“There is no such thing as a weed, just peoples weedy misconception of life creatures and how they fit in to society’s world.” Tom Brown Jnr
Collecting wild edibles is both exciting and rewarding. A small amount of study can not only yield plate’s full of delicious free food but can open the way to a deep connection with the natural life that surrounds us. We can connect to the ever-changing seasons, to nature and to our ancestral heritage. Through collecting plants that have been used for foods and medicines for generations we start to develop an enduring relationship with the landscape we inhabit and those that inhabited it before us. This can even open a doorway to the Spirit through the healing use of herbs.
Eating wild food is both healthy and tasty, but it is important to note that some of the wild plants can be bitter to our cultivated taste buds. By trying a plant a few times are pallet can adjust. All of the plants mentioned are edible but take them at first, in small quantities and one at a time, to see if you like them and if they agree with you
Collection is an important aspect of wild harvesting. The next time you go for a walk look at the bramble tops the new leaf shoots. These are an edible, though a little cloying to the taste, but they are a favourite food for deer. If you look closely at where they have been nipped off, you will see how the deer are most careful in their selection. They only take a few tops from each available browsing area. Thus encouraging good grow back and leaving some for the next time they pass. This simple observation demonstrates a whole attitude of caretaking that is important to practice especially when collecting. Seek to have a positive impact on the environment from where you collect. Caretaking is a tremendous area of study in it self, using both keen observation, such as tracking skills and skills that help us to develop the ability to commune with the land. Discovering what it needs to help it to return to balance.
An attitude of thanks giving is essential to collection. I have heard that some native peoples when collecting specific plants would stop at the first one they found and leave an offering, this can be anything of value, and was often tobacco. They might even pick the third or fourth one they found thus insuring there was no over harvesting. This is done out of respect for the life about to be taken. Spring begins to unfold and we are greeted by an abundance of leaf and flower and it is the young leaves, flowers and shoots that provide the main edible crop at this time of year.
Primrose flowers are delicate and sweet and folklore states that if you eat the first one you come across in the year, you will meet with fairies all year. Gorse flowers are also a delight full trailside nibble, some of them taste almost like coconut and they make a good tea. Both Colts-foot and Dandelion flowers are good cooked; either dipped in batter and fried or boiled (before the flowers are open) for a few minutes like peas. My other flower favourite is Red Clover, some times called Strawberry Clover. This is great raw in salads, dipped in batter and fried, made in to a tea, or dried and ground in to flour. All Clovers are edible both leaf and flower. The leaves of Dandelion are also a good salad leaf and health food as they contain vitamin A in considerable quantities. Also a few leaves infused in hot water make a tonic drink. Colts-foot leaves can be eaten cooked and when charred can act as survival salt due to the high potassium content. To complement our survival salt Shepherd’s Purse provides an excellent peppery taste when eaten raw.
Other leaves that are good for salad are Hawthorne, known as bread and cheese and salt and pepper, and other such names. To me the flavour is somewhat nutty. The flowers can also be eaten especially before they open. Due to their nutty flavour and the fact that Hawthorne is also called May, suggests a possible interpretation of the old saying ‘gathering nuts in May’. Young Beech and Lime tree leaves can be eaten in salad before they darken, from their first emerald arrival.
Ramsons or Wild Garlic are a very pungent and succulent plant, all parts are edible and it is usually smelt before it is seen. It has smooth green leaves and clusters of white flowers. It is most delicious in sandwiches or salads and is good cooked, but its flavour diminishes. Yarrow can be eaten raw though it is also a strong healer. The Latin name ‘Achillea’ was given to the herb as Achilles was said to be the first to discover its wound healing properties. Using the flowers to heal the wounds of his men and his own.
Wild Sorrel and Wood Sorrel both have a delicious sharp lemony flavour, this is due to the oxalic acid they contain, and eaten in large quantities this can cause stomach upset. Wild Sorrel resembles the cultivated variety though smaller, Wood Sorrel looks similar to clover with delicate bell shaped flowers. A few leaves added to salad or lots made in to soup make this a delicious edible. A favourite dish of mine is Nettle and Sorrel soup.
