Hedgerow pickings…

Oats. A monograph for foragers

Oats. The ancient grain with remarkable healing powers.

Avena sativa & Avena fatua

Oats / wild oats

Poaceae family



Cereal grain crops continue to be the dominant component of human diets, comprising more than a third of what we eat. Oats are my favourite grain because it can be used as a preventative and curative medicine for a number of serious diseases.

The common wild oat is one of 15 species in the genus, which are found growing wild in North Africa, South-Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The generic name Avena is the old Roman name given to the plant. The specific name sativa is from the Latin, meaning cultivated.

The wild form (Avena fatua) is thought to have originated in Southern Europe, and subsequently brought northwards by various tribes during the Iron Age, eventually becoming the major sustenance crop of Scotland.

In the more northern climates, the oat enjoys the climate, requiring more moisture and humidity than wheat to grow well, especially in early summer. In the wild, the oat is a natural lowland plant, typically growing at elevations up to 280 metres or so.

Oats are one of the seed crops absolutely suited to growing in temperate zones such as Britain. Although the wild form is reasonably common in Britain, the chances of seeing cultivated oats growing in your garden are pretty slim, although it can occasionally be spotted by roadsides having escaped cultivation, as well as in alleyways and such like.

Wild oats will often be found populating agricultural land and meadows, as well as roadsides and waste-grounds, here in Britain and throughout Northern Europe.

The cultivated oats (A.sativa) has a smooth stem and grows to roughly 90 cm high when flowering (compared to the wild oat which often reaches 140-160 cm high). Both plants have linear-lanceolate, parallel veined, rough leaves.

The flowers of both species are borne on loose spreading panicles which form sizeable, pendulous spikelets that eventually contain pale gold / brown seeds. It is these seeds that are instantly recognisable to many people when in their processed forms of rolled oats and oatmeal.

Parts used – Seed and straw.

Harvest – Seeds when ripe; straw following harvest.

Key constituents – Saponins; flavonoids; minerals (magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, calcium); alkaloids; steroidal compounds; vitamins B1, B2, D, E; carotene, avenanthramide, gluten; starch; fat.

Actions – Nervine-restorative, relaxant, nutritive, mild diuretic, lipid- lowering, hypoglycaemic.

Pharmacology and Uses – Until recently, oats might have been seen as the poor relation amongst the cereals due to a reputation for having a poorer nutritive profile than wheat or barley.

The dried grain contains more moisture than most other cereals, and is prone to going rancid more quickly than wheat, for example. For this reason, the Romans apparently only fed oats to horses, and even today, only 4-5% of all oats grown are for human consumption.

However, recent research has begun to reveal the outstanding nutritional / medicinal benefits to be gleaned from eating oats. One of which is a potential lifesaver…the carbohydrate fibre, ‘beta-glucan’.

Oats and beta glucan

Oats, oat bran, and the various grades of oatmeal available all contain beta-glucan. Since 1963, study after study has proven the beneficial effects of this special fibre on our cholesterol levels.

Research has established that for individuals with high cholesterol, consuming just 3 grams of soluble oat fibre per day (an amount found in one bowl of oatmeal) typically lowers total cholesterol by 8-23%. This is significant since each 1% drop in cholesterol levels reportedly translates to an approximate 2% decrease in the risk of developing heart disease.

A number of studies have reliably determined that beta-glucan also has beneficial effects for sufferers of diabetes. Research carried out by the Optimum Nutrition Institute of London (pioneers in modern nutritional health care) and other similar research organisations, has regularly reported that people with Type 2 diabetes given foods high in this type of oat fibre (or oatmeal or oat bran rich foods), experienced much lower rises in blood sugar compared to those who were given white rice or bread.

Beta-glucan also significantly enhances the human immune system’s response to bacterial infection. As well as helping our neutrophils (the most abundant type of non-specific immune cell) navigate to the site of an infection more quickly, beta-glucan also enhances their ability to eliminate bacteria they find there.

Oats and cholesterol

Oats enable the production, assimilation and transportation of high-density-lipo-proteins (HDL), popularly called ‘good cholesterol’. As a result, oats are a great preventative medicine. Lipo-proteins enable cholesterol and tri-gycerides to be transported in the bloodstream. HDL are the smallest and most dense of the five major groups of lipo-proteins.

Up to 30% of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL. Cholesterol deposited within an arterial atheroma (see cardiovascular chapter) is now believed to be removed by HDL and transported away to the liver for excretion or re-use.

This contrasts to low-density-lipo-proteins (LDL), which are known as ‘bad cholesterol’ because high levels in the blood can penetrate the endothelium (lining of artery walls), and initiate the beginning of plaque deposits. ‘Statin’ drugs are frequently prescribed to patients with high levels of LDL.

Furthermore, low levels of HDL in the diet will mean that cholesterol transport in the blood becomes inefficient, and allows for an increasing build up of cholesterol in the vessel wall. This can quickly lead to cardio-vascular diseases, for which other common herbs to to help were documented in my article on herbs to help the cardio vascular system.

Oxidation of LDL also results in severe vascular damage. Commonly, ageing individuals have a reduced internal production of anti-oxidants. A recent discovery from oats reveals that a reduction of LDL oxidation and other cardio-protective actions has been documented for the polyphenol avenanthramide, which suggests oats will protect against the common cardio-vascular disease, atherosclerosis. Avenanthramide is only found in oats.

The grain and the straw are recognised as excellent nerve tonics. The oat can assist recovery from nervous exhaustion due to stress, depression, and lethargy; even helping us to cope better in difficult emotional times by acting as a daily preventative medicine. Other herbs to help the nervous system will be found in this article in the reclaiming health autonomy series

Oats as a healing food par excellence

As a nervine restorative food, oat seeds are quite simply…super! Imagine the glutinous oats soothing frayed nerve endings. These simple grains nourish, protect and help restore correct nervous function.

Oatmeal, when moistened and applied topically will also be useful in relieving itching from rashes such as chicken pox, eczema, cold sores, and shingles.

Oat straw has traditional use in a tea to promote bone health due to its mineral content. Oats and other whole grains are a rich source of magnesium – a mineral that acts as a ‘co-factor’ for more than 300 enzymes, including enzymes involved in the body’s use of glucose, as well as insulin secretion.

Co-factors are molecules needed by enzymes for a number of reasons, such as to enable transportation between cells or within the bloodstream, or for creating specific molecular shapes required to reach various targets in the body, and sometimes simply in order for the enzyme to function correctly.

Rolled oats are a good source of calcium for pregnant women and nursing mothers. This is because they help guarantee that mum’s calcium store in her skeleton does not get depleted by the demands of the growing baby.

“When young, sow wild oats…When old, grow sage”

Oats are also a very good source of selenium. This trace element is a necessary co-factor of an important antioxidant, glutathione peroxidase, and works together with vitamin E in numerous, vital anti-oxidant systems throughout the body ncluding sperm production in the testes.

Vitamin E is also known as ‘tocopherol’, from the Greek word ‘toco’ for birth and is vital for the proper production of sperm. This vitamin is found in profusion in green leaves as well as nuts, grains, and seeds.

Low levels of vitamin E are known to lead to low sperm count. In addition, selenium is involved in our body’s repairing of DNA, (Deoxyribonucleic acid, our genetic code), and has also been repeatedly associated with reducing the risk of cancer, especially cancer of the colon.

Now, will you be having porridge for breakfast tomorrow?

Garlic and wild garlic

Wild garlic, Bulb garlic

Allium ursinum, Allium sativum

Liliacea family


Only comparatively recently have the British public embraced garlic, a plant renowned globally for its culinary uses.
Before the 1980’s it wasn’t used anything like it is today.

In this discussion I deal with the similar culinary and medicinal aspects of both our native wild garlic (A.ursinum), commonly known as ‘ramsons’, and the better known medicinal food, bulb-garlic (A.sativum).

Although you won’t come across the bulb-garlic in the wild in Britain, it can be easily grown and acquired most everywhere, and is truly medicinal food, so, warrants inclusion in any discussion on the medicinal prowess of Alliums.

If you are yet to discover the carpets of wild garlic in British woodlands in early spring or to grow any in your garden, where have you been? In any case, you will want to soon after reading this!

The garlic’s are some of the many thousands of lilly family members, grouped together in a large genus comprising no fewer than 700 species of bulbous and rhizomous biennials and perennials.

They are native to the northern hemisphere, and are believed to have originated in Asia. Bulb garlic is certainly one of the most ancient of medicinal herbs, documented in Babylonian times (c.3000 BC), and found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (c.1370-52 BC).

Botanical description to help identify garlic

Both the bulb-garlic and its wild version are naturally biennial, taking two years to complete their life cycle. Bulb garlic is usually propagated from the individual cloves of the bulbs and grown over one ‘season’. In this respect, we grow bulb garlic as an annual crop in the garden.

Bulb garlic’s leaves are thin lanceolate blades, of a dark green hue, although not as large as their relative, the leek (Allium porum), which has a blue-green look to the foliage. Unlike the onion (A.cepa), bulb-garlic’s leaves are not cylindrical or hollow.

All Allium leaves have parallel veins on either side of the mid-rib, ad-pressed somewhat and creating a creased-blade effect. Bulb garlic can grow up to 45 cm high, although during flowering, the terminal spike can reach up to 75 cm.

The wild garlic is a similarly pungent plant to the cultivated bulb-garlic, but looks very different in appearance. It begins to poke out its leaves from small underground bulbs during the first, warmer and longer days of January.

In some shady areas the large succulent leaf stalks on ramsons will be up to 25 cm in length, even before broadening out into their lanceolate leaf shape. The actual blade is approximately 6-7 cm wide and commonly around 25 cm long.

Care should be taken before harvesting that you have identified the plant correctly, as wild garlic has a couple of similar looking plants.

As with all edible wild plants, we get at least three opportunities to ensure we have the right plant. First is the point of harvesting, second is during preparation of the material, and third is before adding to the pot or pan.

Make sure you aren’t harvesting the poisonous look-a-likes known as lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), or Lily-of-the-valley. The former is far more common than the latter. Both can be found in woodland habitats.

Lords and ladies will grow amongst wild garlic, but has arrow shaped leaves with two rounded lobes at the base of the leaf, as well as having a net-veined leaf pattern, which helps easily distinguish it from ramsons when looking closely. Knowing and observing this will save you from disaster if soley listening to that often heard advice about “…if it smells like garlic, it is garlic”.

Anyone who has handled ramsons, will know that the garlic smell will easily transfer onto your fingers ,and therefore it is possible to hold a leaf of lords and ladies to your nose and smell garlic! Far better to learn how to identify each plant!

Lily-of-the-valley on the other hand, has leaves that are pretty much the same shape as wild garlic, although without the long, alost transparent leaf stalk, or the clump habit that ramsons does, plus it has a very different inflorescence. I’ve not actually come across ramsons and lily-of-the-valley together, but that’s not to say I won’t tomorrow!

