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. Lycium berry close up

    It's a funny thing foraging. Time and again, my best finds happen when I'm not really looking. A good reflection on life perhaps but I got very excited last week.I was wandering along the cliffs collecting sea beet when I came across a plant that I've been wanting to meet for a while now- Lycium (Lycium barbarum)- bearer of the orangey red goji berry.

    The name goji might well ring a bell as it has been much touted in recent years for it's health benefits. It originates from China but has been naturalised in this country since the 1730's when the Duke of Argyle had it shipped over to plant on his estate. It was wrongly labelled as a tea plant and one of its colloquial, and rather wordy names, is still Duke of Argyle's tea plant. The birds decided it was rather tasty, flew far and wide, and the rest is history.

    There has been some controversy over various claims made about this berry in recent years, one of the most interesting being the Chinese man who lived for 252 years because he took extracts of it daily (along with other herbs and lots of chi kung). I suspect this might be a littled exagerrated but chinese medicine has a long and well thought out history so I believe there must be some truth in one of goji's translations: 'drive away old age berries.'

    lycium elderberry syrup porridgeI don't want to get embroiled in the various claims and contradictions so I'll stick to a few safe and proven health benefits. Like virtually any edible wild fruit, it is rich in antioxidants and vitamin C which in turn reduces inflammation and enhances the immune system. It is also considered to be a good source of beta-carotene, this enhances the body's production of vitamin A which, amongst other things, aids healthy vision, preventing cataracts and maintaining cell growth (carrots are another good source revealing some truth in the old saying that carrots help you see in the dark). Finally, there is also evidence that gojis serve to stabilise the capillaries, veins and arteries which thereby aids circulation and benefits cold hands and feet (interestingly, the hawthorn berry is reputed to have a similar benefit).

    The taste is wonderfully sweet with a slight astringency and reminds me somewhat of Lycium juicepersimmon. They are a popular ingredient in chinese cuisine and are used in both sweet and savoury dishes. My exploits so far have included scattering the berries fresh on morning porridge with a good helping of elderberry syrup and adding to home grown carrots and wilding apple juice. I think I will dry my next batch in the airing cupboard ready for winter use. 

    Foraging considerations.

    Lycium is generally restricted to the south of the UK and has a particular preference for the coast- probably due to the milder temperatures.

    Care needs to be taken with this plant as it belongs to the Solonacae family which contains some rather poisonous members including the infamous deadly nightshade. That said, tomatoes, potatoes and aubergine are also sub-members of this family so we need to see things in context.

    Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) has purple-black berries so that makes things simple. Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) on the other Lycium leafhand has quite similar red/ orange berries. It is not as poisonous as deadly nightshade but is certainly not something you want to make a mistake with.* The main difference, to my mind, is the leaf shape. Lycium has thin elongated oval shaped leaves (lancolate) while bittersweet has much wider oval leaves that are more distinctly pointed at the end with small lobes at the base, in addition they are a darker shade of green. Lycium also has small sporadic thorns while bittersweet does not. As always, take time to study a new plant and only pick if you are one hundred percent confident.

    Finally, one of my favourite things about lycium is one of its rather macho colloquial names- wolf berry. I don't know how many you have to eat to start howling at the moon or stripping off and single handedly winning high school basketball matches (ignore the latter if you're not an 80's kid) but I'll let you know.

    * Deadly nightshade and bittersweet are both used homeopathically. It also seems deadly nightshade, or atropine which is derived from this plant, is used in some conventional heart medicines. In all cases though, this is in miniscule quantities.
  2. ElderberriesThis post is something of a triple grand slam for the wild food blog. I've already discussed the fragrantly frothy flowers and the intriguingly chewy jelly ears, so I thought it was about time I looked at Elder's third delicious bounty- the shiny purple berries of late summer/ early autumn.

    After the blackberry, the elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is one of the first edible hedgerow fruits to ripen in late summer. Indeed, although it lacks the often intense sweetness of the former, the two go very well together and it's easy to combine them in jams, crumbles, fruit stews and the like.

    Last year, Twinkletoes Ruth and I made some wonderful elderberry syrup. It was a simple recipe involving the berries and some cinnamon, ginger,nutmeg and muscavado sugar- there's various recipes online if you're interested. I added it to hot water for a comforting ribena type drink, drizzled it on porridge and, on occasion, when no one was looking, just ate it by the teaspoon.

