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.
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.
|Species||Where to look||What part to harvest|
|Sea coriander grass (Triglochin maritima)||Estuaries, salt marsh||leaves|
|Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)||woodlands, hedgerows, parks and gardens||young immature fruits (keys)|
|Oak (Quercus species)||woodlands, hedgerows, parks and gardens||leaves|
|Hawthorns (Crataegus species)||woodlands, hedgrows, parks and garrdens||leaves, flower buds and flowers|
|Elder (Sambucus nigra)||hedgerows, woodlands, parks and gardens||flower buds and flowers|
|Lime (Tilia species)||woodlands, parks and gardens||leaves and flowers|
|Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)||hedgerows, woodlands, roadsides||flowers|
|Roses (Rosa species)||Woodland, hedgerows, wasteground, parks and gardens||Petals|
|Sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides)||estuaries and salt marsh||leaves|
|Annual sea blite (Sueda maritima)||estuaries and salt marsh||leaves|
|Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)||grasslands, hedgerows, fields and meadows||leaves, flower buds|
|Three cornered leek (Allium triquetrum)||wasteground, hedgrows, grassy areas||immature seed pods (garlic peas)|
|Morel (Morchella species)||woodlands, hedgerows,||whole fruiting body|
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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!