Will's Wild Food Diary

 Wild food diary

Fresh, organic and free! Of all things bushcrafty, nothing gets me more excited than a foraging adventure.

From time to time, I update this page with a different wild food that is in season- gradually building up a kind of seasonal diary to some of the foraging delights available to us.

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Disclaimer: There's loads of good stuff to eat out there and much of it is fairly 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 an indepth field guide and/ or skilled 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. It is wise to try just a small amount first.

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  1. cleavers1

    Here is one that might bring back some memories...Cleavers (Galium Aparine), sometimes know as Goosegrass or Sticky willy*, was the plant of choice in my day for throwing at your mates as it would stick fantastically to hair and most clothing. Extra points were awarded for doing it without your buddy realising so he walked around at school all day with it hanging off his back or perhaps to that girl that you secretly fancied but out ocleavers3f pubescent emotional paralysis thought the best way to express it was through being a little sh*t! 

    Those days are a distant memory thankfully but I’ve enjoyed reacquainting myself with this plant over more recent years. It's not one you can chew on raw unless you’re fond of green velcro but it takes very little preparation to create a tasty spring veg.

    My favourite way is to add it to a freshly made juice with a few other spring greens and a couple of carrots or apples to sweeten things up. It offers a prodigious amount of liquid and indeed, for a quick shot of goodness, you can actually pick a large handful of it and wring it fresh into a glass. Another simple way is to soak it in warm water- ideally not too hot so as to preserve more of the cleavers5goodness- a coffee plunger works particularly well for this. You can also try this with just cold water overnight, the taste is mild but it's a good way to start the day. Or, of course, like virtually any other spring green you can just chop it up and add it to whatever you are cooking- soup, stir fry, casserole you can’t go too wrong.

    Cleavers is considered an abundant source of vitamin C and would no doubt have been much appreciated by our ancestors when other sources of goodness were in short supply in late winter. It is also considered a cleansing herb, used medicinally for treating lymphatic disorders as well as urinary infections- possibly due to it’s mild diuretic qualities. Of course always consult a good qualified herbalist if you want to principally use it for medicinal purposes.

    Foraging considerations:

    cleavers2When it first makes an appearance in late winter (in the SW of the UK) it's not much more than a little green shoot but pretty quickly, as the warmth and light increase, it will creep and straggle through the hedgerow or up any neighbouring plants- that’s where its tiny velcro hooks are so effective. It is a fairly common plant to spot across much of the UK wherever there’s a sunny wild pocket. Leaves are a simple oblanceloate shape (oblong with a sharper end) and usually in whorls (circles) of 6 to 8.

    It is worth being aware there is another quite common plant in the same family that can look simlar. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a darker green but grows in the same kind of habitats. The key way to differentiate the two is to look for the tell tale little hooks on cleavers- they are all up the stem and over the leaves- sweet woodruff by contrast is smooth and will not stick to anything. Sweet woodruff does have a history of medicinal use but I have not experimented with it from an edible point of view **

    By mid-summer cleavers starts to bear tiny greenish white flowers and with this comes a bitter and coarse taste. I have read of people using the tiny round seed pods (perhaps even more sticky) of late summer as a coffee substitute by roasting and grinding but have not tried that myself- curiously though it’s in the same family as coffee (Rubiaceae).

    Unless you’re weeding it out of your garden, it is best to bring a pair of scissors and trim what you need- even a fairly gentle tug has a tendency to uproot the whole plant which, of course, is not in the spirit of foraging.

    cleavers6One final idea for the bushcrafters here…if you wake up in the woods or on the hills and need something to filter your fresh coffee (a wild sleep is so much better with a deent coffee to start the day) then a clump of cleavers moulded into a bowl shape does a pretty passable job- it could also be used wherever else a sieve is needed- in the past it was used in this way to filter out fresh milk.

    * Typically for common plants steeped in folklore, there is a wealth of different namescleavers0 for this plant. 

    ** There are other members of the galium family growing in the wild although I have never knowingly found them in the UK. As far as my research can tell, none of them are poisinous but information is rather scant. To be safe stick with cleavers and its tell tale sticky hooks.



  2. ‘Are you the man who eats weird stuff?’ Was how one young lady greeted me prior to a wild chestnut3food walk a few years ago.

    In truth, I rather enjoyed the dubious status but it did highlight one common misconception: that, well, foraging involves eating weird stuff.

    This can be true at times but there are plenty of wild foods out there that are also commonly found on shop shelves. The sweet chestnut, of course, is one of them.

    Right on the edge of its growing range in the UK, the sweet chestnut tree (Castanea Sativa) is generally happier and more productive in Southern Europe where the summers are long and hot. However if we get a good summer here like the one just gone then it’s still worth a scout around the forest floor from around late September into early November.

    It’s a Christmas song cliché but, nothing really beats roasting them around a fire with a few friends. They can be roasted on any flat kind of skillet or pan or wait until the flames have died down, rake a few embers to one side and place the chestnuts directly on them. Around 10 minutes should be enough with either method. Put a small slit in the skins beforehand- failure to do so will cause exploding pieces of nut. A painful situation indeed.

    If you’re not lucky enough to find chestnut4yourself around a campfire the oven can also be used- around 15 minutes at 200 degrees celcius should do it. We also like to chop them up and add them to a stir fry. 

    Foraging considerations: It’s best to look for mature trees in the open or on the south facing edges of woodland where there is plenty of sun. Chestnut trees can grow into ancient giants over 35 metres high and 2 metres wide. Noticeable features include, on the older specimens, deeply grooved trunks that can take on a spiral shape with time.


    chestnutLook for the spikey cases on the ground or hanging in the tree if it is earlier in the season.
    The only conceivable thing the sweet chestnut could be confused for is the distantly related but poisonous horse chestnut- the best thing is to check the actual case that contains the nut. The sweet chestnut has fine spikes very close together, a bit like a hedgehog, while the horse chestnut has short thick spikes much further apart.

    If still in doubt you can check the leaves. Sweet chestnut has single pointed shaped leaves known as lanceolate after it’s lance or spear type shape. While horse chesnut has rounded palmately compound- in other words one leaf is comprised of around 5- 7 other leaves in a circle- a bit like the palm of the hand with fingers coming off it.

    chestnut2Often the nuts will be sitting in the case and will need a little pressure from your foot or a chestnut1walking stick to break open. There may well be one or two shrivelled nuts that can’t be used but then one decent one if you’re lucky.

    Finally if the first few trees aren’t really producing, don’t give up straight away. It’s not uncommon to find that one tree can struggle one year while it’s relative a little way down the path can be having a really productive year. The next year it could be the other way around.

    * Sweet chestnut is often believed to have been introduced by the Romans. It’s a a nice story but it is now considered to be more recent than this: https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/that-old-chestnut-how-sweet-chestnuts-came-to-britain.htm

  3. This plant only just squeezes into the wild food category but is one that I’ve come to really appreciate over the last few years.

    Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) is likely a plant you have walked past at some point but perhaps never taken much notice of. It usually starts to make an appearance in mid-spring but really comes into its glory around mid July into early autumn. Where it can grow to a couple of metres high. P1020109

    Prior to the adoption of hops it was sometimes used to flavour ale. I cannot vouch for what that flavour would have been but on last year’s van trip through France and Spain we certainly found its aromatic qualities helped P1010022with the cheap red wine. For this kind of flavouring it is best to pick the plant when the leaves are still quite young and fresh such as in the photo opposite.

    For the last 5 years however my main focus with this plant has been making smudge sticks. These bundles of dried herbs were used for ceremonial purposes and for energetic purification by the Native Americans, a wise people with deep connection to the land. In the south western pacific area of north America they used the native white sage and this is what has gained popularity in recent times over here.

    It has always seemed a bit odd to me that we should be using such a far away plant from a completely different culture- especially considering it is often not harvested in a sustainable manner. So this is why I started experimenting with mugwort.

    Although I've not found historical proof, I think the Druids of this land- our very own ancient shamans would have created smudge sticks from the plants around them. Certainly mugwort is recorded as one of their sacred herbs so it’s not a hard stretch of the imagination to think that they would have burnt this plant with it’s sweet and pungent aroma. Possibly inhaling it too- I can concur that burning this shortly before bed time creates some very deep and lucid dreams- the ability to consciously observe and control your dreams and a very interesting source for creative inspiration. I have also heard of others who gather the leaves and put them inside a pillow with similar effects

    IMG_0020 2Making a smudge stick of Mugwort is pretty simple. Pick the whole plant- ideally mid July to late September when the flowers are out. Fold the plant up until it is about 30 cm long, then bind it very tightly together and dry it well. You might need to combine a couple of plants to get a nice thick stick. I use hemp string for binding but any natural fibre like a strong cotton would work. 

    Be aware though that it can crumble a bit as it’s burning so it's sensible to keep this as an outside activity and dip it in some water and leave it outside after use- I have known it to smoulder away unnoticed which would obviously be very dangerous if you were to take it back inside and store it away. Incidentally, mugwort is the herb of choice for the technique of moxibustion in Chinese medicine, the herb is burnt over various accupressure points to release stagnant energy and restore balance.


    Foraging considerations: Mugwort is a tall slender plant with leaves that look somewhat similar to a cannabis plant although no relation. If you rub the leaves lightly there should be a slightly sticky residue from the high level of natural oils and there should be a smell somewhat similar to lavender – again no relation. The stalk is usually a dark red colour with a slight groove and the undersides of the leaves are white with a fine downy texture. It can often be found growing along footpaths and colonising waste ground freely.P1010284

  4. watercress cornwall 1I 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 wadingwatercress will

    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. watercress close up

    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. 

  5. Perhaps it's time to publish a survivalist guide to vampire evasion as this will be the third wild garlic I've covered in theHedge garlic 2 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.

    Hedge Garlic drawingWhether 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.'


  6. Wild Marjoram 2
    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 toWild marjoram 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.

    Foraging considerations.

    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.

    Marjoram driedAnd, 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.