Nicola and I both love foraging and eating wild foods; at this time of year it makes up a significant part of our diet as well as providing the materials for a host of herbal remedies that Nicola makes. But starting out into the world of foraging can be daunting due to the sheer number of wild plants out there and the fear of eating a plant that is poisonous. So my advice is to start with plants that are common and abundant; common so that they are everywhere and therefore likely to be plants that you already know, and abundant so that there are lots of them. This is important for at least 2 reasons:
- Whilst we might only be foraging for fun, it’s still important to consider how much energy you expend collecting the plants compared to how much you will gain from eating them.
- If the plant is abundant and we forage responsibly there shouldn’t be any negative impact to the sustainability of those plants (we tend to follow the 10% rule – only pick from 10% of the plants from any one area).
So I’m going to start you off with some common and abundant plants that are ready to be collected right now.
Nettles (Urtica dioca) are a much maligned plant. As well as being great for making natural cordage, they are an incredibly nutritious plant. They contain 4 times as much iron as spinach as well as minerals such as potassium, magnesium phosphorous and calcium (much more than any shop bought vegetables) and also vitamins A and C, (again, much more than anything you buy in the shops) and a small amount of protein.
Typically we only pick the top 2 pairs of leaves; this has the twin effect of delaying the flowering process and encouraging new growth. We have nettle patches that we harvest regularly and in that way they produce new growth right up until September.
We have loads of recipes for nettles on our blog, so you can do more than just boil them to death!
With that said, in a survival situation boiling a bunch of nettles will provide a good meal, or alternatively pick the whole plant and hold it over a fire to scorch the leaves and they’re good to go.
Ramsons (Allium ursinum) are one of my absolute favourite wild plants, the taste is just wonderful and they are also very versatile. They tend to grow between March and May and prefer shady, damp places. We’re fortunate to have a couple of huge patches of ramsons in our ancient woodland camp in Kent. This is Max and Louise collecting some on our 2 day foraging course back in 2014.
The whole of the plant is edible, so the leaf, stem, bulb and flower. We don’t tend to dig them up for the bulbs as this then obviously kills the plant. My favourite part is the flower just before it opens, it looks a bit like a white pear drop and the taste is amazing. We’ve got plenty of recipes for ramsons as well.
If you’re collecting ramsons, beware of Lords & Ladies (Arum maculatum) growing amongst them as they are poisonous.
Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) is a non-native plant introduced by the Romans to eat. Today many gardeners consider it to be a pest and it’s true that it’s difficult to remove from gardens where it’s unwanted. But it is delicious and we eat it regularly at this time of year. It works blanched and served as a vegetable and we’ve also made rostis from them. It can be found on waste ground and on cultivated land and on occasion on the edges of woodlands.
Wood sorrel (Oxallis acetosella) can be found in deciduous woodlands throughout the UK. It is clover like in appearance having a trifoliate leaf; generally it has white flowers but occasionally red or even violet. When it rains, and at night, he flowers close up. It has a taste somewhere between apple skin and lemon and makes a great addition to a green leaf salad. Despite its wonderful taste, be aware that this plant should only be consumed in small quantities as it contains crystals made of oxallic acid which can cause kidney damage. Some herbalists suggest that children shouldn’t eat this plant at all.
White dead nettles
White dead nettles (Lamium album) are not related to nettles even though the leaves do look somewhat similar. They are in fact in the dead nettle family, also referred to as the mint family. Apart from their flowers being a give away, they also have the characteristic square stem found on members of the mint family.
As a child I used to pick the flowers and suck the pollen from them (actually I still do from time to time!). You can also eat the leaves raw as a salad plant but I’ve found they can become bitter after flowering so once they’ve flowered we tend to cook them before eating, such as in pakoras.
Closely related are red dead nettles (Lamium purpureum) which are also edible in much the same way as white dead nettles.
So I said 5 plants and here’s a bonus sixth, the humble bramble. I like having them in the woods for many reasons: they provide great cover for ground nesting birds and small mammals, you can make baskets from them (like the one below that Nicola made) and of course they provide us with blackberries.
But the fruit isn’t the only edible part, you can also eat the young shoots. Now that the brambles have started to grow in earnest they will put on a couple of centimetres a day; when these shoots are a vibrant green and the thorns still soft, you can peel the skin off and eat the flesh inside. It’s always a bit of a risk as they all taste slightly different. We have some near our camp that taste of coconut and others that will suck your cheeks in with their bitterness!
I hope this helps with your foraging adventures, but please remember to forage considerately and sustainably. Take a couple of identification books with you and if you’re not sure, don’t pick it let alone eat it.