Foraging lesser celandine -The Spring messenger

Foragers identification guide to the edible wild plants of Britain

Foraging lesser celandine ( Ficaria verna syn Ranunculus ficaria) Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family.

Lesser celandine will be found in full bloom during March and April

In Germany not so many years ago, it was common for country folk to go out foraging lesser celandine in the very early part of spring. You didn’t have to travel far to find the plant in well-wooded countryside, and get to the high levels of Vitamin C found in the leaf. 

It could be possible that here in Britain we have gone foraging lesser celandine more for its medicinal astringency found in the roots, helping us in a fight against troublesome haemorrhoids and varicose veins. We know our ancestors went foraging lesser celandine for food and medicine. 

Lesser celandine is said to have been William Wordsworth’s favourite flower. The Lakeland poet (1770 – 1850) paid homage to it in more than one poem…” I have seen thee, high or low, thirty years or more; and yet t’was a face I did not know”.  Did he have piles and need the plant? Likely, given his reported love of opium! Read two celandine poems at the foot of the page.

Carpets of small green leaves and a profusion of yellow flowers

With favourable temperatures and sunshine, the lesser celandine can bloom en massé in March. Formerly known here in Britain as the ‘spring messenger’, you can spot this plant from a distance during early spring. Look for the carpets of small green leaves and a profusion of golden-yellow flowers,  noticeable as we move through February and March.

Extensive populations of celandine leaves are found in late winter/early spring. They are a glorious sight in dappled woodland light, even more so if joined by one or more of:  Wood anemone, wild garlic, cow parsley, wood avens, stitchwort, and if really lucky, some bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).

If brave and adventurous you can go foraging lesser celandine leaves in December!
Lesser celandine in December. Found in a stream-side habitat.

Lesser celandine is one of about 700 species to have been placed in the genus Ranunculus. Its previous generic name is derived from the Latin word rana – for frog, because this genus of plants are found in the same damp, wet, and marshy habitats as amphibians. The plant’s specific name ficaria is derived from the Latin for fig-ficus, because its tubers were said to resemble bunches of figs! Recently, the plant has been placed in a separate genus, named Ficaria.

The ancient name given to lesser celandine before the present  system was ‘Ranunculus foliis cordatis angulatis petiolatis’ – or the ‘buttercup with cordate leaves and angled petioles’. I think the older Latin classification for plants is a beautifully descriptive method, full of words we can recognise from our modern languages of English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Who said Latin was boring and pointless?

Botanical description to help when foraging lesser celandine.

With the glossy, two toned, mottled-green appearance greeting you when foraging lesser celandine, you can soon distinguish it and other plants with heart-shaped leaves.
Glossy, hairless, and two toned, mottled-green appearance

Lesser celandine has long-stalked leaves, 4-6 cm wide, produced each year from the small underground tubers. The leaves are glossy and hairless, and often found with a distinctive two-toned, mottled appearance. 

At least one variety or sub-species has carbohydrate-rich bulbils in the leaf axils. These are a surprise double harvesting bonus for the sharp-eyed when foraging lesser celandine!

Lesser celandine leaves are found with entire margins in most of the populations I’ve come across. However, certain sub-species (essentially regional variations) of lesser celandine, in various areas of the country, will be found with crenated and almost frilly margins. 

No stipules are present on the buttercup plants, which helps to distinguish them from say, rose family plants which do have these small, leaf-like growths at the base of a stem / stalk.  Read more on the various easy-to-remember, plant family patterns and fast track your foraging learning.

Lesser celandine flowers will close up to rain and dark windy days

In flower lesser celandine has solitary stems that reach around 25 cm high. Lovely glossy yellow flowers erupt among carpets of leaves. The flowers will close-up on rainy or dark windy days. When meeting the sun, its flowers are between 2.5 – 4 cm wide. They have three sepals, and anywhere between eight-twelve petals,1-2 cm long. The inner part of the petals and the stamens are coloured yellow-orange, giving the flowers a two-tone colour also.

The fibrous roots produce lots of spindle-shaped tubers, some 3-4  cm long. The majority of tubers are small and present an extremely fiddly task in preparing to eat. The tubers are for me, strictly survival food, or something I will maybe use as a garnish if I’m wanting an unusual talking point for a paleolithic diet discussion.

