For me bushcraft is about exploring and understanding the natural world. I often try to imagine life for our hunter gather ancestors, looking out of their shelters into the forest and knowing that the supermarket, DIY shop, chemist and clothes shop are all out there, it’s just a case of what to look for, where to look for it and when!
Winter in the temperate forests of northern Europe would have been long and difficult and I’m convinced that the first signs of spring would’ve been welcomed with great enthusiasm. People would’ve been excited to see the first plants coming through, maybe not so much for their calorific value, but certainly for the host of other minerals and vitamins that they contain which are critical for a healthy diet.
So here I’m going to highlight a few early spring wild edibles to look out for.
A quick note – If you can’t recognise a plant with the same confidence you can recognise a tin of beans on the supermarket shelf, don’t eat it!
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a memebr of the carnation, or pink, family and is a common plant in the British Isles; it can often be found in fields and on waste ground, we’ve had it turn up in our garden in the past. It’s not strictly speaking an early spring plant as it can be found all year round, but for me it’s at its tastiest at this time of year. It’s an incredibly nutritous plant and contains good quantities of potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium and iron; it also has high levels of Vitamin A and is 1.5% protein.
Whilst you can simply eat chickweed as a salad plant, I like to use it to make a pesto.
Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), also know as wild chervil, is a member of the carrot, or Apiaceae, family, and is a plant to treat with a great deal of caution as it can be mistaken for hemlock (Conium maculatum), which is highly poisonous. All parts of hemlock are toxic. There are a few pointers to differentiate the two:
- The leaves are somewhat different, with the leaves of hemlock being a somewhat darker shade of green, finer and more feather like.
- Cow parsley leaves, when crushed, smell of aniseed or chervil; crushed hemlock leaves smell of mouse urine.
- The stem on cow parsley is slightly hairy with a pinkish hue; hemlock has a smooth stem with red blotches.
It’s worth taking the time to identify cow parsley as it’s very tasty. The young leaves can be eaten raw, or used in a pesto, although Nicola and I tend to use the leaves for a delicious cream of cow parsley soup. The young stems can be peeled and eaten raw and the flowers are also edible.
Cleavers (Gallium aparine) has more common names than any other plant I can think of – goose grass, sweetheart, sticky weed, sticky jack, sticky willy (always gets a laugh off the kids, and plenty of adults!), catchweed, clivers are the ones I’ve come across so far. It’s the one that sticks to your jumper.
We tend to only eat the tips, partly because the new growth is the most nutritious but also because the tiny barbs that make it stick to your clothes can irritate your stomach if ingested. You can steam them to avoid that.
Cleavers are a great spring tonic as many herbalists believe they are good for your lymphatic system. I drink lots of cleavers tea in the spring, I find that it tastes like garden peas.
Once it dies off in August time, it makes a great tinder.
Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis), or Lady’s Smock, Milkmaids or Fairy Flower, is one of my absolute favourite edibles. It’s a brassica (cabbage family), and most frequently grows on grassy areas. With that said, we have a few spots where it grows along the woodland rides.
It get’s its Cuckoo flower name from the fact that it generally flowers at the same time cuckoos arrive back in the country. Both the flower and leaf are edible and can be eaten straight off the plant. Try to ignore the slight diesel afterkick and savour the intense wasabi flavour. In my expereince the leaves pack more of a punch than the flowers.
My only issue with cuckoo flowers are that they’ve been and gone again in a very short space of time.
So far the plants I’ve looked at have started with ‘C’, so for a change, here’s nettles!
Nettles (Urtica dioca) are a much maligned plant but are incredibly useful to us in bushcraft; the outer fibres of the stems make great cordage, the inner part of the stems (once dried and bundled up) make good kindling and the leaves and seeds are edible.
But why are they so stingy? There’s often a direct relationship between how nutritous a plant is and how much defensive measures it deploys. In the case of nettles, they’re very nutritous. They contain 4 times as much iron as spinach, as well as folic acid, which allows your body to absorb that iron. They also contain 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, about 6%, which is quite incredible for a plant.
We tend to pick the tips of the nettles, generally the top 2 pairs of leaves. As with any plant, the new growth at the tip of the plant is the most metabollically active, it’s where all the action, and hence the nutrition, is. But I’ve also found that by continually picking the tips you encourage new growth and delay the flowering process; we have patches that we harvest from in this way well into September.
Nicola and I eat lots of nettles and generally use it as a spinach substitute. We also dry nettle leaves and have them in tea, where they have anti-histamine properties, as well as grind them into a powder and sprinkle the powder into soups, stews, casseroles etc.
If you’re at the beginning of your foraging journey, I hope these early spring wild edibles encourage you to get out. The plants here, with the exception of cow parsley, are relatively easy to identify and a good starting point.
You might also want to take a look at this post which covers some easily identifiable edible plants.
Depending on the time of year that you attend, we’ll forage for early spring wild edibles on our 1 Day Foraging courses.
You can see loads of photos from these courses, as well as all of our other courses, on our Facebook page.