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 nettles. A guide to identification and uses

Foraging nettles (Urtica dioica, Urtica repens): A hedgerow superfood and remarkable medicine

How foraging nettles can provide food drink and a remedy for enlarged prostate

Although nettles are well known and foraging nettles commonplace,  many do not know that this common plant has a remedy for a common accompaniment of ageing, an enlarged prostate.

The genus Urtica includes about 50 species of annuals and perennials that are widespread throughout the temperate regions.

The generic name Urtica is the old Latin name given for the plant. Our most common nettle derives its specific name dioica from the fact that this species has male and female flowers on different plants. The other nettle species that grows here – Urtica repens, takes its specific name from the Latin word for creeping.

Urtica dioica is perennial, rising each year from a creeping, underground network of yellow-coloured rhizomes, and can easily attain heights of 180 cm given good growing conditions.

Nettles are often a sign of fertile, if neglected land, and are found usually en masse, on waysides, roadsides, hedges, in fields and woodland edges as well as gardens, parks and waterways, up to 850 metres.

Nettle leaves are simple and cordate, with dentate-serrate margins and pointed leaf tips. The leaves sit in opposite pairs on square stems and typically reach 7-12 cm long. All these features are also commonly used to describe members of the mint family as well, but we know that floral characteristics are often vital for correct identification. Nettles have a different inflorescence compared to mint family plants, which places them in a family of their own.

Nettles also display tiny stipules at the base of the leaf, where it meets the stem. These small, leaf-like growths are not a characteristic of mint plants, so can help you identify between nettles and the similar looking dead nettle tribe of the mint family, even without the flowers.

Nettles were reportedly first introduced to Britain by the Romans and were used by the soldiers as a flogging aid to warm them during long cold nights and as an aid for sore, stiff bones and joints! This practice, known as ‘urtication’, is regaining popularity, especially on the continent in places such as Germany, where a lot of the most recent research into nettles, and other herbal remedies, has been carried out.

Nettles have very fibrous stems that have formerly been processed into cloth, as well as cordage. Native Americans and other indigenous cultures have woven nettle fibre into cloth and bags. German soldiers had uniforms made from nettles in the First World War. The British army are known to have used the green dye extracted from chlorophyll-rich nettle leaves, for making camouflage. 

Nettles are also a well known green manure crop for the garden and allotment. The nitrogen rich leaves are added to comfrey for a balanced liquid feed.

Parts used

Leaves, roots.

Harvest

Leaves: in spring, choose just the tops. Roots: best in autumn.

Key constituents

Leaves: contain up to 20% minerals (especially iron, calcium, potassium, sillic acid); phenolic acids; flavonoids (including kaempferol, quercetin); histamine; volatile and resinous substance glucoquinone; Vitamin C. Roots: contain lignans; lectins; sterols; polysaccharides, and several phenolic compounds.

Actions Nutritive, haemostatic, astringent, circulatory stimulant, galactagogue, hypoglycaemic, diuretic, anti-prostatic.

Pharmacology and uses Nettle leaves contain high concentrations of iron and minerals and are therefore highly recommended for cases of anaemia and other deficiency conditions.

The tannins present in the leaves exhibit astringency. An extract of nettle leaf has been found to slow the heart of laboratory animals, as well as helping to dilate, and constrict, the blood vessels, alternately under different conditions.

Nettles increase the excretion of uric acid and are mildly diuretic. The leaves are full of protein and make an excellent fasting tea to help flush out toxins from the kidneys and the rest of the elimination systems. With notable concentrations of Iron and Calcium, nettles are a very useful supplement for pregnancy and breast feeding.

The sometimes painful and irritable nature of nettles and the silica stinging hairs can be counteracted through one of the various plants easily found around nettles. I personally find the creeping ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae) far more soothing and relieving than any other plant I’ve tried so far, including the useful plantains (Plantago species) and docks (Rumex species). You can find videos on both plants on my youtube channel

As an alterative, the leaf can aid the clearance of acne and other skin complaints as well as reportedly helping counteract the overproduction of dandruff. As an astringent it can be a useful wound staunching herb for the nose.

Nettles can significantly help to reduce blood sugar levels in the treatment of ‘type-2’ or ‘late onset’ diabetes mellitus. The presence of glucoquinone reportedly helps to account for the perceived hypoglycaemic action. Other indications for nettle use include the treatment of arthritis and gout. In Germany, there is a tradition for making beer and wines from nettles in the spring, specifically to treat arthritis. 