Extensive carpets of leaves can be found in late winter/early spring. They are a glorious sight in dappled woodland light, more so if the bluebells and stitchwort are out also. Lesser celandine also has rapidly creeping underground stems, enabling it to quickly form dense lush mats of growth.

Habitats to look in when foraging lesser celandine.

Try any hedge-banks, verges, riversides, roadsides, and woodlands at altitudes up to 750 metres. This natural woodland species finds a home in almost all parts of Britain, and will be found in many urban settings as well. Foraging lesser celandine s a nationwide and simple affair. This distribution map will help you appreciate just how common the plant is.

The plant has evolved to complete its flowering cycle before the tree canopy is fully open, taking advantage of higher light levels found in February, March, and April. By June it will have retreated to the underground until the very end of the year. Keep your eyes peeled in milder spots from December.

Parts used Roots, leaves.

Harvest Leaves from January. Roots are best when plant is dormant from May-June onwards, or just emerging in December and January.

Key constituents Lactones including anemonin; protoanemonin (not present in the dried product); triterpenoid glycosides; saponins; tannins; vitamin C.

Actions Astringent. Slightly bitter.

Phamacology and Medicinal uses This plant has traditionally been chiefly used as a medicine for haemorrhoids, for many hundreds of years. It was specifically used for internal or prolapsed piles with or without haemorrhage. Lesser celandine is generally used by topical application as an ointment or as a suppository.

We know that our ancestors looked at the plant’s knobbly tubers and saw, with a sympathetic magic mindset, a resemblance to piles. We used this ‘signature’ of the plant to determine our course of action medically. A system based on viewing the microcosm and macrocosm of ‘Gods creation’ and applying plant medicines based on a ‘Doctrine of signatures’ soon took hold in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many ‘discoveries’ still apply today, and this plant is one such case. 

I wish to discuss the relevance of plant signatures today, in a later article. No sniggering at the back. What are your views?

The fact that few clinical tests have been done with pilewort does not detract from its efficacy as demonstrated by long-standing traditional use. Anti-haemorrhoidal activity has been documented for the saponin constituents. Its general astringency will also contribute to this effect.

Edible uses The leaves are high in vitamin C. A cautionary note when foraging lesser celandine: You need to know that for absolute foraging safety, the leaves require cooking due to the presence of an irritant compound, protoanenomin, which is found in many buttercup family plants.

I would like to see any scientific studies regarding the build up of this compound (first isolated from one of the Anenome species) in the leaves and roots. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the leaves contain highest amounts when the plant is in flower. Your individual tolerance dictates what course of action to take when eating this plant, as it does for all plants.

My experience of Protoanenomin is that concentrations do alter, and that I am happy to eat lesser celandine leaves raw in a mixed dressed salad from when they first begin to re-emerge, and for a month or two, until most leaves are out and flowers appear.

If it’s a warm sunny March day, and the leaves are used as a trail nibble, lesser celandine will almost certainly irritate. Remember here that sorrel is for thirst-quenching, mallow is for soothing, and lesser celandine needs dressing or cooking! I do cook lesser celandine occasionally, as a ‘spinach’ green but prefer foraging nettles as they begin to come through in the early spring.

For sure, eating raw will ensure the highest Vitamin C content in the leaves. The leaf’s previous importance to the Germanic people is evident in the fact that the German common name for this plant translates to ‘scurvy leaf’. Did they eat it cooked? It isn’t difficult to see our ancestors gathering lots of leaves for the pottage broth.

The majority of my eating lesser celandine has been as a raw leaf, albeit in a dressed salad, and cooked as a pot herb. You can find more pondering on the wider context of wild plant edibility, within the field or the kitchen, and in my foraging hacks page. If you want to try your hand at cooking with wild plants, then head over to the wild food recipe page, where there are an increasing number of recipes.

I’ve been exploring lesser celandine tubers a little this winter, doing a few time and motion studies as to how long it takes to harvest, prepare and cook them, and frankly they are a survival food for when the shit has really hit the fan! Other than that, you basically get scant reward for the time and energy spent on getting them to the table.

Look-a-like plants to know when foraging lesser celandine

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) can superficially look like lesser celandine and especially so at a distance.

