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 seasonal diary of some of the foraging delights available to us.

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Disclaimer: there's lots of good wild stuff to eat, and much of it is fairly easy to identify. Unfortunately, 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 in-depth 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 per cent confident you know what something is, leave it alone! Also, please 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 – 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 an avenue of the sweetest plum trees, hidden on the southern side of an wood in west Dorset, was perhaps most enticing – 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 fruit for the best part of three months every year; it's on the edge of a regular walking route, yet I’ve never seen another soul in there (apart from the close 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 left behind, tucked deep in the valleys and behind the headlands, is an abundance of overgrown and forgotten orchards. Places of mist and melancholy, that fine autumn we feasted on glorious organic figs, apples and pears – giving thanks to the toil of the old farmers who were probably long gone.

    So there we have it; when you're out and about over the next few months, keep those eyes peeled. 

    *Of course, the birds, mice, 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 in the UK 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 grassland and lawns. 

    2: Leaves: they are both trifoliate (growing in clusters of three –unless you get lucky with the clover) 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 a light-green 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 practical time-wise 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 in the south 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 its 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. 

    Pennywort and wild garlic vinegar

    Foraging considerations

    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, but look for rosettes of round succulent leaves with an indent in the middle – this is where the ‘umbilicus’ part of its botanical name comes from, as well as its 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. Though in summer 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, especially 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's 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 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 using cold water over night, 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 its mild diuretic qualities. Of course, always consult a good qualified herbalist if you want to principally use it for medicinal purposes.


    Foraging considerations

    Cleavers 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 and up any neighbouring plants – that’s where its tiny velcro hooks are so effective. It's 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 six to eight.

    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 easy way to differentiate between the two is to look for the telltale 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 decent 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 and in the past 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. As far as my research can tell, none of them are poisonous, but information is rather scant. To be safe, stick with cleavers and its telltale 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 eight 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 thick spikes much further apart.

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

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

    Finally, if the first few trees aren’t really producing, don’t give up. 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 it's 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. P1020109

    Prior to the adoption of hops it was sometimes used to flavour ale. I cannot vouch for what that flavour would have been like, 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 few 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 or sacred 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 direct 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. Cut the whole plant towards the base – ideally 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 (growing up to about 2 metres) 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 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 downy texture. It can often be found growing along footpaths and colonising waste ground freely.P1010284