Nettles are a great edible; the tops are picked and used, as the stems have such strong fibbers they can even be used to make bow strings. They are best picked before the summer solstice, as they become bitter due to a chemical change as they age. Though I have found that where they grow in shady places they can be eaten right up to the end of August.
There are many good cooked greens to be found, Ground Elder, which like Nettles was introduced by the Romans as a potherb. This resembles Elder both in leaf shape and flower but grows close to the ground, not to be confused with Dogs Mercury a poisonous look a like. Cleavers or as they are better known Goose Grass is also good cooked, though it is important to just pick the tops or the whole plant when young. Chickweed is a good potherb, though when infused as a tea it has strong laxative properties so drain well and don’t drink the juice! Dock leaves can also be eaten though as with burdock, its larger cousin it is worth boiling the leaves and changing the water at least once. This leaches out the tannic acid that makes them bitter, as tannic acid is water-soluble.
Now we are beginning to move towards the main course as we have dealt with our soup and salad starter, various greens and now at the mention of burdock, my thoughts turn to its delicious root. Burdock is a biennial plant, this means it has a two-year cycle, in the first year it grows a deep taproot and many large rhubarb like leaves with long stems. In its second year it throws up a long central stem and produces the burrs that act like survival Velcro and get stuck to every thing. The first year plant’s root is very good eating, as are the leaf stems when peeled and cooked in several changes of water. The root however needs care full digging as pulling it results in little success; also removal of the black outer bark on the root is essential. The second year plant has strong blood cleansing properties in the root and should not be used for eating. The root is great stir-fried, boiled or baked. Similarly dandelion root can be boiled or roasted and eaten. When dried and roasted it can be used for after dinner coffee. Other main courses include alexanders and angelica stems steamed or boiled. Do be careful not to confuse these two with hemlock, as it is very poisonous. Alexanders leaves are quite shiny and larger than many similar umbeliferous plants.
Pine trees offer a great delicacy at this time to, the new shoots that will form in to future cones appear dusted in yellow pollen. Both the pollen and shoots are edible. The pollen is very nutritious and is a great soup thickener, and the shoots are great boiled or steamed. Pine needles contain a chemical fifty times as potent as vitamin C and make excellent tea winter tea.
For potatoes we need to turn to one of the water dwelling plants erroneously known as bulrushes, due to a painting by Holman Hunt of Moses in the bulrushes. When in fact he had painted Reed Mace. It stands tall with a thick dark seed head, mostly growing in swampy areas. The rhizomes (new growth roots) are called duck potatoes and young shoots can also be eaten. If the water quality is good they can both be eaten raw otherwise cook them.
Another main course delicacy is young bracken fern, fiddleheads. When they are still curled up they are edible, as they uncurl and grow taller they loose their edibility. These fried in butter are delicious as the hairy parts of the ferns absorb the butter and have a crisp nutty taste. Pignut is another delicious woodland flavour; it is the root of a small umbeliferous plant with delicate leaves like fennel.
Well all that is left is the pudding and it is worth waiting for. Elder flowers dipped in batter and fried with birch sap syrup. Elder flowers also make a fine cordial and even champagne. Many of the above mentioned plants ferment well in to delicious drinks too. Such as Nettle beer, (non-alcoholic) Gorse flower wine, Dandelion flower wine, Oak leaf wine, and Yarrow has some times been used in place of hops in beer making. Birch sap will ferment very easily as it contains many natural sugars and can be collected as the sap rises. When boiled down it makes delicious syrup similar to maple syrup.
Plants should be collected away from roadsides, pylons, train lines, non-organic field edges and other contaminants. Check water sources when collecting waterside plants and be sure of 100% positive identification especially with umbeliferous plants. (Plants with many flowers forming an umbrella like shape, like cow parsley). Please don’t pick protected species or harvest in areas where you do not have permission.