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Disclaimer: There's loads of good stuff to eat out there and much of it is very easy to identify. Unfortunatly, there are also some plants and fungi that can make you seriously ill or worse. This diary is a brief overview intended to inspire and not a substitute for a good field guide and teacher. I will endeavour to point out any obvious poisionous look alikes but ultimately foraging is the individual's responsibility. Unless you are 100 percent confident you know what something is then leave it alone! Please also be aware that, as with any food, different people can have different reactions so it is good practice to always try just a small amount first.
I will remember the floods of winter 2012 for a sad, if self-centred, reason. They washed my favourite Dorset watercress bed clean away.
Since then, there have been fleeting moments of watercress wonder such as the babbling Cornish brook above. But it is only recently that I have found the time to go looking for a regular supply nearer to home.
This one is on the river Avon as it makes it's final dash to the ocean but I’m saying no more- if you put in a bit of time and effort this is not an uncommon plant to find growing in our streams and rivers- just prepare for a bit of wading.
Wild watercress has a long season from spring to early winter and is identical to commercially produced plants so I will not go into a lengthy description except to say it will often grow taller and a bit more unruly having no-one to pamper it like it's civilised cousin.
If all this sounds too good to be true there is one unfortunate drawback- although easily surmountable. It goes by the name of Fasciola Hepatica. A catchy thing to to roll off the toungue if you want to impress people with your latin. Unfortunatly however, its basic translation is liver fluke. This organism has a complex life cycle, one part of which involves waiting around on plants (usually in muddy water) for an unsuspecting animal (humans included) to consume it, where upon it sets up home in the liver causing all sorts of gratuitous damage.
Revolting I know but in reality all this means is that you can’t eat it raw. I always source my watercress from plants that are growing clear of the water in fast flowing streams, typically chalk or gravel bottomed, and as such am 99.9 percent sure it poses no threat- however, this is not a risk I take lightly so I always lightly cook it as a precaution.
Fortunately, watercress makes one of the tastiest soups out there so this is no great hardship and I feel a thick fresh organic watercress soup must be at least as nutritious as some limp, plastic wrapped, chemically laced offering from the supermarket.
Perhaps it's time to publish a survivalist guide to vampire evasion as this will be the third wild garlic I've covered in the last few years- the other two being ramson and crow garlic.
This time around I thought I'd chat about probably one of the most common of them all- the hedge garlic (Alliaria petiolata).
It's often present all winter but in the last few weeks it's started to stretch towards the light and make itself known. The photo to the right was taken in April so it's still got a way to go. *
I should say at this point that, strictly speaking, this plant belongs to the brassica family and not the alliums like the other garlics. Nevertheless, it has an undeniable garlic taste- all be it with a distinct fire that can take some getting used to- another name is garlic mustard which is a pretty accurate description I reckon. **
It’s rather puzzling why a humble cabbage should have such flavorsome ambitions but it may well have figured out a long time ago that grazing animals generally don’t like garlic. Unfortunately however, it didn’t take into consideration the human palate- this plant has been used as a flavouring for millenia, with remains turning up in archaelogical digs in the Baltic dating back to 4000 BC.
Other than a quick stir fry, I prefer to eat this plant raw- a few leaves chopped finely and added to a dressing really perks up a mixed salad while I'll often pick a few and pop them in a sandwich as I’m out and about.
Whether it's hedgerow, forest edge or even urban parks or flower beds it's not hard to find once you have 'your eye in'. Compare this to the rather contrary ransom or the secretive crow garlic and this becomes a handy plant to know.
As with the true garlics, smell is a useful id point- just crush a leaf between your fingers. Other things to look out for include the kidney shaped leaf with rounded, almost frilly, teeth- the sketch to the left was drawn by someone on one of my walks a while go and I couldn't resist a shot.
* Hedge garlic is a biennial. In the first year, plants appear as a rosette of green leaves close to the ground and are quite easy to miss. In the second year the plant shoots up, often reaching over 60 cm tall if conditions are right- although it's fairly bitter when it's this size.
* Other colloquial names are 'jack by the hedge' and 'sauce alone.'
One of the things I love about foraging is the chance to visit the same places year upon year and catch up with the plants like they are old friends. One such example, is the wild marjoram alongside a track that leads to my favourite wild camping spot on the Dorset coast.
Over the last few years I’ve added it to various beach cooking creations including a delicious limpet stew on a survival quest last year. On a recent trip though I decided to try a variation on a River cottage marjoram scone recipe. I used flour and oats half and half, the last remenants of wild garlic stalks from the valley behind the beach, olive oil and a splash of sea water (the wild equivilant of a ‘pinch’ of salt). I cooked them slowly over the fire and then dipped them in more olive oil before devouring them with an appetite that only outside living can arouse.
Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) works in just about any dish but has a particular penchant for those Mediterranean staples of tomatoes, onions and garlic. It also dries very well, I strip off both the leaves and flower for adding to hearty soups and stews right through the winter.
Wild marjoram can be found between early summer and early autumn and seems to have a particular liking for old chalkland. If you’re a keen gardener you probably won’t have any difficulty recognizing this one with it’s pointed oval leaves and pink flower on a long stem- the cultivated marjorams are very similar in appearance.
