Ground ivy. How to find, identify and use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground ivy botanical description 

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

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

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

Fine bristly hairs cover the square stems of ground ivy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habitats to look in when foraging for ground ivy

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

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

Parts used – Leaves and flowering tops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy foraging!


Foraging Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Asteraceae

Discover how foraging yarrow connects us with the Neanderthals. Foraging yarrow connects us with our Neanderthal ancestors more than 50,000 years ago

How foraging yarrow today continues an intriguing plant-people relationship stretching back more than 50,000 years!

People have been foraging yarrow for ever! This is unsurprising to us today, given what we know about its many uses, and in a globally connected world we nearly all have access to information on the remarkable powers yarrow shows as a medicine.  As an edible, if somewhat a bitter and aromatic plant, yarrow has been used around the world wherever it has been found. But we have forgotten much about the importance and magic of this ubiquitous herb.

Its too easy to overlook and ignore some of the really common plants when out hunting and gathering wild food. Its easier still not to enquire or ponder about the significance of a common plant that is found in almost all temperate zones around the world.

We repeatedly see a few common plants everywhere we go, and they can immediately just become part of the fabric of the ‘green wall’ because of their seemingly omnipresence . Unless that is we choose to explore, and then their important role in human evolution starts to become apparent.

Yarrow is a herb heavily steeped in myth and legend; and a plant that many cultures of the world have widely used and revered. Achillea millefolium was named in honour of the Greek god Achilles; who according to legend, had course to widely employ this wound staunching herb on the battlefield.

Many tens of thousands of years before, the Neanderthals were foraging yarrow for use as food and for its medicinal properties. This was revealed by the presence of a number of common wild plants found in the plaque on the teeth of Neanderthals excavated from graves in the Mediterranean basin!

We know enough about zoopharmacology, the study of how wild animals use wild medicinal plants, to confidently imagine our more recent Homind ancestors having a reasonably extensive knowledge of the wild plants they lived with and had to utilise to survive.

I think its both lazy and insulting to not recognise that our hunter-gather-foraging ancestors would easily have known hundreds of plants. It is likely that far more of our vast natural larder and medicine cabinet would have been familiar to them, than to the majority of people alive today in the Western world.

Today, as you will soon see, yarrow remains a sovereign remedy of both Western and Eastern herbal medicine traditions, and rightly persists as a favourite of many practitioners working with plant medicines. Alongside dandelions and plantains, yarrow can be considered another of our globally available, herbal first aid plants!

But its not just practical uses of Yarrow that stand this plant out from the crowd. This happens to be the only plant used for the ritual purposes of divination in the Chinese oracle – the ‘I Ching’. This 5,000 year old oracle, still much in use the world over, is traditionally consulted after preparing and throwing 50 Yarrow stalks into the air and then interpreting how and where they landed.

Quite why the ancient Chinese decided upon this herb is unclear.  But its not the only plant  to have has almost reverential status conferred on to it by ancient civilisations in the Orient. A common relative of yarrow, also found here in Britain – mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), is almost exclusively known as ‘Moxa ‘in Chinese and is the only herb used in the application of moxabustion, where a bundle of the dried herb is burnt and the glowing tips placed just above the skin, to stimulate the movement of chi (energy).

Botanical description to help I/D when foraging yarrow

Yarrow has wispy, feathery foliage, which can superficially resemble the wild carrot. Yarrow’s leaves are repeatedly divided, also known as bi-pinnatifid leaves.

We an use all parts of yarrow as medicine, so foraging yarrow is almost an all year round affair
The feathery foliage of yarrow is noticeable in the summer when it retains its green colour even in drought.

The leaflets are small with thin lobes, which gave rise to its other common names; ‘milfoil’ and ‘thousand leaf’.

The basal leaves are sometimes quite large and sprawling, always on long petioles, and initially grow in a rosette. Leaves are typically around 20-25 cm long. The stem leaves become shorter, sessile, and alternately spaced.

In mild climates you will see the plant happily overwintering. New growth will re-emerge from its creeping and steadily spreading rhizomes in early Spring. This network of roots will mean that we regularly find the plant growing as dense mats and carpets.

Although mostly a white flowering plant, pink flowering forms are not an uncommon sight when foraging yarrow
Pink forms are not an uncommon sight when foraging yarrow in summer

Yarrow can be found in full bloom from June. It has hairy and furrowed flowering stems, typically reaching heights of 60-70 cm. Yarrows inflorescence is often referred to as ‘umbel-like’ in books, and this is because untrained eyes could initially mistake yarrow’s flowering structure for an umbel, and then place yarrow in the carrot family.

However, look closely from below, and you will observe the numerous flower stalks condensed together high up the stem, and you will see how they do not all originate from a central point on the stem, as per umbelliferous plants. The type of inflorescence that yarrow displays is also known as a corymb.

The individual flower heads are composite, and consist of tiny flowers (florets) grouped together on a ‘capitulum’.  Each composite head is singular and terminal. These plant family patterns will be seen on all daisy family plant flower heads, and is easiest to study on a sunflower. Typically a singular yarrow flower head will have 5 or 6 individual florets. Read more on the easy-to-remember plant family patterns method of Plant I/D.

The flowers have a characteristic medicinal-savoury odour. They will taste bitter. Usually, yarrow has creamy white ray-florets, delicately framing the orange-tinted, central disk-florets. But pink flowering strains of yarrow will also frequently be seen.

Habitats to look in when foraging yarrow

Yarrow grows in a range of habitats, throughout Britain and Ireland, except for areas which are permanently waterlogged, or on soils that are strongly acidic (pH < 5.5).

It happily colonises waysides, pastures, grassy places, hedgerows, and waste-ground, in town or country, throughout the land. A lover of temperate climates, you can almost always easily find yarrow in Britain, even at altitudes of up to around 1100 metres. On the coast, look in fields by the dunes and on stabilised shingle. This map from the online flora of Britain and Ireland shows just how much of the country has yarrow.

Yarrow thrives in harsh conditions without losing its fresh look of vitality. This becomes especially noticeable during droughts, when its dark green foliage stands out from brown and withered neighbouring plants, especially in grasslands.

Yarrow loves numerous types of grasslands and flowers from June


Parts used: Leaves / flowering tops.

Harvest:  Leaves: Spring – when young. Flowers: From July – September, just when opening.

Key medicinal constituents Volatile oil (including cineol, eugenol, thujone, camphor, azulene); bitter principles; tannins; salicylic acid, isovalerianic acid. (Learn more about the common medicinal plant constituents here)

Actions: Anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, diuretic, diaphoretic, astringent, expectorant, vulnerary.

Pharmacology and uses: As an edible, yarrow should be embraced in the kitchen of the adventurous, and by folk looking for foods that double as preventative medicines. So by foraging yarrow you get to kill two birds with one stone!

During spring and early summer, the younger leaves give a lovely, crunchy texture in a mixed salad, while offering slightly bitter, yet subtle and savoury medicinal tones. A strong and intoxicating beer can reportedly be made with yarrow,  for which a number of recipes can be used (watch this space)!

As medicine, yarrow has chiefly been used as a wound herb. The tannins exhibit an astringent effect, on both exterior and interior surfaces of the body.

The volatile oil constituents, such as cineole, have anti septic qualities, while azulene, responsible for the blue colour of the essential oil, not only reduces inflammation, but stimulates the formulation of tissue for wound healing.

When to go foraging yarrow for peak essential oil content

For more information on harvesting wild plants, simply click here.

Couple this with the general astringency, and yarrow can swiftly, and effectively, help seal and heal all manner of cuts and wounds!

Regularly eating or drinking yarrow helps prevent and treat dyspepsia and ulceration – two conditions that alcohol or caffeine, coupled with a rich diet, can help manifest.

Yarrow promotes a sedative activity on the nervous system, and is often employed as an anti-spasmodic for nervous dyspepsia. Yarrow is acclaimed for helping heal and tone the mucus membranes throughout the gastro-intestinal-tract.

Nature’s abundant anti-inflammatory phenol, salicylic acid (aka salicin), can be found in yarrow, just as with meadowsweet (Filipendula sp) or willow (Salix sp). So try foraging yarrow, which is much more abundant than its relative, chamomile.

As a diaphoretic, yarrow will regularly be used for fevers, and also helps with palpitations, painful menstrual periods, and convulsions; as well as being of use as a peripheral vasodilator, diuretic, and mild expectorant.

As with any member of the Asteraceae family, there comes slight risk of possible sensitivity for some individuals, especially those with dermatological problems. As ever, always seek professional advice before using wild plants as medicines.


You can read more about UK edible wild plants and fungi that are available to harvest now, in these seasonal wild food guides and the new monthly foraging guides, that started with foraging in January. As well as the edible and medicinal plants, foragers also need to learn the poisonous and toxic plants, which I have briefly summarised here.

If you would like more plant identification help then check out these waterproof, field-guide style, pocket-sized I/D cards. And you need never miss a foraging trick again, with this set of helpful, season-by-season harvest charts, available as a download.

For a deeper understanding of the arts ond crafts of the forager, then take a look through my fun and affordable wild food foraging courses for a course near you. Book a place today!

Happy foraging!

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

Foraging Garlic Mustard – The Creme of the Hedgerow

Learn about foraging garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) Brassicaceae

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

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

Why go foraging garlic mustard?

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

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

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

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

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

Garlic Mustard is an annual or biennial herbaceous plant.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Habitats to look in when out foraging garlic mustard

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

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

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

Culinary uses of garlic mustard

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

From malicious to delicious. Alliaria creme sauce

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

Happy foraging





Foraging watercress…the raw facts you need to know

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

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

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

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

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

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

Botanical description to help identification when foraging watercress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habitats to look in when foraging watercress

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

Watercress is known for overwintering  and therefore can be harvested at any time of year. This makes it another plant that comes high on my list of top plants to harvest, especially during the less verdant autumn and winter months.

Dangers of contracting liver fluke from foraging watercress.

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

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

The Liver fluke cycle


The snail host of liver fluke

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

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


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

Cow liver showing the adult fluke and damage to bile ducts

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

Numerous liver fluke cysts aggregating on grass leaf blades

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Foraging Sweet Chestnuts

Foraging sweet chestnuts in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Botanical description to help identify Sweet chestnuts

Sweet chestnut cuts a distinctive figure in many parklands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habitats to look in when foraging sweet chestnuts

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

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

Harvesting sweet chestnuts

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

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

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

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

Traditional and contemporary uses of Sweet chestnuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foraging horse chestnut

Discover the powerful medicinal benefits of horse chestnut

Aesculus hippocastanum   –  Horse Chestnut

Hippocastanaceae family

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

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

How to identify Horse chestnut

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

horse chestnut just after breaking bud in spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pests and diseases attacking horse chestnut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actions Astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-oedema.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another monograph for foragers next week… Happy foraging!

Foraging plants for the respiratory system

Reclaim your health autonomy by foraging plants for your respiratory system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 plants for the nervous system

Reclaim health autonomy by foraging plants to help the nervous system!

The third in the ‘reclaim health autonomy’ series, revealing how you can easily go out and start foraging plants to help with numerous ailments. This time we look at the nervous system and how foraging for and using wild plants can help many of the disorders and dis-eases of the mind and nerves.

Overview of the central nervous system 

Diagram of the nervous system. Credit: William Crochot. Reproduced under CC.

The brain, as you may well be aware, consists of billions of brain cells, called neurons. Enclosed within a fatty membrane lies what is known as the ‘blood brain barrier’. This is a layer of tightly packed cells with a role to prevent unwanted substances, such as certain drugs, chemicals, and viruses, from entering the brain.

To feed the brain, all nutrients must cross this selective membrane, as fat-soluble molecules, in order to reach the brain cells. Of all the sugars consumed in our diets, only glucose can cross the blood brain barrier.

In between the brain cells are microscopic gaps known as synapses where messages from one cell can be passed to another. These messages are relayed by the numerous monoamine neurotransmitters. They are either made by the brain/body itself from available stores, or are processed directly from diet (given the sufficient availability of zinc, selenium and magnesium together with many ‘B’-vitamins, all of which are needed by our body to process monoamines).

In effect, monoamines are always required from the diet because the brain/body will continually consume available nutrients over a short space of time. Foraging plants with a high nutrient load such as nettles and mallow, can help provide the essential trace elements into the diet.

Ageing reduces the amount of neurotransmitters produced and our bodies ability to respond to them. Estimates from America suggest that 60% of all adults over 40 years of age have some form of neurotransmitter deficiency. The actions (or lack of) by these neurotransmitters are largely responsible for a range of our moods as well as a myriad physiological processes.

Anatomically, the nervous system can be divided into the C.N.S which is comprised of the cerebral hemispheres, cerebellum, brain stem and spinal cord; together with the peripheral nervous system (essentially, the cranial nerves and spinal nerves).

Aside from this classification, the nervous system can also be divided functionally into two distinct systems. The somatic, or voluntary nervous system is associated with impulses to body wall and limbs, while the autonomic nervous system is associated with impulses to the smooth muscles of the viscera (a collective term used to describe the organs within our body cavities).