Ramsons is indicative of ancient woodland, and easily found throughout March and April where it often creates extensive carpets, at least it does in woodland in the more western and southern areas of Britain. It can be found at altitudes up to 450 metres.

Ramsons is an ephemeral bulb, flowering before the woodland canopy trees are fully open in spring. Typically their flowers open and set seed from April through May, with seeds maturing late June to July. Its dormancy period is during our summer time and this is the best time to harvest the underground bulbs. These are relatively small, coloured a light creamy-white, approximately 5 cm long and 1 cm wide.

The flowers are a creamy-white colour, sat on solitary, terminal stems. The small, star-like individual flowers are borne into an overall spherical shape. The unripe green seeds swell in late spring. These are excellent eaten green and raw, being fleshy, crunchy, and exuding garlic aromas and tastes.

Parts used….. Raw cloves are best, as they maintain all the medicinal potency which otherwise rapidly diminishes with cooking. For medicinal use, the advice will always be to use raw cloves. Leaves of wild garlic can be picked as soon as found in the early spring.

Harvest….. Bulb-garlic: When leaves turn yellow around mid-late July, dependent on region. Wild garlic: leaves; Feb-April. Flower buds; March-April. Flowers: March-May. Green seeds; April-may. Black seeds; May-June. Bulbs; June-December

Key constituents.…. Garlic cloves: Volatile oil (containing alliin, which after crushing or chewing is enzymatically converted to alliciin, one of the major active components of garlic); germanium; selenium; saponins; mucilage; amino acids.

Actions…… Anti-bacterial, anti-septic, anti-fungal, anti-viral, expectorant (due in part to the mucilage), anti-platelet, anthelmintic, hypo-lipidaemic, vaso-dilatory.

Pharmacology and uses of garlic….. Much of the pharmacological activity of this plant stems from the many acrid, volatile sulphurous compounds. They are known to inhibit cholesterol synthesis as well as fatty acid and triglyceride synthesis.

Therefore, regular use leads to less chance of fatty deposits on artery walls, and with it, less chance to develop the serious condition – atherosclerosis.

Anti-oxidant effects have been shown in animals (in vivo) and the test tube (in vitro). Garlic enhances the activity of free radical scavenging enzymes such as superoxide dismutase, whilst protecting lipo-proteins from oxidation. Both these factors point to its use in treating conditions such as atherosclerosis.

Bulb garlic is known as ‘lashuna’ in ayervedic medicine, being used for whooping cough, heart trouble, flatulence, dyspepsia and colic.
Immuno-stimulatory actions have been recorded for high-molecular weight proteins extracted from Garlic.

These reportedly stimulate the activity and production of some of our immune system defence cells known as macrophages, lymphocytes, and natural killer cells.

Another long-standing and well documented traditional use of garlic is as an expectorant, to help clear coughs and colds. The saponins are almost always linked to this effect.

Garlic is also used in dietary control of diabetes and hypoglycaemia because of the resultant improvement in pancreatic abilities to produce insulin.

Ramsons also contain alliciin, so will therefore be anti-septic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory, just somewhat milder so. Throughout the countryside in southern parts of Britain and Ireland, wild garlic has been noted as good at defeating coughs, colds and other ailments.

“Nine diseases shiver before the garlic”, was a saying in Sligo, Ireland, only 100 years ago. This points to the faith people placed in the herb to ward off many illnesses. This belief may have been reinforced during the 1918 global flu pandemic, when people carried around a clove in their pocket for protection. Garlic kills vampires remember!

Alliums thin the blood and will interact with aspirin, and could increase bleeding, as well as interacting with HIV drugs such as protease inhibitors. It also interacts with ‘warfarin’, and may potentiate the drug as well as increasing the chances of internal bleeding. More than 5 grams of garlic per day when taking warfarin can reportedly lead to problems.

The fiery nature of garlic brings with it some contra-indications for use. Namely, conditions of chronic or acute stomach inflammation, and low thyroid activity.

The compound allicin is responsible for many effects as well as the much documented anti-microbial effects. Many harmful micro-organisms are destroyed by Garlics, including Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Proteus and Salmonella spp.

The bulb is a very useful source of selenium, This particular element can assist the body in cleansing itself of toxic heavy metals, as well as protecting the cardio-vascular system in a numbe of ways.

As a food, wild garlic lends itself very well to a pesto, in place of bulb garlic. It also goes well in white sauces with fish, and as a salad leaf, chopped as you would chives.

Raw wild garlic can add an extra healthy punch to the salad bowl. To reduce the strong flavour, just blanch slightly, or steam for a minute or two.

The leaves, leaf stalks, flower stems, flower buds, green seeds, and bulbs, can all be preserved by lacto-fermentation (my favourite method of preserving food, using salt and water) and I rate these plant parts really highly when treated this way.

The bulbs will stink when preserved as a ferment, but after a few months their flavour mellows to something similar to roast garlic.

The flowers make an interesting garnish, especially if dried, when their flavour takes on something akin to cheese and onion crisps!

I have yet to make a dried garlic seed / peppercorn mix, but nevertheless, ideas such as this encapsulate the beauty of finding your own food plants and playing with different parts of plants we already know. Through these experiments, we can rediscover ancient flavours of the countryside by creating new recipes or adapting old ones.

More could be written, and more will be discovered, if you trawl the web. These medicinal food plants are quite simply, super!

Burdock Monograph for foragers.

