Friday February 22 2019




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Foraging for food

Posted on August 16 2009 at 5:57:53 0 comments


Mary Green points out the many edible plants in our local area.

The year so far has continued to be a good old-fashioned typical English one. The roses were gorgeous in June, butterflies and dragonflies thrived in July, it rained (a little too much) and the sun shone, barbecues came out in August – it has actually been a warm summer. I was up at dawn on Midsummer Day and the sun just about managed to poke through the clouds.

Above all, the fruit has set well, both in the gardens and in the wild. Sloes especially look wonderful. I’ve been encouraged, too, to see a new planting of willows along the canal near Alvechurch where the old scrapyard was and the trees had been removed.

We are coming up to one of the best times of year for eating food from the wild. Our ancestors before the industrial revolution ate a far more varied range of local foods than we do, and this must have helped keep them fed out of the seasons when food crops were ripe, and when they were without money. 

Few people nowadays know what they can eat, and of course if you don’t you should always collect with someone who does know. It is usually acceptable to take small amounts of wild plant food from places with public access, though of course you should never collect anything unless there’s plenty of it, never uproot plants, and never take large amounts.

There has been trouble lately with people picking large quantities of wild fungi for restaurants. Animals, birds and fish are different and you generally need permission to kill them for food.

Throughout the year, there is usually something available. In February and March there are leaves aplenty, full of taste and goodness. Garlic mustard, ground elder, cow parsley, bittercress, wild garlic, dandelions, lambs’ lettuce, red dead nettle, bistort, golden saxifrage (by streams), scurvy grass and hawthorn leaves can all be used in salads. Nettles and goosegrass need to be cooked. Many of these are “garden weeds” and you will increasingly find people letting a few grow!

A little later you will find sorrel and watercress too. Most of these are fairly easily identified with the help of a good wildflower book. Cow parsley is a bit hard to distinguish from other plants of the umbellifer family, some of which are poisonous, but it comes up so much earlier that there really isn’t a problem in practice.

Later in the year there are lots of leaves that can be eaten, especially plants like good king Henry and fat hen from the Goosefoot family, which used to be much eaten. (The same family includes the “superfood” quinoa and the marsh samphire, now in trendy restaurants.) Most leaves that need cooking can be cooked like spinach, made into soups or added to quiches and pasta dishes.

Throughout the world, there are “greens” which are picked from the wild or grown, and before we selectively bred these to become our cultivated cabbages and spinaches, everyone used to eat them as a source of vitamins, iron and other essential elements. Sadly, you can see some developing countries making the mistakes we made: increasing the production of crops like maize, and removing all the other green plants people used to eat.

It’s best to eat all these when the leaves are young, so spring is the prime time, but later in the year some plants have a second growth of new leaves. This is especially true of nettles. You can also use flowers to decorate salads and puddings for example. Violets, primroses, garlic mustard, wild garlic, wild rocket, lady’s smock, blackthorn and hawthorn, roses and borage are examples.

Other flowers are used to flavour fruit or to make cordials. The best for these are elderflowers and meadow sweet, abundant round here in June and July, making them perfect for flavouring gooseberries. You need less sugar if you use these with fruit, too, so they are good for you. The leaves and stalks of wild angelica and sweet cicely can also be used for sweetening.

Talking of gooseberries, the fruit season starts quite early. Wild gooseberries are more common in the north of England. Wild strawberries are probably the first, in June, and are common round here. My neighbours and I have them all round the front of our houses, since one of us brought them back with a plant.

One of the banks by the platform on Alvechurch Station was covered with them this year, and they were a real treat while waiting for one of those trains that don’t turn up. The birds loved them too. When I went again a week later the bank had been mown they were all gone. It’s such a pity that grass cutting (which is necessary) isn’t timed for wildlife.

Alvechurch station is also the home for one of our most ancient herbs and food plants – the tansy, not very common round here. It’s a handsome plant with heads of closed yellow flowers and pungent ferny leaves (don’t confuse it with the more common poisonous ragwort with open daisy-like yellow flowers.)

You can put chopped tansy leaves in a cake (make an ordinary Madeira type cake) giving it a distinctive flavour, and also great keeping properties. It’s not surprising, then, that tansy was anciently used for embalming! It also keeps insects away, and apparently the young shoots are nice stir-fried.

Even ragwort, which is highly poisonous to animals, is being investigated for its anti-cancer properties. This is a good reminder that herbs contain medicinal drugs, and that there is a fine line between medicinal drugs and poisons.

Unfortunately, a couple of weeks after I photographed the tansy, all the rough plants alongside the station were cut down, including ripening blackberries, St John’s wort and all the tansy. I don’t know who is responsible for stations and their environs these days, but is seems such a shame when cutting at the right time of year would encourage wild flowers and fruit. However, across on the bank opposite the platform, there is still tansy, hopefully out of reach.
Another fruit to ripen early is the wild cherry. I have eaten them round here this year, and they are delicious. The last time I ate them was in 2006 – they need some warm sun. You had to be quick though: they ripened in late June and by mid-July the birds had had them all.

Wild raspberries are another real treat, though they grow more in the north and west, especially Scotland. Black and red currants grow wild too. By the end of July the blackberries are coming: I had my first one this year on 25 July.

Cherry plums ripen well in some years and not others – they are great this year. They vary from yellow to red and come ripe at different times, some as early as July and others in August or September.

One of the great treats of July is bilberry picking. Magically, they come ripe when the kids are finishing school. They grow on moorland in the north and west, but not so much round here. However, the Lickeys have them in profusion on a ridge of acid soil.

I spent a wonderful afternoon this year getting red hands and eating berries as I picked (they are sweet enough to eat raw) then taking some home for a pudding. Bilberries are, of course, our native blueberries, and share their nutritional value, full of vitamin C and anti-oxidants and thought to be good for balancing blood-sugars.

By September, where we are now, there is a great harvest coming. Blackberries are good traditionally until Michaelmas (Sept 29) and crab apples, wild plums, sloes, elderberries, hawthorn berries and rosehips fill the hedges, ready for jam. Rowan berries have also been traditionally used for jelly, but there is some doubt over whether they are good for you. The little fruits of the wild service tree are nice, but you have to wait really late, until they are very soft and almost rotten, or “bletted.”

You may be able to get hazel nuts too. They appear in July, plentiful this year, but by the time they have ripened in the autumn they have probably been eaten by squirrels. Later, in October, it’s worth looking out for sweet chestnuts. There are a few patches of them round here, near Hopwood and Tardebigge and scattered along roads. I last had good ones in 2006. They don’t flower till July and need a really good late summer and early autumn to fruit successfully.

Plants are of course useful for drinks as well as food. Sloe gin is well known, but you can also flavour gin with young beech leaves, making a beautiful pale green drink, and brandy flavoured with may blossom is sensational. Almost anything will go into making wine, but elderberries make an especially good red, and spiced blackberry was once a favourite of mine.

Gorse flowers and dandelions earlier in the year both make lovely wines. You can even extract cooking oil from beech mast, and make a kind of coffee from roast dandelion roots – the sky’s the limit.

I have written about fungi before, so just a brief reminder that we are coming into their main season. Round here you should be able to find field mushrooms, horse mushrooms, puffballs, blewitts, shaggy inkcap, and maybe boletus (ceps), chanterelles and cauliflower mushrooms, all edible when young. They depend on a warm wet late summer and early autumn.

You really must know what you are picking, as some fungi are fatally poisonous. The best way is to join one of the “fungi forays” run at National Trust properties. I grew up with field mushrooms and recognise them easily, though I find it hard to explain to people how. It’s just like any plant or tree; you get to know aspects of it including its feel and smell as well as look, and where and when it grows.

Next April, I will be leading one of the Alvechurch Village Society’s walks, specifically to look at edible wildlife. If you want to know more, I can recommend Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free, and the more recent Wild Food by Ray Mears.

The poem this month is based on observations on my recent visit to Malawi. Nsima is the local word for maize meal.


Nsima we eat every day
It is a good year for maize so we have plenty
But somehow the children are hungry.
We used to plant pumpkins and spinach
But now it is government maize
It’s modern and grows tall with fertiliser
We are not dirt farmers.

We used to save some of the grain
But this does not grow
We have to sell some back to them
For more seeds next year.
Grandma says we could eat
That vine, these leaves, those gourds,
But we are modern farmers.

There is a strange American in our village.
He grows trees, vines, beans, leaves, flowers
All untidy, not in modern rows.
He does not sweep his yard
He lets his water run on to the vegetables
And his toilet is full of leaves.
I have watched him grow this forest.

He speaks gently, says he is a lazy man
But his child is healthy, playing barefoot with mine.
They eat things only Grandma eats
And sit in the shade of fruit trees.
I cannot laugh at him, for
His maize is bigger and better than mine.
If he saves seeds I will ask for some.

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