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.
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.
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)
In September, the hidden spice chest of the hedgerow begins to reveal itself.
Alexanders, a carrot family member, is a mainly coastal plant. However, it is slowly making its way inland.
Some authorities suggest Alexanders arrived in Britain as a result of the Romans. Records show they did use it as a vegetable and medicinal herb (1).
Caprioli and team tell us it was a popular wild edible during the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC (2).
As Autumn makes its way towards us, the tiny ridged seeds are ripe for gathering once they turn black.
Known as a spice plant, Alexanders was called black potherb because of its black seeds. Bite into one, and you will experience the delicious flavour of black pepper but without the heat.
The coarsely ground seeds make a great addition to tomato-based pasta sauces.
Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
The ancient Greeks believed that beechnuts were the first food eaten by humans.
Beechnuts (called mast) can be eaten raw or roasted and salted.
The kernels contain around 40% oil (3).
The kernels contain a toxic alkaloid called fagine, so it is best not to overeat them raw. Heat destroys fagine.
People once used roasted beech nuts as a coffee substitute.
People in Norway and Sweden bake the sawdust and mix it with wheat flour to make bread (4).
Fat Hen (Chenopodium album)
The plant belongs to the Amaranthaceae family. However, taxonomic authorities still quibble about whether it should be in the Goosefoot Family or not.
Seeds have also been found in the stomach of the Tollund Man. His body was found in a bog in Jutland, Denmark and is dated around 2000 years.
The seeds of Fat Hen are rich in starch and can be ground and added to flour to bake breads, cakes, biscuits, pancakes or muffins (5).
Alternatively, add the seeds to salads, stir-fries or use for sprouted grains. Fat Hen may produce up to seventy thousand seeds on a single plant.
These are similar to poppy seeds in shape and size and are suitable for seasoning, grain or coffee substitutes.
Napoleon was said to rely on Fat Hen seeds to make black bread to feed his troops (6).
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Hawthorn berries, or haws, were a source of food in ancient Ireland.
The seeds have been found in Viking Dublin excavations dating back over 1,000 years.
Hawthorn trees are often heavy with berries in late Autumn when other native fruits have faded.
It is best to pick the berries later in the season when they become tastier and sweeter.
It is best to pick them after Halloween (31st October) in traditional folklore once the witches have flown over them (7).
Hawthorn berries have an acquired taste. They are mildly sweet and not particularly juicy. Traditionally they are made into jam, jelly, marmalade and wine.
My spicy lacto-fermented Dragon’s Breath Hawthorn Relish (8) is a unique way to work with the berries. A break from the usual sweet recipes.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
A curious food, Rowan berries can be very bitter unless processed correctly.
It would be best if you froze them first, then defrost them and soak them in vinegar for 12 hours.
At first, you might be forgiven for giving Rowan a miss in the kitchen, but I encourage you to experiment.
As a pointer for you, the berries have traditionally been made into jams, jellies, conserves, marmalades, vinegar, wines, spirits, confectionary, ketchup, pies and soups.
In Europe, during times of scarcity, hungry people would grind dried Rowan berries into a meal they made into bread (9).
The berries have also been used to flavour alcoholic beverages, particularly mead.
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
The sap of Staghorn Sumac can cause a skin rash in some people.
If you stroke the red flowering drupes with your fingers and then lick them, it is like licking lemon sherbet. The malic acid in the plant gives them this sour taste.
The red-flame-like drupes can be used in drinks. For example, do this to make a delicious thirst-quenching Staghorn Sumac lemonade called sumacade.
Put five red drupes into a glass jar, then pour a litre of water over them. Place the jug on a window in sunlight for six hours: strain and drink. You can also make this liquid infusion into jelly.
The drupes make an acceptable substitute for the Middle Eastern spice known as Sumac.
Gather the drupes, and dry them on paper or in a dehydrator—Fork the seeds and fur off the drupes, which can be pretty time-consuming.
Blitz in a smoothie maker or food processor, then sieve to get Staghorn Sumac spice dust.
- Maggi F, Barboni L, Papa F et al. A forgotten vegetable (Smyrnium olusatrum L., Apiaceae) as a rich source of isofuranodiene. Food Chem. 2012;135(4):2852-2862. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2012.07.027
- Caprioli G, Fiorini D, Maggi F et al. Ascorbic acid content, fatty acid composition and nutritional value of the neglected vegetable Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum L., Apiaceae). Journal of Food Composition and Analysis. 2014;35(1):30-36. doi:10.1016/j.jfca.2014.05.001
- sylvatica) B. Wild Plant Foods of Britain. Foragerplants.blogspot.com. https://foragerplants.blogspot.com/2018/06/. Published 2022. Accessed September 13, 2022.
- Duke J. Handbook Of Nuts. Florida: CRC Press; 1989.
- Facciola S. Cornucopia II. Vista, CA: Kampong Publications; 1998.
- Schofield J. Discovering Wild Plants. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books; 1995.
- Hatfield G. Hatfield’s Herbal. London: Penguin; 2008.
- Harford R. Fermented Hawthorn Relish Recipe. Eatweeds. https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/fermented-hawthorn-relish-recipe. Published 2016. Accessed September 13, 2022.
- Sturtevant E. Sturtevant’s Edible Plants Of The World. New York: Dover Publications; 1972.