Although it’s not particularly frequent, winter aconite is a plant scattered in its distribution across mainly Southern and Eastern Britain. This buttercup family plant has a similar flowering period, flower colour, size, and display, but the leaves are quite different to each other.

The winter aconite has what looks like a ruff of leaves under the flower. The leaves are deeply divided, more or less palmately-lobed. Winter aconite also producers small tubers, more round in shape than lesser celandine. The flowers are 20-30 mm across.

Winter aconite will happily grow in woodlands, by roadsides, in hedge-banks, and in parks and gardens.

Lesser celandine is one of more than 80 species covered in my colour coded harvesting charts, a handy set of pdf’s giving you an at-a-glance guide to what’s in season .

If you are wanting to discover more about foraging and wild foods, then don’t delay and book a place on one of my upcoming foraging walks.

Meanwhile, here’s what William has to say…maybe muse on them when foraging lesser celandine.

To the Small Celandine.

“Pansies, lilies, kingcups, daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there’s a sun that sets,
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are violets,
They will have a place in story:
There’s a flower that shall be mine,
‘Tis the little Celandine.

Eyes of some men travel far
For the finding of a star;
Up and down the heavens they go,
Men that keep a mighty rout!
I’m as great as they, I trow,
Since the day I found thee out,
Little Flower!–I’ll make a stir,
Like a sage astronomer.

Modest, yet withal an Elf
Bold, and lavish of thyself;
Since we needs must first have met
I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
‘Twas a face I did not know;
Thou hast now, go where I may,
Fifty greetings in a day.

Ere a leaf is on a bush,
In the time before the thrush
Has a thought about her nest,
Thou wilt come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless Prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun,
When we’ve little warmth, or none.

Poets, vain men in their mood!
Travel with the multitude:
Never heed them; I aver
That they all are wanton wooers;
But the thrifty cottager,
Who stirs little out of doors,
Joys to spy thee near her home;
Spring is coming, Thou art come!

Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit!
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost show thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood,
In the lane;–there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ’tis good enough for thee.

Ill befall the yellow flowers,
Children of the flaring hours!
Buttercups, that will be seen,
Whether we will see or no;
Others, too, of lofty mien;
They have done as worldlings do,
Taken praise that should be thine,
Little, humble Celandine!

Prophet of delight and mirth,
Ill-requited upon earth;
Herald of a mighty band,
Of a joyous train ensuing,
Serving at my heart’s command,
Tasks that are no tasks renewing,
I will sing, as doth behove,
Hymns in praise of what I love!”

And  The Lesser celandine…

“There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite -then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner -behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!”

Happy foraging!

Foraging in February.

A short guide to Foraging in February in the UK.

Foraging in February. Returning light and life reflected in February’s wild food. 

This is a small selection of the wild foods to look out for when foraging in february, with advice on harvesting, preparation and use.

As we pass the ancient festival of Imbolc on the 1st and 2nd of February, it becomes more apparent that the days are finally and noticeably getting longer. We foragers anticpate and keenly sense the returning light and first stirrings of re-growth that will soon produce the long-awaited wild food delights of spring following another long dark, if not freezing winter.

The beginning of February has long carried significance. Numerous cultures stretching back thousands of years have celebrated this time of year, when life begins to stir in the belly of Mother Nature again. With the increasingly longer days, and although still dependent on the weather on the ground, foraging generally starts to step up a gear in tune with natural cycles.

Scarlet ef cups are a great wild food we can get foraging in february. They are available until April, brightening up many dishes.
Scarlet elf cups are a great wild food find when foraging in February, brightening up many dishes.
February provides opportunities to harvest sour, lemony flowers from Darwin’s Berberis

To assist your foraging planning, take a look at these season-by-season, colour-coded, harvesting charts. Featuring more than 80 species, the charts offer an instant reminder as to which plants are available to harvest.  There are eight different plant parts covered. With this seasonal foraging guide you can expand your harvesting and foraging skills. 

The following wild foods are just some of the increasing number of species that are available when foraging in February. A couple of common poisonous plants are included too, as they are plants that you will undoubtedly come across again and again. They are vital to learn. A summary guide to Britain’s toxic and poisonous plants can be found here.

These February highlights should provide you with ample food for thought, and hopefully lots of wild ingredients to kick start creative festive ideas in the kitchen. Get more wild food inspiration with these wild food recipes.

 

13 great wild foods to try foraging in February

SpeciesWhere to lookWhich plant part to harvest
wild garlic (Allium ursinum)woodlandsleaves, leaf stalks, flower buds
wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosa)woodlandsleaves
winter purslane (Claytonia sibirica)damp grasslands, riverbanksleaves
wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris)woodlands, hedgerows, lanesleaves, leaf shoots
Gorse (Ulex europeas)heath, cliffs, scrub, woodland edgesflowers
Lords and ladies (Arum maculatum)Woodlands, hedgerows, shady lanesNONE! All parts deadly poisonous.
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)wasteground, riversides, hedges,NONE! All parts deadly poisonous.
Darwins berberis (Berberis darwinii)amenity planting from parks and gardensflowers
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)woodlands, hedgerows, grassy areasleaves and flowers
Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)woodlands, grassy banks, hedgerowsleaves and tubers
sweet violets (Viola odorata)hedgerows, shady grassland, cliffs, woodlandsleaves and flowers
Sea beet (Beta vulgaris)estuaries and coastlinesleaves
Scarlet elf caps (Sarcoscypha coccinea)Woodlands on mossy logsfruiting body

 

Identify two poisonous plants – hemlock (Conium maculatum) and lords and ladies (Arum maculatum).

 

Mushroom foraging in February                Scarlet elf cap (Sarcoscypha coccinea)

This strikingly coloured mushroom immediately became a favourite of mine following a few winter woodland trips with my arch foraging buddy Anna. Having lived in Bristol for a few years I was lucky enough to be just a short bike ride away from the ancient Leigh woods, on the far side of the Avon gorge. 

As a saprotrophic fungus, feeding on decaying cellulose, the scarlet elf cup requires woodland with fallen and decaying tree limbs. Therefore it loves the ancient Leigh woods, where trees have grown, died and slowly rotted for millenia, and are typically covered in thick coats of moss.

They can be found anytime from January to April, dependent on weather and location. Most specimens are typically just larger than an old 50p coin, although individuals 50-60 mm in diameter are not completely rare.

It is often a little fiddly to clean, but are worth the bother. One of the things I like about this fungus is that it holds its colour and texture on cooking. A vegetarian friend suggested it had the texture of bacon rind, and gave her teeth a similar workout as whenshe used to eat meat. I eat them raw as well, cut into thin strips, where they give a lot of colourful life to salads.

I use them in pies with other mushrooms, again because of their colour and texture.

More foraging highlights will come in March, as the foraging year really gets going.

If you want to read more about the increasing array of edible wild plants coming in season, then try my winter and spring seasonal wild food guides, and the previous monthly foraging highlights.

In the mean time, if you are wanting plant I/D help in the field, take a look at my foragers friend field-guide style, waterproof cardsMy regular foraging courses are a great way to learn some of the practical skills and arts of the forager. Browse through the courses here.

Happy foraging!

Foraging in January. Winter wild foods to find and try!

Savour the flavours of winter with this short guide to foraging in January.

13 wild foods to look for when foraging in January. 

Foraging in January. Of course! Its more worthwhile than you may have thought, well, that is if you’re not snowed in! If we also think of seaweeds and seasonal sea food here, as well as plants and fungi, then we have a substantial wild larder to explore.

With surprisingly little effort, once you can identify the plants and places where they live, you can gather ingredients that make food come alive with the taste of the wild. Plant I/D can be fast tracked by using the patterns that plants produce. 

Knowing which plants and what plant parts are in season becomes easier over time as you get to know plants. This can now be helped even more with my at-a-glance harvesting charts. These alphabetically listed, season-by-season charts are colour coded, showing 8 different plant parts. They feature more than 80 species, and are available as a download.

13 plants to look for when foraging in January

Down by the rivers and estuaries you are likely to see wild celery
wild celery is found at the estuaries and on river banks

Wild celery. (Apium graveolens) Mainly available from river and estuary habitats, plus ditches on water meadows. You can forage leaves and leaf stalks now, and may still find some of last years seeds available (ready for mixing with salt).  The wild plant will taste much stronger than blanched shop bought stuff. It offers fantastic flavouring for casseroles and soups. Great for a new year bloody mary cocktail! 

