Hedgerow pickings…

Ground ivy. How to find, identify and use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground ivy botanical description 

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

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

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

Fine bristly hairs cover the square stems of ground ivy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habitats to look in when foraging for ground ivy

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

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

Parts used – Leaves and flowering tops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy foraging!

 

Foraging Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Asteraceae

Discover how foraging yarrow connects us with the Neanderthals. Foraging yarrow connects us with our Neanderthal ancestors more than 50,000 years ago

How foraging yarrow today continues an intriguing plant-people relationship stretching back more than 50,000 years!

People have been foraging yarrow for ever! This is unsurprising to us today, given what we know about its many uses, and in a globally connected world we nearly all have access to information on the remarkable powers yarrow shows as a medicine.  As an edible, if somewhat a bitter and aromatic plant, yarrow has been used around the world wherever it has been found. But we have forgotten much about the importance and magic of this ubiquitous herb.

Its too easy to overlook and ignore some of the really common plants when out hunting and gathering wild food. Its easier still not to enquire or ponder about the significance of a common plant that is found in almost all temperate zones around the world.

We repeatedly see a few common plants everywhere we go, and they can immediately just become part of the fabric of the ‘green wall’ because of their seemingly omnipresence . Unless that is we choose to explore, and then their important role in human evolution starts to become apparent.

Yarrow is a herb heavily steeped in myth and legend; and a plant that many cultures of the world have widely used and revered. Achillea millefolium was named in honour of the Greek god Achilles; who according to legend, had course to widely employ this wound staunching herb on the battlefield.

Many tens of thousands of years before, the Neanderthals were foraging yarrow for use as food and for its medicinal properties. This was revealed by the presence of a number of common wild plants found in the plaque on the teeth of Neanderthals excavated from graves in the Mediterranean basin!

We know enough about zoopharmacology, the study of how wild animals use wild medicinal plants, to confidently imagine our more recent Homind ancestors having a reasonably extensive knowledge of the wild plants they lived with and had to utilise to survive.

I think its both lazy and insulting to not recognise that our hunter-gather-foraging ancestors would easily have known hundreds of plants. It is likely that far more of our vast natural larder and medicine cabinet would have been familiar to them, than to the majority of people alive today in the Western world.

Today, as you will soon see, yarrow remains a sovereign remedy of both Western and Eastern herbal medicine traditions, and rightly persists as a favourite of many practitioners working with plant medicines. Alongside dandelions and plantains, yarrow can be considered another of our globally available, herbal first aid plants!

But its not just practical uses of Yarrow that stand this plant out from the crowd. This happens to be the only plant used for the ritual purposes of divination in the Chinese oracle – the ‘I Ching’. This 5,000 year old oracle, still much in use the world over, is traditionally consulted after preparing and throwing 50 Yarrow stalks into the air and then interpreting how and where they landed.

Quite why the ancient Chinese decided upon this herb is unclear.  But its not the only plant  to have has almost reverential status conferred on to it by ancient civilisations in the Orient. A common relative of yarrow, also found here in Britain – mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), is almost exclusively known as ‘Moxa ‘in Chinese and is the only herb used in the application of moxabustion, where a bundle of the dried herb is burnt and the glowing tips placed just above the skin, to stimulate the movement of chi (energy).

Botanical description to help I/D when foraging yarrow

Yarrow has wispy, feathery foliage, which can superficially resemble the wild carrot. Yarrow’s leaves are repeatedly divided, also known as bi-pinnatifid leaves.

We an use all parts of yarrow as medicine, so foraging yarrow is almost an all year round affair
The feathery foliage of yarrow is noticeable in the summer when it retains its green colour even in drought.

The leaflets are small with thin lobes, which gave rise to its other common names; ‘milfoil’ and ‘thousand leaf’.

The basal leaves are sometimes quite large and sprawling, always on long petioles, and initially grow in a rosette. Leaves are typically around 20-25 cm long. The stem leaves become shorter, sessile, and alternately spaced.

