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Category: Plant identification help
Plant identification. A collection of wild plant articles with Botanical descriptions.
Fast track your plant identification skills with the easy-to-learn method of ‘plant family patterns’.
Plant identification is at the heart of foraging wild foods. There have been around 3000 species of plants documented either growing wild or naturalised in the UK.
Of these around 1500 are native species, and they are found in approximately 130 plant families. This is why I teach about plant families and their patterns on my all year round foraging courses, as well as on my bite-size foraging videos.
In this foraging guide to flowers and inflorescence, you will be introduced to the structure of flowers and the various ways flowers are grouped together, also known as the inflorescence.
Plant patterns for 11 of the most important plant families for foragers to know, were covered in a previous article. This gives you the basic awareness of the specific floral structures to look out for in mints, peas, roses, docks, buttercups, figworts, carrots, lilies, chickweeeds, mustards, and beetroot family.
There are only a few things to note about the essential structures of flowers, although they come in wide and varied form.
Foraging Guide to Flowers: Their basic structure
The corolla is a general term describing the whole set of flowering organs.
The stigma, style and ovules are female reproductive organs. There can be many or few.
The stigma, style and ovary combined, are also commonly referred to as the pistil.
The filament and anther (also known as stamens) are male reproductive organs. There can be many or few
The ovary can be situated below (inferior ovary) or above (superior ovary) the base of the stamens.
Sepals and bracts can protect the flower petals before opening and support it upon opening. Sepals can look like petals i.e. daffodils and many lilies.
The collection of sepals are also known as the calyx.
The groups of petals or sepals can be fused together. Either or all can be missing.
Most plants will display some and not all of the parts shown above. Many flowers are male only, many female only. Large numbers of species have dispensed with or adapted the various organs.
I think most readers are already aware of the huge variability in flower structure and form from what you have seen up to now, it’s just that you havent learnt the language.
Foragers guide to different inflorescence
Flowers come in many guises, sometimes held to the plant on stalks and branches, sometimes not. The procession and order of the flowers and their various structures are important for helping us identify plants.
The majority of the common flowering arrays are included. An article and illustration on the daisy family flowers and their variations will soon be here.
Cyme:As found on comfrey
Dichasium or forked cyme, i.e.borage
Panicle: As found on oats
Racemes: commonly found in Brassica family
Spikes: A range of different plants, like mullein & lavender
Keep an eye out for species with a singular or terminal inflorescence, where you find only one flower or head produced on each flower stalk. The poppies (Papavaceae family) are known for such singular flower heads.
There are also adapted structures like the spathe and spadix shown by Arum species like Lords and ladies
As you can see, there are only a few basic types of inflorescence for us to know here in Britain, and this small amount of knowledge goes a long way.
They can help us decide between close-looking genera. Helpfully, numerous genera in a family can tend to display similar inflorescence.
So in the wild when coming across an unidentified plant, you can now note its type of inflorescence and the pattern of flower production. This can often determine which plant family we are present with. Appreciating the various forms of inflorescence, broadens our knowledge of plants considerably and adds confidence to plant identification.
If this summary foraging guide to flowers and inflorescence has helped you, remember to share with your social networks! Thanks.
Other foraging resources are here to help you sharpen your foraging skills, such as these waterproof plant identification cards and colour coded, seasonal harvesting charts for more than 80 species. Information on harvesting wild plants is available here.
A guide to foraging rock samphire. (Crithmum maritimum) Apiaceae family
Foraging rock samphire, a brilliant excuse to go to the seaside!
An exploration of Britain’s southern and western rocky coastlines will often quickly bring us face to face with the unforgetable rock samphire. A unique-looking wild plant, on these shores at least. I can’t think of another plant that carries its features.
Rock samphire was formerly well known and eaten in vast quantities, but then fell away from popularity. It was once known as ‘poor man’s samphire’, but the plant is anything but poor in my mind. It offers us harvests potentially through most of the year, especially if you live in the more protected coastal areas of South West Britain.
Harvesting rock samphire was once a means for poorer country folk to make a scant and very precarious living. A couple of hundred years ago, foraging rock smaphire was a hair raising and difficult occupation, involving men and boys dangling off cliffs attached to ropes, battling with whatever weather the coastlines threw at them. More than a few died in this process, which led to Shakespeare describing harvesting rock samphire as “that dreadful trade”.
