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

Leaves. Basic leaf shape and illustrations

An introduction to basic leaf shape.

Illustrated guide to basic leaf shape, with examples of plants.

Bearing in mind that there are more than 250,000 species of flowering plants, there are surprisingly few variations on the basic leaf shape.  Here I take you through them.

These illustrated guides offer a reference for budding and experienced foragers to take their plant identification skills to new levels.

Other summary guides that you may like here include:

 

Leaf shape

Many leaves are what we know as simple leaves. These are any leaves that are: not divided to the mid vein, and are attached on their own stalk to the stem. Example: nettle, lime tree, mints. The leaf shape below is  also known as cordate, or heart shaped.cordate leaf shape

Leave made up of leaflets are known as compound leaves. Blackberries and horse chestnut are examples of compound leaves.compound_leaf

Leaves can be compound and pinnate (from the Latin for feather) This is where leaves are made from a series of leaflets, sitting opposite each other on the leaf. The leaves may or may not have a terminal leaflet. Examples are found on vetches, the ash tree and elder tree.

Image of pinnate_leaf shape

Pinnate leaves can be even or odd. The privet bush (Ligustrum species) has even pinnate leaves. The ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) has odd pinnate leaves.

Some plants in the carrot family have leaf shapes with repeatedly pinnate leaves, and in some cases these will be very feathery and have thin leaflets. Examples of the feathery leaved plants are dill and fennel.

image of feathery leaf shape as found on plants like fennel

Where leaves have opposite lobes, such as on dandelion or oaks, they are known as pinnatifid or pinnately-lobed leaves.

image of pinnately-lobed leaf shape

Sometimes the leaves are repeatedly pinnately lobed, and the divisions can result in leaves with finely feathered foliage, such as yarrow. These leaf shapes are sometimes to referred to as laccinate or bi-pinnatifid leaves.

laccinate_leaf[1]

 

Leaves are often comprised of lobes, sometimes deeply cut to the mid-vein. A common example is the palmate leaf, so named because it has five main veins, emanating from the leaf stalk, and / or five lobes, similar to the hand having five digits.

Examples of plants with palmate leaves include sycamore and other maple family plants, and marshmallow.

palmate_leaf[1]

A range of shapes are easily spotted when walking in  your local hedgerows, waysides and woodlands. These include lanceolate leaves, found on ribwort plantain.

lanceolate_leaf[1]

Lanceolate leaves are noted for their bases being wider than their tips.

Other military themed leaves include hastate leaves, that are shaped similar to medieval spears. Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is an example of a hastate shaped leaf.

hastate_leaf[1]

The other tasty sorrel from the dock family, common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) has a leaf shape known as sagittate, or arrow-shaped. These leaves will have basal lobes, in this case acutely pointed.

sagittate_leaf[1]

Some leaf shapes are uncommon, at least in the UK flora they are. Plants with flagallate or fan-shaped leaves are found on the fossil tree, Ginkgo biloba, but I havent found them on anything else.

flagellate_2[1]

Whereas many plants display kidney-shaped or reniform leaves. Plants such as ground ivy and common mallow spring to mind.

reniform_leaf[1]

Round or peltate leaves are less common. Wall pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris) and nasturtium are two examples of plants whose leaves have their leaf stalk arising from the centre of the undersides.

peltate_leaf[1]

More common are ovate leaves. These are egg shaped leaves that are essentially egg shaped, but wider at the base than at the tip.

ovate_leaf[1]

You won’t likely be surprised to learn that there is an opposite to this leaf shape, known as an obovate leaf, which are essentially egg shaped but with wider tips than bases. A good example of a plant with obovate leaves is the common alder tree (Alnus glutinosa).

obovate_leaf[1]

When leaves are found without leaf stalks, they are known as sessile. Many leaves found on flowering stems will be sessile, and the ones found higher up may clasp the stem, and produce large basal lobes known as auricles. Take a look at the various sow thistles in flower, or the numerous cultivated brassica family plants like rapeseed, to see examples of clasping leaves.

clasping_leaf[1]

 

A whole range of plants are trifoliate, with a leaf made of three leaflets, like the clovers, or wood sorrel.

trifoliate_leaf[1]

The well known daisy provides us with a shape common to other members of the family…a spathulate or spoon-shaped leaf. These leaves are very broad at the top, tapering away towards to the leaf stalk.

spatulate_leaf[1]

Some plants always grow as a rosette, such as dandelion and ribwort plantain. Others never grow on rosettes, and their leaves are always found on stems, usually arising from a mass of rhizome roots. Examples include the willow-herbs (Epilobium species) or nettles (Urtica dioica).

One last feature to look out for on leaves are the tiny leaf-like growths found on almost ll the rose family plants, but never on buttercup family plants…these are the stipules. Nettles also has stipules, which are found sitting at the base of a leaf stalk, just where it joins the stem.

stipules[1]

My latest hedgerow pickings offer the regular in-depth look at our fabulous range of wild edible and medicinal plants. More than 20 species have been covered so far, with

Now, how about comparing the leaf shapes here with the plants in my gallery? Better still, you can book onto one of my upcoming foraging walks and courses, or book me for private tuition, via the contact form.

Happy foraging!

 

 

 

 

 

Foragers Plant Families SNAP Cards!

Learning can be fun and games with my new foragers plant families SNAP cards!

The new foragers plant families snap cards features 64 cards in the deck, with 32 species in 8 plant families, helping you and your kids spot the patterns of plants and plant families, and enabling you to fast track your foraging fun.

All the foragers plant families snap cards have the common and scientific names on them, as well as the plant family. In this way, players can learn about the relationships and patterns that similar related plants reveal.The foragers plant families snap cards

These latest cards join my popular foragers playing cards and the foragers ‘top trumps’ style card game and are available now. The foraging resources shop is now fully functioning, so you can have a deck as soon as you want

Happy foraging!

Foraging hawthorn

Foraging hawthorn for heart boosting medicinal food

Crataegus monogyna / C. leavigata 

Hawthorns Rosaceae family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hawthorn spine and bud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parts used Young leaves, flowering tops and berries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1479

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

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

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.

Waterways

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, P.media, 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.