In mild climates you will see the plant happily overwintering. New growth will re-emerge from its creeping and steadily spreading rhizomes in early Spring. This network of roots will mean that we regularly find the plant growing as dense mats and carpets.

Although mostly a white flowering plant, pink flowering forms are not an uncommon sight when foraging yarrow
Pink forms are not an uncommon sight when foraging yarrow in summer

Yarrow can be found in full bloom from June. It has hairy and furrowed flowering stems, typically reaching heights of 60-70 cm. Yarrows inflorescence is often referred to as ‘umbel-like’ in books, and this is because untrained eyes could initially mistake yarrow’s flowering structure for an umbel, and then place yarrow in the carrot family.

However, look closely from below, and you will observe the numerous flower stalks condensed together high up the stem, and you will see how they do not all originate from a central point on the stem, as per umbelliferous plants. The type of inflorescence that yarrow displays is also known as a corymb.

The individual flower heads are composite, and consist of tiny flowers (florets) grouped together on a ‘capitulum’.  Each composite head is singular and terminal. These plant family patterns will be seen on all daisy family plant flower heads, and is easiest to study on a sunflower. Typically a singular yarrow flower head will have 5 or 6 individual florets. Read more on the easy-to-remember plant family patterns method of Plant I/D.

The flowers have a characteristic medicinal-savoury odour. They will taste bitter. Usually, yarrow has creamy white ray-florets, delicately framing the orange-tinted, central disk-florets. But pink flowering strains of yarrow will also frequently be seen.

Habitats to look in when foraging yarrow

Yarrow grows in a range of habitats, throughout Britain and Ireland, except for areas which are permanently waterlogged, or on soils that are strongly acidic (pH < 5.5).

It happily colonises waysides, pastures, grassy places, hedgerows, and waste-ground, in town or country, throughout the land. A lover of temperate climates, you can almost always easily find yarrow in Britain, even at altitudes of up to around 1100 metres. On the coast, look in fields by the dunes and on stabilised shingle. This map from the online flora of Britain and Ireland shows just how much of the country has yarrow.

Yarrow thrives in harsh conditions without losing its fresh look of vitality. This becomes especially noticeable during droughts, when its dark green foliage stands out from brown and withered neighbouring plants, especially in grasslands.

Yarrow loves numerous types of grasslands and flowers from June

 

Parts used: Leaves / flowering tops.

Harvest: Leaves: Spring – when young. Flowers: From July – September, just when opening.

Key medicinal constituents Volatile oil (including cineol, eugenol, thujone, camphor, azulene); bitter principles; tannins; salicylic acid, isovalerianic acid. (Learn more about the common medicinal plant constituents here)

Actions: Anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, diuretic, diaphoretic, astringent, expectorant, vulnerary.

Pharmacology and uses: As an edible, yarrow should be embraced in the kitchen of the adventurous, and by folk looking for foods that double as preventative medicines. So by foraging yarrow you get to kill two birds with one stone!

During spring and early summer, the younger leaves give a lovely, crunchy texture in a mixed salad, while offering slightly bitter, yet subtle and savoury medicinal tones. A strong and intoxicating beer can reportedly be made with yarrow,  for which a number of recipes can be used (watch this space)!

As medicine, yarrow has chiefly been used as a wound herb. The tannins exhibit an astringent effect, on both exterior and interior surfaces of the body.

The volatile oil constituents, such as cineole, have anti septic qualities, while azulene, responsible for the blue colour of the essential oil, not only reduces inflammation, but stimulates the formulation of tissue for wound healing.

When to go foraging yarrow for peak essential oil content

For more information on harvesting wild plants, simply click here.

Couple this with the general astringency, and yarrow can swiftly, and effectively, help seal and heal all manner of cuts and wounds!

Regularly eating or drinking yarrow helps prevent and treat dyspepsia and ulceration – two conditions that alcohol or caffeine, coupled with a rich diet, can help manifest.

Yarrow promotes a sedative activity on the nervous system, and is often employed as an anti-spasmodic for nervous dyspepsia. Yarrow is acclaimed for helping heal and tone the mucus membranes throughout the gastro-intestinal-tract.

Nature’s abundant anti-inflammatory phenol, salicylic acid (aka salicin), can be found in yarrow, just as with meadowsweet (Filipendula sp) or willow (Salix sp). So try foraging yarrow, which is much more abundant than its relative, chamomile.

As a diaphoretic, yarrow will regularly be used for fevers, and also helps with palpitations, painful menstrual periods, and convulsions; as well as being of use as a peripheral vasodilator, diuretic, and mild expectorant.

As with any member of the Asteraceae family, there comes slight risk of possible sensitivity for some individuals, especially those with dermatological problems. As ever, always seek professional advice before using wild plants as medicines.

 

You can read more about UK edible wild plants and fungi that are available to harvest now, in these seasonal wild food guides and the new monthly foraging guides, that started with foraging in January. As well as the edible and medicinal plants, foragers also need to learn the poisonous and toxic plants, which I have briefly summarised here.

If you would like more plant identification help then check out these waterproof, field-guide style, pocket-sized I/D cards. And you need never miss a foraging trick again, with this set of helpful, season-by-season harvest charts, available as a download.

For a deeper understanding of the arts ond crafts of the forager, then take a look through my fun and affordable wild food foraging courses for a course near you. Book a place today!

Happy foraging!

Foraging Rock Samphire. Full-on coastal flavour!

A guide to foraging rock samphire. (Crithmum maritimum) Apiaceae family 

Foraging rock samphire, a brilliant excuse to go to the seaside!

An exploration of Britain’s southern and western rocky coastlines will often quickly bring us face to face with the unforgetable rock samphire. A unique-looking wild plant, on these shores at least. I can’t think of another plant that carries its features.

Rock samphire was formerly well known and eaten in vast quantities, but then fell away from popularity. It was once known as ‘poor man’s samphire’, but the plant is anything but poor in my mind. It offers us harvests potentially through most of the year, especially if you live in the more protected coastal areas of South West Britain.

Harvesting rock samphire was once a means for poorer country folk to make a scant and very precarious living. A couple of hundred years ago, foraging rock smaphire was a hair raising and difficult occupation, involving men and boys dangling off cliffs attached to ropes, battling with whatever weather the coastlines threw at them. More than a few died in this process, which led to Shakespeare describing harvesting rock samphire as “that dreadful trade”.

Today’s forager of rock samphire is likely to be someone who has no real awareness of the extreme trials of the people in whose footsteps they follow. We pick the plant for the simple love of acquiring a unique wild vegetable and spice, that can’t be bought in the shops.

Rock samphire botanical description:

Rock samphires foliage is unique mong the British flora and cannot really be misidentified
The fleshy blue green leaflets of rock samphire are unique among UK flora, and make it easy to I/D

This member of the carrot family is one of the easiest to identify. It has blue-green fleshy leaves growing in an overall triangular shape. This triangular shape is a pattern of the carrot family, as are the tell-tale, repeatedly divided sets of leaflets.

Rather than the typical pinnate leaf divisions found on other members of the carrot family, the leaflets are more or less trifoliate (in sets of three’s). The fleshy leaflets are usually linear-oval in shape, with rounded and occasionally forked tips.

Its leaves are sheathed at the base, like other species in the family. During the colder months, it is common to find the leaf tips with a bronze or red tinge, likely as a result of the piercing cold winds that winter can bring. 

The yellow green flowers of rock samphire are resent most of the summer, and help make this plant an easy umbellifer to I/D
Masses of yellow flowers are a common sight on rock samphire during the summer months

You can find rock samphire in flower from late spring. Its flower stems are solid, unlike many that are found here in the UK. As a member of the Apiaceae family, it produces a compound umbel inflorescence. This will typically have more than 12 rays, and the flower heads are approximately 15 – 20 cm wide.