    Elderflower and elderberry ginThis year, as well as a batch of syrup, I have also been conducting some new experiments. The first has involved a creation I started back in June- elderflower gin (see the elderflower post for more info). This year I thought it would be fun to elaborate on the recipe by adding elderberries and some warming nutmeg, clove and cinammon. I'll keep it in the back of the cupboard, give it an occasional shake and I reckon by early next year it'll be ready to sample- as it is my first attempt at this I've been careful not to go too heavy on the berries and spices as I do not want to override the subtle floral flavours. Update Jan 2014: Yep it's good, shared some of it on a recent bushcraft walk at Hengistbury recently and no complaints, I love being able to taste both the the floral and berry tones in one shot.

    On a more virtuous note, I have also been experimenting with dehydrating the berries. A few days on the car dashboard works well and I'll be adding them to winter porridges and muesli or just making simple infusions with a dozen or so berries in hot water- along with elderflower tea, elderberry tea is also available commercially.

    Indeed, for centuries this has been a common medicine in the herbalists repertoire with a powerful elderberries carreputation for curing flus and colds. Modern science suggests this is mainly due to the high amount of flavonoids. This is a complex subject but, in very simple terms, flavonoids give the berries their rich dark purple colour, help to protect cells against damage or infections and aid in speedy repair. In line with other wild berries they are also bursting with vitamin C.

    Foraging considerations.

    Surprisingly, it is rarely mentioned but there is a poisonous imposter in the shape of the Dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus). This is an uncommon plant but is worth being aware of. The thing to remember is it never grows above two metres, is single stemmed and has berries that point upwards on their stems. 

    In contrast, the elder we're interested in is a shrubby multi-stemmed tree growing up to about 6 metres with drooping berries. It has soft corky bark and the leaves are arranged in opposite pairs with a single one at the end of the branch- when crushed they have a slightly unpleasant 'mousey' smell. This basic leaf description is also shared by the Dwarf elder but if you follow the rule of only picking from elders that are well over head height with hanging berries, you can't go wrong.

    Elderberry syrupIt is easiest to pick the berries at the stem so you have the whole bunch to take home, they squash very easily but a kitchen fork is perfect for stripping them away.They have a fairly short season and usually by early October it's a struggle to find any fresh ones.

    I have sometimes heard it said that the elderberry disagrees with some people when eaten raw. It tends to taste better when cooked anyway but, according to my research, it seems that this is mainly referring to the red berried elder (Sambucus racemosa) which is very rare in this country and iseasily differentiated by the red berry colour. 

  3. Midsummer is traditionally a time for collecting various medicinal flowers and, as our land bathes in these magically long hours Honeysuckle Purbeckof light, it's perfect for gathering native honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum).

    Appearing in Shakespeare's Midsummer nights dream as a metaphor for entwined lovers (it likes to wrap itself around neighbouring trees and shrubs), honeysuckle is a plant that has been celebrated throughout the ages. Breathe in the intoxicating scent as it hangs heavy in the evening air and it's easy to see why.
    Honeysuckle infusionFor centuries, the flowers and leaves have been used to soothe fevers and general aches and pains. While people would not have known it at the time, this is due to the high salicylic acid content- one of the key ingredients that aspirin was ultimately synthesised from- actually using the salicylic acid contained in willow. The simplest way to take honeysuckle for its medicinal purposes is as an infusion- steeped in hot water for five to ten minutes. It is also reputed to have strong antiseptic qualities and is a good one to crush and use externally for small wounds while out in the woods.
    I love adding a few flowers to a salad for an unusual splash of colour, while it is also a fun 'on the go' forage- chew on the base of the trumpet and you'll be rewarded with a small but heavenly drop of sweetness from the nectar inside.
    Honeysuckle honeyThis year however, my main focus has been honeysuckle and elderflower infused honey. As is often the case, I was picking elder blossoms the other day and the honeysuckle just happened to catch my eye.
    Honey is an excellent medium for drawing out the goodness from whatever it surrounds. Just put flowers in an empty jar, cover with runny honey and then leave on a sunny windowsill for it to work its magic. I always try to gather on a sunny day when the flowers are dry but it's still a good idea to leave the lids sightly off for a few days to allow any tiny bits of moisture to evaporate. After a month or so, the honey can be stored away in a dark cupboard- either strain the flowers off or keep them in there for decoration.
    By my reckoning, this will be a potent winter bug buster. The antibacterial and pain soothing qualities of the honeysuckle should harness perfectly with the fever accelerating wonders of the elderflower- while the soothing local Purbeck honey is also antibacterial in it's own right.
    This sort of concoction also makes for a wonderful winter gift, bringing an echo of summer to the darker months.
    Foraging considerations.
    Do not eat the berries- these are considered poisonous. 
    As this is such an attractive plant it is not surprising that there are also manyHoneysuckle close up kinds of cultivated varieties. As such, it is risky to make sweeping statements on ediblity. This is why I underlined the word native at the beginning of this post. This plant (Lonicera periclymenum) has a long history of edible and medicinal use and is the one I know and stick with.
    It is a common climber of old hedgerows and woodland edges. The open flowers are trumpet shaped while the closed flowers almost resemble tiny bananas in shape. The colour varies between white, yellow and pink while the leaves are grey-green, oval and in opposite pairs. As always, do your own research to become acquainted with this plant. If the honeysuckle is growing in a garden or near habitation, exercise extra care.
    For maximum potency, pick the flowers when they are fully out. As with most flowers, try and pick in the middle of the day when the sun is on them and certainly avoid picking when damp as they will go dingey and smell a little strange. The most fragrant flowers seem to be the ones that have just opened, although getting it just right often comes down to good luck as much as timing.
    Honeysuckle will usually stay in flower most of the summer and into autumn if it stays warm but remember this is a real jewel of the countryside that is a visual and olfactory delight for all so, as always, forage with consideration for others enjoyment.
  4. A good plant family for any keen forager to get to grips with is the mint (lamiaceae).

    Its relatives, cultivated and wild, number many hundreds in the UK and one common and tasty example isGround ivy-under the hedge
    Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Thought to originate from the Mediterranean and western Asia, it has a long history of human use and, amongst a few other plants, was popular in medieval times for flavouring and clarifying ale- hence one of its colloquial names, ale hoof. The 'hoof' bit probably comes, with a bit of imagination, from its roughly hoof shaped leaf.

    Ground ivy and Baloo 2The young leaves added in moderation to a salad give an interesting bite. But it’s best use is probably as a simple infusion in hot water- providing a sharp and refreshing drink. A little bit of honey compliments it nicely. While the Chinese, who use it in various herbal medicines, add liquorice to it. 

    Traditionally, many of the mint family are excellent cooling and calming herbs. Amongst other things they have a reputation for aiding digestion after a meal and easing any inflammation of the mucous membranes- Ground ivy, in particular, is an anticatarrhal, decongestant and expectorant which basically means it helps to thin the mucus and expel it from the body. Similar to pine needles, which we covered a few posts back, if you take a deep inhalation of the crushed leaves you may notice a cooling and opening of the sinuses. 

    Foraging considerations.

    One of the most helpful skills when it comes to identifying plants is learning to recognise the common features of different Ground ivy springheadfamilies (keen gardeners are often at an advantage here). I always tell people if you can work out the family you are three quarters of the way there- it means only having to flick through a section of your field guide rather than the whole lot!*  

    A very common characteristic of the lamiaceae family is a square and usually hollow stem with stalked leaves that are opposite to one another and often slightly hairy. They are also usually rich in volatile oils which gives them their strong slightly sharp smell- if you have some common mint or peppermint growing in the garden pick a bit and have a look. Or, for that matter, basil, rosemary, lavender or marjoram which are all relatives that have been bought into common cultivation. At this time of year, the purple flowers are also a helpful guide.

    There are no obvious poisonous lookalikes, indeed, as far as I can find out there are no poisionous members of the mint family- which is not the same as saying that they all taste good!

    Traditionally, May is considered peak time for picking for medicinal uses, however our cold spring actually means the plant is at it’s peak about now. Never the less, for a simple infusion, ground ivy can easily be found from mid-spring right through to late autumn. Alternatively it can be picked and dried to last all year. Look for sunny banks and woodland edges on most soils.

    Incidentally, this is not related to ivy which is generally considered poisonous.

    * Good wild plant guides often come with a key which can be really useful for those with patience!

  5. It’s late this year. But in the last few weeks, and with gathering momentum, vibrant splashes of green have started to burst from the bare winter trees. beech coast path 2

    It’s an uplifting sight to see winter releasing its final fragile hold. And even better is the fact that some of the leaves are edible while young and tender. I mentioned Hawthorn last year so this year I thought I’d tip my hat to one of our most magnificent of trees- the Beech (Fagus sylvatica).

