Some of the best edible wild plants Autumn foraging has to offer…
Autumn foraging ranks second only to spring foraging in my eyes. Following the welcome return of spring leaves and the emerging abundance of life, autumn is another great season to go foraging…full of ripe fruits and fungi, signalling our annual quickening to the depths of cold, dark winter.
Now is the perfect time to stock up on some of these great foods, to bottle and preserve for when it feels like it will never be summer again!
Here are some of my favourite wild foods to forage in the Autumn.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) Rosaceae
The rowan berry has long been used as a sweet and sour accompaniment to meat, especially venison, and game.
Distinctive orange-red berries hang in large clusters from August through September, and on your travels you may see the odd white-fruited variety too.
Also known as mountain ash, the rowan has a bark that looks a lot like a young ash tree, and the leaves are also pinnate. The plants are not related however. The true ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is in the olive family – Oleaceae, while the rowan is part of the rose family.
You may have caught wind of rowan flowering in spring. During late May, its scent can be quite pervasive where ever there are a few together. A close inhale will produce mixed reactions, depending on who is sniffing! The plant produces methylamine, a chemical produced in semen, and decomposing bodies. This then, is the sex and death tree!
Rowan berries can be harvested from late August. The fruits are super-sour and packed with vitamin C, so be warned before you try one. I mean one as well, because raw rowan berries contain parascorbic acid, which can lead to indigestion or gastric upset if consumed in sufficient amounts. The compound is broken down to the beneficial anti-oxidant scorbic acid, following cooking.
The traditional method of using rowan fruit has been in making jelly, and typically this is made with crab apple for added pectin, as well as colour. The sweet and sour jelly goes really well with cold meats as well as the game meats previously mentioned. Blue cheese and figs also marry well with the sharp acidic twang of rowan.
Hawthorns (Crataegus monogyna et al) Rosaceae family
One of my favourite condiments to make is hawthorn ketchup. From the very first taste I was addicted. Hawthorn is a fantastic plant, which gives and gives. Not only is this the best firewood with the exception of oak, the little red haws are possibly our most abundant tree fruit.
On close inspection you will find that haws come in all shapes and sizes, as well as various shades of red. The ripe flesh of the different haws can be anything from a creamy yellow to orange-pink, and unsurprisingly there are differing tastes to be had also.
Some hawthorns are admittedly bland and unexciting in flavour, but others are like mini apples. This quality is further enhanced by freezing the berries for a week or so. I find the duller red ones are tastier than the scarlet ones.
You can pick hawthorn in Britain from late August, all through September and October, and dependent on location and variety, well into November. Once again, this is very similar to apples.
I love making preserves with haws. In my wild plum and hawthorn jam, I throw in some green hogweed seeds for aromatic punctuation in amongst the sweetness and acidity. Remember jam makers, that the riper your fruit, the less pectin their will be in the fruit.
The ketchup is an easy affair, simply simmered for a while in cider vinegar and water, although I know how much the finsihed product is enhanced with my carefully balanced range of spices such as: juniper, mace, ginger, tumeric, pepper, assa-foetida, alongside sea salt, demerara sugar, and molasses.
The full recipe can be found alongside more of my wild food creations (Link). A range of my Small batch condiments and preserves will soon be available to purchase from the website.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) Caprifoliaceae family
The elder is found almost all over Britain, and is a constant companion of human settlements. If you are out in remote areas however, you may not have your own local plants and will need to go out looking nearer to villages, farms or towns.
Although this plant possibly has more recipes online than any other hedgerow fruit, the berry is still somewhat underused. I love elderberry season, and look forward the brief harvesting time to stock up on goodies like elderberry vinegars, elderberry syrup, pontac sauce, as well as making numerous pies, crumbles, fruit leathers, jams, jelly and wine.
Don’t eat handfuls of the raw berries (and why would you, because they are quite bland raw), as they may well cause gastric upset.
The purple berries are a renowned anti-viral remedy, with scientific evidence backing up claims it helps combat H1N1 flu virus. The fruits are packed with Vitamin C and just a regular couple of tea spoons of elderberry syrup should act well as a prophylactic.
Apples (Malus spp) Rosaceae family
Numerous varieties will be found up and down the land. From the wild crab, to occasional wildling eaters produced from bird dropped seed. With sharp eyes you may find apples to harvest from August through into December.
The crab apples are a must if you are into jam making. The skin of crab apples has high levels of pectin, and you can simmer some peel until soft then freeze it for jam making later in the year. Crab apple jelly is one of the delights of the hedgerow, with its pink colour and tartness offsetting cold meats exceptionally well.
Apple sauce is one of our staple Sunday roast condiments, and can be made at the same time as any jam or jelly making. This can be frozen for future use.
Apple juicing and cider making has recently had an upsurge in interest. Cider is such a democratised drink, enabling anyone to make it anywhere. Its as simple as crushing apples and leaving them to ferment in a vessel/barrel in the dark!
Yew (Taxus baccata) Taxaceae
Well known by many for it’s association with death, and rightly so, for most of this plant can kill you. Aside that is, from the sweet and fleshy red ‘berry’, technically known as an aril. Even the the seed inside the bright red flesh contains the toxic compound, taxane, used by the medical profession to treat cancers.
The flesh is one of the sweetest things you can find in the wild, and can be used to make preserves and liqueurs. Just remember to spit out the seeds. I find that yew berries make excellent scary halloween cake decorations!
Hops (Humulus lupulus) Cannabaceae family
If you are a regular walker of riversides and hedgerows, you will already know how common hops can be, given the right setting. Often, this plant will perform at its best right next to a river, where the damp setting can provide all the moisture it needs to grow its numerous stems.
Hops will easily be recognised by its lobed leaves, coarse to the touch, which are produced alternately on bristly-hairy, spiralling stems. Its the bristles that help supports hops as it climbs. Note that this hedgerow climber does not have the spring-like tendrils, found on another hedgerow scrambler, sometimes confused with hops – white bryony (Bryonia dioica) in the Curcubitaceae family.
Hops are well known for their aroma, their striking bitterness, and their potent sedative qualities. All of these attributes are useful in beer making, for which hops are still cultivated in Britain today, in Kent and Herefordshire. The female flowers (strobiles) are produced in distinctive papery cones, (from 1.5 cm – 2.5 cm long) which when ripe, will turn a brown colour from their yellow-green..
The flowers are ready in September when their aromatics are at their peak. If you pick a hop and it still feels damp to the touch, and if there is still a vegetal or grassy aroma, then they are not ready. Wait until they are dry and papery, and then the full hoppy quality, which should dominate the air when you crush a hops flower in your fingers, should be evident.
I won’t need to tell you how many beer recipes there are using hops. Some beer makers blend more than one variety of hops, giving more intense depth and flavour to their beers. Aside from its use in alcoholic beverages, hops are also an excellent herbal remedy for fighting insomnia.
It is one of our most powerful sedative plants, as any beer drinker can tell you! It should not be used where depression is a factor though, probably due to this plant acting on the neuro-transmitters such as GABA (gamma amino butyric acid).
Sloes / blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) Rosaceae family
One of the earliest woodland fruiting plants to come into flower is the blackthorn. This shrubby plant is pretty unmistakable, once you know it, often appearing in dense thickets, with long thorns at the end of its young branches.
The almond-scented flowers soon give way to the green immature fruits which acquire their deep blue purple colour by August. Even when ripe, the fruits are really astringent.
I tend to wait until late September before thinking of picking these, which are traditionally much better after the frost has come. You can speed up this process by picking and freezing, if that’s an option.
The best known use for these berries is sloe gin. I can’t argue with that, although I will say that a reduction of the fruit, serving the sauce with pheasant, rabbit or venison or a hearty lentil and nut roast, needs to be tasted to believe its exquisite flavour.
For sloe gin, you will be wise to buy the best gin you can afford. Fill two bottles with sloes that you have pierced with a needle. Add some sugar. Top up with the gin. Put a lid on and leave for a few months, shaking regularly to ensure full extraction.
You may try it at Christmas although this drink is better with maturity. So if you can somehow leave until the following year, you will be so glad you did.
Hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) Betulaceae family
The hazel is a common woodland shrub found in most parts of Britain aside from mountainous areas such as the cairngorms in Scotland. The plant has many uses, for bender builders and Bushcrafters, due to the pliability of the wood, even when dry.
For me, hazel is significant twice a year, firstly as a plant with a tiny, yet stunningly beautiful burgundy female flower, that signifies most of the winter is behind us, and then in the late summer/early autumn, when it provides us it’s nuts. The hazelnuts become obvious against the foliage by mid-summer, sat in their frilly involucre.
Foragers can then spend some of their time in the summer mentally mapping the fecund plants in their area. Foraging legend has it you need to get to the trees before the squirrels. Well yes, a lot of the time that is true, but you can also find older hazels that the squirrels haven’t found.
Somehow it feels much better harvesting them by shaking the tree and hearing them rain down on you, than fervently hoarding them when green, simply to beat an 8 inch rodent.
When harvested green, the nuts don’t develop their true ripened nutty flavour. But sometimes that is the price you need to pay for securing a harvest at all! When ripe and brown, and given your supply outlasts the winter, hazelnuts are a great substitute for pine nuts in wild garlic pesto.
If you would like to be able to forage more successfully, then maybe my ‘foragers friend’ waterproof, pocket sized identification cards will be of use. 72 species are covered in total with bullet point, ‘field-guide’ style descriptions of the plant and a photo showing characteristic features.
Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) Fagaceae
Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) Elaeagnaceae
Just the sight of these can perk you up. And if you munch just a few of these stunning orange berries you will be getting your daily needs of Vitamin C. The berries are very high in this nutrient and will often sit on the tree well into the new year.
Sea buckthorn is one of the plants in my popular ‘top trumps’ style card game, available over in the foraging resources shop.
Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) Apiaceae
The seeds of hogweed are a truly great spice to use. Aromatic, citrus-like and versatile, being as good in a curry as they are in a tart hedgerow fruit jam . They can be picked young and ‘green’ or when brown and mature.
Hogweed is so common so you won’t have to go very far to find it. Seeds are often ready to be harvested from as early as July onwards.
This plant features in a number of my videos including this oneof the seeds, taken when I was autumn foraging
More coming soon on
3 corner leek
and a few select tasty fungi!
Until then, a poem by Keats…