Foraging plants for the respiratory system

Reclaim your health autonomy by foraging plants for your respiratory system

The respiratory system is our interface and connection with all of life, via the gases that permeate our atmosphere before permeating our blood. Through the mechanisms of the lungs we receive oxygen in the form of O2, and release carbon dioxide (CO2), as a result of ongoing cellular respiration.

However, due to the open nature of the lungs we will also encounter a continual bombardment of foreign matter and harmful, disease-spreading, pathogenic organisms.

The respiratory system represents the following tissues, muscles and organs.

  • The nose and mouth – The beginning of the airways. Oxygen is brought in to the nose and down to the trachea. When carbon dioxide (CO) is expelled, it comes back through the trachea to the nose.

  • The pharynx – Part of the digestive system as well as the respiratory system, because it carries food and air.

  • The larynx – Otherwise known as the voice box. It sits at the beginning of the trachea and essentially is a short tube that contains a pair of vocal chords.

  • The trachea – Essentially a smooth muscle and pipe-shaped airway, it is protected by the sternum and spine. Divides into left and right bronchus tubes.

  • The lungs – They connect to and begin at the trachea. Acupuncturists view the tongue as an extension of our lung.

  • The bronchi – These increasingly small air tubes carry the CO2 / oxygen to and from the lungs from the trachea.

  • The diaphragm – This muscle contracts when breathing in, and expands when exhaling CO2.

The pulmonary system has its own circulatory system. Deoxygenated blood is pumped by the heart to the lungs where it becomes oxygenated. It then flows back to the heart and is pumped around the body and brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell.

During a normal day, we breathe nearly 25,000 times, and take in large amounts of air. The inhaled air contains mostly oxygen and nitrogen. But air also has things in it that can hurt our lungs. There are two major causes of problems with the respiratory system – pollution and smoking. Obviously there are diseases and other issues also.

Many illnesses of the lungs are as a result of infection. These can be in the throat, or in the airways down towards and inside the lung itself. The inner surfaces of tissues in the respiratory system are coated with a film of mucus to aid peristalsis higher up the airway, as well as facilitating the ejection of foreign particles which can come to lodge themselves in the lungs.

Some disorders of the respiratory system, with suggestions of herbs we can forage to treat it.

Be careful about reading health books – you may die of a misprint!” – Mark Twain (1835-1910)

To facilitate treatment of the respiratory system, herbalists usefully distinguish between the lower and upper halves. The upper consists of the structural conducting organs: nose, sinuses, larynx and pharynx, whilst the lower half consists of the conducting air-ways of the trachea, including the bronchus tubes, respiratory bronchioles and alveoli.

Pulmonary tonic herbs are plant remedies with a wide range of actions on the system, strengthening and restoring tissues and membranes. They include mullein, plantains, elecampagne, and coltsfoot and are typically recommended by herbalists for treating symptoms of respiratory disease and to strengthen tissues and function. Coltsfoot has been called the best remedy for children.

Coughs can be treated in a number of ways with various herbs exerting different effects.

Anti-tussives inhibit the cough reflex. Aside from the well known and controversial opium poppy (containing the effective anti-tussive opiate alkaloid -codeine), these herbs include coltsfoot – the plant named in honour for its all round abilities to alleviate coughing; wild lettuce – which specifically sedates and dampens down the cough reflex in a similar way to the opiate codeine (an ingredient in many cough remedies); and wild cherry bark (Prunus avium) which is believed to work due to the presence of saponins.

Expectorants are a wide range of plants used to facilitate and accelerate the expulsion of mucous or sputum from the bronchial tubes. These may be relaxing or stimulating.

  • Relaxing expectorants are useful for easing spasm and to loosen mucous from the airways. They usually contain some soothing mucilage and are of great benefit when treating dry and irritable coughs. Both Ribwort and rats-tail plantains, as well as coltsfoot, marshmallow, and burdock have all been traditionally used.

  • Image of rats tail plantain
    Rats tail or greater plantain is a traditional herb used to treat the respiratory system
  • Stimulating expectorants such as thyme, mullein, elecampagne and garlic are good for productive coughs. They work by irritating the bronchial tubes, which initiates a reflex to cough. Plants with either of these components help to reduce mucosal viscosity, thereby enabling sputum to be passed more easily up, out, and away, via what doctors sometimes call the muco-ciliatory escalator.