    The most famous use for the leaves involves gin and is called beech leaf noyau. There’s plenty of recipes online and it’s worth a try, producing a light green, slightly fruity drink. Personally though, I prefer to save my gin for certain autumnal delights so generally just enjoy the leaves raw- I suspect the subtle flavour would be lost if cooked although I have not tried it.

    beech pot saladOne of my favourite ways of enjoying wild food is simply to browse as I walk and beech leaves are perfect for this- making for a refreshing snack while ambling through the countryside. The top pic was a small copse on the west Dorset coast path last week.

    A few leaves also go nicely in a mixed salad while I tried them for the first time in a potato salad this year- they added a vibrant splash of colour with the mild fruitiness really complimenting the mayo.


    Foraging considerations.

    The beech is a common and reasonably easy tree to identify, it has a smooth grey trunk and can grow to heights of 40 metres- although, for obvious reasons, you’re better off finding a shorter one!

    The pointed leaves at this time of year are an almost translucent bright green with a slightly wavy outline and beech leafa fine hairy texture. But don’t hang around- in the next few weeks they will darken and toughen up until they lose their flavour.

    As with all foraging, sustainability is an essential consideration. Avoid stripping whole branches bare- much more responsible to take a few leaves from different branches.

  6. Plants are like humans in many ways. When it's cold outside it can be hard getting out of bed and our recent semi-arctic weather has meant a lot of spring greens have been reluctant too.Hogweed leaf 2

    One plant that I've been noticing in the last couple of weeks is hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)- not to be confused with the notorious giant hogweed (see later).
    I can guarantee that if you have ever taken a walk down a British country lane you will have seen our common hogweed with it's roughly lobed leaves- often so heavy that the hairy stalks seem to bend out of the hedgerow- beckoning the hungry forager.
    This plant has a long history of use in Eastern European countries but I decided to do some oriental experimentation this time. No, nothing like that- I made a hogweed stirfry!
    Hogweed stirfryThe stems are tougher than the leaves so I chopped and cooked them first, along with some alexanders and jelly ear mushrooms, before popping in the leaves. The two parts of the plant are quite different once cooked- the very young stems are fleshy and succulent while the leaves crisp up and turn similar to a crispy seaweed. The taste of both is difficult to describe, perhaps somewhere between asparagus and parsnip. Apparently, the emerging flower buds, which look like little heads of brocolli, are also delicious but I have not experimented with them yet. As is the case with many spring greens, once the flower opens the whole plant becomes tough and bitter and is best left alone.
    Foraging considerations.
    It's the carrot/ umbelliferae* family again with some of the most deadly plants known to mankind- I'm thinking in particular of hemlock and hemlock water dropwort and, to a lesser extent, fools parsley.
    It's a real pity about these renegade relatives as this family also contains lots of delightful gifts for the forager- for example, ground elder and alexanders, which I've covered in previous posts. However the visual similarities are very superficial and, as always, anyone taking time to study what they're planning to eat is extremley unlikely to have a problem.
    The harmful fellow that really needs mentioning is Giant hogweed- introduced from central Asia by the Victorians for its ornamental appeal. It can grow over 4 metres high and has a toxic sap that burns and blisters the skin when exposed to sunlight.  
    If it happens to be full sized, that is an obvious clue as normal hogweed doesn't grow above a couple of metres at best. However, as hogweed is a spring forage when both plants are young this is not quite so helpful. More useful perhaps is to look out for the previous years dead growth which often hangs around into the next spring. If you don't have this to help then look at the hogweed stemsleaves which are markedly spikier than the round lobes of our native hogweed. Giant hogweed also has purple blotches on the stem and very coarse long bristles while common hogweed has striped purple and green stems and much finer bristles.
    Finally, pay attention to habitat. Stopping and looking around is one of the best identification skills a forager can learn, with practice this can really help one work out what plants they might expect to find in different locations. In the case of giant hogweed, it has a marked preference for damp ditches and streams- the only time I've noticed it in the three years I've been in Dorset is by a stream that enters the river at Wick. 
    While nowhere near the level of giant hogweed, it seems a few people find the raw sap from common hogweed to be an irritant (same with carrot tops for that matter). Personally I have been picking it for a few years now and have never noticed any irritation but if you know you have sensitive skin some gloves could be worth it. The heat from cooking should totally break down the sap but, as with all new wild food, it's always best to just try a little the first time.
    * The other widely used genus name is apiaceae.