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. This post is a bit different from usual. In fact, it’s more of a ‘heads up’ (literally in some ways) for a IMG_20190910_112646_386familiar and tasty food source that will soon be coming into abundance – and yet is often not noticed.

    I’m talking about forgotten fruit. The myriad apples, pears, plums and sometimes even figs that grow wild and are often just ignored in the general busyness of life that humans like to distract themselves with. 

    Sometimes they are the outcome of a casually thrown core or a passing bird that has digested some seeds and sometimes you can get really lucky and find old abandoned orchards where the fruit is simply falling and rotting on the ground.*

    When I was living in Dorset, I had a mind-map of various wild fruit trees that were largely ignored; there were zingy fresh apples from a track near Hengistbury Head and succulent pears growing on the edge of a central Bournemouth park. While, perhaps most enticing, was an avenue of the sweetest plum trees hidden on the southern side of an old wood in west Dorset- the beguiling question of who planted them there and why, long lost to time.

    IMG_20190910_112323_445Closer to where I grew up in Berkshire, there is an overgrown and forgotten Abbey orchard that overflows with fruits for the best part of three months every year, it is on the edge of a regular walking route and yet I’ve never seen another soul in there (apart from close family whom I tipped off a while ago).  

    Most memorable of all, was an autumnal trip through Galicia, NW Spain, a few years ago. Sadly, 238733878_4138252699606887_3212219052552708047_nthe rural areas have been largely abandoned by the younger generations and, behind them, tucked deep in the valleys and behind the headlands are an abundance of overgrown and forgotten orchards. Places of mystery, mist and melancholy, that fine autumn we feasted on the tastiest organic figs, apples and pears- giving thanks to the old farmers that were probably long gone.

    So there we have it, I’ll say no more other than, when you are out and about over the next few months, keep those eyes peeled. 

    *Of course, the birds, insects and other wildlife also enjoy these forgotten fruits so nothing is ultimately wasted but it feels good to liberate some for human enjoyment too.

  2. I’ll continue from my last post with another easy ‘four season’ wild green. Wood sorrel

    Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is very common across the UK and much of Europe. Unusually, it is happy in both broadleaf and deciduous forests and is one of the few plants in the UK that can actually survive ‘coniferisation’ fairly well— the unfortunate practice of felling broadleaf forests to grow trees like pine, spruce and larch for timber (once common forestry practice but increasingly frowned upon today).

    The taste is somewhere between lemon and apple and is pleasantly tangy and refreshing. Indeed, there are accounts of it being used in fruit pies in the past to bridge the gap between the last of the stored apples and the first summer fruits. Such a dish would take a lot of picking and would be hard to do in a sustainable way so I therefore reserve wood sorrel as an out and about ‘nibble.’ A wild food that I chew on as I’m wandering through the forest or along a craggy Dartmoor valley— where these photos were taken.

    Although you can find the leaves at any time of year in the UK, wood sorrel is particularly Wood sorrel 3lovely in spring as the fresh white flowers, which are also edible, reach towards the light.

    Foraging considerations:

    People often mistake wood sorrel for the similar sized clover **. Fortunately clover is also edible but, as this is such a common ID confusion, I will list the main differences here:

    1: Habitat: stopping and looking around at your immediate surroundings is a really useful skill when learning to identify many plants. Wood sorrel has a strong preference for woodland while clover likes open sunny grasslands and lawns. 

    2: Leaves: They are both trifoliate (growing in clusters of three) and a similar size but that is Wood sorrel 2where the similarities end. Clover has rounded dark green leaves while wood sorrel is slightly heart shaped and light green in colour.  Curiously, sorrel leaves also have a fold down them a bit like a paper airplane. At night and in heavy rain, the leaves along with the flowers fold up as if going to sleep!

    3: Flowers: They are completely different. Wood sorrel flowers have tender white petals, often with faint red ribs, while clover has hundreds of tiny petals arranged in a globe shape. Sometimes clover flowers are white but they can just as easily be pink or red.

    4: Taste: If all the above criteria match, then you might consider a little nibble. Wood sorrel should reveal a lemony, tangy flavour while clover is more bitter. To be clear, taste testing any wild plant should always be done with upmost care, checking that all other ID criteria are in place first.

    wood sorrel 1As its Latin name suggests, sorrel contains oxalic acid. I talked about this in a previous post about sea beet. In large quantities this can leach calcium from the body, but frankly you’d have to pick a large amount of wood sorrel on a regular basis for this to be a concern and, as I’ve already mentioned, this is not really practical or respectful to the local environment.

    * In other countries, such as those in Scandanavia, there is a lot of wild food to be found in the conifer forests. However, in the UK these forests don’t have an established eco-system so the forest floor is usually quite sparse—the remnants of Caledonian pine forest in Scotland are one exception.

    ** Wood sorrel and clover are not the only trifoliate plants so don’t get too cocky! Some of them may be poisonous but if you carefully follow the other ID points I’ve mentioned you’re on strong ground.





  3. Pennywort Devon wallOne of the most interesting foraging challenges in the UK is to find a reasonable supply of greens in the cold winter months. Thankfully Wall pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris) grows most of the year down here in the south-west of the UK and is a frequent green browse of mine. In fact, it’s often easier to find at this time of year as other foliage dies back.

    It’s an incredibly hardy plant that has very shallow roots and can grow in the smallest nooks and crannies where there is often very little moisture or even light. Hence it’s propensity for old walls- particularly the old stone ones that are so common down here in the SW- the photo at the top is Dartmoor in case you're wondering.

    Pennywort and TofuAlong with a lovely thirst quenching succulence comes a subtly sweet flavour quite similar to peas. I’ve never tried cooking with it as I suspect it’s delicate nature would be rather easily lost. Instead, I like to add it to a general salad or have fun with it as a side salad all of it's own.

    Another way to preserve that lovely flavour and texture is to pickle it in apple cider vinegar. Simply fill a sterilised jar with the leaves, cover with the vinegar, pop the lid on and leave it somewhere dark for a couple of months. The jar pictured below was a bit of an experiment- a mixture of wild garlic seeds and pennywort. You can’t try this combination in the winter as the wild garlic seeds are an early summer thing but they go really well together- the sweetness of the pennywort moderating the stronger pungent garlic flavour. You can read more about wild garlic here.

    Pennywort and wild garlic vinegar

    This is a pretty easy plant to find with no obvious lookalikes. If you are in the far north of England or in Scotland you might struggle in the deep winter time but look for rosettes of round succulent leaves with an indent in the middle- this is where the ‘umbilicus’ part of it’s botanical name comes from as well as it’s more colloquial name of navelwort. It commonly grows on old walls where there are just enough indentations and cracks to get a foothold. Earthy banks along the edges of woodlands are another good bet. In winter it’s best to look for walls/ banks etc with a southern facing orientation. In summer though these leaves can look a bit bleached and sorry for themselves. In which case look for the more northern facing walls or places where there is a reasonable amount of shade.

    From around May to September the yellowish spike of tiny flowers can be useful for locating the plant if there is a lot of other growth. Like many other plants the taste can be a little bitter when it is flowering but it is still completly edible. At the very least it is a good way of selecting a spot to come back to at another point in the cycle.

    Finally, take care with the roots. They are very shallow and a sharp pull can easily dislodge the whole plant. Much better to pinch the leaf off with your finger nails towards the base of the plant and take just one or two leaves from a rosette so the plant can easily re-generate- the stems are perfectly good to eat too.

  4. 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.



  5. ‘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

  6. 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