Foraging wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa and L.serriola) Asteraceae family
Discover how you can get a good night’s sleep by foraging wild lettuce!
There are a number of herbs that can help with sleep related issues. The wild lettuce plants are some of the easiest to find, identify and use. This article reveals why foraging wild lettuce can help your sleep and therefore your health.
We have two commonly found wild lettuce species growing wild here in Britain. When you are foraging wild lettuce in larger urban areas, you will often see both. The major difference between the species is the leaf shape. Both plants can be used, and are shown here..
Wild lettuce plants are the ancestors of the common garden lettuces (Lactuca sativa). There are around 100 species in the genus. The generic name Lactuca comes from the Latin word lac – meaning milk. All lettuces produce lots of milky white latex when cut.
Wild lettuce was one of a number of plants formerly used in a well-known anaesthetic recipe, employed before surgery during the middle ages (12th – 15th centuries). The mixture, called ‘dwale’, was administered so as “…to make a man sleep whilst men cut him“.
Our wild lettuces are variable annual or biennial herbs. In any case, they will be seen growing as a rosette of leaves in the first part of the year, and then by mid-summer this gives rise to its branched flowering stems. These stems are hollow (as are many herbaceous biennials and perennials).
Lactuca virosa has sessile, oblong-lanceolate shaped, and waxy grey-green coloured leaves. These are produced alternately on a red stem that is always prickly.
Its leaves are distinguished by a single ridge of curved prickles borne on the undersides of the leaf, running along the prominent mid-vein. Our other common wild lettuce (L.serriola) has pinnately-lobed leaves.
The leaves of both species are usually found with undulating margins, and can grow to 25 cm long. Often, the leaves are found standing quite erect in their rosette, although as the plant prepares for flowering, they are found clasping the flowering stem, resulting in an almost arrow-like base to the leaf.
The inflorescence is borne on the many-branched upper portion of the flowering stem. They are composite, and individually about 11-13 mm wide, with 7-12 yellow ray florets rising from a narrow involucre (8-12 mm long). In flower the plant can reach heights of up to 200 cm.
The flowers are on show from July onwards and are superseded by a white, hairy pappus, which spreads the tiny seeds far and wide on the wind.
The wild lettuces love the urban environment, but are noted for their apparent shyness of the countryside…well, at least to my eyes. They will however, get a foothold in any part of the urban jungle. A quick look at these two distribution maps of Lactuca virosa and Lactuca serriolawill show how widespread the plants are and if they are found in your area.
Take a look in the summer and you will see the wild lettuce appearing in many situations. It loves growing out of the bases of walls, pavement cracks or crevices, kerbstones, road-sides, waste-ground and disturbed soils. This seems to point to the conditions of its origins, believed to be Asia, where it would be most happy in the sun and on poorer, free-draining soils.
Parts used Leaves, flower-buds, latex.
Harvest Best just before the flowers open. Active constituents are in higher concentrations at this time, in comparison to material fromyounger plants.
Pharmacology and uses Wild lettuces are best known for their relaxant and sedative actions. An alcoholic extract will show sedative properties, causing a reduction in motor activity and behaviour. However, lactucarium does not pass readily through the blood brain barrier and it is thought the effects may arise from peripheral and visceral actions below the neck, rather than above it.
Lactucarium has been used successfully in the treatment of morphine addiction because it has similar, if milder, anodyne-sedative effects. The compound lactucarium is a mixture of a number of substances and was also reportedly used to adulterate opium. This all gave rise to the nickname – ‘lettuce opium’.
Wild lettuce has been used successfully for treating both nervous excitability and insomnia. Scientific evidence regarding its abilities to assist with chronic and acute coughs are thin on the ground, but notwithstanding the lack of published scientific papers; effectiveness could be measured through its repeated traditional use as an anti-tussive by herbalists for hundreds of years. We need to always remember that science doesn’t hold anything like all the answers.
Wild lettuce was in a number of cough remedies before full implementation of the recent E.U directive, although how many it appears in now, I’m unsure. The fact that the plant is so easily found, means it’s really simple to go foraging wild lettuce and make your own.
The cultivated garden lettuce was immortalised in the Beatrix potter’s children’s books starring Peter Rabbit. In the tales, Peter’s mum used to give him lettuce to eat last thing at night, for its soporific (sleep inducing) qualities. A number of herbal books will also testify to the gentle sleep inducing powers of eating lettuce last thing at night.
The wild lettuce is a much stronger sedative than the cultivated varieties and can often be found in sleep-inducing herbal preparations combined with hops, valerian, lime flowers and passionflower.
Toxicity has generally been regarded as low, but there are cases of people who have eaten large quantities of wild lettuce, then presenting themselves to hospitals suffering from various manifestations of wild lettuce toxicity. These included: decreased level of consciousness, agitation, dry mucosa, mydriatic pupils (pupils dilating), urinary retention and hypoactive bowel sounds.
As ever with plants from the daisy family, as ever there is a warning for people who suffer allergic reactions to other members of this large plant family.
A bite-size guide to Foraging in June. Britain’s wild food, herbal medicine, and edible fungi.
13 of the best species to find and try when out foraging in June.
When you are out foraging in June, you wander a landscape utterly transformed by all the fresh new growth and fertility of the previous few weeks.
Now that the days are at their longest, the majority of plants have climaxed their pollination and fruit-setting.
Approaching summer solstice, plants are found to be concentrating their resources, by re-directing their accumulated and stored energy inwards, nourishing their ripening fruits while these in turn protect the developing embryo in the seed.
The following 13 species are easily found, when you are in the right habitat and setting…
To help with your foraging skills all-year-round, my handy, pocket-sized, waterproof plant identification cards can back up your foraging know how. Designed specifically for help ‘in the field’, the bullet-point information and characteristic photo’s should enable you to find and identify the plants at various times of the year.
Some of the best and easiest foraging in June will be done in the urban environment and at the coast. Our early flowering fruit trees and shrubs start bearing in towns and cities when the evenings are long, in the latter part of June.
In park-lands, gardens, and also found lining numerous residential streets, our wild cherry fruits (Prunus species) will be ready in mid to late June. These are soon followed by Cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera). It is impossible to tell whether you will get a sweet cherry until you try. Some are bitter, some are sweet. Just suck it and see!
In June woodlands, you will see that the rose petals and elder flowers, recently found in abundance at the beginning of the month, quickly fade away later on. These are replaced by the delicious first early wild raspberries and strawberries.
The nettles will be seeding up and down the country, unless they have been strimmed or mowed. If they have been cut you will find nettle patches to extend your nettle leaf season. The leaves on these ones are spring-like in freshness and make just as good eating. A full length article on nettles was published last year.
Coming along soon will be ripened brown nettle seeds, which are great sprinkled on salads.They seem to give me increased energy. This is a plant that was traditionally assigned by Astrologer-physicians to the planet Mars.
13 of the best wild foods and medicines to find when foraging in June.
What to harvest
Where to look
Coastal cliffs, sand dunes, grass banks
Leaves, leafy tops
Sand dunes, shingle beach margins, estuaries
As an amenity planting in numerous settings
Leaves, flowering tops, flowers
coastal areas, waste ground, grassy areas
Flowers and flowering tops
river and canal banks, watermeadows, meadows
woodlands, hedgerows, grassy banks
All over UK in various settings
All over UK in verious settings
Fruit (seed pods)
Estuary tributary banks, salt marsh, coastal settings
Any urban wall
flat estuaries, salt marsh
Chicken of the woods
Fleshy young cap'
Numerous tree species, especially oak,
Sea campion (Silene maritima) A clump-forming, fleshy-leaved relative of chickweed. Also known as S.uniflora. This fleshy leaved plant will be found mostly at the coast. The leaves have a juicy succulence and mild pea favour (to my palate), with little bitterness.
Sea sandwort (Honckenya peploides) Small coastal plant, usually found on sand dunes, estuaries and areas of wasteground near the sea. This small perennial plant has fleshy, cucumber tasting leaves, although this seems to be dependent on where it grows. The best flavours I’ve found are from plants growing in sand. The plants I found on grazed mudflats seem to be more bitter.
Mahonia fruits (Mahonia x media, et al) If you like your fruits tart, you will love Mahonia and Berberis plants. The range of species produce various shaped berries, from oval to spherical. They are purple/blue, with the yeast bloom covering. Mahonia fruits are high in pectin and make a great addition to jams. For me, they are always a highlight of urban foraging in June. With dates and molasses, Mahonia fruit combines to produce a stunning ketchup.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Very common aromatic herb of grassy settings. The baby leaves are good in salads and the whole plant, especially the flowers are a super-useful wound herb, and a renowned digestive bitter. It’s the only plant used in more than 5000 years by the Chinese for their oracle, the I Ching. Read more on yarrow here.
Wall rockets (Diplotaxistenuifolia and D.muralis) These are two of the punchiest rockets you are ever likely to eat. Both of these two species have yellow flowers, 1 cm across. The rockets will grow in a number of settings, especially in and around urban areas, although predominantly in south eastern and southern Britain.
Unfortunately for our cousins north of the border, the perennial and annual wall rockets are almost absent in Scotland, except for a few spots here and there. In Wales they are only occasionally found, dotted along the coast.
Meadowsweet Once found, never forgotten. For me it was at least. In full flower, and with its frothy creamy sprays of tiny flowers, this plant looks and smells divine especially when the sun is out. Meadowsweet is a common sight of waterways, hugging the banks the length and breadth of Britain. If you can find the last of the elder flowers with the first of the meadowsweet flowers, your champagne can reach new levels! Read more about this remarkable game-changing herbal medicine.