 

Baby dandelion leaves with red veins are an easy salad leaf to find if out foraging in January
Baby dandelion leaves with red veins are less bitter

Dandelion. (Taraxacum officinale) Can be found everywhere in the UK except the highest mountains. High in Vitamin C and potassium, as well as other important nutrients. The baby leaves (especially the red-veined specimens) are good tossed into dressed salads. Roots from larger plants can be used as a vegetable, after first leaching out their bitterness in cold water for 24 hours. Cook by par-boiling and roasting in the oven in oil or butter. Read more on dandelion here.

 

Bittercress offer peppery punchj to winter salds. There are different, similar-looking bitercress species you can find, dependent on habitat, when foraging in January
Bittercress offer peppery punch to winter salads

Bittercress (Cardamine species) Its very difficult to find yourself far away from one of the different species of bittercress. Choose any of the available species (usually up to 4 depending on your area) for a good peppery addition to salads. They also go well in a salsa verde, or simply as a garnish. Make on-the-go snacks using bittercress and the odd leaf of wall pennywort or sorrel, all rolled up in new wild garlic leaves. Powerfully punchy!

 

Wild watercress has more flavour and health benefits than shop bought

Watercress. (Rorippa nasturitum-aquaticum) Found growing in and around water, this nutritious plant is packed full of pungent flavour, and a great basis for soups or salads. The wild version is way more full of flavour than the nutrient-soaked plastic wrapped imitations. Raw leaves are packed with powerful medicine. Some of the the benefits and risks of foraging and eating raw watercress are discussed in a previous article.

 

Common sorre is relatively easy to spot in January. Its sharp tasting leaves are thirst quenching
Common sorrel is easier to spot in grasslands during January

Common sorrel. (Rumex acetosa) A really lovely addition to any salad. This is a remarkably thirst-quenching and refreshing herb, great to find on warmer days when out foraging. The sharp, tart flavour of sorrel marries exceptionally well with fish dishes. This plant coud be one to avoid if you have kidney stones, due to the oxalic acid content. Saying that, you would also have to avoid many other plants, wild and cultivated, because oxalic acid is one of the most common plant constituents.

 

Sow thistles. (Sonchus species) A plentiful plant found in numerous settings.

Sow thistle leaf rosettes are found in a wide range of settings

Gives edible leaves, stems, flower buds, and flowers, almost all year round. My favourite parts are the stems and flower buds. Buds have a surprisingly nutty taste when young and tightly packed, The stems are great when peeled and plonked into a pickle vinegar, or served raw in salads and coated in a tangy vinaigrette. You will notice that a few days continued frost will knock plants back, but until then…

 

Salad burnet is a grassland specialist with fresh cucumber flavour

Salad burnet. (Sanguisorba minor)  I adore this lover of grasslands. It may initially be difficult to find this rose family plant, because its a small delicate-looking herb. The light green, oval leaves are close to the ground at this time of year. This plant lacks in stature but not in taste. Salad burnet has a refreshing, distinctive, cucumber flavour. If you look in damp grasslands or water meadows you can also find its very similar looking relative, ‘greater burnet’ (Sanguisorba officinalis), which is a bigger plant with larger flower heads.

 

The crown of a large jack by the hedge

Jack by the hedge. (Alliaria petiolata) This brassica family plant be found as basal rosettes when you are foraging in January, and sometimes you will find large clumps. All parts are edible. My favourite part in winter is the tap roots, and they are easy to lift. Read more on this wonderful plant, and how to make a great horseradish sauce replacement.

 

Three corner leek. (Allium triquetrum) 

Dense patches of three corner leek are increasingly common

Found growing all through the winter, this highly invasive plant can create huge patches when left unchecked. Great! This offers us great onion/garlic/leek flavours with some of the associated medicinal benefits of the Allium species, and just when we need it most, in winter. Read more about three corner leek in this article and discover how to make a quick and tasty pesto, all winter long! 

Ground ivy. (Glechoma hederaceae)

Crushed ground ivy leaves are my ‘go-to’remedy against nettle stings

A brilliant aromatic herb. Aside from its remarkable ability to soothe nettle stings, ground ivy gives us complex, savoury tones with a hint of mint, even when it hasn’t recieved much sunshine. The range of scent from this plant can seem like a hybrid of thyme, rosemary and oregano. Its bitterneness falls away through cooking. Ground ivy is great with meat, pulses, soups and stews, and work well in salads when finely chopped, so as to not overpower the taste buds. Makes a very refreshing herbal tea too!