Arctium lappa / Arctium minus


Asteraceae family

Burdock in flower in the summer, produced the inspiration for velcro.


The first few times you are out foraging burdock, you may not notice the differences. Although appearing as one species when first meeting them, these two burdock species will reveal differences that become increasingly evident as you get to know them.

The greater burdock (Arctium lappa) and lesser burdock (Arctium minus) both have a long-standing tradition of use as a medicine and food.

These two plants belong to a genus of about 10 species. The generic name Arctium apparently comes from the Greek- arktos, meaning bear, which alludes to the rough coated fruits.

The specific name of the greater burdock – lappa, is derived from the Latin word- lappare- to seize, referring to the clinging ability of the burs. It is this unfailing ability to attach to passing fur or clothes that allegedly gave a Swiss scientist- George de Mestral, the idea for Velcro during 1948. His idea is an example of ‘bio-mimickry’, or man copiying nature’s designs.

The species name for lesser burdock – minus, relates to a number of size differences between these two species when compared with each other, be this leaf size or fruiting stalk size.

The other notable difference between species can be seen in the leaf stalks, which on the lesser burdock are hollow, but on the greater burdock are solid.

Today burdock may possibly be best known as one half of the once popular spring tonic drink, ‘dandelion and burdock’. However, it is probably more widely known by gardeners as an imposing and commonly found weed.

Habitats to look in when foraging burdock

In the wild, burdock’s thrive near hedges, on roadside verges, on waste-grounds and old building sites, as well as liking the edges of cultivated fields and sunny spots in woodland edges. Burdocks are essentially lowland plants and will be found at elevations no higher than about 390 metres.

Botanical description to help identification when foraging burdock

Burdocks grow as a rosette in their first year, before flowering in the second. The leaf shape can be classified as broadly ovate, or cordate, with wavy, undulating margins.

The leaf grows to around 45 cm long and 30 cm wide, although growing larger in shady spots. They have relatively wide and long petioles. White-pinkish leaf veins run on an approximate 45˚ angle parallel to the rose-pink mid-vein. Underneath, the leaves are of a much lighter colour.

The Burdocks have erect, branched, flowering stems that will reach 150 cm or so tall, and are conspicuous for their spiky flowers. The individually delicate, purple or rose-pink flowers are produced in a composite flower head, borne on terminal clusters and much like the inflorescence of a thistle. Discover more about a fast track to foraging success with my article on the patterns method of identification.

The colour we see in the flowers emanates from the numerous stamens. Burdocks’ flowers can grow to 4 cm across and wither to leave the common ‘burs’ that are deeply ingrained in many childhood memories. These are easily collected unawares on clothing or in hair when playing and tramping through unkempt land.

Parts used
Root mainly used for medicine in Britain. Leaves, flowers (in Chinese medicine) and seeds are also used.

Roots: in the autumn or spring. Leaves: before flowering. Flowers, when first opening. Seeds, when ripe.

Key constituents
Acids (including butyric acid, linoleic acid, linolenic acid, oleic acid); aldehydes (including isovaleraldehyde, valeraldehyde); carbohydrates (including up to 45% inulin, mucilage, pectin, sugars, fats); volatile oils (including sesquiterpene lactones); bitters (lappatin); resin; phytosterols (stigmasterol and sitosterol); tannins.

Detoxifying, alterative, lymphatic and blood purifier.

Pharmacology and uses
Burdocks have numerous uses. These are examples of very common planta, previously much used in days gone by, now little employed and subsequently with scarce available scientific literature to back up any traditional uses.

Burdocks are used medicinally in most continents where they are naturalised. For the last 200 years or so, burdock has been chiefly employed in this country as an alterative medicine.

Whole burdock extract has been reported to cause a sharp reduction in blood sugar levels. The roots and leaves are recognised diuretics and hypo-glycaemics. The compound arctiin is a C.N.S stimulant and muscle relaxant as well as being anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal. The anti-microbial activity is attributable to bitter components. A summary of medicinal plant constituents is provided in my article here.

Internally burdock has been traditionally used as a treatment for a number of skin diseases and disorders, as well as inflammatory conditions. These include: eczema, psoriasis, rheumatism, gout, and boils. Topically applied, the leaves are similarly used for a host of dermatological problems.

Burdock helps our general elimination processes by assisting the liver function, the circulation, and through the elimination of toxins via the kidneys, urine, and skin. It can therefore assist all manner of skin disorders, such as acne and boils.

In Chinese medicine, the seeds are used for similar conditions and are also employed to treat colds, pneumonia, and throat infections.

Although currently out of fashion in this country, burdock has had a long-standing use as a food plant. In Japan this is still the case where it is known as a prized vegetable and ingredient of the staple dish ‘gobo’. A number of different burdock cultivars are commercially grown in the far-east. The long taproots from one year old plants are harvested by digging up in the autumn or early spring.

The well-known dandelion and burdock soft drink, made from the roots, is a useful springtime cleansing tonic formerly taken in many counties in Britain, especially in Northern England.

Burdock’s long petioles and immature pre-budding flowering stems can also be eaten, when blanched to reduce bitterness and fibrousness. They will need the outer skin peeled off beforehand.

I prefer the flowering stems, and will make a wild food chutney in the summer using these stems, alongside hogweed and willow herbs.


Red clover monograph

Red Clover – Trifolium pratense – Fabaceae family.

Red clover is one of numerous leguminous plants to grow on the British Isles. Found almost everywhere, red clover helps feed the soil as well as us. Although only small in stature, this little member of the pea family could have a big role to play in our lives.

