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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Category: Hogweed

  1. Hogging it

    Posted on

    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 stir-fry!
    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. The emerging flower buds, which look like little heads of brocolli, are apparently also delicious, but I've 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 it's best left alone.
    Foraging considerations.
    It's the carrot/ umbelliferae* family again with some of the most deadly plants known to humans – 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 with the dangerous ones is very superficial, and 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 its very toxic sap 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 year's 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 to look out for 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, near Christchurch. 
    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 I've 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.