Wild strawberry Since the beginning of May, the white and yellow flowers have been out en masse in many parts of the country. The small, red, conical fruits should be ripe and ready by second half of June. There is no cultivated strawberry that can match the fragrant sweet flavour of wild Fragraria fruits.
Mallow ‘cheeses’ Following the mallow’s showy pink-purple flowers, are the fantastic little seed pods. When picked young, green and crunchy, the mucilage rich seed pods are a great thickener, used in making soups and meringues. They can also be dusted in flour, tossed in oil and fried.
Hogweed broccoli It’s rare not to find hogweed when out foraging! This plant is probably the second most common member of the carrot family.
In the early part of June there are still plenty of tender young flower buds to harvest. Get to them by removing the tough protective sheath. With the tender flower stem still attached, these make a great replacement for broccoli spears. They can be made into tempura and battered, or steamed and served simply with butter/olive oil and cracked black pepper.
‘Estuary ‘peas’ The various scurvy grass species are found mostly in coastal settings. On salt marshes and estuary tributary-stream banks, you can find lots of racemes of the little fruiting pods on just-flowered specimens. The ‘estuary pea’s are slightly smaller than petis pois, and make a great caper substitute when steeped in a white wine vinegarinfused with some spices.
Wall bellflower A common sight of urban streets, the bellflower is in full flower now, and makes an easily found salad to compliment your summer meals. The crisp leaf has a mild and only very slightly bitter flavour when I have tried in spring. The bitterness may rise in hotter, drier, summer months. The flowers are wonderful tossed in salads, used simply as a garnish or frozen in ice-cubes for cocktails.
Marsh samphire This plant’s niche in ecological terms is being the first with roots to stabilise silt deposits from the slower moving water of estuaries. In effect, it kicks off the process of creating land, claiming it from the tidal river and sea. Knowing this, I pondered on the unrelated Japanese knotweed and its role as the first plant colonising lava deposits in Japan. I see many similarities.
There are annual and perennial species of samphire. The annual plant is a gourmet vegetable. Samphire can only be found on estuary mud flats and salt marshes. Harvest with scissors, cutting the fleshy stems above the silt. If you harvest by hand, inevitably you will pull up this shallow rooting plant.
In the right setting, you will find an abundance of samphire. Even if you live a fair trek from the coast, go! Finding always beats buying for excitement and flavour. In the UK, shop-bought samphire will come mostly from Israel.
Mushroom foraging in June
Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) Gourmet fungi foraging in June.
The first chicken of the woods of the year are a special treat. This bracket fungus has distinctive colouring, and you really shouldn’t be able to be mistake it with other fungus here in Britain.
If catching the sunlight, the bright orange/yellow flesh of COTW can really dazzle. When young, the orange cap contrasts with the lemon yellow colour of the spore producing underside. As an older specimen, COTW loses its colour and vitality.
As a saprophytic fungus, COTW can be found on standing trees, alive and dead. The ecological role of saprophytic organisms is to decompose cellulose material in trees. In the case of this fungus, it produces a characteristic square-shaped, brown ‘cubic rot’. When you are out foraging in June and see a proud tree, covered in chicken of the woods, it’s a clear sign that the tree won’t be standing for very much longer!
This became evident one year out foraging with my arch foraging buddy Anna. She had found a large Oak with many separate stacks of COTW all the way up the trunk.
We harvested what was in reach and thanked our lucky stars.
When returning to the tree the next year, we found it again…but now two thirds of it was on the ground. The fungus still appears on the standing third, and continues to give a good yearly harvest.
Harvest the fungus with a knife. I cut about an inch or two away from the trunk on the younger specimens. Leave a bit more on the older, tougher specimens. When fresh, the different ‘shelves’ will exude quite a bit of juice as you cut and handle them. On cutting or tearing the fungus, you will see the similar fibrous texture of cooked chicken.
Using the softer margins and leaving the harder, older material found at the wood, you can replicate the texture, and to some extent, the flavour, of chicken. It has to be seen and tasted to believed. It is best either well-marinaded or cooked in some liquor. COTW readily absorbs oil and will cook dry if not allowed to swoosh around in some juice.
CAUTION! A small percentage of the population are known to get unpleasant reactions to chicken of the woods. As mentioned elsewhere in this website, test your tolerance first!
To preserve the fungus it needs to be cooked and frozen or pickled. Drying it produces poor results.
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.
A small selection of the many wild foods available for foraging in May.
Where to look
What part to harvest
Sea coriander grass (Triglochin maritima)
Estuaries, salt marsh
Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
woodlands, hedgerows, parks and gardens
young immature fruits (keys)
Oak (Quercus species)
woodlands, hedgerows, parks and gardens
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
Roses (Rosa species)
Woodland, hedgerows, wasteground, parks and gardens
Sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides)
estuaries and salt marsh
Annual sea blite (Sueda maritima)
estuaries and salt marsh
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)
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.