Red clover has long been used by people around the world, both as a food and medicine – we know it has been used in the ‘Western world’ since ‘classical’ times, but surely for far longer where-ever indigenous cultures have known of it.

It is a plant in the large genus Trifolium, alongside approximately 300 other species. Believed to have originated in Asia, red clover has spread far and wide through cultivation and passage on boats. This self-fertilising plant is now naturalised in most parts of the world.

The generic name literally translates from the Latin as ‘three-leaved’. The specific name pratense, is a much used scientific plant name for a plant and denotes the favourite habitat of meadows and fields.

The red clover can be found almost everywhere! Commonly on roadsides, hedge-banks, waste-grounds, and grassy areas in urban settings. Variably erect or low-growing, this perennial herb typically reaches 10-40 cm high and grows happily up to altitudes of 850 metres.Four leaved clovers find the lucky!

Well known by many for its trefoil appearance, on inspection the red clover has grey-green elliptical-oval leaflets with serrated margins. These typically reach 10-30 mm long. A more or less crescent-shaped white marking dominates the centre of the leaflet.

A distinctive feature of the species, aside from their trifoliate leaves, are the mainly globose, or oval shape of the flower heads. The red clover flower heads are approximately 30 mm long. The individual flowers are pink-purple coloured.

In the wild you may notice a variation in size of red clover leaves and flower heads. This is because many of the red clover varieties which escaped cultivation were bred to produce larger leaves and flowers. As with all peas, the individual flowers have their petals arranged in the characteristic banner, wings, and keel arrangement.

The whole plant is hairy, which is an identification key between this particular clover and others in the clover tribe. If you are serious about learning to identify plants then using the easy-to-remember patterns method can fast track your foraging fun.

When unearthed, the roots of clover are seen to be fibrous and will reveal tiny little swellings on them. These nodules are sites of bacterial infection by specialist bacteria.

They work symbiotically with the host plant and fix nitrogen gas from the atmosphere, all the while making it available in the soil to the host plant.

A number of different plant families have root / bacterial associations. The leguminous plants are by far the biggest family with this adaptation.

You may well find red clover flowering away on two occasions during the year. The first time is from May-June and then potentially once again in September.

Some authors have noted only to harvest red clover from the late spring / early summer appearance – due to the presence of possibly toxic substances in the flowers in the late summer. For absolute peace of mind, you may wish to do the same.

Parts used
Flowers. Leaves.

Flowers: Late April-June. Leaves: Spring is best. Click here for more fantastic wild foods of spring

Key constituents
Coumarins; isoflavones (genistein, pratensein); vitamin E; flavonoids; phenolic glycosides; salicylates; cyanogenic glycosides.

Anti-coagulant, alterative, lymphatic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, oeastrogenic activity, expectorant, anti-spasmodic.

Pharmacology and uses
Some herbalists have called this robust little herb the ‘chief plant remedy’ for treating cancers. Since the 1930’s, interest has heightened over reports of red clover’s reported anti-cancer activity.

The discovery of the molecule genistein in red clover (found originally in the Gentiana genus) provoked renewed interest and research into a plant seemingly fit until then only for cattle fodder.

Red clover has had long standing use as an alterative herb, and with it, a reputation for helping to thin the blood. It is much valued for helping to clear cysts, and shift blocked, stagnating toxins, in specific lymphatic glands, most of which are in the neck.

This activity is partly due to the presence of blood thinning coumarin molecules, which are discussed in my article on medicinal plant constituents. Red clover’s coumarins assist the treatment of various skin disorders. Authors have referred to red clover as one of the most useful remedies for children with skin problems.

This plant has a long standing traditional indication for acne and eczema. It may also prove helpful in cases of psoriasis, especially when used in conjunction with other herbs, such as chickweed.

Red clover can help with symptoms and causes of the menopause. The isoflavones found in both clover and alfalfa, are widely believed to be responsible for helping to reduce hot flushes.

Other flavonoid-rich plants, with their noted strengthening and toning action on the blood vessels, can also help. Research has shown that a mere 40-80mg of red clover isoflavones per day, reduced the occurrence of unpleasant effects of menopause.

Many centuries of use have acknowledged the expectorant and anti-spasmodic actions, and ensure clover continues to have a role in treating coughs, bronchitis and whooping coughs. Respiratory herbs are discussed in my ‘reclaiming health autonomy’ article.

There are no adverse reactions recorded for red clover use, although practitioner advice is needed if already on anti-coagulant medication.

The most simple way of using red clover is eating it, but when thinking of it as a medicine, we’re thinking infusions, from the flowers. They can also be made into a tincture in alcohol or glycerine for preserving.

As a food, both the leaves and flowers are good in salads. The small flowers make an excellent garnish. Native American Indians are known to have eaten the leaves. Cordials and syrups can be made from the flowers.

In a wider Agro-ecological perspective, this plant is great for wildlife and soil. Bees love it! The red clover offers us a number of yields above and beyond food and medicine.

Sown as an annual in spring or early autumn, this is a non-creeping, nitrogen-fixing ground cover suitable for a range of polyculture in gardens, allotments, permaculture and Agro-forestry systems.

Foraging dandelion. From Arabia to Myddfai

Foraging Dandelion for food and medicine

Dandelion fairy clock seed heads are embedded into our consciousness, just as the dandelions are in the countryside.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg). Asteraceae family

Not only is dandelion one of our most commonly found flowers here in Britain, it is one of the most useful. They will be easily recognised by almost everyone, which makes them one of the best plants to start your foraging adventures.

