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 Sweet Chestnuts

Foraging sweet chestnuts in the UK

One of the great delights of autumn is foraging sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) from your local woodland. European people have been collecting these delicious and nutritious little food parcels for thousands of years.

These tasty nuts are now a staple of Autumn and winter high streets, being readily available from fire heated braziers in many major cities. But buying them can only ever offer a fraction of the pleasure as foraging.

With the majority of wild plant foraging, you mostly need to spot the plant you are after, and simply harvest by cutting or pinching out the leaves, stems, or flowers.

Whereas with sweet chestnuts, you will find the need to search on the forest floor, excitingly scraping back fallen leaves and the carpet of open shells found under larger trees, all the while concentrating and looking around in expectancy, or hope, for its shiny dark brown fruits to reveal themselves like gems.

Their yields can be heavy in a good year, enabling you to find lots of them in a small patch of the ground directly under the tree.  So foraging sweet chestnuts can be a fun family treasure hunt.

Although some authors may try and say that September is the start of the season, there is really no point in foraging sweet chestnuts earlier than October, because any that have fallen will have no real flavour when green and unripe.

You will need gloves to handle the spiny nut cases when foraging sweet chestnuts
Sweet chestnuts are typically found in clusters, and have a dense covering of spiny shells.

You can begin looking for the ripe chestnuts in early October following a period of windy weather, when numerous green spiny shells will be easily found under and around the base of the tree.

However, many of these may also contain nuts that haven’t yet quite ripened, and naturally require a period of a few more days in their shells to finish off their brown colouring. Handily, the green nut shells begin to brown and split of their own accord when the fruits are pretty much ready for picking.

This plant is not to be confused with the inedible and potentially toxic horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which sometimes grows in close proximity to the sweet chestnut in park-lands and larger gardens.

The two trees are completely unrelated, even though the nuts look similar at first glance. Sweet chestnut is in fact related to the oak and beech trees, in the family Fagaceae. My article on horse chestnut covers the basic differences.

Botanical description to help identify Sweet chestnuts

Sweet chestnut cuts a distinctive figure in many parklands.

It can grow up to 35 metres. These trees are known for their broad crown, longevity and a massive trunk girth. Its narrow fissured grey-brown bark occasionally reveals blueish-green colours.

From a relatively young age, the plant begins to produce its distinctive spiralling bark pattern. In old age, the plant can produce beautiful gnarled burrs into eye catching shapes.

When foraging sweet chestnuts you can find their trunks exhibiting large burrs, sometimes making alluring shapes

Its glossy green leaves will reach 20 -30 cm long, with margins that are reportedly unique when comparing it with any other member of the widely found British flora. Each of the serrations has a noticeable curved tooth.

The leaves are simple, oblong-lanceolate, and are alternate on the stem, with relatively short petioles.

When foraging Sweet chestnuts, you can easily identify them from their pointy-toothed leaves
Sweet chestnut leaves have distinctive pointy toothed margins

The newer stems are ridged, usually a red-brown colour, and often heavily speckled with its array of lenticels. The alternate buds finish with a terminal bud close to a side bud.

This tree is one of the very last species to flower and set fruit, as well as being one of the last fruits to fall. Its long spikes of male catkin type flowers will appear late in the spring, typically around the 3rd week of June.

Smaller female flowers  will be found nearby found towards the base of the spikes. For a good few weeks in early summer you can spot the swelling spiky shells together with the skeleton male flower stalks.

Checking your tree for potential harvests should reveal the flower stalk and fruits sat together for a few weeks
Sweet chestnut fruits and skeleton flower stalks are visible on the plant for a few weeks

Habitats to look in when foraging sweet chestnuts

The plant is widely naturalised in many woodlands, though the larger more productive specimens will mostly be found in parklands and estate gardens.  It is known in the UK as an ‘honorary native’,  due to the ease in which the plant seeds and grows here.

The nuts are the new joy of October for me, just when any S.A.D may begin to kick in. During the last few years I have travelled quite a bit around Britain, but only this year have I found such a haul as I did in Devon just recently.

Harvesting sweet chestnuts

When foraging sweet chestnuts, you find them more easily on the floor although they will persist on the tree. If you want the nuts out of the bigger specimens, you will need to employ a stick, as always done with conkers.

Careful handing of sweet chestnuts is required when foraging and preparing.
Be careful when foraging and harvesting sweet chestnuts, as the spines on the cases are sharp!

Handling the spiny shells and freeing the prize can be a difficult business. You will likely need gloves, especially with the older fruits.  A strong heal on sturdy boots greatly helps in breaking the freshly felled cases open.

Inside the cases, the nuts from the true wild species will be present in twos or threes, whereas nuts gleaned from the cultivar known as ‘marron’, will be on their own and substantially larger than the wild ones.

Traditional and contemporary uses of Sweet chestnuts

In the kitchen, sweet chestnut is a superb and versatile ingredient. It is one of the few nuts that contain little fat; instead, they have a surprisingly large amount of water. This means they are not suitable for processing into oil, but do produce a great flour.

You can use chestnuts for a few delightful seasonal treats, including chestnut purée,  chestnut paté; turning it into flour for pastries and cakes, making chestnut stuffing,

On a visit to Devon recently, I was inspired by a friend into researching  and experimenting with chestnuts more. And so followed a wild mushroom and sweet chestnut paté, then with thoughts to the yuletide festive period and winter solstice,  we made a chestnut and port paté .  I won’t say how fantastic that was, as you can make your own quite easily, but I will say I’ve since made a couple more batches at different friend’s houses.

I’m currently hooked, making some sweet chestnut purée for all manner of festive dishes, essentially following a recipe from this interesting site, and began trying to make the delicious but rightly expensive Marron Glace

These delicious candied chestnuts when cooked in the traditional style, require some time and dedication.  My first attempt though followed the River Cottage recipe and video from Pam the Jam, but the end result is nothing like the fully candied Marron Glace that originated where the tree was plentiful. So more experiments are to come.

Sweet chestnut is one of the featured plants in my 2018 diary, and in my card games, available from my foraging resources shop.

Foraging Guelder rose (cramp bark)

Viburnum opulus – Guelder rose

Caprifoliaceae family

The Guelder rose is another stunning member of the beautiful honeysuckle family. Often seen growing as an ornamental, like many of its close relatives, this shrub delightfully adorns our hedges and country lanes up and down the land. You can go foraging for both its medicinal bark in the spring,  and the edible berries in autumn.

Guelder rose flowers.
Sterile outer flowers of Guelder rose attract insects, whicjh pollinate the smaller fertile inner flowers

The first time you clap eyes on this plant may be during their lovely spring time show. The immaculate white flowers penetrate dense green canopies adjourning our lanes around May. Later in the year, the berries will brighten up increasingly dull grey days with splashes of scarlet in amongst yellowing autumn hedgerows.

Favourite habitats of Guelder rose.

Closely related to the elder tree, this shrub is almost entirely absent in Scotland, yet can be found most everywhere in England. It delights in copses of Alnus (alder) and Salix (willow), as well as in a range of hedges, woodland edges, bridleways, and country lanes up to elevations of 400 metres.

Guelder rose is said to be well suited to chalk land. Because cramp bark displays similar growth characteristics to the elder, it has also historically been known as ‘red elder’ and ‘rose elder’.

This deciduous, perennial shrub is native to Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia. It can easily grow up to 4 metres high on many stems. Cramp bark can flourish in full sun or partial shade and will tolerate most soils other than very wet ones. When planting this species, the advice has always been to avoid extremely hot or dry, exposed, and cold areas.

The other well known common name for this plant stems from the province of Holland known as Gueldersland. This is where the shrub was first recorded as being cultivated. The generic name Viburnum is the old Latin name for this shrub and others in the genus of about 150-175 mainly shrubby species. The specific name opulus refers to a type of maple, in allusion to the maple-like leaf shape of this species.

Distinctive features of Guelder rose

This plant’s most noticeable features are the distinctive umbel-like inflorescence and subsequent clusters of scarlet berry fruits. The almost flat-topped, dense corymb is typically around 11 cm wide and snow-white coloured, gracing our hedgerows from May-July ( with our recent warmer springs here in Britain they are increasingly out in the south during May).

Guelder rose flower buds
Young flower buds of Guelder rose

The flowers  of Guelder rose are conspicuous in the way that they produce large (15-20 mm wide) sterile outer flowers, surrounding much smaller (6 mm wide) fertile flowers which eventually give rise to the fruits. These will then ripen in drooping clusters and are ready from September-October.

Guelder rose berries in Autumn
Guelder rose berries can be foraged in Autumn to make preserves

The branches have grey twigs, somewhat angular in shape. These carry opposite pairs of buds and leaves, mainly terminating with double buds.

The buds are scaly, and appear thin when viewed from one side, but reasonably broad and becoming tapered when viewed from the other. The twigs carry a similarity in colour and form to the elder, especially the opposite pairs of buds.

Learn more about the patterns of plants, and how they can fast track your foraging, in my article here.

When foraging Guelder rose, you will see the leaves are somewhat akin to a maple. They are often broader than long, usually deeply-divided into 3-5 lobes, and with toothed margins. The leaves are sometimes voraciously eaten to a lacy outline by the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). It is not unusual to find some plants decimated by this insect in certain areas.

Here’s what Mrs Grieves’ online herbal, says about Guelder rose.

Parts used: Inner bark. Berries

Harvest: Bark from 3-5 year old branches in early spring before leaf break. Berries in autumn.

Key constituents: Salicin (which converts to salicylate in the body); isovalerianic acid;  sesquiterpenes (viopudial, viburtinal); catechin tannins; coumarin (scopoletin); bitter principle (viburtine).

Actions: Anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, nervine, tonic, astringent, diuretic.

Pharmacology and uses: As its name suggests, this plant has long been used to alleviate painful cramps and spasms.

In North America a closely related species, black haw (V.prunifolium), is often used interchangeably, although they have slightly different chemical constituents. Certain indigenous North American Indian tribes such as the Meskwaki and the Penobscot reportedly used cramp bark for muscle swellings and mumps.

The famed ‘cramp bark’ of Guelder rose works by relieving and relaxing tense muscles, whether these are skeletal such as back muscles and limbs, or internal smooth muscles such as the intestines, airways, ovaries or uterus.

On another page on the website, you can discover more about the actions of medicinal plant constituents, as well as learning more about the plant meadowsweet,  from where salicylic acid was extracted to make the popular drug, aspirin

Cramp bark can also be taken internally as a decoction or applied topically. It has long been used to treat breathing difficulties in asthma as well as menstrual pains associated with excessive uterine contractions. Some authors have noted it as being useful where miscarriage is threatened. Cramp bark is also helpful in cases of irritable bowel syndrome, colic, and the physical symptoms of nervous tension.

The molecule salicin, upon digestion, converts to salicylic acid. As a known anti-inflammatory, it will heal and support internal smooth muscles.

This plant also has value in treating cardio-vascular hypertension and is known to relieve constipation associated with tension. Read more on the cardio-vascular system here. The anti-spasmodic action is known to be conferred in part by the substance valerianic acid.

In some cases of arthritis, where joint weakness and pain have forced muscles to contract until almost rigid, cramp bark can be usefully employed and can bring often remarkable relief. This is because as the muscles relax, more blood can flow, metabolic waste products such as lactic acid can be removed and some degree of normal function can return.

Cramp bark can therefore be used in acute and chronic cases of muscle pains and cramps. It can also be usefully used before embarking on any physical activity likely to bring pain.

The berries are not used medicinally. Some authors class them as poisonous whilst others mention them as edible. Tasted straight of the tree they are very bitter due to the substance viburtine.

The berries have been known to cause gastroenteritis when consumed raw. But cooking with the addition of sugar can make a nice enough preserve, but personally I prefer other fruit jams to this one.

Using the bark of Guelder rose is safe and effective for long and short term use, although maybe not if the patient is on anti-coagulant medications. This is because the coumarins and salicylates are both known to thin the blood.

The plant has been reported to cause hypotension in large doses or even in average doses if taken by previously hypotensive individuals. Pregnant women ought to refrain from taking the bark of Guelder rose until they have consulted a qualified practitioner.

Would you like to make learning about foraging fun? Well with my foraging cards you can! Visit the shop to see them.

Comfrey Monograph for Foragers

Foraging for comfrey in the UK.

Symphytum officinale  – Comfrey

Boraginaceae family

Comfrey has traditionally been one of the principle remedies in any materia medica. Comfrey is an elegant plant, common to our inland waterways, and one of more than 25 species of coarsely hairy perennials within the genus.

The common name Comfrey is derived from the Latin ‘conferva’, (to join together) which begins to tell us how the Romans knew of and used the plant. Similarly, its scientific generic name also alludes to this ‘bringing together’ (sympho- from the Greek meaning to unite; phytum from the Latin, meaning plant), whilst the specific name officinale denotes its use as an official apothecary herb of old.

This plant is distinguished by its large, broadly lanceolate leaves (up to 30 cm long and more) which rise each year from a rhizomous rootstock. Its leaves are set on long, relatively thick petioles coming from the crown of the plant.IMG_4737

Comfrey initially grows as basal growth, but can we actually call that often untidy mass of leaves a rosette? Comfrey’s large leaves are coarse and hairy, with curving, and upward-sweeping, netted vein patterns, arising from the mid-vein.  On the growing flowering stems the alternately spaced leaves have progressively shorter stalks, becoming sessile towards the top.

The leaves are quite similar to its family relative’s borage, lungwort, and the green-alkanet. Lungwort has white blotches on its leaves so cannot be readily mistaken for comfrey, though both borage and more especially the green alkanet could be. If you snap comfrey’s leaf stalks, the mucilaginous properties are quickly revealed.

Knowing comfrey from foxglove!

One of the most dangerous misidentifications that a forager can make is mistaking comfrey for another well-known, also medicinally potent, yet poisonous and unrelated species – the foxglove. This plant belongs to the figwort family and has an extremely similar looking leaf to comfrey, even on second glance.

foxglove leaf
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) leaves with crenated margins

I have heard tales of inexperienced foragers picking foxglove leaves, then eating them in fritters, only to wake up a week later in hospital from a coma! This possibility should install some vital diligence in making absolutely sure of identification. To help in this, the reader is advised to become familiar with both plants.

comfrey comparison
Comfrey leaves with entire, or featureless margins

The foxglove leaves will be seen to have minutely-crenate leaf margins, which comfrey does not have. Furthermore, the foxglove leaf veins do not curve out and sweep upwards. Rather, they rise at a more acute angle from the mid-rib.

It is also worth touching and holding the two plants. The two plants, whether it’s the leaves, stems, or petioles, all feel quite different to each other.

During flowering, the plants are much less likely to be confused. Many people will know the foxglove inflorescence. The glorious purple hooded flowers are borne on spikes and look totally different to comfrey’s inflorescence.

Another way of helping to distinguish comfrey and foxglove from afar is to observe and evaluate the habitat you are wandering through. If you are near streams or rivers or on wet ground below 320 metres, it is very likely the plant will be comfrey, for it delights in areas such as these.

Foxgloves can survive in sub-alpine conditions, and elevations of up to 1650 metres. The foxglove abounds by hedges, roadsides, and waysides, and especially by old, crumbling stone walls. They are often found within their classic lowland habitat of woodlands, where it will thrive at the edges, and within any well-lit glade.

The flowering stems of the common comfrey typically grow to about 150 cm high, although larger is not uncommon. Its flowers are borne on numerous cymes on multi-forked stalks. The flowers are usually creamy yellow-white on the wild comfrey, occasionally pink-purple.

IMG_4735
Certain insects burrow through the comfrey flowers to get to the nectar.

Comfrey has distinctive, tubular or bell-shaped flowers, with a crenate finish to the fused petals. The seeds are little nutlets, which appear in groups of four. Comfrey’s root is thick and many-branched, from an often large crown. It has black skin with white flesh.

You can find out more about how to identify plants using the easy-to-remember- ‘patterns method’ in my previous article.

Comfrey self-propagates from its creeping rhizomes, and gardeners are advised to be careful when placing or removing common comfrey, for it will creep and take over patches of ground due to an ability to grow from any shards of root left in the ground. As a friend and I are all too aware, these quickly re-emerge and grow on.

A suitable comfrey cultivar for the garden can be acquired, which is known as ‘bocking 14′. This variety is clump forming and does not spread to anything like the same extent as our native species.

See what Mrs Grieves has to say about comfrey here.

Parts used Leaves, roots.

Harvest Root in autumn, Leaves throughout season. 

Key constituents Allantoin (up to 2.5%); tannins; mucilage; gums; resins; phytosterols; rosmarinic acid; pyrrolizidine alkaloids (including symphitine, cynoglosine, consolidine); inulin.

Actions Anti-inflammatory, vulnerary, demulcent, astringent, increases cell proliferation.

Pharmacology and uses Comfrey has been referred to as one of the chief plant medicines in the folk repertory of Britain and Ireland. It is an exceptionally effective mucilaginous healing remedy in any materia medica.

Comfrey has been popularly used for cuts, grazes, and lesions (though this is now discouraged), as well as to heal larger wounds, bone fractures, torn cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. The swift wound sealing action is mostly attributed to the allantoin, a recognised cell proliferant, and is partly due to the tannins and general astringency of the plant, enabling it to draw open wounds together.

The mucilage contains the remarkable allantoin. This substance is well known to promote constructive activity of different types of connective tissue such as chondroblasts (cartilage) and osteoblasts (bone) as well as flesh and skin. Allantoin also helps produce neural cells. It promotes keratin dispersal and has been used topically on psoriasis. Allantoin is highly diffusible and its presence means scarring is less likely.

It is because the plant heals cuts so quickly (but from the surface downwards), that comfrey is not recommended for deep cuts anymore. Instead, for these wounds, a number of other common vulnerary plants, such as plantains or yarrow can be more profitably employed. They will both ensure complete healing at the bottom of the wound, working upwards.

Be warned, because there are documented cases of comfrey being applied to baby girls as nappy rash ointments, that have then led to the vagina sealing up, such are its powers. As well as healing and sealing all types of tissue, comfrey also has a reputation for use on bruises and swellings. All parts of the plant yield an oily astringent juice, containing the mucilage, which can be readily applied as a poultice as well as being made into the classic comfrey ointment.

Comfrey ‘plasters’ and ointments for broken bones.

Traditional use for healing damaged limbs was by cleaning, peeling, grating, and then boiling the root. This process obtains a thick paste which is then applied like ‘plaster of paris’. The comfrey plaster acts much in the same way. It helps broken bones by setting the joint, whilst acting somewhat as a poultice, thus enabling the absorption of medicinal components from the outside inwards.

Of the folk records collected, almost half consistently refer to its use on fractures, sprains, and the like. Internal use of the root for the same problems is not documented, so please do not drink comfrey root thinking it will help set your broken bones as successfully. The tannins and resins actively combine with mucilage to help give rise to comfrey’s ‘plaster action’.

Much has been written about the dangers of liver damage resulting from internal use of the root due to it containing liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. This group of around 660 alkaloids are found in a large number of plant species, approximately 6,000 worldwide. The PA causing the most concern in certain comfrey species, is echimidine. 

Our native wild S.officinale typically has considerably smaller amounts of the toxic alkaloids than the very similar looking comfrey plant most people have in their gardens or allotments, the usually purple-flowering S. x uplandicum. Moreover it does not contain the notably harmful PA alkaloid echimidine in the leaf.

In North America and Canada, you can acquire over-the-counter comfrey remedies from Symphytum officinale, because it doesn’t contain echimidine. British Herbalists may still prescribe common comfrey leaf. In other comfrey species, the root can contain approximately up to 10 times as much PA’s as the leaf.

Suffice it to say here that the dangers of toxic doses from comfrey root, although cumulative in effect, remain very slim due to the minute amounts present per dose when used as medicine. Saying this, comfrey root is now contra-indicated by herbalists for internal use due to the alkaloids. Furthermore, European practitioners do not now recommend topical use on cuts and wounds. 

S. x uplandicum is a cross between S.officinale and S.asperum (‘rough comfrey’) and will show typical hybrid vigour in a number of ways. One of these manifestations may well be the greater production of what are essentially predatory-defence chemicals in the bigger, more voracious hybrid plant. 

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The majority of tests carried out into alkaloid toxicity are based on direct subcutaneous injection of the alkaloids into rats, rather than testing the whole leaf or root. This does not replicate what actually occurs when we consume and digest the plant.

It is also worth reminding here that salicylic acid from meadowsweet could easily be as harsh to the stomach wall as aspirin, were it not for the other components present in the leaf (such as the mucilage and tannins) combining with it and providing healing incomparable to what aspirin can do.

I therefore continue to eat common comfrey occasionally, especially in the spring when it is at its best, as well as using it as a topical medicine, for musclular-skeletal injuries.

Comfrey has also been greatly used in the treatment of respiratory conditions and digestive ailments. A water extract of comfrey showed increases in the release of prostaglandins from the stomach wall. This has been suggested as producing a direct action in protecting the gastric mucosa from damage. Rosmarinic acid is also known for reducing inflammation and provides a major component of this plant’s anti-inflammatory action.

Comfrey as Food.

Comfrey is an exceptionally nourishing medicinal food, as was discovered in the 1970’s, containing as much protein as some legumes! The younger shoots and leaves are best used, and if steamed or blanched, offer a texture of succulent, slightly crunchy and mildly cucumber-tasting leaf stalks alongside the pleasant earthy ‘spinach’ taste of the leaf.

Alternatively, and perhaps more well known is using the leaves in a fritter. Simply make a batter and dip a folded leaf in, then fry. Served when golden brown with a sweetened chilli-enhanced soy sauce or such like, they are quite delicious.

If you would like to learn more about identifying and using wild plants, then you can book on one of my courses, or get a set of my new pocket-sized, waterproof, ‘foragers friend’ identification cards.

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.

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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.

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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…