Demulcent herbs typically contain substantial amounts of mucilage. Plants such as comfrey, the plantains, coltsfoot, chickweed, marshmallow, and mullein will all soothe, protect and heal damaged, exposed surfaces of the respiratory system. These plants are often soft to touch, and broad-leaved. They often work through reflex action of the gut nerves, easing irritation in other areas such as the digestive and urinary systems.

Image of chickweed, an emollient medicinal herb that helps the respiratory system.
Chickweed is an emolient herb used to treat the respiratory system.

Anti-catarrhal herbs reduce the amount of mucous and phlegm produced. The following herbs have been used for centuries with success: Garlic, coltsfoot, yarrow, lungwort, plantains, elder, elecampagne, and mullein.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lungs characterised by wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. One proven and powerful herb useful for asthmatics is Ephedra sinica (Ephedraceae family). This plant is a well-known bronchial dilator, which helps dry up sinuses and decongests the bronchioles, allowing more air into the lungs.

Comfrey, coltsfoot, elecampagne, white horehound, and mullein will be of value, as will regular massaging of the chest and back with essential oils such as lavender or thyme.

image of Inula helenium - elecampagne, a popular remedy for the respiratory system
One of the finest respiratory herbs, elecampagne (Inula helenium) is also stunningly beautiful!

Anti-septic and anti-bacterial herbs for the respiratory system

Anti-septic herbs are useful for treating throat infections. Mullein, garlic, thyme, calendula, and coltsfoot are all traditional herbs for infections of the bronchial tubes. It can be beneficial to help the lymphatic system cleanse the blood following infection and so plants such as cleavers or burdock are helpful. Sage is a great anti-septic gargle when inflammation of the tonsils or other throat glands occurs.

Anti-microbial remedies are often combined with any of the above where infection has or is likely to occur. Thyme and garlic are renowned anti-microbials. Peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary and many other essential oil containing plants, when taken as steam inhalations, are also effective anti-microbial plants and antiseptics.

Find out more about foraging on one of my foraging walks or courses.


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.

Foraging St John’s wort

Hypericum perforatum  (St Johns wort)

Hypericaceae family

This summer-flowering medicinal plant grows wild and free throughout many areas of Britain. With a liking of numerous settings it will be easy for foragers to find St John’s wort, and with unique observable characteristics, it is simple to identify. You can find out more about plant identification on my foraging walks and courses.

The scientific name for the genus, Hypericum, is thought to originate from the two Greek words – hyper, meaning above, and eikon, meaning ‘picture’.

The bright yellow flowers, which many centuries ago were felt to be symbolic of the sun, or spirit, were placed above religious pictures, specifically St John, to help ward off evil spirits during the celebrations of the midsummer Christian festival. Church leaders placed their festival onto the ancient summer solstice festivities (since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this has traditionally been celebrated on 24th June, previously falling on or around the 5th July).

The extractable red flower oil was previously meant to symbolize the blood of St. John. The species name perforatum is derived from the Latin word meaning perforated. Visible translucent perforations on both the leaves and the petals are visible with the naked eye.

The blood red stems of young spring growth on Hypericum perforatum.

Botanical description of St John’s wort

St Johns wort is a native British perennial, from a genus containing over 400 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials; deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen shrubs and trees. This plant grows throughout Europe.

St Johns wort is a clump-forming perennial which can grow to a height of up to 90 cm in flower. Re-appearing each year from its crown, it produces numerous red stems that eventually branch towards their upper parts. The stems bear small and hairless leaves, which are opposite and mostly oblong, but always sessile. The leaves typically grow to 3-4 cm long.

If you hold the stems up to the light, close inspection will reveal the leaves have numerous translucent glands, as well as a few dark ones at the edges on the undersides. The lanceolate petals and shorter sepals in the flower are also marked with dark dots.

The presence of the dark oil bearing glands, as well as the slight, opposite ridges on its round stem are crucial identification factors between this and one of more than half a dozen other Hypericum species that populate Britain.

The bright, glossy yellow flowers are similar in size to a buttercup. They have five petals and are borne on a corymb inflorescence. These types of flowering displays are often referred to as umbel-like.

When in full display, the shiny, showy blooms are noticeable for having more than fifty stamens spraying out from the centre of the flower. These are fused in the lower part into three bundles.

Hypericum perforatum flowers

Flowering Period

The flowering period for this plant is usually lengthy, and occurs between June and September, with the seeds ripening from late July to October. The self-fertile flowers are pollinated by bees and flies.

Soils and Habitats

St Johns wort absolutely delights on calcareous (alkaline) soils, as will be seen by the propensity of it when visiting chalk grasslands such as around Winchester and in West Sussex on the South Downs. It’s not a completely fussy plant, so will also be found on mildly acidic ground.

It can do well on waste-ground and some woodland edges, and is often seen happily populating pastures, as well as roadsides and occasional hedges. This is a lowland plant, so will be found at maximum altitudes up to around 480 metres.

St Johns wort can grow in the semi-shade of light woodland, or will be even more happy in full sun. The large tap-root helps it to flower right through the summer, even during periods of drought.

Although the plant can set viable seed, regeneration also occurs through its creeping lateral runners, arising at various points on the rootstock.

Parts used Leaves, flowers.

Harvest In summer (Flowers only for an infused oil).

Key constituents Hypericin; pseudohypericin; flavonoids (including hyperforin, kaempferol, luteolin, quercetin, rutin); phenolic acids (including caffeic acid, ferulic acid, chlorogenic acid); xanthones; mono-amine-oxidase-inhibitors (MAOIs).

Actions Anti-depressant, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, mild astringent.

Pharmacology and uses The chemical composition of St. John’s wort has been well studied, especially in the last thirty years. Documented pharmacological activities include anti-depressant, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial effects. These provide supporting evidence for several of the traditional uses stated for St John’s wort.

In terms of the recent history of British herbal healthcare, St Johns wort has had a somewhat meteoric rise to prominence. Many of its pharmacological activities remain unclear, although a number of actions have reportedly been attributable to hypericin and the flavonoid constituents.

Evidence from a number of randomised controlled trials during the 1990s, highlighted and confirmed the efficacy of St John’s wort extracts over placebo’s, in the treatment of mild-to-moderately severe depression.

St. Johns wort and extracts of it have been shown to be effective against short-to-medium term mild depression, but not long-term or severe depression. As with a lot of plant medicines, there is a need to further assess the efficacy of St. Johns wort, compared with that of standard anti-depressants.

Although the anti-depressant actions of this plant were only elucidated during the last 40 years or so, this plant had an acknowledged ability throughout history to relieve melancholy, as was noted by Gerard in his Herbal (published 1597). Folk medicine records also show many lay-people knew of its power to cure nervousness and low spirits, so it was also used it as a general tonic.

St John’s wort and mono amine oxidase inhibitors

St Johns wort contains molecules known as MAOI (mono-amine oxidase inhibitors). As their name suggests, the MAOI action is an inhibiting one. These molecules are known to increase the availability of mono-amine neuro-transmitters such as serotonin in the brain (thereby helping to combat feelings of depression). This plant is known to increase deep sleep and can be useful in cases of insomnia. 

Hypericin – a weak MAOI, but exerting effect on other neurotransmitter sites.

Interestingly though, the MAOI in this plant are weak and have been shown not to be responsible for the anti-depressant effect of St. Johns wort! However, what scientists do know about hypericin and the flavonoids are that they exert a number of effects on both the GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) and Glutamate receptor sites in the brain. These neurotransmitters are directly involved are in feelings of well being and in helping our central nervous system relax.

A number of concerns have been raised by allopathic practitioners over possible dangerous interactions between St John’s wort and certain prescribed medicines (including warfarin, ciclosporin, theophylline, digoxin, HIV protease inhibitors, anti-convulsants, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), ‘triptans’ and oral contraceptives).

Medical advice in Britain and America usually states that patients taking the aforementioned medicines should not take, or stop taking St John’s wort! Before embarking on a course of St Johns wort, and especially when on other medication, you need to seek advice from a pharmacist or another healthcare professional with detailed knowledge about these potentially dangerous adverse interactions!

Concentrating on the anti-depressant substances in St Johns wort could detract somewhat from the many other traditional applications for which this plant has been used.

Interestingly, a book by Gabrielle Hatfield and David E Allen, titled ‘Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition – An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland’, which was published almost 10 years ago, suggests that the reputation St. Johns wort has for healing cuts, grazes, and more serious wounds and burns, is likely to be more attributable to all of the Hypericum species found in Britain, rather than the one species under discussion in this monograph.

A different Hypericum species on a limestone cliff in the Gower, south Wales

Moreover, St John’s wort is a name given to more than one Hypericum species, and judging by maps of the British flora, H.perforatum won’t be found in all the areas that records of ‘St Johns wort’ use has been documented.

In their fascinating book, pieced together using information from before mass public travel and transportation, and sourced notably from unconnected areas of the UK and the Isle of Man, the authors report that various Hypericum species have been used, and seemingly with much effect.

St Johns wort oil has long been known of, for its topical pain relieving and soothing action on burns and scalds, ulcers, inflammations, and various forms of muscular pain.

Tutsan – Hypericum androsaemum. Likely to have been used medicinally in lieu of St Johns wort.

The red-coloured infused oil, extractable from the petals, has been used for these and other related complaints. St Johns wort can be usefully employed to treat conditions such as neuralgia, fibrositis, sciatica, excitability, anxiety, and as a general nerve tonic.

St Johns wort also aids the regeneration of granular tissue during healing of wounds. Indeed, Nicolas Culpeper, described in the 1640’s that it was “a singular wound herb” and that “it closes up the lips of wounds”.

Today, St Johns wort is a well known species and one of our most widely used herbal remedies. Contemporary uses have built on the fragments of traditional folklore collated from these islands. It is one of the staples of any Materia Medica here in Britain, and due to it being so common, one you can easily harvest, process and store each summer.

Where to Forage in towns and cities?

A guide to knowing where to forage in towns and cities.

Opportunities are everywhere for silent hunters to reap wild food rewards. when you forage in towns and cities!

Most of us now live in urban environments, so knowing where to forage in towns and cities is a necessity if you are wanting to bring exquisite gourmet foods to the table. According to the World Bank, some 54% of the global population live in the urban environment.

Although urban areas are not known for having mile upon mile of fecund hedgerows, or quick and easy access for residents to escape to rolling green hills and woodlands, towns and cities nevertheless harbour enough diversity of habitats to provide for us the majority of the plants discussed.

Before we get on to specific places and the likely suspects to forage for, it’s worth thinking about the different habitats and what they mean to the forager. When you first start to research about where to forage in towns and cities, you will soon discover that habitat identification can be as important as species identifica. An understanding of our landscape, either natural or man-made, with its various bedrocks, soils, and climates, is an ancient and most profitable art.

Knowing what terrain you are walking in, immediately refines the possibilities of what you can expect to find. In towns, this means knowing the little protected pockets, back alleys, streams, railway embankments, parks and cemeteries, as well as having an awareness of climactic effects of the concrete urban sprawl with its distortions in natural phenomenon such as wind speeds and temperatures.

Numerous south-facing sites can be found in towns. The extra solar radiation and warmth of these places always brings heightened productivity. The array of steep banks and verges facing sunwards are often present in abundance in towns, especially where development occurs on hillsides. A south facing slope of just 5˚provide plants with increased photosynthetic radiation equivalent to actually being 400 miles further south (with all the likely positive effects on yields that brings).

Foraging in towns and cities can offer unique opportunities. Often there are extended supplies of fresh edible and medicinal leaves, due to regular strimming and mowing operations. In towns, a ‘heat island’ effect also provides extra warmth, and here the seasonal foraging calendar seemingly undergoes transformation from a chronological procession, to one of mini-cycles of leafy growth, interspersed with flowering wherever plants are lucky enough to escape the chop!

A little historical knowledge of your local area will go a long way when searching for wild foods and medicines. Any city or town of sufficient age will likely have remnants of ancient agriculture within its boundaries or close to. It always pays to know the history of where you live, because local knowledge can be useful for any number of reasons.

When travelling around South-East London for example, it soon becomes apparent that there are a great number of fruit trees and other remnants of the North-West Kentish fruit orchards in that particular area of the once famed garden of England. So the pint here is that its worth doing some research before you leave your door. If you dont know the history of your area you may well miss out on ‘chancing’ upon harvests/

So lets take a look at some specific habitats and settings that are worth exploring, whether in town or country.

Walls, fences, and boundary edges

Plants always grow happiest from any spot that provides satisfactory conditions. I think people could learn a lot from their tenacity. For example hops (Humulus lupulus), can be spotted on many country roads and urban streets in Southern Britain, especially in parts of South East England, usually as it clambers over trees, hedges, walls, and fences.

Hops can also reach high up the sides of large buildings, such as the one I spotted on the Iceland supermarket next to Peckham Rye train station in the heart of urban South East London. This specimen was thriving from an established rootstock, and was easily attaining heights of more than 10 metres. It was dripping with aromatic medicinal flowers come the autumn!

Aside from hops and the regular tangled profusion of ivy, brambles (Rubus spp), roses (Rosa spp), and honeysuckles (Lonicerum spp), you will also find the edible, if bitter, ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), with its 2-4 cm wide reniform leaves and dainty little white flowers, passionfruit (Passiflora spp), bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara), and ‘old man’s beard’ (Clematis vitalba) enjoying walls, fences and boundary edges.

These are all naturally sprawling, climbing species. Passionflowers are easily found, voraciously scrambling up and spilling out of private gardens. The grabbing ability of their long tendrils helps it put on lots of growth in just one year.

Walls and fences offer extra warmth and protection from winds, therefore any plants growing against them will generally grow more quickly, flower earlier, and fruit for longer.

Woodland plants

If your town has woods or copses near-by, you will have a chance of finding many different plants during the year. Woodlands are the natural ‘climax’ vegetation of most of Western Europe below mountain tree lines. This explains why a lot of the British flora are natural forest species. Woodlands vary in the flora they harbour, dependent on underlying bedrock and soils, degree of drainage, and human intervention, be this management or mismanagement.

Variable woodland soils hugely affect the flora present. For example, on heavy clay soils; periods of water-logging are common in winter, so a number of the species spotted on marsh or fen land may occur, especially if shade tolerant.

Sandy soils or those on granite or other ancient rock are usually nutrient poor soils, and often very acid (with a pH below 5.5). Here we typically find oak (Quercus spp), birch (Betula spp) or pine (Pinus spp) predominating, with limited under storey diversity, comprising mainly heath-land plants.

On calcerous (lime-rich) soils, the pH is high (usually above 7), and therefore alkaline. The tree species dominating here are typically ash, hazel, and elm, alongside beech in the drier and more southern parts of Britain.

Usually the ground flora on alkaline soils are rich in diversity and may contain many of the species we generally find on chalk scrub or grassland, especially where light levels are raised as in woodland glades, clearings, and rides.

In some areas it may be possible to find plants of acid and alkaline soils almost cheek by jowl, where distinct bedrocks merge, as in parts of Dorset, where acid loving blueberries find pockets of suitable soils near to where farmers grow huge alkaline loving cabbages!

The edges of woodlands offer us many plants also found in the hedgerows. For example, deciduous woodlands often contain raspberries (Rubus idaeus) and dewberry’s (Rubus caesius) as well as blackberries (|Rubus fruticosus agg) in the southern half of Britain.

In Northern areas and higher climes you will increasingly encounter the ‘stone bramble’ (Rubus saxatilis) more frequently and the dewberry not so often. Raspberries are typically found all over Britain, often in well established, dominantly deciduous woodland, either on the edges or within lighter, sunnier areas. Stone brambles, as their name suggests, are seen to enjoy more mountainous terrain.

The yew tree (Taxus bacatta) is an overlooked fruiting plant, probably due to misinformation regarding its poisonous qualities. Many books say the whole plant is poisonous, but these are wrong. The deliciously sweet and gloopy fruit is edible, yet all other parts of this evergreen plant are deadly poisonous, including the seed. The fruits make excellent scary Halloween cake decorations, but eat them carefully and spit the seed out!

The oak tree was formerly used as a food in Britain, especially during famines, most recently in the 1600’s. All bar one of the species you will find here produce acorns with considerable amounts of tannins making them unpalatable raw. However, the oaks are made edible though a number of methods, involving leaching the tannins in water as well as roasting. The one species I know from which you could eat raw acorns, is the evergreen ‘holm oak’, also known as the ‘holly’ oak (Quercus ilex).

Chalk and Limestone grassland plants

Many chalk and limestone grasslands are semi-natural areas of vegetation. Although originally forested, they were cleared a long time ago by man and used as pasture for sheep. They often occur on the more-difficult-to-plough steeper slopes, where chalk or limestone rocks are near the surface. As is the case nowadays, many areas are left un-grazed and soon revert to scrub on its way to the stable climax vegetation of beech or ash. However, certain shrubs and the more light demanding woodland species will also be found. Indeed, these habitats are among the most diverse you will find, and are always more diverse than acid soils.

Amongst the wide array of medicinal and edible plants to be found on alkaline soils are: any one of the plantains (Plantago spp), wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca), red and white clover (Trifolium spp), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), wild carrot(Daucus carota), wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), greater burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), betony (Betonica officinalis syn Stachys betonica), self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare), Juniper (Juniperus communis), and the yew tree. This is but just a small selection.


Just about every town has some wild waterways flowing through them. The convergence of two distinct natural eco-systems, i.e. the land and water, is noted for heightened diversity and productivity of plants and all other organisms. Be sure to be aware of the shifting unstable nature of river banks, ponds and streams.

Many streams and rivers have a noticeable lack of riparian vegetation. Bank-side erosion is inevitable without sufficient buffer strips, for these are the areas immediately around waterways where specific riverside herbs, shrubs and trees soak up surplus water and leached nutrients from elsewhere up-stream and uphill), so where cattle graze, tread, and trample the banks, its vegetation will likely disappear at some point during the year.

Coastal areas

Coastal towns and cities are some of the most productive areas to forage in. Due to the nature of tidal rivers, they have specific vegetation growing there that are comfortable with the more saline conditions, and unless cultivated in gardens, will be hard to find further inland. Estuaries, especially ones with accessible mud and marsh flats, are exceptionally good places to forage from. Depending on where you live, you may well encounter these plants:

  • alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)

  • sea-beet (Beta vulgaris)

  • sea kale (Crambe maritima)

  • common and English scurvy-grasses (Cochlearia officinalis / C.anglica)

  • sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides)

  • rock-samphire (Crithmum maritimum)

  • buckshorn plantain (Plantago coronopus)

  • sea plantain (Plantago maritima)

  • marsh samphire / glassworts (Salicornia spp)

  • wild carrot

There are other fine examples of plentiful plants, tasty and highly nutritious, all available to harvest when near the coast. I’ve foraged from small patches of different plantains (Plantago ovata, P.lanceolata,, plus P.coronopus) that I found all hanging out together in Brighton on the beach near the pier. These plants are commonly found on grassy areas in many other coastal towns and cities.

Wastegrounds. Foraging diversity in every every town and city.

Every urban area will have those often neglected, uncultivated pockets of land where many useful species can be found. Our transportation networks have greatly increased bio-diversity in a number of places. This is because plants, most commonly the seeds, have taken advantage of the work of humans to spread their geographic distribution. The habitats created by paths, lanes, highways, bi-ways, rivers, canals, and railway lines can often provide us with heightened diversity.

Disturbed ground, cracks and crevices, and other places

Many of our annual and biennial plants are clever opportunists and survivalists extraordinaire – as anyone can see by the sometimes precarious and unlikely places that our native plants thrive, such as the ones seen jutting out of deteriorating cement in brick walls, especially derelict buildings and derelict yards.

Look out for the renowned traditional cough remedy white horehound (Marrubium vulgare), notable for its downy green-white leaves and white two-lipped flowers, as well as the common white and red dead nettles (Lamium album / L. purpurea) amongst other plants listed previously under waste-grounds.

Certain medicinal species also love to colonise freshly-disturbed ground. These include the poppies (Papaver sominferum and P.rhoes are pretty common), any one of the many willow herbs (Epilobium spp), as well as any number of speedwells (Veronica spp). You would be unlucky not to find shepherds purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), or a host of the other common edible and medicinal species from the brassica family.

Other frequently found plants include chickweed (Stellaria media) and the widespread mullein (Verbascum thapsus). The profuse-flowering St Johns wort is a lover of ‘poorer’ soils, often found in towns on waste ground, in alleyways, cracks in concrete, as well as in the countryside, abounding on limestone and otherwise calcareous ground.

Areas around allotments will commonly host a large number of species, often including many escaped brassica vegetable plants. Larger fruiting, cultivated blackberry and raspberry varieties often grow up against allotment boundary fences.

Look out here also for alfalfa (Medicago sativa). This plant is best known as a sprouted seed or when planted as a green manure crop, but it also provides us with edible young salad leaves and tasty, pea-flavoured, purple flowers.

Alfalfa is one of our most nutritious foods. It contains vitamins A, B-complexes, C, D, and E. as well as bioflavonoids. It also contains numerous minerals including, Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc. Sprouted seeds are now commonly found in shops, although the plant is quite a common escape. Alfalfa is the plant that the Arabs famously fed to their horses, which began a reputation for Arab hoses, which continues today.

Cemeteries, parks and public gardens

The numerous cemeteries, parks and gardens are exceptionally good places to hunt for plants. They will harbour an array of culinary and medicinal plants. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) will sometimes still be found in cemeteries, as it has a well documented traditional use as a symbol of remembrance.

Lime trees (Tilia spp) are plentifully found in parks and larger gardens, whilst the seemingly ubiquitous nettle, dandelion, hawthorn, yarrow, burdock, blackberries, plantains, and elder, are also easily found in these increasingly badly and often under-maintained habitats. Municipal flower beds are useful, for here can often be found the smaller, ephemeral plants such as chickweed, speedwells, and hairy bitter-cress (Cardamine hirsuta), in amongst typically unexciting ornamental bedding plants.

In the summer, every town has masses of edible flowers such as Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), Calendula officinalis, Viola spp and Campanula spp bursting out of front gardens and escaping through fences.

Commonly found aromatic herbs will likely include lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and sage (Salvia officinalis), which as evergreen or semi evergreen plants, will allow us foraging opportunities throughout most of the year. As you are by now discovering, many opportunities constantly appear for the urban forager even before considering whether to knock on doors to ask permission.

Commonly ignored edible species.

Many well known plants that are most often planted as ornamental specimens in gardens also offer us edible fruits and valuable medicine. The showy Fushia genus (Onagraceae family) is an example. These plants are often quite vigorous shrubs which can break out of their confines in small gardens. Their often large, and usually pink flowers as well as their oblong-shaped berry fruits (up to 2 cm long on some species) are well worth foraging for as you walk through urban streets. When ripe, the fruits are a dark brown-purple colour, tasting sweet and juicy with a slight peppery after-tone.

The Berberidaceae family of mostly evergreen shrubs are widely planted in towns because they make good hedging. Berberis darwinni offers us citrus flavours from their flowers and a profusion of edible berries in the summer. Mahonia x media and other closely related shrubs that are all commonly known as the ‘oregon grape’ all give us edible, if mostly tart berries in the early summer. These fruits are much improved when made into a preserve! The roots of these plants are valuable digestive herbs.

A common, almost tropical fruit tree, found in most towns these days, is the much planted fig tree (Ficus caricus). They can be thuggish when given anything like a free roam (requiring root confinement to fruit heavily) and easily burst through their enclosing walls and fences. You can often find them by rivers in towns and cities. Their ripe, fat tear-drop-shaped brown fruit are a delicious occasional treat in the late summer and early autumn. Furthermore, I could almost guarantee that near to where you live, you will regularly be going past the plant that gives us the essential flavouring for soups, broths, and casseroles – bay leaves (Laurus noblis).

So get out, explore your local area and discover where to forage in towns and cities.