 

Bay leaves are evergreen and distinctly aromatic when crushed

Bay leaves (Laurus nobilis). Not strictly wild, but its planted and growing happily in so many places, especially the urban environment, that its super easy to find. You will see bay out-muscling their original intended homes, bursting out through garden fences and walls from the suckers that appear from its base. So really, why buy this quintessential ingredient for currys, soups and stews this winter? Best results are from dried leaves. 

Lime tree buds are often red and about 1 cm long

Lime tree buds (Tilia vulgaris). A common tree of parks and gardens, lime tree buds are another favourite wayside nibble when I’m out foraging in January. The most commonly found species is the ‘common or European’ lime. This plant produces numerous suckers from the base of the trunk from which the buds can be easily picked during the winter months. When eaten raw, they offer a lovely crunch before encountering the soft and gooey mucilage-rich inside. They are a bit fiddly to harvest, but are worth spending some time on. You can add to salads, or better still, pan fry with some spices or soy sauce for a minute or two, as you might sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Read more about the medicinal and edible lime tree here.

 

Mushroom Foraging in January:

Can you see the young ones?

Velvet Shanks – Flammulina velutipes. This clump forming winter mushroom will be stimulated into fruiting by cold and frosty weather. Its slimy, shiny-looking cap is typically a two-toned brown, lighter at the edges. The stem has a soft dark brown covering, especially towards the base, and feels velvety, hence its common name.

It has creamy white gills, that are well spaced, not crowded. The spores are white (helping to safely I/D this mushroom and distinguish it from a couple of the poisonous lookalikes).

It loves to grow on cut and damaged willow and alder. I first met it, and still mostly see it, on willow. These mushrooms are delicious served simply on buttered toast. Its flesh is somewhat sweet and meaty.

More resources to help your foraging in January.

You can find additional plants to explore in the winter and spring seasonal wild food guides. Recent articles on alexanders, thistles, and sea purslane may further whet your appetite for foraging in January,  Then after those juicy morsels, why not fine tune your searching skills with a guide to habitats and where best to forage for plants

If you are interested in learning practical foraging and wild food skills, then browse my upcoming courses for events near you

More wild foods are coming in February. Until then, 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!

Water hemlock dropwort – Oenanthe crocata. A Forager’s photo guide

Could you confidently identify the deadly water hemlock dropwort ? Introducing a deadly poisonous plant - 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.

Water hemlock dropwort is an umbellifer and all of the umbelliferae produce compound umbel flowers,
Water hemlock dropwort showing its faily pattern of a compound umbel flowers

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.

In my previous post, you could learn about the exciting Apiaceae family, a.k.a the umbellifers. The key umbellifer plant patterns can be learnt quickly and easily, and  it’s possible to practise them almost anywhere.

The tell-tale ‘birds nest’ seed head from a  different umbellifer – wild carrot (Daucus carota)

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.

Leaf shapes and arrangements amongst umebllifers can be similar, as a close relative of water hemlock dropwort shows.
The remarkably similar leaf from a close relative Oenenathe pimpinilloides (Corky-fruited dropwort)

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

 

Edible parts

None of course!All parts of this plant are deadly poisonous – One bite of the root is apparently sufficient.

Wild celery is one of the look alikes of water hemlock dropwort
Wild celery (Apium graveolens) Note the singular pinnate leaf division.

Lookalikes – Other water-dropwort Oenanthe species, wild celery (Apium graveolens), alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), and wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris).

The look alike alexanders has leaflets in sets of threes, yellow flowers, and has a different smell.
Patches of alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) will be found by the coast, sometimes near to water hemlock dropwort. Alexanders has leaflets in sets of threes and a different smell.

