5 plants to help you start foraging
You could spend years thinking about starting something, but never actually take that first step. This is the case with foraging for wild food in the UK. Many people start with no knowledge of wild food in the UK, so give up without ever starting! All it means to becoming a forager is taking some time researching what's available before heading out with your basket.
Sure, there are some plants out there that you don't want to eat, just like there are some parts of the city you don't want to go to. But that doesn't mean you stay indoors all your life. There are some delicious, mouth-watering readily available and pretty easy to identify foods out there that you won't get in the supermarket. Take a look at some of my tips and book suggestions if you are looking to start foraging. They will give you an idea of what is available in the UK, when to look out for them and how to prepare them.
But to start with, here are 5 wild plants that you can forage and find in the UK countryside that are pretty straightforward to identify. Looking to start foraging? Start here! As ever, never eat anything that you aren't 100% sure of. It's hard to go wrong with the food below, but if in doubt, check with a book.
1. Brambles / Blackberries / Rubus fruticosus
Ready to pick: Autumn
Brambles (or blackberries for some folk) are found across the UK and offer a plentiful supply of delicious berries. A favourite to eat straight off the bush by adults, babies and dogs alike! Humans have been eating them for thousands of years, and we know this because their fruits have been found in human poop in archaeological digs.
Brambles are found across the countryside - they are the thorny bushes that tend to live at knee-height. They start with beautiful white/pink flowers in the spring, before their fruit grows through reds and purples before finishing up with black, squashy berries in autumn. This is when they are ripe and ready to eat. Every bush has slightly different flavours - some are like jam, others more tart and will make your mouth go 'oooh!'. They can all be eaten directly from the bush but as always make sure they are above dog pee height!
What can you do with brambles?
As well as just munching on them on your walk, you can collect them to make jams and jellies (you can get some kit to begin making these tasty treats here). You can also use them to flavour gin, and as delicious compote.
2. Wild Garlic / Ramsoms / Allium ursinum
Ready to pick: Early spring
Foraging for wild garlic is one of the best things in the world, because it means that spring has finally sprung. The garlic scent fills the air and the sun is warm on your back again. There's nothing quite like it!
Wild garlic is often the first thing a new forager will pick every year, as it easy to identify, especially by its strong garlic smell. It is gradually being pushed out with the likes of few-flowered leeks (which are also tasty!) so do go easy on wild garlic if it's only in dribs and drabs. Whilst every part of the plant is edible, only dig up the bulb if you have permission from the landowner. Even then, consider just eating the leaves, as once the bulb is gone, that's a whole plant gone.
What can you do with wild garlic?
You can use the leaves a a delicious addition to any meal or salad. They are best used raw as cooking will reduce their potency. You can also make an absolute banger of a wild garlic pesto that you can add to pasta and other dishes to zing up any dish!
3. Sloes / Blackthorns / Prunus Spinosa
Ready to pick: autumn If, whilst picking these fruits, you aren't singing Feeling Groovy and the line"slow down you move too fast" by Simon and Garfunkel, you're doing it wrong. SLoes look like little plums, but don't be tempted to pop one in your mouth - they are sour! They will make your cheeks clench. There's also a little stone in the middle that you don't want to bite down on.
They grow on bushes, sometimes even looking like little trees. They have ferocious little spikes on the branches, meaning the unwary forager might go home with a few bloodied fingers if they aren't careful. These little berries are found all over the UK and over Europe too.
What can you do with sloes?
So what's the point of picking sloes if you can't eat them? Well, stick them in a bottle of gin with some sugar and in a few weeks' time you will have the best sloe gin you will have ever tasted.
Crab Apples (Malus Sylvestris)
If there's one wild food we're all probably familiar with - even if we don't know it yet - ti's the crab apple. Basically, little apples like the ones from the shop. You'll find them covering branches at this time of year. Kids have a fondness for using them to chuck at windows (the little blighters) but for most people, they offer a great opportunity to make delicious produce.
If you slice a crab apple in half, it will look like a miniature version of an apple, with seeds in a familiar star shape. But if you give it a taste, you'll pucker up. Sour!
What can you do with crab apples?
Crab apples are great for adding pectin to jams and jellies. That's the stuff that thickens it, so you don't end up with a soup. They can also make a great jelly themselves!
Elder / Elderflower / Elderberries / Sambucus nigra
Ready: late spring (flowers), autumn (berries)
The elder tree is an amazing plant. Not only can you make one of the most powerful and destructive wands known to witches and wizards, you can make a delightful cordial too. The flowers come out in late spring as bunches of white beauty. Don't get too eager though - the rowan tree often flowers a bit earlier with similar flowers, however they don't have a pleasant smell at all and the leaves are different. They won't kill you if you eat them, they'll just taste like cat piss.
Later in the year, the flowers turn to sumptuous dark purple berries, hanging invitingly from their stalk. These shouldn't be eaten raw.
What can you do with elderflowers and elderberries?
You can steep the flowers in water with sugar and some citrus overnight and make a lovely cordial out of it. This can then be used to make elderflower delight, which is stunning! The berries can be cooked up into a lovely elderberry jelly or even make an elderberry wine out of them. So much goodness can come from this one plant, it's amazing.