Foraging for Alexanders. A versatile & abundant wild food.

Foraging for alexanders. Another never ending wild plant affair.

Dense patches are a common sight when foraging for alexanders. This patch stretched on like this for more than 100 metres

No matter the time of year, it is always time to go foraging for alexanders

Foraging for alexanders, just like many other plants I cover in these pages, is a never ending affair, offering us all year round harvesting opportunities. This plant deserves our attention. In fact, invasive plants such as alexanders demand my foraging attention because of their abundance as well as thier versatility in the kitchen. Although their impact may be well known, their nutritional and medicinal virtues need highlighting, especially with austerity defining our economic zetigeist. Invasive edibles need harvesting, processing, experimenting with, and eating.

A flick through antiquated gardening books will show that alexanders is one of numerous wild edible species that were formerly consigned to the compost heap of history, but thanks to a resurgence in interest in our wild foods, are  now rightly regaining favour in the kitchen of the adventurous.

When foraging for alexanders, I uprooted a plant growing happily on top of concrete. See the right angled root growth at the top

Brought to Britain from the Mediterranean by Romans, who knew it as the ‘rock parsley of Alexandria’, this biennial plant took an instant liking to our rich fertile soils, especially around the coast. It can now be found in large, often unmanageable numbers, in these habitats.

This plant is endowed with some extraordinary abilities to thrive. I once picked a specimen, from what I thought was soil covered by leaves, only to find a large concrete slab just a couple of inches below the leaf mold. Yet a substantial tap-root had adapted to these surroundings and grown in an ‘L’ shape and was as big as if grown vertically in a rich, loamy soil.

The tender young leaf shoots are a favourite foraging nibblee, and will be found all winter when foraging for alexanders

Permaculture designers as well as foragers can utilise this vigorous growth, and other useful competitive advantages. These includes the setting of copious amounts of freely germinating seed and a winter/spring growing season. Both of these traits ensure that masses of plants establish themselves early each autumn.

Because of its vigorous/invasive nature, foragers are likely to discover that simply asking landowners if you can uproot the plant (a legal requirement), will be greeted with “Please! Take as much as you want”!

Botanical description to help identification when foraging for alexanders

As a member of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) family, extreme caution should always be exercised before picking. 

The yellow compound umbel flowers helps to stand this plant out from the crowd of similar-looking umbellifers

Aside from their well-documented potentially poisonous qualities, their photo-toxicity needs mentioning. And while it is true that a number of the umbellifers are deadly poisonous, alexanders offers the beginner an easy introduction to identifying these notoriously difficult plants and becoming acquainted with the carrot family as a whole. 

Alexanders is a hairless and aromatic plant, containing its essential oil glands within the leaves. This contrasts to another aromatic family (Lamiaceae – mints) which tend to produce external glandular hairs. So when seeking out the aromatics unique to a species, crushing and sniffing a leaf is, as ever, vital. More information on medicinal plant constituents and their actions can be found here.

The generic name Smyrnium alludes to the myrrh-like aromatics, whereas the specific epithet olusatrum refers to the black colour of the mature seeds and the skin on the roots.

The basal leaves are on large petioles – sheathed at the base, and often found with a pink-tinge. The hollow petioles are shaped like flattened cylinders, and covered with thin lines. Upper stem leaves are sessile (without stalks).

When out foraging for alexanders,it is possible that untrained eyes may confuse it with wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) or wild celery (Apium graveolens), which can both be found sharing the same coastal habitat.

On close inspection however, you will notice a number of clear differences. Alexanders leaves are triangular-shaped – like numerous umbellifers, but the leaflets appear in groups of three (ternate) – in contrast to many other relatives with pinnate divisions (pinnae: Latin feather).

This short video explains how to identify pinnate-leaved carrot family plants 

Alexanders leaflets are in groups of three and on close inspection reveal tiny white hydathodes on the serration tips.

The glossy lime-green leaves of alexanders are able to be identified with a single characteristic: the tiny white hydathodes (glands that exude water on the teeth or tips of a leaf). These are not found on any other umbellifer in Britain. The leaflets are oval(ish), with rounded crenate-serrations.

Fully grown angelica leaves will reveal 3 or 4 pinnate divisions, typically with a purple tinge to each leaflet margin as well as the leaf stalk. Where as celery has glossy, once pinnate leaves, with lobed leaflets, on deeply grooved and ridged petioles. The distinctive celery smell immediately sets it apart from other umbellifers.

A typical sight if foraging for alexanders in spring…a mass of yellow flowers on stems that are now unfit for harvesting

Alexanders produces young flowering stems in February and March. These are solid at first, becoming hollow with age. When cutting you can briefly see a white latex. The stems are branched and slightly ridged with green vertical stripes.