 

Leaflets are oval on wild angelica rather than serrated with divisions and leaflet lobes, as found on water hemlock dropwort
Wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) has oval leaflets, often with purple tinges. Also found by riverbanks and in damp woodlands

 

Wild angelica leaflet, showing the regular serrations. Note they are without the leaflet divisions found on water hemlock dropwort

A quick video with water hemlock dropwort

 

Geographic distribution of water hemlock dropwort

Abundant SW England and Wales. Common West Scotland. Rarer to absent oN the drier soils of East England, the Midlands, and NE England. Check out the online flora for a map and other information

Now you have the photos, video’s and descriptive information, you shouldn’t ever be as reckless and ignorant as the foolish and ever so fortunate campers up in Argyll, Scotland.

If you would like to get to know the carrot family more, you can book on one of my regular foraging events, which include carrot family courses, or try my article  on getting to know the carrot family, available here.

Stay safe, happy foraging!

A Few Foraged Ideas for Rustic Christmas Decorations

Some festive ideas for rustic Christmas decorations

During the run up to the mid winter holidays, foragers can also turn attention to the decorative virtues of plants. Have you ever tried your hand at foraging and making a range of rustic Christmas decorations? These few wild ideas can brighten up the hearth and home during solstice and yuletide celebrations, during the darkest days of the year.

As well as continuing our year round harvesting of plants for their culinary or medicinal uses, at yule-tide, we can further step outside the consumer gift-wrapped box for nature-based creative inspiration, and add some locally sourced festive cheer to brighten up the darkest days of the year.

For centuries until the advent of readily available petro-chemicals and plastics, we have gone out foraging Christmas decorations to brighten up our homes and hearth, during the mid winter festival. Once again, the urge is for using natural materials. Numerous shop and garden centres seem to stock their range of rustic Christmas decorations and crafts almost as soon as Hallowe’en is done.

Some of the plant species traditionally used to celebrate the ancient winter festivals will be well known to you, for they are intrinsic to our current cultural celebrations based around the winter solstice. Other species are perhaps less well known, but will be easily found by sharp-eyed foragers.

These include misletoe (Viscum album), holly (Ilex europaeus), ivy (Hedera helix), and any one of a number of evergreen, needle-bearing conifers such as fir trees (Abiaceae), or pine trees (Pinaceae).

Ok, I admit it and I am not ashamed. Throughout the year I occasionally pick flowers for arranging at home. Some people may advocate ‘no picking’, but I don’t agree, and don’t know any other responsible foragers who do! I love the delicate beauty of our abundant wild flowers, rather than the showy, often ostentatious ornamental cultivars bred specifically for floral displays. If I’m living in an urban area, I will always have easy access to a vase full of colour all year round, just a short step away from my front door.

But the darker months limit the foragers choices; although on balance, the stunningly sweet and strong vanilla-like fragrance of the inedible winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), helps makes up for the lack of diversity.

I get a bitter-sweet feeling from the timing of its flowering. The short racemes are a sign of us being in the depths of winter, when we are a long way from summer, yet its beauty always hints at the inevitable return of spring, no matter how long away it seems.

You will notice this particular winter specialist in bloom from December onwards. It is found in woodlands, along roadsides and pathways, by hedgerows, and popping up here and there in darker spots where most plants can’t survive. Its inflorescence is similar to butterbur (Petasites hybridus), a significantly larger plant. 

Gorgeous winter colour and vanilla scent, make this well worth while collecting for the table

At first glance, its leaves are a similar shape to the family relative coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), although Petasites has minutely crenated margins, unlike coltsfoot. and lacks the coating of downy white hair on the undersides.

Rustic Christmas Decorations for the Tree

When thinking of decorating your Christmas tree, why not consider utilising nature’s designs and start foraging for rustic Christmas decorations from your local park or street? For example, you could replace imported baubles with the fruits of the London plane (Platanus x hispanica). These  trees produce abundant numbers of pimply, spherical fruits that even come on their own string!

 

London plane fruits are great Christmas decorations when wrapped in shiny foil or painted with glitter paint!

These natural baubles can be wrapped in bottle tops or coloured silver foil or simply dusted with glue and glitter. Although these christmas decorations are better collected in mid autumn, preferably when the fruits are still a bit green, you will be able to find some in December

 

London plane trees are one of our most widely-planted amenity trees, due to its abilities to withstand pollution. It is easily identifiable with its alternate red buds; large palmately-lobed leaves, very similar to a sycamore (Acer psuedo-platanus), and a distinctive flaky bark, which when mature, produces a characteristic mottled appearance.

