Foraging in May – 13 wild foods to find and try!

A bite-size wild food guide to spring foraging in May.

A selection of top wild foods to look out for when foraging in May.

It can seem ironic that having gone so many months with scarce pickings, we can almost be overwhelmed during sunny days foraging in May.

Literally hundreds of plants are available to harvest when you are out foraging in May, and if we preserve our harvests through dehydration, vinegar, honey, syrup, jam, jelly and fermentation, we can ensure a supply of fantastic foods well into the colder, darker parts of the year.

I can imagine that our ancestors used to long for this time of year, welcoming back both the abundant fertility of spring and the beginning of long summer days.

This is the month of Beltaine, and of nature’s climax through her renewed fertility. A time of year celebrated in tales of Diana, Artemisia and Ceres. Spring pollination reaches a peak during May, and the month ends in a noticeable beginning of the transition to fruiting and ripening of the coming summer months.

You can find carpets of goosefoot microgreens around rivers and estuaries when foraging in May
You can find carpets of goosefoot microgreens around rivers and estuaries when foraging in May

For foragers this will mean a change of focus from abundant leaves, leaf shoots and new tender flower stems and flower buds, to the flowers, and eventual fruits and seeds. Yet at this time of year it is still worth keeping an eye out for the occasional carpets of seed leaves, regularly produced from a number of different species.

The late spring sees the mass germination of goosefoots and the continual opportunities to harvest microgreens. Estuary mud flats, stream and river banks, waste-grounds and various neglected areas of cultivation will always be worth keeping an eye on when you are out foraging in May.

The following plants are easily found in many areas if you are regularly out foraging in May.  The family patterns  were discussed in a previous article on some important plant families for foragers to know.

Help with harvesting wild plants can be accessed in this short guide. Many of the species covered here and in the other seasonal and monthly guides also feature in my colour-coded, downloadable seasonal harvesting charts.

You can also now get help in identifying  scores of common wild plants with my waterproof plant identification cards.

A small selection of the many wild foods available for foraging in May.

SpeciesWhere to lookWhat part to harvest
Sea coriander grass (Triglochin maritima)Estuaries, salt marshleaves
Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)woodlands, hedgerows, parks and gardensyoung immature fruits (keys)
Oak (Quercus species)woodlands, hedgerows, parks and gardensleaves
Hawthorns (Crataegus species)woodlands, hedgrows, parks and garrdensleaves, flower buds and flowers
Elder (Sambucus nigra)hedgerows, woodlands, parks and gardensflower buds and flowers
Lime (Tilia species)woodlands, parks and gardensleaves and flowers
Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)hedgerows, woodlands, roadsidesflowers
Roses (Rosa species)Woodland, hedgerows, wasteground, parks and gardensPetals
Sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides)estuaries and salt marshleaves
Annual sea blite (Sueda maritima)estuaries and salt marshleaves
Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)grasslands, hedgerows, fields and meadowsleaves, flower buds
Three cornered leek (Allium triquetrum)wasteground, hedgrows, grassy areasimmature seed pods (garlic peas)
Morel (Morchella species)woodlands, hedgerows,whole fruiting body
Sea coriander grass is found on salt marsh and on or near estuary mud flats. Photo: Tony Frates Creative commons licence 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Sea coriander grass is an estuary loving plant that looks somewhat like clumps of dark green chives dotted about on the salt marsh. As its name implies, the leaves taste strongly of coriander. There are potential issues with cyanogenic glycoside content, although no adverse reactions to eating this plant have been reported. Occasional use of the younger parts in the spring and summer is fine.Read more about the various medicinal plant constituents in my summary guide.

Ash keys can be found in mid to late May for preserving

Ash fruits are edible only when young, and made edible only with preparation. Harvesting the keys are one of my highlights when foraging in May. Ash is related to the olive, and when boiled in salt water twice before being placed into a spiced vinegar to mature, the texture of the flesh of the keys is similar to the flesh of olives.

Young oak leaves in May. Rich in tannin and bang on ready for picking and making oak leaf wine

Oak. Can be used for food or medicine. The tannin-rich acorns from this plant has been used as fall back famine food. The young leaves make a good dry wine with raisins. Depending on which species you use, it is possible to extract an oil from acorns or grind them into flour. Our two native oaks (Q.robur and Q.petraea) are suitable for processing into flour. The holly oak (aka holm oak and evergreen oak) produces acorns with very low tannin levels compared to other oaks, and doesn’t require as much processing to make them edible. They are not as suitable for flour as our native species, due to their fat content.

Hawthorns and all their superb heart-boosting powers, were previously examined in a species article and as part of a summary of cardio-vascular herbs.

Elder leaves in May. The flowers are usually starting to appear by mid May onwards

Elder provides us with foods and medicine all year round. The best known edible parts are the food and flowers, although the flower buds can also be pickled, while the immature green berries are able to be transformed into ‘capers’ via lacto fermentation in salt brine. This plant will feature in an article soon, probably around elderberry season in September.

 

Lime trees have been covered last year in detail in this article.

On warm sunny days, honeysuckle blossom can often be smelt before being seen.

Honeysuckles are an exotic looking flower full of honeyed scent. These plants are related to the elder and Guelder rose from the Caprifolicaceae family. You can find them in hedgerows and woodlands all over Britain, except on the fens and on higher peaks. Together with the white dead nettle, honeysuckle are the flowers of my childhood. During spring and early summer, I would run out of the back garden to the hedgerow to gorge on the nectar at the base of the flowers.

The dog rose will be found flowering up and down the land from mid to late May.

Roses are surely the quintessential English flower. Laid into our consciousness through the Tudor dynasty (1485 – 1605) and its merging of the two previously feuding aristocratic houses of the white and red rose, York and Lancaster.

The showy blooms of Japanese rose (R.rugosa)

Our wild roses come through in full flower around the middle of May onwards. Their short-lived beauty is a feast for the senses. Subtle pinks and apple-whites adorn the hedges from our most common rose, the dog rose(Rosa canina), contrasting with the larger, and often garish flowers of the schedule 9 invasive – Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa). This vigorous suckering species ripens its large, almost tomato-shaped fruit in August, well before the native dog rose. This rose was planted a lot in parks and gardens and around buildings in towns and cities.

 

Sea purslane was previously looked at in this three-minute read over here.

The fleshy-leaved annual sea blite in its specialist habitat, estuary mud flats

Annual sea blite is a little known fleshy-leaved plant that only really grows in estuary mud flats and salt marsh. If you can find it in spring before the stems are fibrous, then you can use almost all the plant. Later on in the year its only the very tips and tops you can use. It has a salty crunch like its neighbouring relatives, marsh samphire, and sea purslane.

 

 

Ribwort was previously covered in my article on the supreme plantains.

Three corner leek, another schedule 9 invasive edible plant,  has also been discussed in a previous article last year.

 

Mushroom Foraging in May

Morels (Morchella species)

Morels will be found in woodland settings as well as appearing in bark strewn amenity flower beds

A very distinctive  looking mushrooms. Morels are prized in Europe and North America. Make sure you can spot the differences between true Morels and the very poisonous false morels (Verpa bohemica).

Because the ridged and pitted appearance of the true morels and false morels is similar you will need to examine the inside of the fungus to make sure you know which is which. The true morels have caps that are attached to the stem. They are hollow inside, while the false morel has a cap that hangs free and have cotton like fibres inside. This summary photographic identification guide will help you further.

If this has spurred you on to know more about foraging and our abundant wild foods, then grasp the nettle and book onto one of my upcoming UK foraging courses. Alternatively you can find me leading foraging walks, plant identification workshops and wild food cookery demonstrations at a number of festivals this summer.

First up is the annual Hedge-U-cation family camp, a week-long, land-based skills, art, music and performance camp set in the rolling Devon hills from 28th May to June 3rd. Maybe see you there!

Happy foraging!

 

 

Foraging in April. A bite-size foraging guide

Foraging guide to the edible wild plants of Britain.

13 of our top wild Foods to find foraging in April!

Foraging in April will be getting interesting from now until winter! With the higher sun providing longer days, April possibly brings us more wild plants than the first three months combined.

Many wild foods like this baby angelica, are making a reappearance now

So many wild foods are ready to be picked and experimented with at this time of year. Each week sees a plethora of tasty ingredients to explore in nature’s wild larder. In fact, some of the very best wild foods of the year are making a re-appearance now.

The following wild plants are arguably a few of the most tastiest to find and identify when you are out and about. Given even just a little warmth, around 12 or 13 °C, the rampant new growth provides us with almost innumerable opportunities for foraging in April.

To help you with your spring foraging planning, why not take a look at these colour-coded sets of season-by-season  harvesting charts, designed so you don’t miss a foraging trick while out foraging this month.  A guide to harvesting wild plants can be accessed in a previous article.

The foragers glossary has an extensive terminology. Many technical lnguistic dilemma have been solved there. If you are looking for more information and assistance with identifying wild plants, then my summary of the important plant families and their easy-to-remember patterns will be a great start.

 

13 great wild foods to find and try when foraging in April!

SpeciesWhere to lookWhat part to harvest
Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)woodland clearaances and pathsleafy tops
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)rivers, hedgerows, wasteground, field edges, grave yardsnew emerging stem shoots
Ox eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum)grassy banks, grasslands, hedgerows, roadsides, wastegroundleaves, flower buds, florets
Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)woodlands, grasslands, roadsides, wastegrounds, hedgerowsleaves, flowers, seed pods
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)hedgerows, woodlands, parks and gardensflowers
Sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides)estuaries and tidal river banksleaves
wild garlic (Allium ursinum)woodlands, hedgerows, parklandleaves, flower buds, flowers
Wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris)woodlands, hedgerows, lanestender young pre-flowering stems
Chickweed (Stellaria media)gardens, fields, hedges, wastegroundsleaves and leafy tops
Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) seedlingsrivers, streams, ditches, damp fieldsbaby seedlings
Lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis)damp grasslands, uncultivated fields, riversidesleaves, flowering tops
St Georges Mushroom (Tricholoma gambosum)grassy areas, verges, and hedgerowsfleshy cap

 

Woodland glades with coverings of stitchwort are a beautiful sight when foraging in April
Glades of stitchwort are a beautiful sight when foraging in April

Stichwort (Stellaria holostea). Lining hedgebanks, woodland paths and clearances. Often grows in dense stands with numerous  stems. The leaves and leafy tops taste a little like peas. Only the very top two pairs of leaves are palatable. The leaves soon gets tough and fibrous. The stems are topped by gorgeous flowers.

 

New and old ‘canes’ of japanese knotweed are  a wild food highlight when foraging in April

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica syn Polygonum cuspidatum) Infamous invasive plant. Numerous sour stems available by end of April, for jams or tangy relish or booze or, well, lots more! Too much for this short entry. So stand by for an ‘in defence of…’ japanese knotweed article soon!

 

 

 

 

Ox eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum syn Leucanthemum vulgare)

Clumps of ox eye daisy can get much larger than this, as some places will reveal

Closely related to a cultivated salad variety of Chrysanthemum, this tasty, aromatic plant offers clumps of spoon-shaped leaves.  Look out for the striped flower buds and large daisy-type flowers from the end of the month / beginning of May. Not all Chrysanthemums are edible!

 

Demulcent, soft mallow leaves are commonly as large as an average mans hand.

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)  Grows in most places in the UKLarge soft mucilage-rich leaves, high in minerals and vitamins. Use smaller ones for salads or larger ones for soup. Flash fry for a second in hot oil for mallow poppadom. Look for showy pink-purple flowers with five petals, and round edible seed pods (cheeses) to follow.

 

Almond-scented blackthorn flowers. Cyanide compounds help create the scent, more noticeable on sunny warm days

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) The last of the  almond-scented blackthorn blossom can be found at the beginning of the month. Sprays of white flowers should still be evident amongst the hedgerows. The flowers are excellent to infuse into custards and syrups.

 

Sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides) The seaside should never be far away from our thoughts as foragers. The welcome return of vibrant fresh growth on sea purslane, will perk up your local patch. The fleshy, salty, grey-green leaves are a wild food delicacy in my eyes and well worth the time spent in processing the finest leaves. Read more on sea purslane in this article

Other estuary and coastline-loving plants are featured in this short youtube video

 

Wild garlic / Ransoms (Allium ursinum) What would foraging in April be without the numerous garlics? The wild garlic loves the Atlantic seaboard climates, these being much damper than found in Eastern Britain. Carpets of wild garlic leaves and flowers cover the woodland floors in April.

 

 

Wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) This is the month when you can feast on their sweet, succulent, and gently-scented young flower stems. Read up, this is not a plant family to mess with, so get to know the carrot family first.

 

Chickweed (Stellaria media) Tonnes of flowers are a common scene from chickweed in March and April. If it gets very hot for long in the spring or summer, chickweed won’t be found so much. Look in and around any cultivated land and on disturbed soils pretty much everywhere.

Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) Another invasive plant that we can help control through eating if taken up as a national hobby. Back in its homeland, people ate the seeds.  I think the tiny, just-germinated seedlings are also great, before they open any true leaves. These fleshy microgreens will be found in extensive carpets by water.

 

Lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) Stumbling across a meadow of Lady’s smock when out foraging in April, is a treasure to behold. Delicate hues of light pink/lilac sparkling  in the sunlight. They have what was once known as cruciform flowers, each with four petals that reach approximately 10-12 mm wide.  The sparse leaves are pinnate, refining in form greatly on the stem. The whole plant is hot and peppery.

 

Mushroom foraging in April

St georges mushrooms are only found in grassland and a highlight when foraging in Apri
St Georges mushrooms are a highlight of foraging in April

St Georges Mushroom  (Tricholoma gambosum) 

The return of this tasty edible mushroom is a welcome sight for many fungi enthusiasts. It signifies that the summer season is almost upon us, and with it,  the return of woodland and grassland mushrooms. Hunting St Georges mushrooms at this time of year becomes almost an obsession.

There are very few, if any, poisonous mushrooms up at this time of year, and none of them are found growing in grasslands, so St Georges are a pretty safe introduction to fungi hunting.

Deadly poisonous mushrooms that could potentially be confused with St Georges, are the destroying angel, or death cap.  They do not grow in grassland like St Georges, and their season is later in the year.

St Georges is only found in grasslands, and grassy areas by roadsides etc. This mushroom has an off-white, irregular shaped cap, usually around 8-12 cm wide. Its gills are a creamy white colour, and numerous. The spores from your spore print will be white.

It has quite a distinctive smell, resembling almonds or peach kernals. The fleshy cap holds up well to cooking. It develops a deeper flavour on drying and can be stored all year for use, as and when.

Remember that if you want to learn the practical skills of foraging, then my upcoming short courses are a great introduction! You can browse and book on them here.

For those interested in acquiring foraging skills over the course of a week, then take a look at this wonderful week long  family camp I work at, called HedgeUcation C.I.C. Be aware that the low-cost, limited number of tickets tend to sell quickly.

More foraging treats coming soon with the wild foods of May next up.

Happy foraging!

 

Foraging in March. The bite-size wild food guide!

What to look out for when foraging in March

Wild plants and mushrooms to get to know

Foraging in March gets me really excited because the long winter wait for abundant fresh growth is almost over. Almost…

Hopefully by the time we reach the spring equinox, with the days and nights of equal length, we are able to choose from many dozens of wild plants, and we know that summer is only three months away.

So, now we are rapidly returning to one of the busiest times of the foraging year (unless that is, we are experiencing bitterly cold ‘beast from the east’ winds and its associated snowy conditions). As ever, the weather in Britain is extremely changeable and dominates what we will or won’t be foraging.

If you have watched my video on violet flowers then you will know some plants react in their developmental stages solely to daylength, rather than temperatures.

This means we will generally find them doing their thing, pretty much right on cue, no mater the weather. Other plants are the opposite and will be slowed and checked by  low temperatures. Have a quick look below…

The following wild foods are all easily found if you are out foraging in March. They offer a range of plant parts and flavours.  One of the finest flavours for me at this time of year will be found on the flowering currant…a plant I christened the ‘thyme n sage’ currant a few years back for reasons that will soon become apparant.

Check out this wonderful flowering shrub on my short video…

 

None of these March plants are too tricky to identify, especially when using my handy waterproof, field guide style, I/D cards. The pocket-sized cards should help fine tune your field skills, and make you more confident when identifying unknown plants in the wild.

Learning the easy-to-remember plant family patterns will also increase your abilities to positively I/D plants when out foraging this spring. As will knowing Britain’s poisonous and toxic plants.

So then, what plants can be easily found when foraging in March?

Wild food foraging in March

Wild plants to find and know this month!

SpeciesWhere to lookWhat part to harvest
Common hogweedwaysides, hedgerows, fields,leaf shoots
stinging nettlesnumerous settings, including hedgerows, fields, wastegroundleafy tops
Flowering currantparks and gardens, amenity shrubflowers
Alexanderscoastal areastender young stems, leaves, leaf shoots, flower buds
Cleavers
gardens, cultivated fields, woodlands, hedgerowsleafy tops only
Water hemlock dropwortBy watercoursesNONE! All parts deadly poisonous
violetswoodlands, grassy areas, hedgerowsflowers and leaves
charlockgardens, fields, wastegrounds, roadsidesleaves, flowering tops, tender stems
Magnoliaparks and gardensflower buds, flowers
rosebay willow herbwaste ground, grassy areas, rivers, and canal banksyoung emerging stem shoots
cherry plum blossomstreet tree, parks and gardens, hedgerowsflowers
silver birch sapwoodlands, parks gardenssap, new leafy trigs
oyster mushrooomwoodlands, on old beech treesyoung specimens

 

Common hogweed  (Heracleum sphondylium) A delicious wild food. Please refer to my earlier article for the benefits and dangers of foraging from the carrot family. 

 

 

 

 

 

Nettles (Urtica dioica) A nutritious food and valuable medicine, covered in a previous article.

 

 

 

 

Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) Gorgeous displays of tasty flowers are mostly found in towns and cities.

 

 

 

 

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) A versatile wild food, as my recent article showed.

 

 

 

 

Cleavers (Galium aparine)  As you may have read, the medicinal benefits of this ubiquitous plant is not a sticky subject.

 

 

 

 

Water hemlock dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) DEADLY POISONOUS! Please study the pictorial guide for your foraging safety.

 

 

 

 

Violets (Viola odorata) Scented flowers are the inspiration behind the sweets ‘love hearts’.

 

 

 

 

Charlock (Sinapis arvensis) Hot punchy leaves and sweet, juicy, and peppery flowering tops.

 

 

 

Magnolia (Magnolia species) Intriguing lemony scented flower buds from a an ancient flowering plant that reportedly developed flowers before bees existed!

 

 

 

 

Rosebay and greater willow herbs (Chamerion angustifolium / Epilobium hirsutum) Either the rosebay or greater willow herb young shoots can be used although the flavour of rosebay is less astringent. Strip the leaves off before using. Try Steaming, frying, or lacto-fermenting. 

 

 

 

 

Cherry plum blossom (Prunus cerasifera) Almond-scented like other Prunus species. Infuse or garnish. Look out for the myrobalan plums in Early-mid summer 

 

 

 

 

Silver birch (Betula pendula) Sap and young twigs are able to be harvested. The sap, once distilled, contains high amouns of the valuable medicinal plant constituent – salicylic acid, and because of this, birch sap is now the basis for commercial production of ‘Wintergreen’ oil.

 

 

 

 

For a fantastic appraisal on the pro’s and cons of tapping birch, and the alternative method of using the thinner branches, take a look at the one and only Fergus the forager’s article here.

Mushroom of the month

Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

An easy to I/d edible mushroom, although there are a number of closely related edible species in the genus Pleurotus. This fine mushroom can be found all year round, and it’s often easier to find when there isn’t so much else growing.

Being a bracket fungi, you will probably find it shelving, with one fruiting body directly above another on both the standing and fallen trunks and boughs.

The oyster mushroom cap is grey and its closely spaced gills are creamy white. It can easily grow as large as your hand. The spore print should be white.

To get a head start on what to pick, and to ensure you dont miss a foraging trick this year, these seasonal, colour-coded harvesting charts will help you plan your foraging adventures. Listed alphabetically and covering eight plant parts, this at-a-glance guide is available as a downloadable set.

If you want to learn more practical foraging skills, then why not take advantage of my special offers on all my foraging walks this month. Spaces are still left on my March foraging courses in the Gower and Totnes.

More wild foods will be coming in April. Until then, happy foraging!

Ground ivy. How to find, identify and use.

A foraging identification guide to the edible wild plants of Britain.                Ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae) – Lamiaceae

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

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

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

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

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

Ground ivy botanical description 

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

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

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

Fine bristly hairs cover the square stems of ground ivy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habitats to look in when foraging for ground ivy

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

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

Parts used – Leaves and flowering tops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy foraging!

 

Foraging 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 and cooking thistles, without feeling a prick!

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woolly thistle rosette

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

Identifying thistles

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

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

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

Flowers and pappus hairs on a spear thistle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to find thistles

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

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

 

Harvesting notes to remember before foraging and cooking thistles

The central spiny flower bud of spear thistle

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

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

Foraging and cooking thistles helps ensure we get nutrient dense foods

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to use thistles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy foraging!

Foraging for Alexanders. A versatile & abundant wild food.

Foraging for alexanders. Another never ending wild plant affair.

Dense patches are a common sight when foraging for alexanders. This patch stretched on like this for more than 100 metres

No matter the time of year, it is always time to go foraging for alexanders

Foraging for alexanders, just like many other plants I cover in these pages, is a never ending affair, offering us all year round harvesting opportunities. This plant deserves our attention. In fact, invasive plants such as alexanders demand my foraging attention because of their abundance as well as thier versatility in the kitchen. Although their impact may be well known, their nutritional and medicinal virtues need highlighting, especially with austerity defining our economic zetigeist. Invasive edibles need harvesting, processing, experimenting with, and eating.

A flick through antiquated gardening books will show that alexanders is one of numerous wild edible species that were formerly consigned to the compost heap of history, but thanks to a resurgence in interest in our wild foods, are  now rightly regaining favour in the kitchen of the adventurous.

When foraging for alexanders, I uprooted a plant growing happily on top of concrete. See the right angled root growth at the top

Brought to Britain from the Mediterranean by Romans, who knew it as the ‘rock parsley of Alexandria’, this biennial plant took an instant liking to our rich fertile soils, especially around the coast. It can now be found in large, often unmanageable numbers, in these habitats.

This plant is endowed with some extraordinary abilities to thrive. I once picked a specimen, from what I thought was soil covered by leaves, only to find a large concrete slab just a couple of inches below the leaf mold. Yet a substantial tap-root had adapted to these surroundings and grown in an ‘L’ shape and was as big as if grown vertically in a rich, loamy soil.

The tender young leaf shoots are a favourite foraging nibblee, and will be found all winter when foraging for alexanders

Permaculture designers as well as foragers can utilise this vigorous growth, and other useful competitive advantages. These includes the setting of copious amounts of freely germinating seed and a winter/spring growing season. Both of these traits ensure that masses of plants establish themselves early each autumn.

Because of its vigorous/invasive nature, foragers are likely to discover that simply asking landowners if you can uproot the plant (a legal requirement), will be greeted with “Please! Take as much as you want”!

Botanical description to help identification when foraging for alexanders

As a member of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) family, extreme caution should always be exercised before picking. 

The yellow compound umbel flowers helps to stand this plant out from the crowd of similar-looking umbellifers

Aside from their well-documented potentially poisonous qualities, their photo-toxicity needs mentioning. And while it is true that a number of the umbellifers are deadly poisonous, alexanders offers the beginner an easy introduction to identifying these notoriously difficult plants and becoming acquainted with the carrot family as a whole. 

Alexanders is a hairless and aromatic plant, containing its essential oil glands within the leaves. This contrasts to another aromatic family (Lamiaceae – mints) which tend to produce external glandular hairs. So when seeking out the aromatics unique to a species, crushing and sniffing a leaf is, as ever, vital. More information on medicinal plant constituents and their actions can be found here.

The generic name Smyrnium alludes to the myrrh-like aromatics, whereas the specific epithet olusatrum refers to the black colour of the mature seeds and the skin on the roots.

The basal leaves are on large petioles – sheathed at the base, and often found with a pink-tinge. The hollow petioles are shaped like flattened cylinders, and covered with thin lines. Upper stem leaves are sessile (without stalks).

When out foraging for alexanders,it is possible that untrained eyes may confuse it with wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) or wild celery (Apium graveolens), which can both be found sharing the same coastal habitat.

On close inspection however, you will notice a number of clear differences. Alexanders leaves are triangular-shaped – like numerous umbellifers, but the leaflets appear in groups of three (ternate) – in contrast to many other relatives with pinnate divisions (pinnae: Latin feather).

This short video explains how to identify pinnate-leaved carrot family plants 

Alexanders leaflets are in groups of three and on close inspection reveal tiny white hydathodes on the serration tips.

The glossy lime-green leaves of alexanders are able to be identified with a single characteristic: the tiny white hydathodes (glands that exude water on the teeth or tips of a leaf). These are not found on any other umbellifer in Britain. The leaflets are oval(ish), with rounded crenate-serrations.

Fully grown angelica leaves will reveal 3 or 4 pinnate divisions, typically with a purple tinge to each leaflet margin as well as the leaf stalk. Where as celery has glossy, once pinnate leaves, with lobed leaflets, on deeply grooved and ridged petioles. The distinctive celery smell immediately sets it apart from other umbellifers.

A typical sight if foraging for alexanders in spring…a mass of yellow flowers on stems that are now unfit for harvesting

Alexanders produces young flowering stems in February and March. These are solid at first, becoming hollow with age. When cutting you can briefly see a white latex. The stems are branched and slightly ridged with green vertical stripes.

The umbrella-like inflorescence quickly unfurls in early spring sunshine. The yellow flowers have five petals, and are followed by the large aromatic seeds – green at first, turning black when ripe. More information on identifying plants using their observable plant family patterns can be found here.

Cookery ideas using alexanders

The leaves can be added to soups or used sparingly in salads when chopped. The young emerging leaf shoots with their tender white bases, are great steamed, stir fried or battered in rice and gram flour.

A jar of rhubarb and alexanders jam

I think the tender young flower stems are delectable when harvested at the right time. This timing will always be site and specimen specific, as my article on the edibility of edible wild plants discusses. Stems need to be picked well before the flowers are out, to ensure tenderness. When steamed, they are magnificent served simply, with cracked black pepper and butter or olive oil.

In other pages I have created a guide to harvesting wild plants as well as a discussion on how the timing of harvests greatly influences edibility.

Alexanders and rhubarb jam on sourdough bread. A lovely late winter / early spring wild food treat

For lovers of preserves, the stems also make a superb late-winter jam when combined with early forced rhubarb. Somehow, the two plants produce a melon or kiwi fruit flavour! I recommend leaving the thinner stems unpeeled, as the stripes add more visual impact in the finished product.

The stems can be candied if you fancy, just like angelica, but most of the aromatics are lost with repeated heating, and its a fiddly, time-consuming business. Better still, the very young, tightly packed flower buds can be made into an unusual aromatic fudge-like sweet, with muscavado sugar, vanilla pods and butter, and they make a great wild replacement for cauliflower in a tangy piccalilli (Thanks Anna!)

With seven plant parts to use, there are lots of reasons to go foraging for alexanders
The jet black seeds of alexanders were formerly used as a seasoning, before pepper became widely available

I use the roots in soups, or par-boiled, before being sautéed or roasted. They have a somewhat floury texture when roasted, but will retain a hint of bitterness. Upon flower initiation (up to five weeks before we see evidence), the roots will begin to become more fibrous, so early specimens are best.

Alexanders seed are a great hedgerow spice! They can be made into a pickle, lacto-fermented, or used just as they are, where their volatile constituents and bitter green tones offer slightly different flavour profiles than the mature, black seeds.

They offer similar textures and a hint of a pepper-like top note. If pan roasted first, the flavour profile softens and balances out further, similar to using its family relatives coriander, cumin, assa-feotida, and fennel.

A selection of my wild food recipes, including alexanders and rhubarb jam, can be found here.

This plant is another of the 52 featured species in my foragers playing cards – a perfect way to learn and play! These cards together with my other sets of wild food cards, are available from from the shop.

Happy foraging!

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