Written by Robin Harford
Foraging is a fascinating skill that both deepens our relationship to nature and empowers our health. This article shares some interesting plants you can forage here in the UK in November.
Foraging is a wonderful way to connect both with nature, and nourish our health. A useful link with images that can help with identification as well as botanical information is Wild Flower Finder. Here Robin Harford shares some edible plants you can safely harvest from the wild in November.
Please note: Under Section 13 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, uprooting any wild plant without landowners’ permission is illegal (1).
Blackthorn or Sloe (Prunus spinosa)
There is some evidence at a Neolithic site in northern Italy that the fruits of Blackthorn, commonly known as Sloes, were cooked or roasted (2).
In late autumn, picking sloes, sometimes called slaes or sloans, is a well-kept countryside tradition.
In the 1700s, Robert Bloomfield described roasting sloes over a bonfire in The Farmer’s Boy, and in the 1900s, Victorian writer Anne Pratt recalled collecting sloes as a child and burying the fruit in a bottle until winter to make a preserve (3).
In France, the unripe fruits are pickled like olives. In Azerbaijan, the ripe fruits are pickled with onions and garlic. Dried sloes can also add flavour to herbal teas (4).
Sloe wine has been made for hundreds of years, and the bitter-tasting fruits are still used to make sloe gin, flavour liqueurs, and even added to ice cream.
Sloe gin is recommended as an after-dinner winter drink because of its warming qualities. The dark berries can be made into delicious jellies and jams.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Chicory is a well-known wild edible that has been cultivated since the times of the ancient Egyptians, who used the plant as a coffee substitute, vegetable crop and animal forage (5).
The bitterness of roots can be reduced by cooking, and also by cooking in a couple of water changes (6).
There is considerable interest in chicory root as a substitute for corn syrup. “Part of the benefit in chicory is its ease of processing compared to the complex process required for the production of high fructose syrup (HFS) from corn… chicory yields more than twice the HFS per hectare as corn. In Europe the production of HFS from chicory has been pioneered by the beet sugar industry.” (7).
Chicory roots are used to make an ersatz coffee. First, the roots are slow roasted till dark brown, then ground up and used like coffee.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
Britain was unfamiliar with horseradish as a culinary herb in the Middle Ages because its use was largely reserved for medicine. Still, herbalists were aware that it was a popular condiment in Germany and Denmark.
Half a century later, the British had begun to acquire a taste for Horseradish, but it was not for the faint of heart.
The herbalist John Parkinson (1567–1650) wrote that it was eaten by “Country people and strong labouring men in some countries of Germany…and in our owne land also, but…it is too strong for tender and gentle stomaches” (10).
The fresh roots are commonly used as a culinary seasoning, either as a sauce, powder or vinegar for flavouring meats, vegetables and pickles (4).
You can also mix it with tomato sauce or tomatoes (as in Russia) to accompany seafood. In Alsace, France, a warm version of horseradish root is prepared with fresh cream (11).
The roots can be sliced and roasted as a vegetable. In Germany, sliced Horseradish roots are cooked like parsnips.
Remember to open the kitchen window or door if you’re preparing Horseradish roots at home.
Juniper (Juniperus communis)
Juniper is a small multi-stemmed shrub or tree. The seed cones usually referred to as berries, are the main parts of the plant used in creating food and drink.
Juniper berries are most commonly known for flavouring gin and seasoning game.
The volatile oils in the berries are a good digestive and help minimise the production of gas when eating foods like beans and cabbage. Often they will be included in sauerkraut for flavour.
Juniper berries have a small amount of yeast on the skin and can be used to activate sourdough starters when combined with the initial flour and water. Once activated, the berries are discarded (8).
The needles and berries are commonly used to smoke fish.
Oak (Quercus spp.)
The oak covered one-third of Europe during the reign of England’s King Henry VII (1457–1509), but these ancient forests have vanished due to logging (9).
Nutritionally, the nuts of the oak tree provided a precious food source for early people.
Arthur Haines writes: “[The nut] contains starches, oils, some protein, the minerals calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as several B complex vitamins (unfortunately, the B vitamins are water soluble and will largely be lost in the final product). The protein is high quality protein due to its completeness.” (6).
There are numerous ways to leech acorns, and it is best if only cold water is used. Two different cold water methods can be found here: How To Process Acorns.
Most people turn the acorn into flour, although it is possible to pickle the whole nut.
Kept in their shells and stored correctly, acorns can last for 25 years without going rancid, making them a fantastic nutrient-rich survival food.
Dog Rose or Rosehip (Rosa canina)
During the war, citrus fruit imports were halted. As a result, in 1941 the Ministry of Health became concerned about the deficiency of vitamin C in the diet of children and infants.
The government started a massive recruitment campaign, and schools, voluntary groups and the Women’s Institute went out into the countryside to gather rosehips.
Once transported to London, they were turned into nutritious syrup and distributed to children and infants.
In the first year over 600,000 bottles were produced, rising in 1943 to two and half million bottles.
Rosehips are a valuable fruit for jams, jellies, syrups, soups, teas, wine and liqueurs. Dog Rose flowers can be eaten in salads or candied or preserved for vinegar, honey and brandy (4).
- Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Accessed September 14, 2022. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1981/69/section/13
- Sánchez-Mata M de C, Tardío J, eds. Mediterranean Wild Edible Plants: Ethnobotany and Food Composition Tables. Springer; 2016. doi:10.1007/978-1-49393329-7
- Hatfield G. Hatfield’s Herbal: The Secret History of British Plants. Penguin; 2008.
- 1. Facciola S. Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants. Kampong Publications; 1998.
- Street RA, Sidana J, Prinsloo G. Cichorium intybus : Traditional Uses, Phytochemistry, Pharmacology, and Toxicology. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2013;2013:1-13. doi:10.1155/2013/579319
- Haines A. Ancestral Plants Volume 2: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants of the Northwest. Vol 2. Anaskimin; 2015.
- Herbalpedia. The Herb Growing & Marketing Network; 2014.
- Gray B. The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North. Aroma Borealis Press; 2011.
- Cleene M de, Lejeune MC. Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe. Man & Culture; 2002.
- Grieve M. A Modern Herbal Vol 1 (A-H): The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. Dover Publications; 1971.
- Small E. Culinary Herbs. 2nd ed. NRC Research Press; 2006.