The autonomic nervous system maintains the physiological equilibrium of the body, yet at the same time it is not completely independent of the C.N.S, because factors that affect higher centres may also influence some physiological functions. The effect of fear and anger, and subsequent release of adrenalin on the pulse rate, is an example of that interdependence.

The important neurotransmitters with regards our moods are the endorphins, serotonin and melatonin (made from the amino-acid tryptophan), as well as dopamine, noradrenalin and adrenalin, made from the amino-acids phenylalanine and tyrosine. They are constantly relayed between nerve cells throughout the nervous system.

To reiterate, these monoamines are themselves absolutely vital, but are of no real help to our nervous system and ipso facto our mental and physical health, unless the essential fatty acids required for each and every cellular membrane, together with aforementioned catalysing metabolic co-factors, are present in the body or diet. This can easily be assisted through foraging plants such as those  listed in the nervous system disorder section.

Some of the important mono-amine neurotransmitters


Found in many foods and converted in the body to 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP), then finally into serotonin (5-Hydroxy-tryptamine or 5-HT). The main plant foods include bananas, lentils, nuts and many seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin. However, without magnesium and B vitamins to help metabolise tryptophan, then much of this amino acid may be converted into the B vitamin niacin instead.

Serotonin ‘the happy molecule’

5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is one of the most intensively studied neuro-transmitters. Commonly found in the gastro-intestinal tract where it is reportedly used to regulate intestinal movements. Some reports state that up to 80% of available serotonin is located here, as well as throughout the C.N.S.

Serotonin can also be made in the brain from the precursor amino-acid tryptophan. It is known to be associated with various moods and behaviours including reducing appetite, curbing impulses, enhancing mood and promoting sleep. Low levels of serotonin can be responsible for feelings of depression.

Adrenalin, noradrenalin and dopamine

These mood molecules are well known, especially adrenaline (almost universally known as the ‘fight or flight’ molecule.) They are derived from many foods especially the pulses, seeds and nuts. Basically these substances keep you feeling good.

They are stimulating and motivating and help the body and mind deal with stress. Dopamine is known as one of the pleasure molecules, due to it being released when we do something that makes us happy, whether that comes from food or other stimuli.

Gamma-amino-butyric-acid (GABA)

This important inhibitory neuro-transmitter acts as a counterbalance to the stimulating molecules above, helping to relax and calm you down after stress. An imbalance can make it difficult to wind down, relax and sleep

Acetylcholine (ACh)

This helps regulate the speed at which the brain processes information. Satisfactory levels help keep the brain sharp, improving mental alertness and functions such as memory recall. Deficiencies are believed to lead to Alzheimer’s disease. ACh is found in the peripheral and central nervous system. In the peripheral, it activates muscles, enabling them to contract.


This controls the feeling of fullness or ‘satiety’ after a meal is consumed. As food is passed along the digestive tract through the stomach it reaches the duodenum before the small intestine. It is here that signals are sent to the brain telling it the stomach is full. Or at least they should be. Eating too fast can easily negate the action of this neurotransmitter.


These are the body’s own ‘morphine-like’ substances (endogenous morphines). They can produce feelings of euphoria and well-being, creating high self-esteem as well as a reduction in physical and emotional pain.

They are technically classed as a neuromodulator rather than a neurotransmitter by chemists; that is, endorphins modify actions of neurotransmitters through a number of effects associated with pleasure and pain.

When consumed in foods such as chocolate, and if taken regularly and in large enough quantities, a risk of an addictive relationship with the food in question can begin.

Endorphins are known to increase appetite through activating the pleasure and reward areas of the brain. It is now known that abnormal levels of endorphins in the brain can lead to depression or autism.

For example, an autistic patient may produce so much endorphin that they do not need to react to the world outside, whereas a depressed person may not produce enough endorphin to withstand daily stresses and pressures of ‘normal’ life.


This substance is secreted by the pineal gland and is made from serotonin. It controls our sleep/wake cycle with the amount secreted proportionate to the amount of darkness in a 24 hour period. The cycles we experience every day are known as circadian rhythms (circa=about, dia=day) and every organism on the planet regulates its own metabolism within a cyclical framework.


This is an important substance for the body’s immune system and allergic response. It is made from histadine, an amino acid found in protein rich foods. High and low levels of histamine are associated with mental health problems.

Symptoms of excessive histamine (histadelia) have been linked with abnormal fears, addictions, compulsive behaviour, confusion, depression, schizophrenia, emotional instability, hyper-activity, insomnia, obsessions and suicidal thoughts.

Low levels of histamine (histapenia) have been found in people suffering with anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia and schizophrenia.

Foods containing high levels of histamine include: aubergines, fermented foods such as soya and sauerkraut, chocolate, pumpkin (Curcurbita pepo), spinach, strawberries (Fragaria spp), tea, and tomatoes (Lycoperiscon esculentum).

Foraging plants to help nervous system disorders

These can take on many guises. A number of different plants greatly assist the following different common nervous afflictions. They will typically have anti-spasmodic and relaxant or sedative effects on the central nervous system.


The various factors behind anxiety need addressing. Plants that help are hops, oat straw or grain, lemon balm, chamomile, valerian, lavender, and lime-flowers.


Dietary changes may well be all that’s required for many cases of mild depressions. Cases of clinical depression need professional care and are not recommended for un-assisted self-medication. Lavender, oat straw, ginseng (Panax ginseng), valerian, lemon balm, and St. Johns wort are also beneficial for mild depression. Hops, although a relaxant, is contraindicated for depression.


These can manifest in different ways in numerous locations. They can stem from any one of a number of psychological and physical dysfunctions, from nervous tensions and stress to digestive disorders and dehydration. Lemon balm, ground ivy, lavender, peppermint, thyme, and valerian can all be of benefit.


These extreme headaches are particularly disabling for many people. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) has proven to be a wonder herb for some people with crippling migraines. Traditionally taken as a prolonged course for a month or so, it will often clear up regular migraine headaches. Feverfew grows wild as a naturalised escape of cultivation and can be seen in numerous settings enjoying free-draining soils.


As we age, sleep disorders can become increasingly frequent. Foraging plants such as Chamomile, hops, passionflower, wild lettuce, valerian, oat straw, St Johns wort, and lavender can all help you get a good night’s sleep. All can be infused. Hops and lavender pillows are effective, as is a little lavender oil sprinkled on bed clothes or massaged into the chest or back. Read more on foraging St Johns wort here.


This is an often debilitating nerve pain caused by trauma and through shingles, diabetes or multiple sclerosis. Oats, both the grain as food and the straw as tea, alongside the topically applied infused oil of St Johns wort are both effective at repairing and restoring the proper function of our nerve endings. You can discover more about Oats in my foragers monograph.


Our nervous system can be effectively treated with plants, always dependent on the nature of the stress. Even the simple act of foraging plants can help to alleviate stress. Herbs such as oats, valerian, lavender, chamomile, lime-flowers, and borage are all recommended.  Learn all about the lime tree in this article.



Foraging Guelder rose (cramp bark)

Viburnum opulus – Guelder rose

Caprifoliaceae family

The Guelder rose is another stunning member of the beautiful honeysuckle family. Often seen growing as an ornamental, like many of its close relatives, this shrub delightfully adorns our hedges and country lanes up and down the land. You can go foraging for both its medicinal bark in the spring,  and the edible berries in autumn.

Guelder rose flowers.
Sterile outer flowers of Guelder rose attract insects, whicjh pollinate the smaller fertile inner flowers

The first time you clap eyes on this plant may be during their lovely spring time show. The immaculate white flowers penetrate dense green canopies adjourning our lanes around May. Later in the year, the berries will brighten up increasingly dull grey days with splashes of scarlet in amongst yellowing autumn hedgerows.

Favourite habitats of Guelder rose.

Closely related to the elder tree, this shrub is almost entirely absent in Scotland, yet can be found most everywhere in England. It delights in copses of Alnus (alder) and Salix (willow), as well as in a range of hedges, woodland edges, bridleways, and country lanes up to elevations of 400 metres.

Guelder rose is said to be well suited to chalk land. Because cramp bark displays similar growth characteristics to the elder, it has also historically been known as ‘red elder’ and ‘rose elder’.

This deciduous, perennial shrub is native to Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia. It can easily grow up to 4 metres high on many stems. Cramp bark can flourish in full sun or partial shade and will tolerate most soils other than very wet ones. When planting this species, the advice has always been to avoid extremely hot or dry, exposed, and cold areas.

The other well known common name for this plant stems from the province of Holland known as Gueldersland. This is where the shrub was first recorded as being cultivated. The generic name Viburnum is the old Latin name for this shrub and others in the genus of about 150-175 mainly shrubby species. The specific name opulus refers to a type of maple, in allusion to the maple-like leaf shape of this species.