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.
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!
Discover the many edible and medicinal uses of plantains.
Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors – get to know the edible and medicinal uses of plantains.
It would actually take a book of its own to do justice to the many edible and medicinal uses of plantains. Much like other very common herbs covered here in these pages, such as shepherd’s purse and yarrow, humans have been foraging plantains pretty much for ever.
The genus Plantago contains two of our finest medicinal plants here in the UK and two other good edible species well worth knowing. Here they are:
Worldwide, there are approximately 200 species of these mainly weedy and sometimes invasive annual, biennial, and perennial plants in the genus Plantago. Their generic name Plantago comes from the Latin Planta – soul of the foot.
Here in Britain, you will easily find at least four of the plantain tribe growing wild. Two of them almost exclusively live and flourish by the coast and estuaries. The other two are found in 99% of the country and are two of the most useful medicinal plants you can get your hands on. These are fantastic plants and easily identified.
It is likely that you are already familiar with ribwort (Plantago lanceolata)and ‘greater plantain’ also known as ‘rats-tail’ (P.major). These two plants are very common perennial herbs. They are never too far away in pretty much any urban and country setting. It may be that our long and intimate relationship with the plantains, through more than a few turnings of the great celestial wheel, has ensured their large numbers and close proximity. Before you can begin exploring the edible and medicinal uses of plantains, you need to be able to identify them.
Ribwort is a low-growing plant, with lanceolate leaves, approximately 15-25 cm long. Rats-tail plantain has much wider, broadly oval leaves with a noticeably wider and longer petiole.
Both species have distinctive white, raised veins on the undersides of the leaves. Stringy fibres are easily noticed when tearing the leaves They form basal rosettes before and during flowering.
Flowering spikes of both species can reach up to 45 cm high. These, and the buds are often being covered in fine silky hairs. The stems can be deeply furrowed in appearance.
Greater plantain’s inflorescence is larger than ribwort’s, occupying a greater ratio of the whole stem, but ribwort’s flowering stem is often larger in overall size yet with a much smaller, more delicate flower-head than the rats-tail.
The flowers of both species are produced without the need for petals. Initially the green buds give rise to pale creamy / yellow anthers. The flowers eventually turn brown when seeds are ripe.
Ribwort and rats-tail are very variable species. They will adapt their habit to environmental factors, being erect in tall vegetation but prostrate under grazing pressure. They can establish by spreading through vegetative means, ribwort especially so, and often appear in dense patches.
Neither of these plants are exceptionally frost hardy, but in our milder winters of late I’m seeing lots of ribwort persist, especially round the Atlantic coast.They both flower from April to August, and seeds ripen from June to September. The flowers are hermaphrodite and are pollinated by wind, flies and beetles.
These plants are noted for attracting wildlife; and so surely are worth a place undisturbed somewhere in your garden for this reason alone. Saying this, it will probably be impossible to completely eradicate the common plantains from your plot!
Their seeds contain a water retaining ‘gel’ made from mucilage, enabling them to germinate and grow in dry soils when other species cannot. If conditions are not favourable, the seed is long-lived and can sit in the soil for months or years waiting for the right conditions!
Habitats to look in when foraging plantain.
Plantain’s can grow on most soils including alkaline and nutritionally poor soils up to around 840 metres. They tolerate maritime exposure, establishing themselves in a wide range of conditions.
Ribwort plantain is often a significant component of flower-rich grasslands. Indeed, the plantain’s have been suggested as the most constant and widespread component of natural and semi-natural grassland in Britain.
They are found in all but the most acid grassland, appearing in meadow communities, grazed pasture, lawns, sea cliffs, and sand dunes. Although ribwort is frequently prominent in a grass sward, it is not dominant in the sense of excluding other species or limiting diversity (as shown by its constant presence in the most diverse grasslands). If you are not sure if the plantains are growing near you (they are!), then take a look at this map.
Britain’s three other common plantain herbs.
Amongst other plantain’s you may stumble across here in Britain will be the ‘Hoary’ plantain (Plantago media). This plant has ovate-lanceolate leaves, sort of halfway between greater plantain and ribwort. Leaves with 5 prominent ribs and flowers with purple tinged stamens. I still confuse hoary plantain leaves with fat ribwort leaves from a glance.
Hoary plantain has to be the prettiest plantain of the lot to my eye, looking more similar in form to ribwort than the rats-tail, but with gorgeous mauve anthers. Hoary plantain can often be found nearer the coast-line and can freely occur inland as well, but nowhere near as frequently as ribwort.
Hoary plantain is absent from most of Cornwall and Wales, but can be found elsewhere under elevations of 520 metres. I’ve seen a few on the Downs near the Gorge in Bristol, another maritime climate and setting.