The umbrella-like inflorescence quickly unfurls in early spring sunshine. The yellow flowers have five petals, and are followed by the large aromatic seeds – green at first, turning black when ripe. More information on identifying plants using their observable plant family patterns can be found here.

Cookery ideas using alexanders

The leaves can be added to soups or used sparingly in salads when chopped. The young emerging leaf shoots with their tender white bases, are great steamed, stir fried or battered in rice and gram flour.

A jar of rhubarb and alexanders jam

I think the tender young flower stems are delectable when harvested at the right time. This timing will always be site and specimen specific, as my article on the edibility of edible wild plants discusses. Stems need to be picked well before the flowers are out, to ensure tenderness. When steamed, they are magnificent served simply, with cracked black pepper and butter or olive oil.

In other pages I have created a guide to harvesting wild plants as well as a discussion on how the timing of harvests greatly influences edibility.

Alexanders and rhubarb jam on sourdough bread. A lovely late winter / early spring wild food treat

For lovers of preserves, the stems also make a superb late-winter jam when combined with early forced rhubarb. Somehow, the two plants produce a melon or kiwi fruit flavour! I recommend leaving the thinner stems unpeeled, as the stripes add more visual impact in the finished product.

The stems can be candied if you fancy, just like angelica, but most of the aromatics are lost with repeated heating, and its a fiddly, time-consuming business. Better still, the very young, tightly packed flower buds can be made into an unusual aromatic fudge-like sweet, with muscavado sugar, vanilla pods and butter, and they make a great wild replacement for cauliflower in a tangy piccalilli (Thanks Anna!)

With seven plant parts to use, there are lots of reasons to go foraging for alexanders
The jet black seeds of alexanders were formerly used as a seasoning, before pepper became widely available

I use the roots in soups, or par-boiled, before being sautéed or roasted. They have a somewhat floury texture when roasted, but will retain a hint of bitterness. Upon flower initiation (up to five weeks before we see evidence), the roots will begin to become more fibrous, so early specimens are best.

Alexanders seed are a great hedgerow spice! They can be made into a pickle, lacto-fermented, or used just as they are, where their volatile constituents and bitter green tones offer slightly different flavour profiles than the mature, black seeds.

They offer similar textures and a hint of a pepper-like top note. If pan roasted first, the flavour profile softens and balances out further, similar to using its family relatives coriander, cumin, assa-feotida, and fennel.

A selection of my wild food recipes, including alexanders and rhubarb jam, can be found here.

This plant is another of the 52 featured species in my foragers playing cards – a perfect way to learn and play! These cards together with my other sets of wild food cards, are available from from the shop.

Happy foraging!

Three corner leek. From pest to pesto

Three corner leek pesto – A quick and tasty recipe from a highly invasive non native plant.

Three corner leek (Allium triquetrum) Liliaceae

Invasive plants evoke heated feelings. Certain plants, whether we appreciate it or not, are evolutionarily disposed to the rapid colonisation of land, especially bare soils. When wandering the British countryside, you will notice that some of the flora found here can be aggressive colonisers of ground.

So if the plant is edible and tasty, its a no-brainer right? Surely we eat em to beat em?!

The 3-corner leek is native to the Mediterranean area. First introduced to cultivation here in 1759, it was found well established in the wild less than a century later. With a late autumn to spring growth cycle, the plant found a profitable niche here, and when coupled with a handy seed disposal relationship with ants, it gives the plant an advantage when establishing in new sites.

The plant will be found in a number of lowland settings in the UK, particularly loving life in our moist South West counties such as Devon and Cornwall, and commonly appears throughout Southern England except around Salisbury Plain.

Scattered populations are increasingly recorded in town and country throughout the UK.

The abundant winter foliage and copious spring flowers are increasingly found in urban areas

Large dense carpets of this bulbous perennial are not uncommon. With salt-tolerance, it also enjoys various coastal settings up and down the isles.

It re-appears when most of our herbaceous plants are either dormant or overwintering. Keep an eye out in October and you will see quite a bit of new growth rising from their small white bulbs, which are often right at the surface of the soil.

How to identify three corner leek

Each bulb typically produces 4 or 5 strongly keeled, glossy-green leaves with parallel veins, entire margins, and leaf tips that are often acutely pointed. When looking underneath, the mid-vein is prominently ridged.

Toward the base, its hairless leaves are distinctly triangular in structure. If chancing upon a large stand of the plants, you will find the foliage tends to drift in the same direction, creating a pleasing long-grass sward effect.

3 corner leek is invasive and will make dense swards
3 corner leek spreads rapidly and can quickly take on the appearance of a lushious dense grass sward.

If you crush a leaf, the unmistakeable, sulphurous Allium chemistry will quickly be detected. You might well find that the strength and quality of the aromatics differ dependent on soils and temperature…at least the strongest and most pungent stuff I have foraged, came on cold January days from acid soil in Devon and on Barnes common, SW London.

Flowering occurs during April and May, like a number of our native ephemeral Allium species. The distinctive triangular flower stem will grow to around 45 cm, eventually producing a drooping, delicate, bell-shaped inflorescence. 

The white sepals and petals have thin green vertical stripes, making these flowers easily identifiable from similar-looking plants white bluebell cultivars (Hyancinthoides non scripta ‘Alba’), or the summer snowflake ( Leucojum aestivum) .

The green striped corolla of three corner leek

The corolla displays typical lily family patterns of three stamens and a fused, three-lobed stigma can be seen. Seeds are similarly produced in groups of threes, initially green coloured, then finishing black.

This larger than life shot shows the remains of the petals surrounding the seed pod. Young green seed pods are similar in size to petit pois peas
Dried seed pods eventually open to reveal three black seeds
Summer snowflake appears with blunter leaf tips and without the pronounced keel undersides. The corolla is tighter, without stripes, and with a yellow center

Foragers might say that they can know an Allium from its smell. You cannot rely on this diagnostic characteristic when harvesting large amounts.

The nature of essential oils means we inevitably transfer them onto our fingers, so how do we know that we are not accidentally picking poisonous daffodils, snowdrops, or crocus, growing amongst them?

You need to know the leaf structure, the colour, the texture, and other aesthetic and mechanic qualities that can only come from engaging with the plant.

With very similar-looking plants, close study of numerous features becomes vital, especially when the plant is young. Our brains can quickly file this range of information presented to them, merging it with observations about the landscape, soil, habitat, micro-climate, and time of year; while observing the habit of the plant itself.

So, knowing the blue green colour and blunt-tips of daffodil leaves, and the length and width of crocus or snowdrop leaves compared to this particular garlic relative, helps to ensure that even on auto-pilot, and working at speed, the key check points are covered when harvesting.

I work with the premise that I also get two further opportunities to check the leaves; firstly during preparation of the plant, and finally, on the chopping board, or as I add to the pot.

Using 3 corner leeks

All Alliums and all their parts are edible. 3-corner leek, with its luscious leaves tender stems and crunchy flower buds and bulbs, is particularly versatile. If you can eat all parts of the plant, it’s in season all year – what more could you want!? With a strong onion-leek flavour, this plant can be added to many dishes.

Three corner leek pesto, with soaked sunflower seeds, 2 cloves bulb garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, basil, salt, pepper. Photo: Tobias Snow. View more on Instagram.

I harvest leaves throughout winter, from November onwards; to add to sauces, salads, pies, pesto and soups, then harvest the first of the sweet, pungent flower buds for lacto-fermentation in March. 

Bunches of pre-flowering stem ‘leeks’ can also be harvested in late March and April, before the flowers eventually open. These can be used in salads or as garnish. The young, green, and crunchy seeds can be eaten raw, fermented, or dried.

From late May onwards, as the plant enters its dormancy, I harvest the small marble-sized bulbs for preserving. Juicy and crunchy, these are quite fiddly and time consuming to prepare, but are simply stunning when lacto-fermented for a couple of weeks!

Medicinally, we could potentially use 3 corner leek like a milder version of garlic, but I always reach for bulb garlic out of instinct – often carrying a clove – so don’t employ the other species for medicine. The Allium essential oils are known to be antimicrobial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and antiseptic, so this plant will likely show some activity in these areas.

This delicious plant is one of the featured species in my foragers playing cards, and the ‘top trumps’ style card game. You can find these in the foraging resources shop. 

Happy foraging!

 

Foraging Rose Hips

Discover the medicinal benefits of roses and why you should still go foraging rose hips

Rosa canina / Rosa rugosa – dog rose / hedgehog rose

Rosaceae family

If you are of a certain age, then foraging rose hips will possibly be something your grandparents may remember with fondness. During the second world war, mass State sponsored foraging saw tonnes of the high Vitamin C fruit collected by tens of thousands of people, and weighed in for cash reward.

These common hedgerow plants belong in a genus comprising approximately 150 species of mostly deciduous and semi-evergreen shrubs and climbers. They are distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world, and their cultivation goes back thousands of years.

The generic name Rosa is apparently derived from the Greek roden – meaning red, or the Latin ruber – also meaning ruby or red. Roses are a plant that became synonymous of the ancient Mediterranean region. The roses that grew in this area were reportedly a deep crimson colour, which gave birth to the legend that the flowers sprung from the blood of Adonis. 

The roses have been important since ancient times in the preparation and use of cosmetics, medicine, ritual, and perfumery. It is known that the Greeks, Persians, and Romans employed many kinds of rose as medicines; in 77 AD the Roman diarist Pliny recorded more than 30 disorders that responded positively to rose preparations.

Different species of Roses were widely grown in medieval apothecary gardens. Rosa laevigata was mentioned in medical literature as being used by the Chinese around 470 AD.

Image of rosa rugosa flowers
Rosa rugosa flowers, commonly found in towns and cities as an amenity plant.

The commonly planted urban hedging species, Rosa rugosa, has historically been used to a lesser extent, and is reportedly a fairly recent addition to their materia medica. It is believed to have been first documented during the period of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The plant then reached Europe around the 19th century from its original homeland of China and Japan.

Wild, scrambling roses such as our dog rose (Rosa canina), are one of the quintessential hedgerow staples of British countryside.

Image of dog rose flowers
Dog rose flowers are a quintessential part of Britain’s hedgerows

Identifying features to look for when foraging rose hips.

The dog-rose is a variable, deciduous shrub native to Europe, West Asia and Africa. It loves to grow in woodlands, copses, and hedges throughout Britain, but not higher than around 550 metres. The gloriously rampant roses are recognisable by their arching, green, thorny stems that can climb high into trees, as well as for their beautifully simple flowers.

The stems bear pinnate leaves which are divided into 5-7 oval-shaped leaflets approximately 6-7 cm long. Beautiful pink-white blooms are borne singularly or in clusters of 2-4 from late spring to mid-summer.

They are around 5-6 cm in diameter. Alas, the splashes of pink and white adorn our hedges for a short time only because the petals are easily blown off by winds.

The flowers give rise to the familiar fruits known as ‘hips’, which duly ripen to their glorious rich scarlet colour during early autumn. This provides a sporadic and welcome visual interlude in the hedgerow alongside the hawthorn berries, from the dominant brown and yellow leaves of late autumnal decay.

Image of rose hips in autumn
Autumn hedgerows come alive with the masses of splashes of scarlet in hedgerows from September.

In contrast Rosa rugosa (an introduced species, and now a schedule 9 invasive plant), is a vigorous shrub; having very dense, prickly stems and deeply veined leaves. Once again, the leaves are pinnate; although in this instance bearing an average of 9 narrow, oblong leaflets growing to 3-5 cm long.

The flowers of Rosa rugosa are often a magnificent bright pink, being larger than the dog rose at 8-9 cm in diameter, and swiftly giving rise to globular, almost tomato-like red hips,. They are much fatter than the dog rose, but almost the same length. An introduced species; the hedgehog rose can be found growing at altitudes of up to 400 metres. All roses can be grown in sunny or light shade and thrive in well-drained, slightly acid soil.

If foraging rose hips in towns and cities, then you will probably find that the hedgehog rose is the species most commonly encountered, as this plant is very popular as an amenity planting in parks, cemeteries, gardens, around tower-blocks, and many development complexes.

This plant has hips that are bigger and ready earlier than the dog rose. Either can be used, but resist the temptation to get the hips off the showy roses in your garden. They have substantially less vitamin C in them and are not worth bothering about.

No matter which species used, be careful with the irritant seed hairs within the fruit. These are the basis for itching powder, found in joke shops. They will need to be strained off if boiling the fruit in the traditional way of making rose hip syrup

Parts used Petals (occasionally) and ripe hips (with seeds and irritant hairs removed).

Harvest Fruits when ripe. The dog rose-hip in late September-October, the hedgehog rose-hips in late August-September. Dog rose-hips are better after a frost.

Key constituents Vitamin C (one cup-full of rose hip pulp reportedly has between 40-60 times as much vitamin C as oranges); vitamins A, B, D, and E; flavonoids; tannins; sugars; acids; pectin; carotenoids (lycopene); volatile oil; essential fatty acids; resin; minerals (including magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sulphur, zinc).

Actions Astringent, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, diuretic.

Pharmacology and uses The high vitamin C content is useful in preventing and fighting infection, colds, flu and pneumonia. The astringency of rose-hips helps relieve dysentery and diarrhoea. In addition, the various flavonoids and substantial amounts of Vitamin C in rose hips, have potent antioxidant action help protect the body from numerous internal and external stresses.

As previously mentioned in my article on medicinal plant constituents and actions Vitamin C and bio-flavonoid molecules always appear combined together in nature. This is how our bodies experience vitamin C when eating fruits. Rose-hips are rich in this vital chemical complex.

Image of Rosa rugosa hips
Rosa rugosa hips are fatter, rounder, bigger, and available earlier than dog rose, typically from August.

Together, these molecules help to strengthen body tissues as well as helping to build and maintain a healthy vascular system. They also prevent damage to fragile capillaries. As life cannot go on without vitamin C, it almost goes without saying that regularly consuming plants such  as roses, as a prophylactic, will be of more benefit the older you are.

During the mid 17th century, Culpeper, prescribed rose hips for ‘consumptive persons’, as well as for ‘tickling rheums’, ‘breaking the stone’ (in the kidneys) and to help digestion. Rose-hips have mild laxative and diuretic properties as well as being of help in the treatment of urinary infections.

In Ayurvedic medicine, roses have long been considered ‘cooling’ to the body and a tonic for the mind, and Native American Indians are said to use rose-hips to treat muscle cramps. Rose petals were included in the British pharmacopoeia as an astringent until the 1930’s.

The discovery of the nutritive power of rose hips was due to World War II. During this period there was a shortage of citrus fruit in England, and the British government organized the harvesting of as many rose hips as possible in England as a substitute vitamin C. This eventually highlighted the importance of rose-hips as a superior source of the vitamin and began its worldwide popularity.

Preserving rosehips can be done in a few ways. Traditionally, sugar and alcohol have been used. Making a rose hip syrup with sugar can be achieved through boiling and straining the fruit, or, more simply, and perhaps with more eventual Vitamin C content, by a cold infusion, as can be seen below

Image of cold infusing rose hips, layered with sugar
Layers of sugar and rose hips, will in time produce a thick floral rose hip syrup, without need for boiling.

Alternatively the fruit could be treated like others and made into a fruit leather, which can keep for months. As well as this, I like to make rose hip brandy for those chilly winter evenings round the wood burner. The better the brandy you buy, the better the product will be. Simply steep the hips in brandy with some sugar to sweeten a little. Leave until the new year if you can!

Image of rose hip brandy infusing
Rose hip brandy. A warming way to get some rose hips into your life!

The iron in rose hips make them an excellent supplement for menstruating women, whilst an oil extracted from the rose is of value in reducing scar tissue and stretch marks caused by pregnancy and birthing, due to its tissue regeneration properties. 

Rose hips are one of the plants covered in my Autumn set of foragers friend identification cards, available very soon in the foraging resources shop.

Another foraging monograph next week

Japanese knotweed & beetroot relish

Try this fantastic japanese knotweed and beetroot relish, that livens up your lunch and is simple to make.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is an infamous schedule 9 herb, yet also edible, so turning it into this super japanese knotweed and beetroot relish, or other exciting foods, is a great way of  dealing with it in your local area.

Make sure you are picking from a patch of knotweed that isn’t sprayed with herbicides. So it’s better to find some well off the beaten track.

Word of warning: This japanese knotweed and beetroot relish is seriously good!

How to make japanese knotweed and beetroot relish

Ingredients: (all approximate, sorry!)

Good big bunch of beetroot

About 15 or so decent sized young knotweed shoots

Japanese knotweed shoots
japanese knotweed shoots are typically cut to about 6-8 inches for cooking

1 large onion

4 cloves garlic

Approx 300 ml vinegar (white wine or cider vinegar)

300 grams soft brown sugar

Spices, including:

Cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, fenugreek, cloves, all spice, cinnamon, 2 bay leaves, salt and pepper

 

Method:

Peel and chop the beetroot into small dices approx 1 cm.

Bring the beetroot in water to the boil for 20 mins or so, then strain and set aside. (Depends how much bite you like in your veg in a pickle)

Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic.

Chop the knotweed shoots into small rings, discarding the very tops.

Add the beetroot, onion, garlic, spices (in a muslin bag if using whole spices), vinegar and sugar into a pan and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer and reduce the mixture for a while, until is starts to thicken a little. Carry on simmering.

Add the knotweed shoots to the pan, and continue to simmer. Keep reducing until a consistency where you are able to bring the wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan, revealing the base.

Add some salt and pepper to taste.

japanese knotweed and beetroot relish
Beautiful colour from the finished japanese knotweed and beetroot relish

The mixture should be pretty thick but able to slowly pour of the spoon. You are after a similar consistency to a good jam.

Immediately decant into sterilised jars.  Label and store in a cool place.

Enjoy this japanese knotweed and beetroot relish with whatever you fancy!