Distinctive features of Guelder rose

This plant’s most noticeable features are the distinctive umbel-like inflorescence and subsequent clusters of scarlet berry fruits. The almost flat-topped, dense corymb is typically around 11 cm wide and snow-white coloured, gracing our hedgerows from May-July ( with our recent warmer springs here in Britain they are increasingly out in the south during May).

Guelder rose flower buds
Young flower buds of Guelder rose

The flowers  of Guelder rose are conspicuous in the way that they produce large (15-20 mm wide) sterile outer flowers, surrounding much smaller (6 mm wide) fertile flowers which eventually give rise to the fruits. These will then ripen in drooping clusters and are ready from September-October.

Guelder rose berries in Autumn
Guelder rose berries can be foraged in Autumn to make preserves

The branches have grey twigs, somewhat angular in shape. These carry opposite pairs of buds and leaves, mainly terminating with double buds.

The buds are scaly, and appear thin when viewed from one side, but reasonably broad and becoming tapered when viewed from the other. The twigs carry a similarity in colour and form to the elder, especially the opposite pairs of buds.

Learn more about the patterns of plants, and how they can fast track your foraging, in my article here.

When foraging Guelder rose, you will see the leaves are somewhat akin to a maple. They are often broader than long, usually deeply-divided into 3-5 lobes, and with toothed margins. The leaves are sometimes voraciously eaten to a lacy outline by the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). It is not unusual to find some plants decimated by this insect in certain areas.

Here’s what Mrs Grieves’ online herbal,  says about Guelder rose.

Parts used: Inner bark. Berries

Harvest: Bark from 3-5 year old branches in early spring before leaf break. Berries in autumn.

Key constituents: Salicin (which converts to salicylate in the body); isovalerianic acid;  sesquiterpenes (viopudial, viburtinal); catechin tannins; coumarin (scopoletin); bitter principle (viburtine).

Actions:  Anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, nervine, tonic, astringent, diuretic.

Pharmacology and uses: As its name suggests, this plant has long been used to alleviate painful cramps and spasms.

In North America a closely related species, black haw (V.prunifolium), is often used interchangeably, although they have slightly different chemical constituents. Certain indigenous North American Indian tribes such as the Meskwaki and the Penobscot reportedly used cramp bark for muscle swellings and mumps.

The famed ‘cramp bark’ of Guelder rose works by relieving and relaxing tense muscles, whether these are skeletal such as back muscles and limbs, or internal smooth muscles such as the intestines, airways, ovaries or uterus.

On another page on the website, you can discover more about the actions of medicinal plant constituents, as well as learning more about the plant meadowsweet,  from where salicylic acid was extracted to make the popular drug, aspirin

Cramp bark can also be taken internally as a decoction or applied topically. It has long been used to treat breathing difficulties in asthma as well as menstrual pains associated with excessive uterine contractions. Some authors have noted it as being useful where miscarriage is threatened. Cramp bark is also helpful in cases of irritable bowel syndrome, colic, and the physical symptoms of nervous tension.

The molecule salicin, upon digestion, converts to salicylic acid. As a known anti-inflammatory, it will heal and support internal smooth muscles.

This plant also has value in treating cardio-vascular hypertension and is known to relieve constipation associated with tension. Read more on the cardio-vascular system here. The anti-spasmodic action is known to be conferred in part by the substance valerianic acid.

In some cases of arthritis, where joint weakness and pain have forced muscles to contract until almost rigid, cramp bark can be usefully employed and can bring often remarkable relief. This is because as the muscles relax, more blood can flow, metabolic waste products such as lactic acid can be removed and some degree of normal function can return.

Cramp bark can therefore be used in acute and chronic cases of muscle pains and cramps. It can also be usefully used before embarking on any physical activity likely to bring pain.

The berries are not used medicinally. Some authors class them as poisonous whilst others mention them as edible. Tasted straight of the tree they are very bitter due to the substance viburtine.

The berries have been known to cause gastroenteritis when consumed raw. But cooking with the addition of sugar can make a nice enough preserve, but personally I prefer other fruit jams to this one.

Using the bark of Guelder rose is safe and effective for long and short term use, although maybe not if the patient is on anti-coagulant medications. This is because the coumarins and salicylates are both known to thin the blood.

The plant has been reported to cause hypotension in large doses or even in average doses if taken by previously hypotensive individuals. Pregnant women ought to refrain from taking the bark of Guelder rose until they have consulted a qualified practitioner.

Would you like to make learning about foraging fun? Well with my foraging cards you can! Visit the shop to see them.