A classic sight when foraging dandelion in autumn and winter. Rosettes of deeply divided leaves, alluding to lions teeth - hence 'dent-de-lion'
Rosettes of deeply divided leaves, the lobes allude to lions teeth – hence ‘dent-de-lion’

Its dented or deeply-toothed leaves, bright yellow flowers and spherical fairy seed clocks are as much ingrained in childhood memories as they are embedded in our countryside.

Dandelion is one of our most accessible and highly esteemed medicinal plants. It has been used for centuries to treat the urinary system and the liver.

Some writers have discussed the possibility that the Arab alchemist-apothecary physicians are likely candidates to have introduced this plant’s medicinal virtues (along with many others) to the famed Welsh herbal healers of the 13th century, the ‘Myddfai’ physicians of Glamorgan.

The ‘Myddfai’ tradition of traditional herb-lore drew its name and emanated from a small village in Glamorgan, South Wales, where a physician during the 13th century called Rhiwallon became famed for his prowess with herbs, honey, roots, and waters.

Rhiwallon is said to have passed on his knowledge only to his
sons, and thereby a word of mouth lineage began which is reported to have finally ended with the last known descendent dying in Aberystwyth in 1842.

Dandelion is thought to have originated in Asia. The generic name Taraxacum is believed to have come from the Persian name – ‘Tarakhsaqun’, a name reportedly bestowed on its close relative chicory (Chicorium intybus). The specific name officinale points to its use as an official apothecary herb.

Dandelion is but one of 60 or so species within the genus of perennial plants found mostly in the northern temperate zones, as well as some temperate climates in South America. The plant prefers moist soils in pastures, meadows, lawns, waysides and waste places up and down the land. It grows happily as far north as the arctic regions at altitudes up to around 1200 metres.

Dandelion is such a common plant it hardly needs a description here. However, it can often be mistaken for some of its almost look-a-like close relatives that also grow in Britain. These include the ‘hawkweeds’ and the ‘hawkbits’ which often have similar, indented leaves on them, although these plants are usually more hairy with smaller yellow flowers.

The more you go foraging dandelion, the more you will see them as a collection of subtly distinct sub-species

Dandelion is technically another aggregate species, (group of closely related sub species) and the variability in leaf shape testifies to this. It can change from almost fully lanceolate, having mere ripples rather than dents at the leaf edge, to what is classed as deeply pinnatifid, with 3-6 often backwards pointing lobes likened to lions teeth. It is this shape that is recognised by most of us as the classic dandelion leaf shape, and gives rise to one of its French common names ‘dent-de-lion’.

Dandelions are perennial plants with deep tap-roots, always growing as a ground level rosette of leaves, right the way through flowering. From the centre of the rosette comes it’s single, hairless, terminal flowering stem, upon which sits the well-known golden yellow flower. The smooth, hollow stem is a specific feature for you to distinguish dandelion from some of its look-a-likes. The stem and leaves exude a bitter tasting milky-white sap when broken.

The inflorescence is made up of 200 or more individual, strap-like, yellow,ray florets, each giving way in turn to the spherical mass of the familiar ‘fairy clock’ pappus holding the seeds. We’ve all seen the seeds fly on the wind and know how they travel far and wide.

Dandelion’s long tapering taproot enables it to successfully mine for nutrients in the sub-soil, especially for potassium. It can accumulate nearly five times more potassium within its root storage cells than most other plants!

Parts used: Leaves, roots, flower buds, flowers

Harvest: Roots are best in autumn for medicine; spring for food. Leaves best young from late winter-early spring and in the late summer months. Small Leaves are less bitter, as are leaves from specimens with red mid-veins. Flower buds when they appear and are tight. Flowers as and when.

Key constituents: Carotenoids; sesquiterpene lactones; tri-terpenes; tannins; volatile oil; phyto-sterols; Vitamins A, B, C, D; taraxcoside; calcium; potassium (approx 4%).

Diuretic, cholertic, saluretic, bitter, aperient, mild laxative, liver-tonic.

Pharmacology and uses
Dandelion has surprisingly not been subjected to much pharmacological research by drug companies. Notwithstanding the lack of scientific evidence; this plant remains a cornerstone of western herbal medicine. You will often find dandelion in health food stores and herbal shops as an ingredient in a number of patent medicines.

Together with the elder tree and nettles, dandelions are the wild herbs most popularly employed in folk medicines in Britain.

Dandelion leaves contain very high concentrations of potassium, an important mineral salt. When taken as a diuretic remedy, the body increases its stores of potassium

This plant (leaf) has been chiefly employed as a diuretic. The French and English common names ‘piss-en-lit’ and ‘piss-a-bed’ gives us a clue to dandelion’s efficacy!

Dandelion’s specific diuretic action is known as saluretic. These types of diuretics are medicinally valuable because potassium salts are always lost in urine.

Many prescribed diuretic herbs will deplete reserves of this important nutrient in the body. Yet because of the large amounts of potassium dandelion contains, levels in the body actually increase when taking it.

Compare this to taking pharmaceutical diuretic drugs which often require the taking of potassium supplements or worse, potassium blocking drugs!

So-called ‘potassium sparing’ pharmaceutical diuretics act either by antagonising the hormone aldosterone (which stimulates sodium reabsorption in the kidneys) or by blocking sodium channels (thereby reducing potassium secretion).