The compound umbel has narrow bracts below and the individual umbels have bracteoles. Flowers are yellow-green, with five petals, approximately 2 mm across. 

Its seeds are plump and often purple-coloured at first. They are oval-shaped, about 8-9 cm long with thick vertical ridges. They eventually turn brown when ripe.

The seeds of rock samphire provide interesting aromatics, well into the winter.
The aromatic seeds of rock samphire seeds can persist well in to the winter

All parts of the plant are aromatic, especially the seeds, which I can only describe as being a cross between carrot, citrus, celery and parsnip.

More than alexanders, this plant  is a pretty safe umbellifer for beginners to forage for, because there really aren’t any plants that it could be mistaken for. Engage your sense of smell, touch, and your sense of place, as these are all as important as closely observing plant dimensions, features and colours. 

For beginners, its well worth noting that the various species in the carrot family tend to smell quite distinct from each other, but they don’t always look so different! With this particular family, if you don’t take note of the subtle chemical clues, you are missing out on vital information.

For a more detailed discussion on the other members of this important family for foragers to know, take a look at the first part of my carrot family article series

If there are any other plants to look out for on a cursary look when foraging rock samphire, it would be one of the water dropworts (Oenanthe species), namely the parsley water dropwort (O.lachinelli). This plant also displays narrow leaflets, and is also found in coastal regions, where it enjoys brackish water.

However, rock samphire has much more fleshy leaves that aren’t pinnately divided, plus it has yellow flowers not white, and lastly but most importantly, smells quite different.

If you want to learn more about the plant family patterns, then read this worksheet on 12 of our common plant families and start fast tracking your plant I/D skills.

Habitats to look in when foraging rock samphire 

The craggy copastlines and rocky cliffs of our south western coastlines are a great place to find rock samphire
Rocky cliffs  and coasts like these in the Gower in South Wales, are a perfect place for rock samphire

Rock samphire is a lover of the numerous crags and shelves on rocky cliffs and will also be found on shingle beaches. You will also find the plant growing on walls and stone work by sandy beaches as well as decorating harbour walls. It won’t generally be found inland or on the eastern coasts of England which tend to be much more sandy.

This plant isn’t really bothered about type of soil. As a rule of thumb, you are likely to encounter rock samphire in the UK from Suffolk, clockwise round the coast to the Scottish Hebrides. Check out this distribution map from the brilliant online flora of Britain and Ireland for more details.

Rock samphire culinary uses

The plant was formerly and perhaps most famously used as a pickle ingredient. Barrels of rock samphire were packed off to London for trade in the markets and for sales on the street.

rock samphire has been harvested and processed into a pickle for many hundreds of years
Rock samphire pickle. A tasty aromatic condiment, it goes well with a number of dishes

For a tasty pickle, simply dry salt for a few hours (to help retain its crunch), and place in a spice-infused vinegar of your choice. I often heat up the samphire in the spiced vinegar, as this quickens the infusing. Typically I like to add mustard seeds, peppercorns, a few cloves, a couple of bay leaves and some chilli flakes in the vinegar infusion. 

As a vegetable, I find its best to prepare and cook it quite simply. During the spring and summer months you may be able to use all of the leaf, including the stalk. But in the autumn and winter I tend to snip off most of the leaf stalk, which otherwise can be too fibrous.

To cook, I generally par-boil in salted water for a few minutes, then fry in butter or olive oil for another two or three minutes. Cooking this way helps to dampen the strong aromatics, which are not to everyone’s palate. 

Cooking twice in water will further reduce its bitterness, while frying in oil or butter off-sets and compliments the taste. The flavour of this plant, like all other plants, can be affected by the growing conditions prior to harvesting.

Lots more plants to forage in winter are found in my summarised seasonal guides, and the new monthly guides that started with 13 wild foods to find and try in January.