Perhaps more exciting for wild-food foragers, is another native British plantain, the ‘Buckshorn plantain’ (Plantago coronopus). This species will also be found quite easily on and around our coastlines. This distinctive-looking plant will occur in coastal towns and villages, on shingle beaches, or on sandy grassy edges and all manner of different cliffs. Keep an eye out for it in grasslands in cities that are technically coastal, such as Bristol and London.
Buckshorn plantain has deeply divided, bi-pinnately-lobed leaves, with linear-lobed segments. The leaf shape provides easy identification. Both its name and branched foliage give rise to an allusion of antlers. Its flower is small, initially drooping and then producing a lovely little yellow display.
This may have been the plantain that old texts refer to when mentioning plantain’s use as a ‘sallet’ herb. Certainly, the other plantains mentioned are edible, but only the very youngest leaves are in any way enjoyable raw. Usually our two common plantains here in Britain are often too bitter anyway, no matter their size, unless the younger specimens are used.
Buckshorn plantain is a coastal lowland species and can be found at altitudes of 340 metres although sometimes on salt treated roads inland.
Along the coastline and estuaries you will come across the ‘sea plantain’ (Plantago maritima), which is another reasonably succulent wild salad or pottage herb.
As well as the drier areas of salt marsh, this plant enjoys shingle beaches, as well as sandy and rocky dunes and edges. It primarily loves the coastal environment, because the numerous cliffs and estuaries offer many niche habitats for a range of tasty edible plants. Sea plantain will sometimes provide an extensive covering of leaves.
Sea plantain has narrower leaves than ribwort. It is a more succulent-looking leaf. On the back you will see a singular, prominent, central mid-rib. The leaves are all attached to a woody crown. Its flowerering stem and flowers are more similar to the rats-tail plantain.
Edible and medicinal uses of plantain.
Parts used Leaves. Pre-flowering buds, seed husk, seeds.
Pharmacology and uses The edible and medicinal uses of plantains are well documented. All of our well-known Western herbalists and herbal writers champion their virtues.
Both ribwort and greater plantain can be used to combat a number of ailments including catarrhal conditions, where rather than suppressing the symptoms, they can enable the body to deal with the causes of excessive catarrh.
On mainland Europe, ribwort is widely applied for hay fever and allergic conditions, where the mucous membranes are dry and or hyper-sensitive. It is of much use treating respiratory conditions.
Both plantains help to provide long term improvements in respiratory health. They can be recommended for a number of respiratory ailments, such as bronchitis, nasal catarrh and sinusitis, as well as middle ear complaints. Both plantains are particularly effective in treating these conditions in children. Once again this is due to their mucilage content.
Plantains act as calming, soothing expectorants, helping relax irritating coughs, especially where accompanied by general tightness of the airways. Ribwort tea is a wholesome, satisfying, tonic of a tea.
John Parkinson (1567-1650) documented that either of the plantains relieve “spitting of the blood” (one of the symptoms of tuberculosis, alongside irritation of the mucous membranes), and “for bloody or foul water by any ulcer in the kidney or bladder”.
Nicolas Culpeper (1616-1654) wrote that “plantains are special herbs for “staying all manner of the fluxes in man or woman” and are “singularly good herbs for those that are troubled with consumption of the lungs, or coughs that come of heat. He also mentions plantain herbs as “a good wound herb, to heal fresh or old wounds or sores, either outward or inward”.
The aucubin present in the leaves is anti-bacterial and is known to increase uric acid excretion by the kidneys. The micro-nutrient silica is known to promote lung tissue repair and zinc aids general healing and natural defences.
The mucilage content provides a relaxing expectorant action, and combined with the tannin content, provides a local, soothing effect on the gut lining and the skin.
The plantain herbs are indeed outstanding wound herbs. Like other traditionally used plants such as yarrow, plantain offer excellent first-aid, on the move, with no need for tears, plasters, first-aid-kits or nurses. If you cut yourself when out foraging, either ribwort or rats-tail will likely be near-by. Sorted!
To use in the wild, simply gather and chew a few of the leaves, then apply this ‘spit poultice’ to the afflicted area. Bleeding stops very quickly and broken flesh is rapidly ‘glued’ together due to the astringency of the tannins and demulcent mucilage components. The plantains are also mildly anti-septic, preventing infection.
The plantains can also be used against insect bites and stings. Once again simply scrunch the leaves until you get the juices flowing. Both the plantains are especially good for treating children suffering from these recurring afflictions.
Eating plantain. Ideas on how to use plantain in the kitchen
During a forage walk I hosted in Oxford, I met a Korean gentleman who reminisced about eating the rats-tail plantain leaves as a child at home. He mentioned that they cooked it as you would spinach, and said it was a commonly used vegetable in rural areas.