Other pretty Christmas tree decorations include the translucent seed pods of honesty (Lunaria annua). This Brassica family herb was named after its striking oval-round pods, which are typically grey/silver looking. These can be tied onto the Christmas tree with cotton, ribbon, or shiny thread.

A large number of parcels and packages are sent by post during December. By using the leaves of the New Zealand flax you can add a rustic touch to your gift wrapping. 

The long tapered leaves of a New Zealand flax are easy to peel apart for twine

This large landscaping favourite is a monocot, like all the lilies and grasses. Because all monocot plants have parallel veins in the leaves, they can be carefully peeled into very thin strips. Prepared like this, New Zealand flax leaves are strong enough to be used like string or ribbon.

Home-made wreaths. Rustic Christmas decoration for the door or wall

Making Christmas wreaths can be fun for children and adults alike. Anything can be potentially woven onto a wire frame, but traditionally, it was holly (Ilex europaeus), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and various conifers (Pinus / Abies species) that made up the bulk of the greenery. But it’s your decision how minimal or garish you finish it!

 

For speed and bulk, try using the divisive evergreen urban hedge plant, Leylandii. These leaves are in plentiful supply on almost every street and can quickly be woven into the frame, to provide a backdrop for the more colourful touches of say, variegated holly.

A wreath of bay, leylandii, spruce, holly and marjoram

Most people who celebrate Christmas know the song ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. These two evergreen plants continue to decorate our walls, ceilings and doorways, and are often hung from the beginning of Advent. To our ancestors these plants would have represented the everlasting spirit and nature of life.

 

Mistletoe (Viscum album), although less common than it once was, is still easily found when you are in the heart of the countryside. It loves apple orchards and lime trees, hawthorn and poplars. By hunting some down, climbing up trees and cutting sprigs of this semi-parasitic plant, you are following in a tradition the Druids knew of well, and connects you to your landscape once more, as well as getting you kisses from all visitors to your house over the holiday season!

Mistletoe loves apples and Lime trees especially. An essential christmas decoration for many people

If you are lucky enough to have an open fire or wood burner, with access to a woods nearby, then you can impress your guests when setting a yule log fire by using the sooty black fungus known as King Alfred cakes as natural fire-lighters. When dry, they hold a spark or flame immediately, if you blow on the porous, glowing fruit body.

Feasting and family walks are great traditions of Christmas. With a little forethought, you can use one activity to enhance the other! When walking in the woods, or even around town, you will almost certainly come across one of the abundant herbs of winter, which can add familiar flavours to your Christmas eating and drinking.

Wood avens (Geum urbanum), is also called clove root, for reasons that are obvious as soon as you crush and sniff one of its thin fibrous roots. I sometimes call it Christmas root. You can’t help but find it, and winter is a great time, because there is little vegetation competing for your attention.

Clove root’s aromatic compounds contain some found in cloves, so can be used as a replacement in festive food and drinks

Look for rosettes of lobed leaves with a large, roughly-oval terminal lobe. All parts are hairy. In flower during spring it produces a branched inflorescence with solitary, terminal flowers. The five green sepals tend to reflex. Its yellow, oval petals surround a mass of stamens. 

This rose family plant contains small amounts of salicylic acid derivatives (compounds responsible for the scent of meadowsweet and proprietary anti-inflammatory products such as ‘Deep Heat’). The volatile constituents responsible for the aroma are lost on drying so the root needs to be fresh.

Many people enjoy a glass of mulled wine at Christmas. Typically the spices will include cardamom pods and oranges, alongside cinnamon and star anise. For a change this festive period, how about trying the aromatic seeds of hogweed? Almost everyone who has tried them on my foraging courses, has enjoyed the citrus/cardamom-like flavour.

Hogweed’s citrus-cardamom aromatics  and architectural shape make this perfect to use in mulled wine and cider. 

You should still be able to find the brown oval seeds of hogweed in numerous places, whether you live in town or country. It is a plant that can still be found in flower at this time of year, as long as hard frosts are kept at bay.

 

I can only imagine that last feast day, also known as ‘Three Kings day’ was especially celebrated by the serfs and peasants, for the next day they would be required back at work!

Happy foraging, yuletide felicitations, and enjoy making your rustic christmas decorations!