If you are interested in learning more about the practical skills of wild food foraging, then my upcoming wild food walks and courses will be worth a browse.

Remember  to sign up for my newsletter, for regular foraging news and alerts on new foraging courses! 

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 and cooking thistles, without feeling a prick!

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woolly thistle rosette

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

Identifying thistles

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

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

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

Flowers and pappus hairs on a spear thistle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to find thistles

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

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

 

Harvesting notes to remember before foraging and cooking thistles

The central spiny flower bud of spear thistle

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

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

Foraging and cooking thistles helps ensure we get nutrient dense foods

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to use thistles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy foraging!

Foraging for Alexanders. A versatile & abundant wild food.

Foraging for alexanders. Another never ending wild plant affair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Botanical description to help identification when foraging for alexanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cookery ideas using alexanders

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

A jar of rhubarb and alexanders jam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy foraging!

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!


Foraging Garlic Mustard / Jack-by-the-hedge / Alliaria Petiolata

Foraging Garlic Mustard – The Creme of the Hedgerow

Learn about foraging garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) Brassicaceae

Wild food hedgerow walks in winter are almost guaranteed to throw up opportunities to go foraging garlic mustard. For me, it’s one of the best wild food resources you can find in the hedgerows.

This plant is also mentioned in my winter foraging guide, and features in my foragers card game sets. The subject of cooking with and foraging garlic mustard needed an article all to itself, so here goes. You can find a recipe for a garlic mustard creme  in the wild food recipes page.

Why go foraging garlic mustard?

Abundance, and simply because it doesn’t really stop giving. There are 8 different plant parts you can use throughout its gradual metamorphosis, and as the seasons pass, you will almost always find something to harvest.

  • Tap roots
  • Leaves
  • Petioles from new growth in spring
  • Stems, when young and tender
  • Flowering Shoots
  • Flowers
  • Seeds
  • Microgreens

Foraging garlic mustard can offer us similar health benefits to those we know from some closely related species, such as horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) and hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale).

When we go foraging garlic mustard we are helping to keep in check a plant that is counted in certain parts of North America, where it has no natural predators, as a virulent invasive weed, proving so far impossible to .

Botanical and sensual description to help I/D when foraging garlic mustard

Garlic Mustard is an annual or biennial herbaceous plant.

Remember that in practice, the terms ‘annual’ or ‘biennial’ are often ambiguous, and are frequently used as purely descriptive categories for the nurseries and gardens to explain cultivation.

Annual’s – are mostly used to describe plants that complete their life-cycle in less than 12 months. However, these plants can sometimes grow longer than 12 months. Some of the plants  grown in the UK are treated as annuals, i.e. chili peppers,especially when they originate in sub-tropical climates.

Biennial’s – Taking more than one whole growing season to complete life cycle. can often be found over-wintering as a basal rosette. However, many seeds germinate in July and August, and can be in flower by  the next summer.

Garlic mustard produces overwintering rosettes of simple, kidney-shaped leaves, found on long petioles. These typically grow to approximately 10-15 cm across and can be a darker green colour during the winter. The leaves are net-veined with wavy and crenated margins.

 

Its’s leaves give off a recognisable pungent garlic / cabbage aromas when crushed. This is due to the presence of volatile sulphurous compounds, which as I mentioned in the watercress article are proving to be more than efficient at arresting the growth of some common cancers.

A large number of the Brassica family plants are identifiable from smell alone. Given that this family are all edible, then you can proceed to experiment when you know you have a brassica. Other recognisable Brassica  family patterns in the flowers, and the leaves will soon become apparent when you begin to use this easy-to-learn system for identifying plants.

As the seasonal weather patterns change here in the UK, due to human’s increasingly stark effects on the climate, flowering times may become somewhat erratic. Currently, we see full blooms of garlic mustard during April and into May. Flowering stems have a number of branches.

Leaves are alternately spaced on the stems, and gradually become more refined in size and shape, with a much smaller leaf stalk. They are soft apart from in winter, when they are somewhat more coarse – a necessity I suppose, given the lack of available sunshine coupled with the lower temperatures. Something worth noting for quite a few hardy herbaceous species.

The broccoli-type floret heads soon expand to reveal the pretty white flowers. These get to 10 mm across. Both are a beautiful wayside nibble. More moments to enjoy ambulating consumption!

All brassicas display flowers similar to a mini broccoli type head. Foraging garlic mustard will quickly bring you up to speed
Foraging garlic mustard flowers from March through April. Thy are a familiar brassica display of a broccoli type head

 

A common scene of ripening garlic mustard seed pods in late spring, having taken over municipal beds

 

Long, thin seed pods eventually form, that will split in two, revealing lines of brown seeds. These seeds are a mini cigar-shape, rather than round as found in many other family relatives such as mustard. Pods are held at angles on the flowering stem. The seeds are pungent when crushed.

During the early summer the seeds mature, pods wither, and eventually split to reveal their treasure. As many as 8000 seeds per plant are produced, which reportedly converts to a staggering potential seed bank of 100,000 seeds per square metre!

Germination en masse is the inevitable result  of this tactic, by a plant from the superb brassica family, for these plants are well-known for their indifference to soil, and without need for mycorrhizae. In the plant kingdom you can forage for a multitude of these plants on poor soils by the sea and estuary, together with the Chenopodiaceae family of beets, goosefoots, oraches and samphires. On these types of soil, mycorrhizae won’t be found, or for that matter, any soil humus. In this harsh environment, both these two plant families are reliable exponents of mass germination, and can sometimes offer a plentiful source of micro greens.

Garlic mustard can appear as small carpets of microgreens from the thousands of seeds each mature plant can produce

Habitats to look in when out foraging garlic mustard

This plant can be found in a number of settings. Unsurprisingly for a plant that has the word ‘hedge’ in a couple of common names, its favourite habitat are hedgerows.

You can also find it at woodland edges, shady grass banks, on waste-ground, at the base of walls and fences in urban settings, and as a common weed of cultivation.

More distribution information, including a map, its ecological requirements and other nuggets can be found on the British and Irish online flora. Another great Scientific resource for garlic mustard and other plants is the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International

Culinary uses of garlic mustard

Cultures from around the world have long used this plant, primarily the European people, because the plant is native to the NorthWestern region.  Its abundance wherever happy to grow means the leaves or other things are always available to add to the pot.

You may have already seen numerous recipes online for pesto, soups and salads based on this ubiquitous plant. I like a pesto, but prefer the leaves of this plant as lightly cooked greens dressed with olive oil / butter and lemon juice.

At some points of the year I inevitably throw them in to a well seasoned and spiced gram flour batter, along with a dozen or so different plant leaves, to make a wild leaf pakora. Look out for mass germination carpets of microgreens during late summer/early autumn, or in spring.

From mid to late spring, the flowering spears appearing everywhere are fantastic, being juicy, sweet, crunchy and peppery. I think they’re perfect raw, on the hoof, or in salads. These are my favourite food.

But the best medicinal part the plant are the tap roots. This then is my cream of the Garlic mustard crop. The root has no garlic flavour though. What you get is a poky blast of horseradish-like, sinus cleansing, microbe-killing heat! Brilliant, that’s any germs or beginnings of infection killed too!

 

The result of two minutes foraging garlic mustard roots. An easy to find, sinus blasting replacement for horseradish
The result of two minutes foraging garlic mustard roots

 

It takes just minutes to collect and only 15 mins or so to wash, scrub and chop the roots, before making something I reckon you will regularly want on your dinner table. Alliaria creme sauce.

From malicious to delicious. Alliaria creme sauce

The recipe for this simple condiment is going up soon on the foraged food page.

Happy foraging

 

 

 

 

Foraging watercress…the raw facts you need to know

Foraging watercress to eat raw in Britain? What you need to know about liver fluke…

Type in ‘Foraging watercress’ in any search engine and you may find websites either advising against picking watercress from the wild, or telling you how it needs to be cooked to be safe. The first statement can be dismissed as a scare story, while the latter only tells some of the truth.

This article hopes to shed more light on what remains a contentious issue amongst foragers here in UK. The question of whether to eat watercress raw from the wild.

You may think “what’s the point of taking the risk”, especially when cooking the plant kills the parasite, and the plant is freely available in supermarkets, but field grown, sometimes nitrate soaked watercress is bland and it disinterests me.

More importantly, I am seeking the maximum health benefits from wild herbs. With this one, like other pungent plants, including garlic, the medicinal goodness comes from the aromatic and flavoursome compounds that don’t survive cooking.

We will come to the icky parts of the liver fluke life-cycle and the dangers of contracting fasciolosis in due course, but firstly, how to identify watercress in the wild.

Botanical description to help identification when foraging watercress.

When foraging watercress you will find it growing by or in flowing water, typically appearing as a mass of stems
Watercress as will be commonly seen; a mass of stems and leaves in flowing water.

Watercress is a glossy-looking, mostly hairless, medium-sized, aquatic or sub aquatic perennial plant.  It has alternate, compound-pinnate leaves, typically with 7-9 oval shaped leaflets per leaf. The terminal leaflet is usually larger than the lateral ones.

Identifying brassica plants usually only takes a quick sniff. Their unique smell is one of their plant patterns. The majority of the plants in the family are pungent with a peppery, mustard-like or sulphurous tone, which will be easily revealed by crushing a leaf. So when foraging watercress, and in the right habitat, you can quickly discover if you have the right plant.

The stems are hollow and almost circular-shaped with ridges. Numerous rooting hairs are found just below the waterline. Water-loving plants adapted to submerged life contain large air-filled cells; a similar tactic to estuary plants.  At the base of the stems are a mass of fibrous white roots.

Watercress flowers first appear as mini broccoli type heads
Watercress flowers first appear as mini broccoli-type heads

This plant often grows in dense patches, so much so that it is classed as an invasive weed in some countries. In flower it can reach about 1m in height. It’s inflorescence will be a typical brassica display, appearing at first like a small broccoli-type head.

Soon after budding it will reveal numerous small white flowers, approximately 10 mm across. The four petals, like all cruciferous plants, are arranged in the shape of a cross.

Flowers soon give way to long thin seed pods, similar to numerous other related species. These spiral up the flower stem, eventually split to release their two rows of small red-brown seeds.

For more information on its botany and its global distribution, you may want to use this useful online fact sheet. For UK foragers, the online flora of Britain and Ireland contains useful distribution maps.

Habitats to look in when foraging watercress

Watercress grows alongside streams, ditches, springs and rivers, although won’t be found in stagnant water. It has a preference for alkaline soils, such as limestone or chalk.  This is a plant you will almost exclusively find in the countryside, although the more unspoilt parts of larger towns may also harbour some. My urban foraging guide may be of use here.

Watercress is known for overwintering  and therefore can be harvested at any time of year. This makes it another plant that comes high on my list of top plants to harvest, especially during the less verdant autumn and winter months. A general guide to the do’s and don’t’s of harvesting wild plants can be found right here.

Dangers of contracting liver fluke from foraging watercress.

Firstly, yes it goes without saying that waterborne plants such as watercress can potentially be infected with the cysts of liver fluke.  However, they will only be on the parts that are below the waterline, and this will realistically only be a problem on the plants near the edges in slow moving water, adjacent to damp grasslands. This is because of the life-cycle and host requirements of the parasitic organism.

So, let’s take a look at the life cycle of liver fluke (Fasciola hepatica). In the diagram below, you will see that the sheep contracts the cysts by eating infected grass. The cysts develop into the adult fluke which then lays eggs in around three months time, and these  will be deposited in manure. The fluke can lay thousands of eggs every week.

