering may occur, and in the case of giant hogweed, 3rd degree burns. As you will see, some of our common vegetables are included. I know a farmer who has suffered mild burns from cutting down flowering parsnips in the summer sunshine.

  • Apium graveolenscelery

  • Angelica sylvestris wild angelica

  • Anthriscus sylvestris – wild chervil / cow parsley

  • Daucus carota – wild carrot

  • Foeniculum vulgare – wild fennel

  • Heracleum mantegazzianumgiant hogweed

  • Heracleum sphondyliumhogweed

  • Pastanaca sativa wild parsnip

  • Petroselinum crispum parsley

  • Thapsia garganica drias plant

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It needs to be stressed here that the giant hogweed is, by far, the plant most commonly documented as responsible for the most severe reactions. The others produce much milder effects, which not everyone experiences to the same degree, if at all.

The concentrations of furanocoumarins present, degree of sunlight, and an individual’s constitution will all play a part in reactions experienced following exposure to the sap under sunlight. I happily eat raw, peeled, wild chervil stems in the spring sunshine and do not have any problems from handling the plants.

For safety, I do not touch giant hogweed at all. The ‘drias plant’ I have not yet met. Wearing gloves and harvesting on overcast days or out of direct sunlight is the answer if you are in any doubt. A number of plant families including the spurge (Euphorbiaceae) and citrus (Rutaceae) families also exhibit similar photo-toxic effects.

Other widespread poisonous plants of Britain.

Our native evergreen climber, the common ivy (Hedera helix) produces poisonous berries from November, initially green then turning black through the winter that are best left to the birds. They contain the toxic substance hederin. It was formerly used as a purgative medicine, but one considered too strong for safe self-medicating.

The dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is a common ornamental and hedgerow plant of the Cornaceae family. Its white spring flowers give rise to black berries in the autumn. They may seem appealing, but leave them alone! Holly, the well known evergreen tree, contains the toxin ilicin in the berries. As little as two of these may induce nausea.

The same advice goes for two previously used strong purgatives, the buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), and the alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus). Both shrubs carry black berries in the autumn following flowering. Buckthorn’s broadly elliptical leaves are noticeable for their curving vein patterns. Their small and green flowers have four petals and are borne in clusters at the base of the upper leaves.

Alder buckthorn is thorn-less and also displays small flower clusters. The small white flowers contain five petals, and give rise to a black berry which is red until ripe. Both plants are found occasionally in hedgerows in Britain (although rarer in Scotland).

Look-a-like poisonous and toxic plants

The perils of similar looking yet unrelated species needs a mention at this point. The common ‘lords and ladies’ (Arum maculatum), has often been mistaken for two popularly foraged plants; sorrel and wild garlic (Allium ursinum). I heard from a forager friend that should you try and eat the leaf from the lords and ladies, a sensation akin to the one I described for hemlock will ensue. The leaves contain toxic calcium oxalate crystals. Note that this compound is different to oxalic acid, present in the sorrel and prevalent in other members of the dock family.

Both the common sorrel and lords and ladies have a relatively similar shape to their leaves, especially when small, although their leaf vein patterns are unlike. The favourite habitats are also completely different. Sorrel loves meadows, fields and other grassy areas, whilst lords and ladies is a natural woodland species and hardly ever extends from the protection given by woodlands, roadside verges, hedges, and darker edges of fields.

Beginners reading this may already be aware of the similarity between very young wild garlic leaves and any emerging lords and ladies leaves. The two plants often share woodland and other habitats.  Arum does not have parallel veins like wild garlic, and its prominent basal lobes are distinctive, as are the arrow-shape leaves. Compare these to the broadly-elliptical leaves of wild garlic. IMG_4449

This picture demonstrates that edible and potentially deadly poisonou plants will often be found side by side.

Notwithstanding the fact that wild garlic tends to emerge after the lords and ladies is already up, and that the two plants soon display noticeable differences in leaf shape, care should always be taken when you are first foraging. If the leaves are too small to be sure of positive identification, move on. This advice goes for any plant!

Sorrel has a lo-k a-like with a similar habitat, the meadow resident, field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). This has similarly-shaped leaves to sorrel, and enjoys sharing some habitats, but it’s striking, raspberry ripple, two-toned flowers and creeping sprawling habit, are completely different to sorrel.

A common poisonous member of our woodlands is the perennial herb, ‘dogs mercury’ (Mercurialis perennis). This poisonous plant can carpet some woodlands and hedge-banks. Dogs mercury can slightly resemble a nettle when in flower for it also has white, thin and wiry clusters of flowers appearing from its upper leaf axils. The rare, but pretty yellow-flowered birthwort (Aristolochia clematis) contains the highly toxic compound aristolochic acid, which causes renal failure.

Our only native member of the Curcubitaceae family – Bryonia dioica, or ‘white bryony’, is also documented as a poisonous plant. Its palmate leaves could be mistaken for hops. Both the plants share similar habitats. The classic pumpkin family characteristic shown in bryony’s spiralling, wrap-around, spring-like tendrils help the plant get into the light. The dainty white flowers can be seen dotted in the hedgerows during the summer months if looking closely. The roots and berries are toxic. An alkaloid, bryonicine, is partly responsible. The young downy shoots stretching up from the soil could be mistaken for hogweed reaching for the light. Red berries follow the flowers.

The unrelated ‘black bryony’ (Tamus communis) is the only species in the yam family to grow wild here. Another of our hedgerow climbers, this plant is notable for its dark glossy-green, heart-shaped leaves and scarlet berries. This yam family (Diosceraea) species has been documented as a poisonous plant in some books but edible in others. I have eaten the young tips, which similar to travellers joy, will need cooking to render the toxins present, harmless. The berries are certainly poisonous, but the root reportedly could be eaten if you are prepared to treat it in all number of ways first through boiling and such like. Hmmm, not for me.

I hope you are not now thinking that the land is awash with harmful plants. The reality on the ground is that only four of our poisonous plants here in Britain are likely to be confused with similar looking edible or medicinal species. These are poison hemlock, water hemlock, foxglove and the yew tree. Foxglove is dealt with elsewhere in these pages. The yew tree does not offer the typical coniferous aroma from its foliage and has bright red aril fruits (usually called berries for non botanists) in late summer/autumn. Its fleshy and edible fruits distinguish it from many similar evergreens, as does its growth form, which is more typical of a deciduous tree than a coniferous tree. Remember that all other parts of the Yew could kill you, including the seed, so spit it out if eating the berries.

If you are wanting to learn more about foraging and plant identification, then take a look at my seasonal sets of waterproof I/D cards. These handy pocket sized cards are designed to help your learning in the field.

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