An example of an aldosterone antagonist is ‘spironolactone’, the use of which is now limited due to carcinogenicity in rats. ‘Amiloride’ is a sodium channel blocker. Both of these drugs may cause severe hyperkalemia (high blood potassium levels).

Dandelion root is much used as a bitter tonic in a-tonic dyspepsia, and as a mild laxative in habitual constipation. Tests have repeatedly shown the root to increase bile secretion. It has also traditionally been used as a treatment for jaundice and rheumatism.

The German Commission E approved use of the root for disturbance of bile flow, stimulation of diuresis, loss of appetite and dyspepsia.

Dandelion’s milky white sap can be used to treat veruca’s and warts. Simply snap a flowering stem and topically apply the latex.

As a preventative measure, all people who suffer from allergic hypersensitivity are advised to undergo consultation with someone who knows about these things.

Caution should also be exercised if you are thinking of taking dandelion in cases where gallstones are thought to be present, because the action of this plant in increasing bile secretion may aggravate.

Dandelion has been contra-indicated by herbalists in conditions such as acute stomach inflammation as well as bile duct closure.

More reasons to go foraging dandelion…                Traditional & contemporary culinary uses.

The leaves are increasingly popular as a salad vegetable. Usually this will be ‘red-ribbed dandelion’, which is in fact a variety of chicory (Chicorium intybus). You can also sometimes find blanched dandelion leaves that have been forced (grown without light). Both of these salad plants taste much less bitter than wild dandelion.

In the Eastern mediterranean sea area, especially Greece, Dandelion greens are loved. Traditionally, int he Spring months people will go out foraging dandelions and other wild spring greens, then cook them by boiling, and toss in  with some other aromatic herbs, such as Parsley and Basil.

When cooked like this and dressed in olive oil, salt, and lemon juice, dandelions are refreshingly tasty. Many restaurants and regions have their own twist on the dish they call ‘horta greens’, but dandelion seems to

One of the most popularly advised food uses is as a coffee substitute. This can be made from roasted, ground roots and is seemingly much liked, judging by its appearance in almost every health food store.

Dandelion also has documented use as a famine vegetable; whereby the roots were boiled and or roasted. I think this is massively underplaying its uses as a food. Most of the bitterness of the root can be leached out by soaking in cold water for 24 hours or so, beore parboiling and then roasting in oil or butter.

Treated like this, the outer skin will caramelise, and the inner flesh should turn gloopy and sweet, as the inulin converts to fructose, just like the flesh of its relative – jerusalem artichokes. A really good root to eat.

The flower buds can be picked when young and made into a caper substitute. Flowers have long been used in making country wines. They are also a good garnish, offering little thin ribbons of colour in salads.

Harvesting Wild Plants – A short guide

A Guide to harvesting wild plants for food and medicine.

How to harvest wild plants

Firstly it’s important to say that when harvesting wild plants, you should make sure that all leaves, flowers, roots, and seeds are always of the usual colour for that given species.

Do not use any blackened, mouldy, miscoloured or otherwise damaged material. Handle plants carefully to avoid bruising and spoiling delicate leaves.

The cutting of stems should ideally be done with sharp secateurs or a knife,just above a node, which allows the dormant buds below to spring forth, and offers little chance of the dead stem rotting and infecting the plant. When using whole plants, harvest just before flowering, cutting the plant at ground level. On perennial plants, take just some of the growth, thereby allowing the plant to flower.

Flowers Aromatic flowers are best harvested just before fully opening, on dry mornings, to ensure their maximum potency.. Some species can be harvested continuously over a number of days or weeks.

If the flowers are clustered on a multi-branching stem, like yarrow (Achillea millefolium) or elder, then cut the whole stem and snip off the flowers later. Always remove as much stem as possible from the flowers before use.

Seeds can be harvested simply by placing a paper bag over the ripe seed-head. The head can be shaken immediately or left for a few days in good weather to drop naturally. Or, cut the stem and hang the plant upside down and leave for a few days.

Fruits should be harvested when almost ripe. For plants such as rowans and elderberries, cut the whole stem, then strip at home leaving minimal stalk. Sea buckthorn and other juicy berries can be harvested on the stem, which after cutting should be frozen and then the berries can be gathered. Dewberries sit on a little ‘cocktail stick’ stalk. Harvest this and discard after eating/using.

Barks are typically harvested in spring when the sap rises, because at this time it will peel away especially easily. However, evergreen and conifer barks can be harvested all year round, and some people may also harvest barks in autumn, Once again the bark is pretty easy to remove. Branches from specimens 3- 5 years old are suitable for many medicinal barks such as cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) and oak (Quercus spp).

The age of woody branches can be deduced by tracing back the number of the visible scars on the branches known as the abscission points. These appear as closely bound ripples on the stem and are produced where previously buds formed and burst on the preceding year’s growth.

Generally, the inner bark will be required for medicine. Essentially, this is where the plants vascular system is found, and consists of the actively dividing cambium layer of cells and its two distinct networks; the xylem and the phloem.

The xylem cells connect the roots to the rest of the plant, whilst the phloem connects the leaves to the rest of the plant. In any woody plant species, the cambium layer of cells in the stem, branch, or trunk, always continue to generate new cells, steadily increasing the plants girth.

The newest xylem cells are situated on one side of the cambium, towards the centre of the trunk or branch, whilst the phloem cells are situated just the other side, nearest to the bark, consisting of soft, corky tissue.

When barks you want to be taking the softer phloem, cambium layer, and new xylem cells, as this will contain the widest array of constituents. Inner barks should easily peel away when harvested in spring. Never peel bark away in complete circles around branches, for above this point the tree will die. Never remove bark from the main trunk.