Nettle roots and the prostate

The root contains the most medicinal magic as far as men are concerned. Rich in plant sterols, sugars and other medicinal compounds, the root has repeatedly shown to arrest benign growths of the prostate.

The prostate is special to men. So special in fact, that the majority of males wouldn’t know where to go looking for it. It sits behind so as to surround the urethra, which as we know, carries urine from the bladder through the penis to the outside world.

The prostate gland enlarges as men get older, although usually not starting until after the mid-thirties. It then tends to enlarge in middle to late old age due to excessive growth of the glandular cells it contains. This growth is benign, not malignant, and has often been linked to decreased sexual activity. Gradual enlargement has been recorded in slightly more than 50% of males over 50 years of age in the UK and up to 75% of all men over 75 years of age.

The most common disorder is benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or prostate enlargement. The other is known as prostatitis (prostate inflammation). This condition is more prevalent in older men but can be present in young men also. Prostatitis can be passed on to your sexual partner and in women can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.

Typical symptoms of prostate enlargement:

  • Bladder obstruction with need to urinate more frequently and at night

  • Incomplete emptying of bladder

  • Pain, burning and difficulty in starting and stopping urine flow

  • Presence of blood in urine

  • Sometimes associated kidney damage and bladder infections

Typical symptoms of prostatitis:

  • Pain between scrotum and rectum

  • Discharge from penis

  • Frequent urination with a burning sensation

  • Aches and pains in back, rectum and between the legs

Prostatitis can develop leading to increasingly difficult urination, as well as premature ejaculation, blood in the urine, and impotency. Be warned! This condition, if left untreated will eventually obstruct the bladder outlet resulting in blood in the urine. Ouch! Prostatitis is believed to be hormonal in nature.

As one of the major health issues for males, allopathic medicine continues to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into research for new drugs to combat cancers and to help arrest BPH. Western drug treatment will usually involve drugs such as Alpha-blockers and 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors.

Alpha blockers work by helping to relax the muscles at the neck of the bladder and in the prostate. 

5-alpha-reductase inhibitors work by blocking the conversion of testosterone to another substance, dihydrotestosterone (DHT) that is known to have a key role in prostate growth.

Should either of these two prove unsuccessful, then they are usually combined and added to other drugs. Doctors also often employ hormonal therapy, although this carries side effects, including change of libido and mood swings! Yet evidence is already out there which points to the power of nettle root extract to inhibit certain enzymes in the body which ordinarily affect our levels of male sex hormones.

One particular enzyme which affects the levels of testosterone is the sex-hormone-binding-globulin (SHBG). This is an enzyme that the body produces more of with age. SHBG tends to bind more readily with testosterone compared to oestrogen, thereby reducing the amount of ‘free testosterone’ available to find receptor sites and consequently decreasing libido. This may eventually lead to possible enlargement.

What nettle root does, or more specifically, a lignan fraction within it, is to inhibit the binding action of this enzyme, thereby ensuring that more testosterone can bind at its receptor sites. Nettle’s lignans have also been shown to reduce cell proliferation in prostate tissues.

The fat-soluble extract of nettle root is pharmacologically active in fat tissues where androgen hormones such as testosterone are produced. The more water-soluble methanol extracts exhibit the greatest BPH arrest, with resultant high levels of inhibition of prostate growth.

Nettle root also increases urinary flow and urine volume.Nettle root can be as effective in arresting prostate growth as finasteride, a pharmaceutical 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, although nettle root does not demonstrate this particular type of inhibition.

Research is continually being carried out to determine the precise nature of a number of other different active compounds, yet the many successful treatments with nettle root extract are already testament to the demonstrable abilities of this plant.

Undoubtedly a medicinal food, nettles are one of the most nutritious greens we can eat. Lucky are the urban foragers because they have the opportunity to easily gather nettle tops in different spots from March through to late November in most towns. Remember to only take the succulent sweet and tasty tops.

Nettle soup is the classic way of eating this herb, combined with onions or leeks and potatoes and seasoning. Many people like adding blanched leaves to pesto, and a friend of mine makes an interesting nettle chutney. The leaves also work well as a general spinach replacement in many other dishes such as ‘saag aloo’.

Edible wild plants…What are they anyway?

Edible wild plants from a kitchen and cooking  perspective…

The timings and seasonal choices involed in deciding which edible wild plants to harvest, and when

On my own journey of discovery with edible wild plants, I’ve come to know that the answer to the question “What is edible anyway?”  can often be purely in the creative hands of the forager. A discussion on poisonous plants was previously posted here.

When beginning to learn about foraging, I may well have known that a certain plant was edible…but which part? I may even know more, such as a specific part of a plant that can be eaten…but again I need to ask… when, where, and how to harvest, prepare and cook?

Moreover, if I store the harvest incorrectly or fail to prepare them properly, this reduces its food value and can quickly render them inedible, and so I accepted as I learnt that some parts I harvest ends up as compost, because either I harvested incorrectly or failed to prepare properly. So I quickly learnt that foragers live and learn in the field and in the kitchen; we recognise, and re-act.

The craft and the arts of the wild food forager arguably begin only once we have learnt that something is edible, and after I have identified the particular edible wild plant, fungi or other organism in question in the field.

For example, I know of many plant species that I can visit for their edible young new spring shoots and their flowering stems. Yet this knowledge does not guarantee that I can create an edible and tasty dish from that food.

Image of edible tender hogweed leaf shoots
Hogweed shoots. The tender leaf stalk is perfect to harvest at this stage in early spring, but would not be edible in mid spring, when tough and fibrous.

Greater willow herb, rosebay willow herb, burdock, hogweed, wild chervil, alexanders, and jack-by-the-hedge. These are all edible wild plants I visit to harvest at different and specific times of year, and plants that I also change my focus on throughout the year, as I continually look forward to harvesting other plant parts as previous ones become inedible.

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Rosebay willow herb. Past its best as a wild ‘asparagus’  at this stage, but I still use the tops for a chutney or fermenting

When it comes to dealing with these and other edible wild plants, some of the best advice I can think of is treat them just like your cultivated plants and vegetables from the garden or allotment!

Just like those cultivated plants, the timing of your visit, the precise moment, and focus of your harvesting, and the skill in the preparation that follows, are all keys to creating something that is edible, and tasty. All gardeners know it is no good visiting your asparagus plant for its succulent, juicy stems in June when the leaves are out, and similarly wild plants often need such exactitude in the timing of harvesting!

So I visit hogweed leaf shoots in March and April, or its tender flowering stalks in May and June, when these are at their best, because they are young, and because its well before cell enlargement has taken place, or finished in the developing plant organ, which will quickly render it fibrous, tough and useless.

To assess the edibility of a known edible stem or shoot, I always do a flex test on the parts before harvesting, gently bending them to see how supple they are. Minimal bend and I reappraise where or even if to harvest.

IMG_4212
Wild chervil stems, passing the ‘flex’ test, and superb to harvest at this point before flowering

This is especially important with flowering stems which quickly become fibrous and inedible, as they do their job of supporting that most vital of plant organs, the flowers and seeds.

A useful rule of thumb for harvesting stems of edible wild plants is to ignore the plants that have flowers appearing. I look for ones that are only in bud, as I know their stems will be more tender lower down, and therefore will give me more food.

To mistime a visit, or visit at the right time but without full appreciation of the plant we are working with, could easily lead to harvesting under or over-developed plant parts which will now likely be inedible, or simply poor eating.

The range of edible wild plants we will find in the UK all grow at different rates, and these growth rates, and therefore its harvesting, are affected by temperature, altitude and aspect. For example, north facing plants in cold conditions and higher altitudes will always be developmentally behind the same species on a south facing slope near sea level.

By utilising a rounded knowledge of the effects that landscape and aspect have on edible wild plants, is to increase your opportunities to harvest, and to increase your harvests, and to increase your chances of successfully producing good food. Therefore I ignore the books a lot of the time in terms of harvesting periods and I suffice with information on the ground where I live. This however is something that comes from experience.

Books will tell me elderflowers are available for a few weeks from mid May to early June. Fair enough, but I have harvested elderflowers in July from high up on hills where harvesting is always behind sea level specimens. The approximate values are one week for every 150 metres altitude. Similarly, every hundred or so miles you travel north in the UK will also be about a week behind.

Many books tell me that nettles should not be harvested after May. This can be true but not always, it actually depends on where you live. Yes, in the countryside, nettles will often be coming into flowering during May, and the older leaves are tougher, and much less appetising than the sweet growth of a new spring.

IMG_4276
Nettles in late September. If they look like they do in spring, they’re good to harvest at anytime!

However, if you live in an urban environment, you will find that strimmers and mowers interrupt the natural chronological order of things, cutting down flowers or the setting seeds, which leads to an understandable hormonal shift in the plant, that will then inevitably produce a new flush of sweet, tender ‘spring growth’ in late October or November!

Which plant parts are we looking to harvest? The fruits of foraging success

Firstly, and especially if discussing edible wild plants and their edible plant parts with other foragers, it is wise to use the correct parlance. If you do, you are off to a good start!

Getting to know your stems from your leaf stalks and flowering stalks can be important when harvesting and preparing wild foods, and something worth immediately learning when starting out foraging. If not then you may well be disappointed after harvesting the wrong part at that time of year.

Knowing the structure and purpose of plant organs will also help you appreciate their value as potential foods. I look to the many rhizome bearing plant species as potential big underground stores of carbohydrate (exactly what they are). Now the question is ‘How to best get to the food, and what to do to make it edible?’

Fruits are a major focus of the forager in late summer and Autumn…but its not just the succulent juicy fleshy sweet fruits I am after, and therefore fruits I look at can be harvested at other times of year.

All plants produce fruits, and some of our cultivated fruits are used as vegetables! Think runner beans, squash and tomatoes! Indeed, some fruits are only encasing the prized part. Peas and some types of beans are technically the seed, that sits inside the fruit.

Take sea radish as an example. Sea radish can be seen in flower in from May through August, although June is its prime period it seems. The fruits quickly follow. By harvesting the swollen ‘bubble pods’ as they appear, you will really appreciate the subtle nuances of edibility.

To an untrained eye, sea radish pods look pretty much the same when old as they do when young and fresh, juicy and crunchy and sweet and pungent. For me it is the texture in your fingers at the point of harvest, and the way it comes free from the plant that defines its edibility. Yes, there is a very subtle tone of green that changes with pod maturity, (these eventually turn yellow when the seeds are dormant and rock hard), but this is observable only after handling a few.

This then, is part of the essence of learning about edibility, because the learning is all in the doing, and its only by actually harvesting and preparing that we can begin to appreciate what timing does to the edibility of the food we are working with.

Hawthorns are another good example. They turn red well before they are ready, so how does the forager know when to harvest. Well, treat them like the plants they are… apples. The hawthorns are part of the Malus (apple) tribe of Rose plants, and just like their bigger cousins, they will reveal if they are ready by a simple twisting of the stalk. If ripe, they will come off easily. If they don’t they aren’t ready!

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Bright scarlet hawthorn berries…but are they ripe?

If trying a few to see the colour of the flesh (green when unripe, creamy yellow or flushed pink/orange when ripe, and brown when gone over), I often try the rear, shadier side of the plant, because if these are ready where the sunshine ripening will be slower, then the ones at the front of the bush nearest the sun will almost definitely be ripe. It’s far easier to tell if they are overripe simply by looking, as this picture below shows.

Crataegus ripe guide
Allmost all these haws are over-ripe…easier to detect than ripeness by eye

With certain edible wild plants, there are tell tale signs to look out for that are informing us when certain parts are ready to harvest. The wild chervil/cow parsley, is an overwintering biennial with edible leaves, leaf shoots, and really tasty young flower stems. I can tell if the new flowering stems are appearing when out walking as we enter spring, just by looking at the form of the leaves.

Before its flowering stems rise, the leaves are held quite flat and almost parallel to the ground. With the transformation of flowering, the leaves are held more vertically, at quite a distinct angle, and more-so as the stem reaches a few inches high, because the next and newest leaves are then found on the stem.

When looking to harvest the gorgeous and pungent immature seed pods of three corner leek, the plant gives us all the notice we need. Obviously the seed sets after flowering, and we can tell if its set and good to eat, because the star shaped white and green striped petals close in around the seed, protecting it as it grows and matures. If its over-ripe, hard and inedible, the petals are usually dried, brown or fallen off the fruit.

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Three corner leek petals closing around their immature seed pods, telling me those tasty garlic ‘peas’ are ready

Regular foraging increases your existing knowledge of edible wild plants and leads you to new discoveries. There really is only so much you can learn from books and foraging videos although mine are worth a watch if you haven’t seen them yet!

If you now wanting to get your teeth into an intensive introduction into the numerous delightful aspects of foraging, then you can always book on to one of my regular foraging walks and courses that I host in different parts of the country, all year round.

Or, drop me a line and you can hire me to conduct a private walk for you and your friends and family, or to take a foragers survey of the edible and medicinal plants on your land.

More soon…

Foraging hawthorn

Foraging hawthorn for heart boosting medicinal food

Crataegus monogyna / C. leavigata 

Hawthorns Rosaceae family

When you are out in the hedgerows foraging hawthorn, you are face to face with a truly remarkable tree. Hawthorns are the plant mainly responsible for the success of numerous acts of enclosure here in the UK, from the 14th century onwards.  This plant is one of the reasons that I, and most other people living in the British Isles, are landless

As common a tree as you can get, these spring flowering, summer-beckoning mainstays of the hedge, offer us unique nutritional and medicinal benefits.

image of haw berries, one of the prizes of foraging hawthorn
Haws are one of our native superfoods, and foraging 2 kg hawthorn berries doesn’t take much time.

The hawthorns will easily be found mostly anywhere up to altitudes of 600 metres, classically as a principle component of a hedge (from which it derives its name – the word haw being a corruption of haeg, from the old English for hedge).

They love the edges of woodlands and can often be found on waysides and roadsides, as well as in little groves in some districts. Hawthorns are also happy on their own in a great number of places, as can be seen by the large numbers of amenity plantings.

A number of the 250 Crataegus species able to be grown here carry larger and far tastier fruits, and some have documented scientific evidence supporting their medicinal use in China and India.

However, it makes sense to concentrate here wholly on our two native plants. Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus leavigata are almost identical and offer us very similar medicinal benefits so we can use either one interchangeably.

The generic name Crataegus stems from the Greek-Kratos meaning strength. This could be in allusion to the dense hard-wood found in hawthorns or, as recent science has discovered and you are about to, the potency of the medicine found in hawthorns to strengthen the heart muscle and blood supply. The species name monogyna reveals the fact that this species contains one (mono) seed (gyna). C.laevigata in contrast, has more than one seed in the fruit.

As with many of the rose family, these plants have oval-shaped leaves, albeit in hawthorn’s case deeply-lobed and with serrated margins. The midland hawthorn typically has leaves without such deep lobes, and grows mainly in the northern reaches of Europe. C.monogyna on the other hand, is found throughout Europe, and far into the Middle-East.

Hawthorn flowers are unmistakably of the rose family, having five petals and numerous stamens. They often reveal a pink-red tinge on the stamens, and some varieties have pink petals.

Our native hawthorn’s branches are decorated with sharp thorns, approximately 2.5 cm long. Both the infamous blackthorn and the less dangerous hawthorn will give you a very nasty sore from a puncture wound. Be extra vigilant when foraging hawthorn, especially in thickets and dense woods.

hawthorn spine and bud

The hawthorns are one of the first woodland species in leaf to herald the returning spring, following the blackthorn and elder tree. Within a couple of months or so of breaking into leaf, the swollen flower buds burst open beginning their spectacular display. The magnificent multitude of white flower clusters, are a signature of the hawthorn and of hedges in May.

When foraging hawthorn in the evenings during this time, the subtle yet pervading scent is easily caught on the wind. I think hints of almond can be deciphered amongst the sweeter tones, though it has been written that the midland hawthorn has blossoms emitting an odour of semen or rotting flesh! Beauty is in the nose of the beholder I suppose!

Some of the aroma is due to the methylamines present in the flowers of hawthorn and also found in some Sorbus species, such as the rowan tree. Other aromatics detected will be due to the bitter almond quality of the cyanogenic glycosides found in small amounts within many stone fruits of the rose family. 

Of the numerous hawthorn species which have beautifully-tasting berries, the University parks in Oxford contains an avenue of around 18 different species, which have an array of orange, scarlet, red, brown and black haws.blackhaws

Until you try some, you must take my word for their diverse array of aromas and flavours, ranging from subtle peach and apple to mild rose tones. It is possible that your local park will have hawthorns with similarly delicious fruits.

Ok, the common or garden haws are generally not superbly tasting from the hedgerow plants, due to their small size and tough living conditions, but they are more than palatable raw.

When ripe, they take on a creamy, somewhat avocado-like texture, which becomes drier, mealier and claggier when over-ripe. It has been written that ripe haws taste a little like sweet potato. Unripe flesh is a green colour, changing to a light creamy-yellow colour in ripe fruits. Over-ripe flesh turns brown. Certain trees from my experience, mainly with the darker duller red haws, give decidedly sweeter, and apple-tasting fruits than others.

Parts used Young leaves, flowering tops and berries.

Harvest Leaves and flowers in April and May. Berries from late September-November (dependent on species and location).

Key constituents Flavonoid glycosides (1-2% including rutin & quercetin) ; saponins; coumarin; cyanogenic glycosides; trimethylamine; condensed tannins (oligomeric procyanidins 1-3%).

Actions Cardio-tonic, hypotensive, vaso-dilatory. relaxant.

Pharmacology and uses One of the reasons that foraging hawthorn is a super idea is because hawthorn is a superfood.

They are literally everywhere, so it is no problem introducing them into your diet. Traditionally, this plant has been used to treat arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and cardiac failure. All are prevalent killers in western societies, especially Britain. Hawthorns will thus help prevent these conditions.

The flavonoid molecules will expand the blood vessels and strengthen capillaries. Hawthorn helps blood vessels dilate and therefore assists the peripheral circulation significantly, but also has a specific action on the coronary circulation itself. It is now well known to improve the nutrition, activity, energy reserves and energy release of the heart muscle. This and the power of the cyanogenic glycosides make hawthorn ideal for those people with either high blood pressure or cardiac arrhythmias.

An alcoholic extract of leaves and flowers has been proven to improve cardiac functions as well as reducing blood pressure, whilst not affecting heart rate! Through eating hawthorn berries it’s known that we stimulate increased performance of the anti-oxidant called superoxide dismutase. This enzyme promotes the scavenging of harmful ‘free radical’ molecules.

Other anti-oxidants packed into these trees are in the form of oligomeric proanthocyanidins. These molecules were saluted by the mainstream press only a few years ago. Adverts sprung up in popular daily papers enticing us to pay lots of money for a few grams of exotic berries shipped from halfway around the world purely because they contained these medicinal compounds! Unsurprisingly, there was no mention anywhere of foraging hawthorn for free!

In diverse places such as Devon, the Isle of Man, and the Highlands of Scotland, hawthorn has traditionally been used in folk medicine as a primary heart tonic, as well as being used for centuries to correctly balance high and low blood pressure.

Hawthorn has no contra-indications for use, although it can reportedly interact with beta-blockers and other hypotensive drugs. It may increase the effectiveness of them, as well as potentially beneficially interacting with foxglove cardiac glycosides. Patients already on heart medication should seek advice before using.

One of the many delights of this and some other medicinal trees is that come the autumn and early winter, we can go back to the same trees we visited for leaves and flowers early in the season and then harvest the berries. Plus, you will have had another cardiac-strengthening walk under your belt!

The leaves are a more than useful addition to salads during the early spring. Always take the fresh palatable new leaves, rather than the tougher, far more fibrous and darker-green, older leaves. A number of tree species can give off a new spurt of growth around the end of July, sometimes referred to as the lammas flush. This is another opportunity to harvest new leaves, although in far smaller quantities.

Many books make reference to hawthorn leaves being called ‘bread and cheese’ by rural folk. Now, either our taste buds are completely different to a few hundred years ago, or country people were not eating much bread and cheese back then and were probably wishing they had some as they nibbled on hawthorn! Saying this, the young succulent leaves are lovely accompanied by a dressing and mixed with grated roots such as beetroot (Beta vulgaris), carrot  (Daucus carota), and ginger (Zingiber officinalis).

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Every autumn I make a hawthorn ketchup from the haws, simply simmered in cider vinegar and a muslin bag of spices, for 45 mins or so, before straining through a sieve, adding molasses and muscovado sugar and some seasoning. It’s a stunningly delicious and simple sauce that livens up many a dish. Foraged food at it’s best!

As I write, the leaves of hawthorn are just starting to appear, so I hope you will see the benefits of going out and harvesting this super medicinal food! Next week, another monograph from another commonly found plant…Happy foraging!