Today’s forager of rock samphire is likely to be someone who has no real awareness of the extreme trials of the people in whose footsteps they follow. We pick the plant for the simple love of acquiring a unique wild vegetable and spice, that can’t be bought in the shops.
Rock samphire botanical description:
This member of the carrot family is one of the easiest to identify. It has blue-green fleshy leaves growing in an overall triangular shape. This triangular shape is a pattern of the carrot family, as are the tell-tale, repeatedly divided sets of leaflets.
Rather than the typical pinnate leaf divisions found on other members of the carrot family, the leaflets are more or less trifoliate (in sets of three’s). The fleshy leaflets are usually linear-oval in shape, with rounded and occasionally forked tips.
Its leaves are sheathed at the base, like other species in the family. During the colder months, it is common to find the leaf tips with a bronze or red tinge, likely as a result of the piercing cold winds that winter can bring.
You can find rock samphire in flower from late spring. Its flower stems are solid, unlike many that are found here in the UK. As a member of the Apiaceae family, it produces a compound umbel inflorescence. This will typically have more than 12 rays, and the flower heads are approximately 15 – 20 cm wide.
The compound umbel has narrow bracts below and the individual umbels have bracteoles. Flowers are yellow-green, with five petals, approximately 2 mm across.
Its seeds are plump and often purple-coloured at first. They are oval-shaped, about 8-9 cm long with thick vertical ridges. They eventually turn brown when ripe.
All parts of the plant are aromatic, especially the seeds, which I can only describe as being a cross between carrot, citrus, celery and parsnip.
More than alexanders, this plant is a pretty safe umbellifer for beginners to forage for, because there really aren’t any plants that it could be mistaken for. Engage your sense of smell, touch, and your sense of place, as these are all as important as closely observing plant dimensions, features and colours.
For beginners, its well worth noting that the various species in the carrot family tend to smell quite distinct from each other, but they don’t always look so different! With this particular family, if you don’t take note of the subtle chemical clues, you are missing out on vital information.
If there are any other plants to look out for on a cursary look when foraging rock samphire, it would be one of the water dropworts (Oenanthe species), namely the parsley water dropwort (O.lachinelli). This plant also displays narrow leaflets, and is also found in coastal regions, where it enjoys brackish water.
However, rock samphire has much more fleshy leaves that aren’t pinnately divided, plus it has yellow flowers not white, and lastly but most importantly, smells quite different.
Rock samphire is a lover of the numerous crags and shelves on rocky cliffs and will also be found on shingle beaches. You will also find the plant growing on walls and stone work by sandy beaches as well as decorating harbour walls. It won’t generally be found inland or on the eastern coasts of England which tend to be much more sandy.
This plant isn’t really bothered about type of soil. As a rule of thumb, you are likely to encounter rock samphire in the UK from Suffolk, clockwise round the coast to the Scottish Hebrides. Check out this distribution map from the brilliant online flora of Britain and Ireland for more details.
Rock samphire culinary uses
The plant was formerly and perhaps most famously used as a pickle ingredient. Barrels of rock samphire were packed off to London for trade in the markets and for sales on the street.
For a tasty pickle, simply dry salt for a few hours (to help retain its crunch), and place in a spice-infused vinegar of your choice. I often heat up the samphire in the spiced vinegar, as this quickens the infusing. Typically I like to add mustard seeds, peppercorns, a few cloves, a couple of bay leaves and some chilli flakes in the vinegar infusion.
As a vegetable, I find its best to prepare and cook it quite simply. During the spring and summer months you may be able to use all of the leaf, including the stalk. But in the autumn and winter I tend to snip off most of the leaf stalk, which otherwise can be too fibrous.
To cook, I generally par-boil in salted water for a few minutes, then fry in butter or olive oil for another two or three minutes. Cooking this way helps to dampen the strong aromatics, which are not to everyone’s palate.
Cooking twice in water will further reduce its bitterness, while frying in oil or butter off-sets and compliments the taste. The flavour of this plant, like all other plants, can be affected by the growing conditions prior to harvesting.
Could you confidently identify the deadly water hemlock dropwort ?
Key features to know when identifying water hemlock dropwort.