Smell is another useful ID point and, if you are familiar with it from cooking, it's sometimes known as oregano, that can also be enough. The aromatic smell comes from the rich volatile oils and if you rub a flower between your fingers you’ll notice a slightly sticky residue.
And, of course, one of the best characteristics of this plant is it is a perennial grower- find your spot and it should look after you for years to come.
It's a fickle forage,sometimes only flowering for a week or two a year, but all this warm weather means the scent of common lime blossom (Tilia europaea) is hanging heavy in the air right now.
I've kept it simple this summer, drying a batch out to keep for night time herbal infusions- lime blossom has a mildly sedative effect and was administered in the field hospitals of the second world war for this reason. It is possibly one of the finest herbal teas, gold in colour with a smooth perfume. It's particularly popular in France where they call it tilleul and have elevated it practically to an art form.
The second batch has gone into a honey infusion, possibly my favourite way of preserving flowers. See the elderflower and honeysuckle posts for more details on this super simple approach but, to summarise, a good runny honey is wonderful for drawing out the goodness in the plant, preserving it long into the winter and adding a potent anitbacterial kick to the proceedings.
The lime tree in question is completly unrelated to the lime fruit that you see in the shops. The young spring leaves do have a slightly citrusy taste which perhaps gives rise to its common name but I'll write about this tasty snack another time.
The small leaved lime was a dominant tree in the forests that formed in the UK after the last Ice Age, sadly though it is now relatively unusual in the U.K. However, common lime is widely planted, especially in parks and city streets, making this a great one for the urban forager- no need to worry about dogs either.
At some point in the past you've probably reached out to this plant and plucked a plump dark berry from it. But did you know the tender spring greenery makes for a slightly fruity, super medicinal, spring forage?
I'm talking about bramble- the rough and ready rogue of the plant world. Popped straight in the mouth the leaves are a bit bitter but a decent handful infused in hot water for 5 minutes, perhaps with a drizzle of local honey, yields a fruity herbal tea that is packed with vitamin C and antioxidants.
Bramble (Rubus fruticosa) is also a member of the rosaceae family (rose family) which gives it strong astringent qualities. In other words, it dries and tightens- chew a leaf and you'll probably notice the saliva in your mouth starting to dry up. This makes it a handy treatment for conditions such as mouth ulcers, bleeding gums or sore throats- it dries and tightens what is basically an open wound, thereby accelerating the healing process.
This astringency also makes it useful for many digestive/ intestinal tract issues. Indeed, legend has it that during the American civil war in the 1800's, 'bramble truces' were a fairly common occurence. Dysentry was rife amongst both sides and so the warring factions would lay down their weapons to pick bramble leaves for their sick comrades- before continuing to kill each other. Bizarre species we are indeed.
Bramble is a notorious micro-hybridiser which means there are over 100 species in this country alone. Nevertheless, the basic characteristics tend to be the same, straggling long stems, thorns and a generally greeny red tinge. It's possible, at this time of year, that bramble could be mistaken for wild raspberry or one of the wild roses but these are also forageable and have very similiar medicinal qualities.
The leaves are in their prime right now as they start to spread to the sun. Drink fresh or gently dry and store them in an airtight container away from direct light. They'll last until next spring and can be enjoyed as a herbal tea or utilised as a medicine should the need arise. As with all foraging, please do so with consideration for the plant, much better to spread out the picking than strip a whole plant bare.
One of them is the low undergrowth that allows crow garlic (Alium vineali) to stretch to the light- it's actually present for much of the year but usually smothered by it's brasher wayside relatives as they clamour for the sunshine.
Crow garlic bears a very similar appearance and taste to cultivated chives (including the flower later in the year) and, while my research is inconclusive, I wonder if it is simply the wild ancestor of this plant.
It's a versatile little herb and can be added to almost any savoury dish- for best results chop it finely as it can be a bit tough. In the past, I've enjoyed it in omlettes, humous and salads but last week, when it was cold and wet and strong winds blew across the land, I cooked it into a potato and chickpea stew- warm and nourishing comfort food with a potent little kick.
There are a few types of garlic growing wild in the UK and all have similar wonderful health boosting properties (see wild garlic post). They all come out by late winter, which strikes me as an insightful example of Mother Nature's awsome intelligence. Our hunter gatherer ancestors would have spent the last few months living on meat and anything they had been able to preserve from the autumn. By late winter, their digestive systems would have been crying out for a decent cleanse, balance and boost and garlic would have been the perfect plant for this- generously provided at exactly the right time.
Look for chive like plants growing under hedgerows and alongside country lanes- it favours sunny spots and can often be found in large clumps on protected south facing banks. As the photo at the top of this post testifies, undisturbed corners of grave yards can also be worth a look. The plant should be a dull matt green in colour and hollow and tubular in shape but the most definitive ID point is the strong garlic/ onion smell.
In a couple of months, crow garlic will quietly sink beneath the spring vegetation. However, if you find a good patch now, make a mental note of the location and, with a bit of rummaging, it will provide good foraging until early summer.