On a lovely hot and sunny Saturday morning I walked across the water meadows and along the canal to meet Kat and a small group of fellow foragers keen to learn from her experience.
She began by showing us some borage, which she told us is used to flavour Pimms. This was one I know for adding to a drink- you can freeze the pretty purple blue flowers in ice cubes or just pop into your drink as a garnish. We all took a taste of the stalk which is slightly cucumbery. The leaves are slightly furry.
We then took a look at ground elder, growing close to the ground as the name suggests. As leaves look similar to those of the elder tree it is important to check that the plant is not actually a young elder tree sapling (in which case it would have a more woody stalk and likely be under or close to an existing elder tree), as the tree leaves are not edible. The young ground elder leaves had a lovely tangy taste. This plant was brought in by the Romans as it is apparently good for gout.
We then had a look at a young burdock plant – the root is used to flavour dandelion and burdock and can also be used as a vegetable, but remember you should not dig up a plant without the landowner’s permission. You can also eat the young leaf stems, first stripping off the hard outer peel.
Everybody’s favourite of the day was Garlic Mustard or Jack by the Hedge – there was a plentiful supply of this along the canal and the river and it tastes just as the name suggests. It’s best to take just the top few leaves from any individual plant – these can be eaten raw and can also be used to make a great pesto. I later spotted these a little closer to home so will definitely be out for some more of these in the next week.
The leaves of ground ivy, a low growing creeping perennial with small purple/blue flowers can be used to make a herbal tea and were used to flavour beer before the use of hops became widespread.
Nettles are the wild edible most people will be familiar with but I didn’t know that stinging nettles are actually unrelated to the white and purple flowering deadnettles ( which don’t sting) although all are edible. The young shoots and leaves of deadnettles can be added to salads or stir fries. Stinging nettles are popularly used for soup but can also be used in a variety of other dishes such as risotto, or to make a syrup. They are very high in iron and a range of other vitamins. It is best to use young plants in their first year, and remember to bring gloves for picking them.
We also had a look at the hawthorn – a familar sight in British hedgerows. The leaves can be dried in summer and used to make a tea. The leaves contain a chemical which helps you to feel full and are known as “bread and cheese”. The small fruits which appear later in the year are edible but fairly bland ( when I have tried them before I found them to be like a very small floury bland apple). They can be used to make hawthorn jelly or added to other fruits and dried to make a fruit leather.
Still alongside the canal, we took a look at the large leaved comfrey plant. The leaves can be boiled and used like spinach but it is also known for its medicinal properties ( for healing bones). You can also cook the leaves tempura style in a little batter.
As we moved away from the canal and onto the watermeadows Kat showed us the important difference between hemlock (which is extremely poisonous) and cow parsley.
She then showed us broadleaved plantains growing in the meadow grass. We have a smaller version of these growing in our back garden lawn. And cleavers/goosegrass/stickyweed which can be gently steamed in a little butter when young (before the seeds appear)
Dandelions are another one everyone will easily recognise. All parts of the plant are edible apart from the seeds. I remember spending a whole day collecting the flowers as a child for my dad to make dandelion wine. Another of the foragers told us of a recipe for dandelion marmalade. The young leaves can be used in salads.
We had a look at some young himalayan balsam plants emerging near the river. These are an invasisve species so are being removed in many places. You can help stop them spreading by collecting the seeds in late summer (shaking into a plastic bag as the seed pods explode) . Adele Nozedar’s book mentioned at the end has recipes for Himalayan Seed Curry and Himalayan Balsam Seed Rissoles . You can also just eat the seeds as they are, and can also eat the leaves and stems. The stems are apparently a little like rhubarb although as we always have a surfeit of actual rhubarb in the garden I have never felt the need to try.
Kat also showed us tansy which is antibacterial ( and tasted so) and common hogweed. The young unfurled leaves and flower heads of the common hogweed can be cooked gently like asparagus. This plant should not be eaten raw. It is important to be sure you have correctly identified common hogweed as the larger giant hogweed is poisonous.
We finished up our walk with a taste from a large thistle – Kat cut and trimmed pieces of the stalk for us to sample. And it was surprisingly tasty – I would say a little like celery.
We then made our way back to the pub for a quiz on what we had learnt that morning – with the prize of a lovely pot of jack-by the hedge pesto made by Kat – which I am looking forward to using this week .
This walk really helped me, giving me the confidence to try some plants I knew were edible but was not so confident about identifying and also showing me some I was unfamiliar with. A top tip for me was the fact that pesticides cannot be sprayed close to waterways which makes the river and canal edges a great place for foraging ( although as they are also popular places for dog walkers, try to avoid the spots dogs are likely to wee or be sure to well wash/cook your finds).
Disclaimer and additional references:
This is a brief overview so please do not rely on my images for identification purposes, or rely on this information for the appropriate use of each plant – be sure to check with someone who knows or if using books and online images use several sources to be sure you have a clear image of any unfamiliar plants and sufficient information on which parts of the plant are edible and how to prepare them. If in doubt don’t eat it.
Information from Kat’s fascinating walk has been supplemented, and my memory refreshed as necessary, by reference to Richard Mabey’s Food for Free. Other useful foraging reference books are Alys Fowler’s the Thrifty Forager and Adele Nozedar’s The Hedgerow Handbook – recipes, remedies and rituals.
A link to Kat’s blog is below. Eat the weeds is also a useful reference site for more information on individual plants
Kat’s blog: Hedgewitch Adventures
Hedgewitch Adventures Facebook Group
If you enjoyed this post please let me know by commenting below – you can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook