Edible wild plants…What are they anyway?

Edible wild plants from a kitchen and cooking  perspective…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bright scarlet hawthorn berries…but are they ripe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More soon…

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