Water hemlock dropwort is one of the most important plants for foragers to know well, and I mean really well! Your foraging safety may depend on you knowing this and the other relatively few deadly poisonous plants that you are likely to come across when foraging.
Read on for botanical descriptions, photographs and videos to help you identify water hemlock dropwort. It’s a really common plant, and if you are anywhere near water, it’s one that will be found throughout the year, unless covered in snow.
If you are interested in foraging from the carrot family, and to be fair, it’s almost inevitable that you will be if you have fallen in love with wild foods, then it will become absolutely necessary to know this plant, alongside it’s look-a-like relatives. This will probably require careful and repeated study, at all stages of its growth, and often with the passing of a couple of years.
Umbellifers are extremely common – an absolute staple of the countryside, and have therefore found homes all over our towns and cities as soon as we moved in.
Aside from the half dozen or so close relatives in the genus Oenanthe (some also reportedly poisonous but not deadly), water hemlock dropwort has a couple of edible plants that it superficially resembles, and one plant that it’s almost a dead ringer for at first glance!
The look-a-likes often happen to live side-by-side in favourite habitats, so all the more reason for proceeding with caution.
Key features to look out for when identifying water hemlock dropwort.
Luckily for the budding forager, Water hemlock dropwort is easy to find! Pop down to almost any watercourse in Britain and you should come across it’s lime-green foliage. During the winter months it can be found growing happily away with basal rosettes of leaves. With so many other plants dormant, you should find it easier to spot during the darkest days of mid-winter.
As long as you are remembering to re-visit patches and plants through the seasons then you will get to know the plant. Understanding a plant’s refinement in form as it develops to produce a flowering stem, will mean you are ready for the changes in appearance that this plant produces.
Botanical an Photographic guide to water hemlock dropwort (Oenenathe crocata).
Water-loving herbaceous perennial
Shiny, triangular, pinnate leaves, 3-4 times divided with oval – lanceolate leaflets
Water hemlock dropwort can grow in excess of 1 m 50 cm across and 1 m 5o cm high
The plant ‘over-winters’ by watercourses, so can easily be spotted
Leaflets with deeply cut toothed margins
Celery / Parsley scented herb
Petiole solid, with spongy pith, occasionally with white latex
Petiole sheath at the base
Petiole a flattened cylindrical-shape, with fine ridges
Hollow, cylindrical flowering stems, with fine grooves
White compound umbels, individual umbels displayed like pom-poms
Umbels 10-20 cm with many rays
Bracts and bracteoles are small linear, and will wither
Tiny (2 mm) pom pom white flowers with unequal petals and tiny red anthers in the flower
Fruits 4-6 mm, cylindrical, ridged
Fat, oval-spindle shaped tuberous roots.
Favourite habitats of water hemlock dropwort
marshes and moist ground
wet woodlands and woodland clearances
brooks, streams, riverbanks and canalsides
None of course! – All parts of this plant are deadly poisonous – One bite of the root is apparently sufficient.
Lookalikes – Other water-dropwort Oenanthe species, wild celery (Apium graveolens), alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), and wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris).
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.
Petioles from new growth in spring
Stems, when young and tender
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
The recipe for this simple condiment is going up soon on the foraged food page.
Three corner leek pesto – A quick and tasty recipe from a highly invasive non native plant.
Three corner leek (Allium triquetrum) Liliaceae
Invasive plants evoke heated feelings. Certain plants, whether we appreciate it or not, are evolutionarily disposed to the rapid colonisation of land, especially bare soils. When wandering the British countryside, you will notice that some of the flora found here can be aggressive colonisers of ground.
The 3-corner leek is native to the Mediterranean area. First introduced to cultivation here in 1759, it was found well established in the wild less than a century later. With a late autumn to spring growth cycle, the plant found a profitable niche here, and when coupled with a handy seed disposal relationship with ants, it gives the plant an advantage when establishing in new sites.
The plant will be found in a number of lowland settings in the UK, particularly loving life in our moist South West counties such as Devon and Cornwall, and commonly appears throughout Southern England except around Salisbury Plain.
Scattered populations are increasingly recorded in town and country throughout the UK.
Large dense carpets of this bulbous perennial are not uncommon. With salt-tolerance, it also enjoys various coastal settings up and down the isles.