The esteemed forager Pascal Bauder demonstrates his method of cooking plantain that produces a seaweed-like texture. Other plantain recipes utilise the earthy, mushroom like flavour of leaves and flower buds. I like using plantain buds in May. I can quickly gather enough to make a tapenade, mixing olive oil, lemon juice salt and pepper, either in a pestle and mortar or nutri-bullet. Add more oil and or a splash of water to mix to a fluid paste consistency. Add to humus about half and half.
Try using sea plantain leaves in a pickle after blanching in boiling water for 30 seconds, or served as a lightly steamed sea vegetable served with pepper and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
If you harvest specimens with leaves still attached to the base stem, and cut them so the majority of them remain attached, try dunking in a spiced batter before frying and serving with a sweet chilli and soy dip. The battered plantain look like octopus on the plate!
Buckshorn plantain has recently become an increasingly popular addition to commercial salad production in South West England. You may find it called ‘minutina’ or ‘erba stella’ in seed catalogues. Its succulent crunchy leaves are good, given favourable conditions.
I have noticed that buckshorn can be almost hairless, or alternatively, almost woolly. They can approximate succulence every now and then, complete with a salty tang, but can also be liable to their fair share of stringy fibres, and sometimes taste bitter. Try the plant from numerous locations and times of year.
Plantains also offer us nutritious seeds. These can be added to meals as you might with linseeds, and ground into flour to make flat breads. The seeds of Plantago lanceolata are nutty and just big enough to be bothered about.
Globally known edible and medicinal uses of plantains – ‘psyllium’.
Psyllium is the name given to husk from seed of Plantago psyllium andP.indica and is freely available from many ethnic grocer shops as well as pharmacists. This remedy has been used for millennia in Asia, where it is known as ‘asashwagole’ as well as in North Africa and Europe. If necessary, say in a survival situation, the seed and husk could be collected from our native plantains, but it will take you quite a while to harvest the product.
Parts used Seeds
Key constituents Muco-polysaccharides within the mucilage (approx 15% total weight); proteins; fatty acids (linoleic, oleic, palmitic, stearic); sterols; tannins.
Actions Demulcent, bulk-forming laxative.
If requiring a bulk laxative, there are typically just two main herbal choices that stand out; psyllium or the endangered slippery elm. In both cases the resultant effects are due to the high concentration of mucilaginous, polysaccharide substances.
Herbal pharmacologists advise the soaking of plantain husk in warm water for several hours before using. This is probably due to the nature of long chain mucilage sugar units requiring time for them to be fully ‘loosened’ from the action of water.
Some studies have shown that fecal matter can be substantially increased by psyllium. For people with constipation, increases in the frequency of defacation will (hopefully) occur. Psyllium is indicated by herbalists for use following anorectal surgery and for the management of haemorrhoids and in cases of diarrhoea.
As a bulk laxative there is a chance it will cause minor flatulence and temporary abdominal pains. Do not attempt to swallow psyllium husk dry, for the drug may cause an obstruction in the throat!
For more information on other plants in season now, simply visit our seasonal and monthly wild food guides.
If you are wanting to come and learn the arts and crafts of the forager, then my upcoming foraging walks may be happening near you soon
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.
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.
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.
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)
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!
Common mallow(Malva sylvestris)Grows in most places in the UK. Large 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.
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 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.
In this foraging guide to flowers and inflorescence, you will be introduced to the structure of flowers and the various ways flowers are grouped together, also known as the inflorescence.
Plant patterns for 11 of the most important plant families for foragers to know, were covered in a previous article. This gives you the basic awareness of the specific floral structures to look out for in mints, peas, roses, docks, buttercups, figworts, carrots, lilies, chickweeeds, mustards, and beetroot family.
There are only a few things to note about the essential structures of flowers, although they come in wide and varied form.
Foraging Guide to Flowers: Their basic structure
The corolla is a general term describing the whole set of flowering organs.
The stigma, style and ovules are female reproductive organs. There can be many or few.
The stigma, style and ovary combined, are also commonly referred to as the pistil.
The filament and anther (also known as stamens) are male reproductive organs. There can be many or few
The ovary can be situated below (inferior ovary) or above (superior ovary) the base of the stamens.
Sepals and bracts can protect the flower petals before opening and support it upon opening. Sepals can look like petals i.e. daffodils and many lilies.
The collection of sepals are also known as the calyx.
The groups of petals or sepals can be fused together. Either or all can be missing.
Most plants will display some and not all of the parts shown above. Many flowers are male only, many female only. Large numbers of species have dispensed with or adapted the various organs.
I think most readers are already aware of the huge variability in flower structure and form from what you have seen up to now, it’s just that you havent learnt the language.
Foragers guide to different inflorescence
Flowers come in many guises, sometimes held to the plant on stalks and branches, sometimes not. The procession and order of the flowers and their various structures are important for helping us identify plants.
The majority of the common flowering arrays are included. An article and illustration on the daisy family flowers and their variations will soon be here.
Cyme:As found on comfrey
Dichasium or forked cyme, i.e.borage
Panicle: As found on oats
Racemes: commonly found in Brassica family
Spikes: A range of different plants, like mullein & lavender
Keep an eye out for species with a singular or terminal inflorescence, where you find only one flower or head produced on each flower stalk. The poppies (Papavaceae family) are known for such singular flower heads.
There are also adapted structures like the spathe and spadix shown by Arum species like Lords and ladies
As you can see, there are only a few basic types of inflorescence for us to know here in Britain, and this small amount of knowledge goes a long way.
They can help us decide between close-looking genera. Helpfully, numerous genera in a family can tend to display similar inflorescence.
So in the wild when coming across an unidentified plant, you can now note its type of inflorescence and the pattern of flower production. This can often determine which plant family we are present with. Appreciating the various forms of inflorescence, broadens our knowledge of plants considerably and adds confidence to plant identification.
If this summary foraging guide to flowers and inflorescence has helped you, remember to share with your social networks! Thanks.
Other foraging resources are here to help you sharpen your foraging skills, such as these waterproof plant identification cards and colour coded, seasonal harvesting charts for more than 80 species. Information on harvesting wild plants is available here.
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.
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).
Lesser celandine is one of about 700 species to have been placed in the genus Ranunculus. Its previous generic nameis 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.
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.
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 usedRoots, 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 usesThe 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 .
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!”
Wild Food Foraging Guide to the Edible Wild Plants of Britain.
Foraging Common sorrel and other edible docks. Hard to miss, easy to identify, nutritious, medicinal herbs
Foraging common sorrel, sheeps sorrel, curly dock, broad leaf dock, water dock
Common sorrel and other closely related dock species are all plants you can find without looking! Just as easy to spot in towns as they are in the countryside, these plants are constant foraging companions.
They are members of the large Rumex genus within the rhubarb family, Polygonaceae. This common plant family also contains japanese knotweed, buckwheat and bistort. The Rumex genus consists of 200 species of annuals, biennials, and perennials.
The name ‘dock’ is derived from the old English ‘docce’ – simply meaning ‘course large-leaved weed’. Hence, the unrelated burdock was ‘the coarse, large-leaved weed with burs’!
The edible and medicinal docks dealt with here are notable for their yellow-coloured tap roots. This colour suggests the reason why docks were previously instinctively thought of as good for the liver, and for bilious conditions.
My favourite edible docks by far are the sorrels, with common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) being the most plentiful;whereas sheep’s sorrel (R.acetosella) islocally common in some areas.When out walking or foraging you will soon spot just how common sorrel and other docks are.
A bite size look at common sorrel.
Botanical description of common sorrel and other docks.
At a glance, the sorrels have noticably arrow-shaped leaves. Their leaves are smaller and more narrow than most other docks. Common sorrel will be found with downward-pointing basal lobes and a notable white mid-vein (these two features separate the tasty sorrel from the dangerous lords and ladies – Arum maculatum). Sheep’s sorrel leaves are smaller and identified by prominent side lobes at the base of the leaf.
One of the key diagnostic features for the whole rhubarb family will be found on the stems. There you will see a pronounced angled joint, always initially covered in a papery sheath, or ocrea. You can see this family pattern repeating across all the various members of the family.
All our docks have quite broad leaves on long petioles. The curly dock (R.crispus) has oblong-lanceolate leaves with distinctly wavy or crispy margins. These are tapered inwards at the base.
The broad leaved dock (R.obtusifolius) has larger, more oval-oblong leaves, displaying less of a wavy edge. They are cordate at their can base.
The stem leaves of broad-leaved dock become increasingly narrower on the flowering stem. Often the stem leaves will have stipules at the base of the petioles.
The very young leaves will have a slight hint of oxalic acid like their relative, the sorrel. Water dock (Rumex hydrolapatham) long leaf stalks are very acidic. This plant can grow in dense stands on mudflats and riverbanks
All docks have a very similar looking inflorescence. Their flowering stems are green but can also carry a red-stripe. The broad leaved docks are occasionally found with completely red stems.
The stems are smooth, round, and fluted, with a solid, pithy core and few hairs, if any> Dock flowering stems branch at acute angles towards the top.
The flowers are individually small and don’t really catch the eye unless in close quarters. They are green or red, dependent on species.
They have six, green, petal-like sepals. Three tiny outer ones, and three larger inner ones, surrounding the ovary. Typically 5-10 mm long, the flowers emerge from the upper leaf axils, growing on small stalks in dense whorled clusters, on branches 5-20 cm long.
Dock flowers are scentless and often carry red ‘wart-like’ growths on the inner sepals. It is the size and shape of the sepals, plus the presence and shape of the ‘warts’ that helps distinguish between the numerous and similar looking dock species.
Habitats to look in when foraging common sorrel and docks
The common sorrel shares nearly all its habitats with other close relatives. Look in fields, woodland clearances and woodland edges, hedgerows, coastal locations and wastegrounds in urban serttings. You won’t need to look too long.
Parts usedRoot, leaves, stems, leaf stalks and seeds.
Harvest Roots: early spring or autumn. Leaves: when small and young.
Pharmacology and uses These plants are a somewhat recent addition to the European herbal pharmacopeia. However, they have been a mainstay in the medicinal repertoire of Native American indiginous people.
North American physicians brought these plants to the attention of western herbalists in the latter half of the 19th century. Previously the plant had enjoyed centuries of use by the indiginous people.
The reported anti-bacterial action stems from phenolic acid components, whilst the flavonoids are known for anti oxidant activity. Members of the Rumex genus are gentle laxatives, or aperients. It is likely that the small amounts of anthraquinones are responsible for this action as they are in rhubarb. Read more about the important medicinal plant constituents and actions.
Alterative herbs such as dock, act in a non-specific way on the digestive tract and liver. Through helping the liver remove toxins, alteratives are known as blood purifiers. They are often employed to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, boils, eczema, and for any conditions where skin eruptions and itching are prominent.
Docks help the digestive system by enabling the increase of gastric juices, including bile, and by encouraging bowel movement. This is partly due to their bitterness. Culpeper mentioned that ‘bloodroot’ (as docks were often called), ‘purified the blood and strengthened the liver’. By detoxifying and tonifying, the liver becomes less congested and stronger. In days long gone, docks were also used to treat scurvy.
With a high concentration of iron, docks are helpful in treating anaemia. The root has been used as a poultice for this very reason. The tannins and thier astringent qualities mean internally irritated membranes will be soothed and protecte. Externally the root will be useful in treating haemorrhoids.
Many people have heard of using docks for treating nettle stings, and the majority of them might agree that rubbing dock leaves on the stings was very nearly pointless. That’s because it’s the gel from the new leaf shoots at the centre of the plant that help with stings and burns, not the leaf. I still prefer ground ivy for nettle stings, but finally I’m appreciating docks, thanks to Monica Wilde.
Sheep’s sorrel is becoming increasingly well known as one of the herbs in Essaic tea. Manufacturers of Essaic tea point to the use of sheep’s sorrel in fighting cancer, and aiding cellular regeneration.
All of the Rumex genus have completely edible above-ground parts, though not many are tasty when eaten raw, like the sorrels. The common sorrel has been celebrated in France, where numerous recipes exist for sorrel soup and sauces. The sour and tart flavour of sorrel make it a superb accompaniment to fish dishes. It’s distinctive sour flavour is due to oxalic acid. The plant family as a whole are noted for higher-than-average oxalic acid content. People with kidney stones should avoid foods that are rich in oxalic acid
Docks are nutritious food, but the majority of them are too coarse for salads or tender spinach. In a survival situation, the docks will be one of the first going in the cooking pot.
The wood dock (Rumex sanguineous) and the water dock are two other plants in the genus that I will freely eat. Young wood dock leaves carry hints of oxalic acid, similar to sorrel, whilst older leaves quickly become bitter and more fibrous. The leaves contain a higher nutritional punch than spinach, containing roughly one third more iron. Docks have more fibre and Vitamin A than an equal amount of carrots.
The wood dock has a somewhat delicate leaf when picked small and young. These somewhat more tender leaves usually offer more noticable sour tones.
The water dock will be found with leaves up to 1 m long, and growing on 30 cm leaf stalks. When young these are worth using as a rhubarb replacement with pronounced crunch.
The blood veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus var sanguineous) has become a popluar salad variety, and will occasionally be found growing naturalised in the UK. This plant is essentially a red-veined version of the wood dock, and doesn’t replace sorrel for flavour or texture.
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.
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!
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.
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
Where to look
Which plant part to harvest
wild garlic (Allium ursinum)
leaves, leaf stalks, flower buds
wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosa)
winter purslane (Claytonia sibirica)
damp grasslands, riverbanks
wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris)
woodlands, hedgerows, lanes
leaves, leaf shoots
Gorse (Ulex europeas)
heath, cliffs, scrub, woodland edges
Lords and ladies (Arum maculatum)
Woodlands, hedgerows, shady lanes
NONE! 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 gardens
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
woodlands, hedgerows, grassy areas
leaves and flowers
Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)
woodlands, grassy banks, hedgerows
leaves and tubers
sweet violets (Viola odorata)
hedgerows, shady grassland, cliffs, woodlands
leaves and flowers
Sea beet (Beta vulgaris)
estuaries and coastlines
Scarlet elf caps (Sarcoscypha coccinea)
Woodlands on mossy logs
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.
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 cards. My regular foraging courses are a great way to learn some of the practical skills and arts of the forager. Browse through the courses here.