The Liver fluke cycle

 

The snail host of liver fluke

The eggs hatch into the first of a few embryonic and larval stages. If suitable environment conditions exist, such as prolonged damp weather, warm temperatures and a suitable wetland habitat, they can quickly find and enter the freshwater snail species – Galba trunculata.

Inside the snail host, the larvae will undergo more developmental changes until leaving and attaching to vegetation. Cysts are just about able to be seen by the naked eye, and more easily with a small magnification lens.

 

If we or our livestock eat vegetation with cysts on, then in a few weeks the adult liver fluke will be consuming our blood, possibly blocking the bile ducts and ruining  our livers, as shown below.

Cow liver showing the adult fluke and damage to bile ducts

Because grass is a monocotyledon plant, with only one seed leaf, and a growing meristem at the base, the cysts will eventually be found to be ‘moving up’ the blade. Whereas on dicotyledon species such as watercress, and without a growing meristem at the base of the plant, the cysts will remain where they were deposited.

Numerous liver fluke cysts aggregating on grass leaf blades

This is why foraging watercress in fields with streams, and damp meadows where sheep or cattle are regularly grazing, potentially leaves you at risk.This is why I forage for watercress quite a distance above the waterline, mostly using the very tops.

But what are the actual risks for us here in Britain? How many people in the UK have contracted liver fluke from foraging watercress from the wild and eating it raw?

 

Well, evidence for cases in humans are extremely rare here, unlike in parts of Asia, China and Africa. In the 10 years to 2008, only 6 cases in the UK were recorded.

During the following year, with heightened surveillance after a large increase in livestock cases, 11 people were reported to have faciolosis in England. This mainly involved people from North African and Middle eastern countries with a tradition of chewing the imported stimulant plant khat (Cathula edulis).

It is likely that our pre-industrial revolution forefathers would have had more of an issue with liver fluke, because many more common folk were forced to forage to supplement meagre wages or their field grown sustenance crops.

Whatever the dangers are currently, recent studies conducted for the NHS show that with our wetter and warmer summers here in the UK, the possibility of fasciolosis infection could  rise.

As with many myths surrounding foraging here in Britain, and foraging watercress in particular, the endless echo chamber of social media serves to inflate and hype any real dangers, with myriad keyboard ‘experts’ telling people not to pick wild stuff and certainly never to eat it. I have been told on more than one occasion by watercress growers and sellers at markets how dangerous it is!

Watermint grows in similar places to watercress, so could harbour liver fluke
Watermint is another sub-aquatic plant you may find when foraging watercress

Yet watermint will also be found in similar habitats, so I wonder why I can’t find many reports online about the dangers that this plant may bring, aside that is, from the odd well informed foraging website I visit.

Essentially, the rule not to eat watercress raw, could logically be extended to a large number of plants that live near waterways and the water’s edge, but the reality is that its hardly ever discussed amongst foragers online.

I have eaten plenty of raw wild watercress, especially over the last ten years, albeit from reasonably fast moving water, as found on rivers such as the Thames in Oxfordshire and the Avon in Somerset and Wiltshire, and having taken note of the improbable chances that cysts will be present in such conditions.

I always take leaves from well above the waterline, for reasons given earlier. Common sense is my best friend when out foraging, alongside arming myself with facts, not heresay!

I want the health promoting neutraceutical compounds that are now under investigation by pharmaceutical companies, and I continually weigh up the risks in the area I’m picking, with the risks of me smoking tobacco, occasionally drinking coffee and regularly enjoying  alcohol.

So although not recommending you go pick and eat raw watercress willy nilly, I do encourage you to take greater note of your local environment, assess the real dangers present, given what else you can find out about the local agricultural practices, and learn to decide for yourself what and where is safe.

Watercress is a much loved vegetable, and rightly so. There are many ways to use this tasty herb, such as this quick and easy-to-make soup, for which a recipe will be found on the wild food recipe page. Meanwhile…Happy foraging!