It re-appears when most of our herbaceous plants are either dormant or overwintering. Keep an eye out in October and you will see quite a bit of new growth rising from their small white bulbs, which are often right at the surface of the soil.
How to identify three corner leek
Each bulb typically produces 4 or 5 strongly keeled, glossy-green leaves with parallel veins, entire margins, and leaf tips that are often acutely pointed. When looking underneath, the mid-vein is prominently ridged.
Toward the base, its hairless leaves are distinctly triangular in structure. If chancing upon a large stand of the plants, you will find the foliage tends to drift in the same direction, creating a pleasing long-grass sward effect.
If you crush a leaf, the unmistakeable, sulphurous Allium chemistry will quickly be detected. You might well find that the strength and quality of the aromatics differ dependent on soils and temperature…at least the strongest and most pungent stuff I have foraged, came on cold January days from acid soil in Devon and on Barnes common, SW London.
Flowering occurs during April and May, like a number of our native ephemeral Allium species. The distinctive triangular flower stem will grow to around 45 cm, eventually producing a drooping, delicate, bell-shaped inflorescence.
The white sepals and petals have thin green vertical stripes, making these flowers easily identifiable from similar-looking plants white bluebell cultivars (Hyancinthoides non scripta ‘Alba’), or the summer snowflake ( Leucojum aestivum) .
The corolla displays typical lily family patterns of three stamens and a fused, three-lobed stigma can be seen. Seeds are similarly produced in groups of threes, initially green coloured, then finishing black.
Foragers might say that they can know an Allium from its smell. You cannot rely on this diagnostic characteristic when harvesting large amounts.
The nature of essential oils means we inevitably transfer them onto our fingers, so how do we know that we are not accidentally picking poisonous daffodils, snowdrops, or crocus, growing amongst them?
You need to know the leaf structure, the colour, the texture, and other aesthetic and mechanic qualities that can only come from engaging with the plant.
With very similar-looking plants, close study of numerous features becomes vital, especially when the plant is young. Our brains can quickly file this range of information presented to them, merging it with observations about the landscape, soil, habitat, micro-climate, and time of year; while observing the habit of the plant itself.
So, knowing the blue green colour and blunt-tips of daffodil leaves, and the length and width of crocus or snowdrop leaves compared to this particular garlic relative, helps to ensure that even on auto-pilot, and working at speed, the key check points are covered when harvesting.
I work with the premise that I also get two further opportunities to check the leaves; firstly during preparation of the plant, and finally, on the chopping board, or as I add to the pot.
Using 3 corner leeks
All Alliums and all their parts are edible. 3-corner leek, with its luscious leaves tender stems and crunchy flower buds and bulbs, is particularly versatile. If you can eat all parts of the plant, it’s in season all year – what more could you want!? With a strong onion-leek flavour, this plant can be added to many dishes.
I harvest leaves throughout winter, from November onwards; to add to sauces, salads, pies, pesto and soups, then harvest the first of the sweet, pungent flower buds for lacto-fermentation in March.
Bunches of pre-flowering stem ‘leeks’ can also be harvested in late March and April, before the flowers eventually open. These can be used in salads or as garnish. The young, green, and crunchy seeds can be eaten raw, fermented, or dried.
From late May onwards, as the plant enters its dormancy, I harvest the small marble-sized bulbs for preserving. Juicy and crunchy, these are quite fiddly and time consuming to prepare, but are simply stunning when lacto-fermented for a couple of weeks!
Medicinally, we could potentially use 3 corner leek like a milder version of garlic, but I always reach for bulb garlic out of instinct – often carrying a clove – so don’t employ the other species for medicine. The Allium essential oils are known to be antimicrobial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and antiseptic, so this plant will likely show some activity in these areas.
This delicious plant is one of the featured species in my foragers playing cards, and the ‘top trumps’ style card game. You can find these in the foraging resources shop.
Sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides). Learn about foraging this fantastic evergreen perennial wild food.
Plants that are able to be harvested all year round, such as the salty sea purslane, are some of my most treasured wild foods to forage..
This plant is a member of the completely edible beetroot family (Chenopodiaceae), and as such it’s a relative of those other great gourmet foraged foods – sea beet and marsh samphire.
Perennial crops are intrinsic components in successful nature-based-design. They are also some of the best species for foragers to concentrate on. The numerous longer-growing plants are of great value in the garden, allotment and permaculture plot due to their low input and potential high yields.
These traits also apply in the wild stock, and are typically what attract foragers. For foragers and gardeners alike, the array of perennials available point to the promise of repeated harvests throughout the years to come.
Where to look for Sea purslane
Sea purslane really is an unmistakeable plant and only found in a few habitats . It will form huge carpets by estuaries and on salt marshes, particularly loving the natural saline ecology between coastline, rivers and land.
Rooting just below the high tide mark, this plant, together with the various species of marsh samphire, plus sea aster, sea couch grass and a few others, help to stabilize the silt deposits from the ebb and flow of tides, essentially creating new land.
You can also occasionally find sea purslane on rocky coastal cliff shelves, although nowhere near in the same numbers as found on saltmarsh and estuaries.
Sea purslane botanical description.
Its fleshy, grey-green leaves can grow up to 6-7 cm long. They are elliptical-oval, found in opposite pairs, and are covered in mealy bladder hairs. These unicellular hairs appear as a dusty shiny coating, and are a typical feature of many plants within the family.
New stems are tender and pale green, older stems are brown and woody. The thin woody stems snap easily.
In late spring the thin flower stem appears, slowly revealing its tiny, alternately-spaced clusters of yellowish flowers.
The flower bracts are fleshy, and there are no sepals present. In the middle of the flower there are five stamens surrounding two stigma, which are attached to a single ovary.
Sea purslane grows where many plants cannot. As a lover of mud flats and salt marsh, it can often be found partially or wholly submerged for some of the day. To do this it employs three tricks.
Its roots have specialised air filled cells ( aerenchyma – cells with large internal vacuoles to facilitate the free movement of air.)
They have evolved cells which contain a higher internal concentration of salt in their cells, than is found in the adjoining salty water, thus enabling them by osmosis to take on board H2O.
Their fleshy leaves are covered in a waxy cuticle layer of cells, as are many estuary specialists. This helps prevent desiccation from the often violent saline wind.
For the gourmet food lover this all results in a taste sensation, especially from spring harvested leaves. Sea purslane is crunchy, juicy, and salty, with a hint of sweetness.
Another interesting development in recent years has been the exploration of the plant’s secondary metabolites by the cosmetics industry, searching for novel anti ageing properties.
Contemporary edible use of sea purslane
The leaves are a versatile ingredient. It is a plant that enhances vegetarian, lamb and fish dishes. It can be used as a stand alone vegetable dish, or as a condiment, being particularly lovely when pickled.
As with many wild plants, sea purslane is high in vitamins and minerals. Moreover it contains significant amounts of omega fatty acids.
I like to ferment the leaves in a salt brine with approximately 3-4% salt, and especially like them preserved in a slightly sweetened cider vinegar, alongside some red peppercorns and a few mustard seeds. Check out my recipe on the foraged food page
With the vinegar pickle I heat the spices and vinegar for a few minutes before packing the leaves into small leaves. The red peppercorns give the pickle a lovely festive look. The plant can also be deployed as a stuffing, a garnish, or blended into mayonnaise and sauces.
When harvesting, you will need to take a knife or scissors. If trying to use just your hands to harvest, you may find that the stems come up from the soft mud. Oh, and ideally, you will take a friend. Mudflats can be very unforgiving environments, and you cannot take them lightly.
Although the plant can be harvested all year round, spring is the best time. During these months of fast new growth, all you need to do is pinch out the fresh new tops. In winter, and for speedy harvesting, I tend to harvest the plant further down into the woody stem, and then stripping the leaves off at home. Try and cut the plant at just above a node because this is best for the plant, as the new buds directly under the node can soon get away.
Sea purslane is one of the featured plants in my ‘foragers friends’ cards, available in my website shop, together with my foragers playing cards and ‘top trumps’ style card game.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Discover the powerful medicinal benefits of horse chestnut
Aesculus hippocastanum – Horse Chestnut
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.
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 ofmould 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).
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!
Discover the medicinal benefits of roses and why you should still go foraging rose hips
Rosa canina / Rosa rugosa – dog rose/hedgehog rose
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.
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.
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.
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 rosecan 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).
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.