Roots are mentioned in most herbal medicine books as being available to harvest either in the autumn or spring. I tend to favour the autumn for harvesting perennial roots, as this is when the plant returns to dormancy and has higher concentrations of nutrients and other medicinal components.

Early in the spring, (if and when you can find it!) the plant is already using up its storage reserves as it re-emerges from winter slumber. For busy people with hectic lives, much of our choice will be pre-determined by time allowances. “So, harvest whenever you can” – is still the advice I would give to busy people, making them aware of potential shortcomings from possibly reduced concentrations of certain constituents.

The roots of biennial plants are best harvested at the end of their first year. Tap-rooted plants will need substantial digging and coercion to remove the root intact. For fibrous rooted plants, mark out a broad circle around the plant base, then dig out a clod on the circle line, and shake loose the roots.

Leaves can be thought of as the most renewable of our plant resources. Many of the plants listed here can be returned to on a number of occasions throughout the year in order to gather fresh new leaves in a ‘cut-and-come again’ fashion, usually employed by gardeners.

The action of pinching out the growing tops of a plant, directly above a node, encourages it to rapidly produce more leaves from hitherto dormant lateral buds. Never strip any plant of all its leaves as this will either weaken the plant through stress, enabling pests and diseases to gain a foothold, or the plant may set seed prematurely, which only serves to weaken the genetic gene pool of that particular species. The golden rule is to take a few leaves from a number of plants at any given site.

Younger leaves are best, as they are far more succulent, and this especially applies to our tree leaves, such as beech, hawthorn, and lime trees. All these are good in salads at certain times of the spring. Some edible leaves are much more bitter raw, if they grow in full sun. Harvesting from plants which grow more in the shade alleviates this. Many leaves that are unpalatable raw are transformed when cooked.

New leaves of certain herbaceous plants appear as spears. These stem / leaf shoots are produced by larger plants such as hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), sea-kale (Crambe maritima) and japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica).

These spears are very succulent and tasty, and some of the best wild plant food to be had. Pre-flowering stems are similarly succulent when harvested correctly.

I think it is trickier to correctly time the harvest of pre-flowering stems than it is to harvest new leaf shoots, and only experience of the species in question, alongside knowledge about the idiosyncrasies of a particular micro-climate can help you get accustomed to when is the best time to harvest.

Take cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) or alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) pre-flowering stems as examples. When bang-on; being soft and young, they are lovely, after peeling the outer skin off. However, they soon develop rigidity, and with it, fibrousness, thereby becoming inedible.

Foragers would do well to examine the life of the esteemed herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654). He was a botanist, astrologer, apothecary-physician of the poor, and a prolific writer on medicine during his short life. He was by default a forager of some skill and expertise to have known as many plants as he did.

For example, his ‘Physical Directory’ (published 1648) discussed more than 300 species, of which the vast majority were easily found in Britain’s countryside. Over the course of a few years he noted (whilst treating thousands of poor people in the East end of London for free) the increased virtues of plant medicines when collected from the preferred habitats they delight to grow in. If at all possible, his advice is still worth following when you go out harvesting plants.

Foragers also have a moral duty to ensure that plant resources are not diminished in their local areas, and given the fact that foragers get to know their know their area well, they are also in a position to actively conserve and promote plant life. We are always passively scattering seeds via our clothing and shoes, so why not actively do this?

Another idea could be to manage bramble invasions at woodland edges and such like. This will hopefully encourage the herbaceous understory whilst maintaining a fundamental action of brambles – they protect tree seedlings from animal herbivores. Many fruiting plants we hope to find when out foraging are natural woodland residents. All are greatly helped by bramble security guards.

Habitat management and creation therefore, are two of the easy ways that we can help sustain levels of productivity from our hedgerows and waysides when out foraging, or just simply out walking.

Thinning out overgrown areas to maintain diversity, let alone to increase it, can be argued as necessary in some of our under maintained woodlands, waste-ground and wayside habitats. In our woodlands, coppicing and pollarding are two ancient methods of management that increase productivity and diversity, and are still very much applicable today.

Cleavers…Stick or Twist?

Here I am demonstrating the special sticky qualities of sticky willy, aka cleavers or goose grass (Galium aparine), from the coffee family (Rubiaceae). Cleavers is a renowned edible and medicinal plant, growing almost everywhere in the UK.cleavers

As an edible its really only good at this time of year, in the spring. As a food, I use just the tops as the rest of the plant below the new growth is very fibrous and stringy. Cleavers has a slight bitterness,  with a subtle flavour (to me) of peas. In fact, the part I enjoy the most are these tiny microgreen seedlings.IMG_1921

As a medicine its a plant used to help the lymphatic system.Many herbalists I know rate this plant highly, especially useful in the spring to help shift the stagnant energies of winter, and the toxins that may build up in the lymph glands. used with dandelion and burdock, you will be covering many bodily system bases.

Lets get this right, there are few native medicinal plants that are better employed on the lymph system, and there are dozens of food plants that are far tastier than this one, even in the genus…Exhibit one…hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo)hedge bedstraw

This plant doesnt have the bristly hooked hairs all over the stem. It has fine hairs on the leaves, but to eat, this plant has a much better texture, and a much finer pea flavour. Although it is far less common than its sister plant, it can be commonly found…And I’ll stick to this one for salads!

Previous Foraging Articles

I have written a number of foraging plant profiles for the excellent Permcaulture online magazine

Here’s a list of them: