by Sarah Cameron, OPFV Volunteer
The sun beats on my back and the smell of coconut fills the air. I’m picking gorse in a field near my house, plucking bright yellow flowers from inch-long thorns and dropping them, one by one, into the blue plastic bucket at my feet. It’s pleasant, time-consuming work, and a good way to spend yet another lockdown morning.
It is as old as humanity itself, how we evolved and survived for tens of thousands of years before agriculture, before domestication, searching, identifying, and collecting resources in the wild, foodstuffs such as herbs, plants, fruits, nuts, mushrooms, and materials for building, basketry, fuel, fabric and medicine, along with hunting for meat and fish. It is how many tribal people live today, in the deserts of Southern Africa or the rainforests of South America. Their knowledge of what can be found where, and when, can make the difference between life and death.
My own experience is far from that. Like many of us, I grew up in town and was warned away from all things wild, with the notable exception of blackberries, which I have gathered almost every autumn since childhood, gorging on crumbles sweet with custard. My father once found a puffball in the woods and I have a faded photograph of him holding it as though he were the proud hunter with the head of a stag. He fried it in butter in the cramped kitchen of our caravan and, for more than forty years, I have regretted that I refused even to taste it.
Living in complex, urbanised societies, we have become detached from the natural world. We rely on an increasingly narrow range of mass-produced foodstuffs, rice, wheat, maize, and revile the plants that grow around us as weeds. We buy food that is swaddled in plastic, with little idea of its origin or nutritional value. And yet wild foods cost nothing other than the time taken to gather them, and can be richer in nutrients, vitamins, and minerals than farmed foods. Some even taste better. There is growing evidence that eating a range of plants grown in our local area can boost our vitality and immunity, enhancing the gut microbes on which we now know we depend for many aspects of our physical and mental health. Wild food, after all, is what we were designed to eat.
Take the humble dandelion, persecuted by many a gardener in pursuit of an immaculate lawn and the horticultural villain in many a TV advertisement. It is easy to recognise with its saw-toothed leaves and bright yellow flowers and is one of the earliest sources of spring food for bumble bees, without whose pollination there would be no fruits, no crops, no harvest. It is also edible for humans, every part of it, and high in vitamins A, B, C, D and K, calcium, potassium, manganese, iron, and zinc. The leaves, best when young and tender, can be eaten as salad, or sautéed, or stirred into pasta. The stems have medicinal value and the roots can make a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The petals, steeped in sugar and lemon, make a delicious “honey”. Added to burdock root, they make a drink that is sweet, fizzy, and slightly alcoholic. No wonder Medieval gardeners dug up grass and planted dandelions.
The nettle is also easy to recognise with its sting-bearing stems and serrated leaves and, like the dandelion, is subject to eradication attempts that border on ethnic cleansing. Plunged in boiling water for a minute to remove the sting, it can be used for nettle soup, nettle tea, nettle haggis, nettle-stuffed ravioli, nettle porridge, nettle pesto. It is rich in minerals, vitamins, and fibre, along with trace elements brought up from the soil, and its seeds can be used as a nutritious food supplement. The tall stems contain a strong and pliable fibre, not unlike linen, that has been exploited for thousands of years, found in Bronze Age bog burials, and documented in the First World War. Nettles can be used as a hair conditioner, to treat chickenpox, to relieve the pain of arthritis, to clear up eczema and, soaked in water for a week or two, to make an organic liquid feed for tomatoes and cucumbers. The plants support around forty species of insect, including caterpillars of tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral, and comma butterflies.
Perhaps it is time to look again.
I’m not sure that I am yet ready for the culinary delights of the nettle. Maybe I have not found the right recipes. I have, however, been adding dandelion leaves to my salad bowl and flowers to my homemade peppermint tea. They taste pretty good. I’ve also been feeding them to the pet guinea pigs and the rabbit who guzzle them at a phenomenal rate and must think Christmas has come early. From my neighbour’s lawn, I collected enough dandelion flowers to make “honey” and have filled five jars with sticky, golden-coloured syrup. Later today, I will cover my fragrant gorse flowers with water, sugar, and lemon, leave them overnight, and then strain them through muslin to make cordial. I am told that, if I were to steep them instead in vodka, they would make pretty good “pina colada”. Maybe something for later in the year.
Foraging has given me a new sense of purpose on my daily walk. I live in a rural area and am fortunate that there is so much on the doorstep. Many edible wild plants also thrive in towns, along canal towpaths, and in parks and gardens. Many are easy to find, and spring is an ideal time to start. Soon there will be elderflowers, my personal favourite, and wild raspberries. Then comes the abundance of the autumn harvest, sloes, elderberries, blackberries, hawthorns, and rosehips, all of which are bursting with antioxidants and vitamins, and can be used to make delicious syrups, liqueurs, puddings, and pies.
Gathering wild food gives us a chance to reconnect with the natural world. At this moment of unprecedented environmental crisis, perhaps rediscovering the value of what is growing around us could be a first step towards a more sustainable future for us all. I for one would like to think so.
Rules for safe, sustainable & responsible foraging
1. Never consume wild food unless you are 100% sure of its identification. There are plants and fungi out there that can kill you. When in doubt, leave it out!
2. Do not take more than you need. Only pick from abundant populations and leave plenty behind for wildlife and others to enjoy. Over-picking is not sustainable and will impact next year’s crop.
3. Do not pick endangered species. It’s not only illegal to pick but unethical. Gather only those that you know grow in abundance and familiarise yourself with endangered species.
4. Do not trespass to forage for wild food. You should only forage on property that you have gained landowner’s permission to enter. Always leave it as you found it in the first place.
5. Leave no trace behind and respect nature. Minimise damage to the habitat and species. Do not disturb wildlife and avoid unnecessary trampling.
6. Do not pick the roots. The plant will not have the chance to reproduce and you will not be able to pick leaves and flowers in the future. Always ask for the landowner’s permission if the plant in question is fairly abundant.
7. Never pick in places subjected to pollution. Avoid roadsides, industrial estates, dog walking areas and agricultural land that may be sprayed with herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. Do not pick plants growing near polluted water sources.
8. Use a knife / pair of scissors. Using adequate tools avoid excess damage to plants and inadvertent uprooting, increasing the chance of the plant to continue growing healthy.
9. Be cautious when trying new wild foods. Sometimes your body will have intolerances. Learn about possible reactions and allergies. Avoid consuming wild food if you have medical conditions, are pregnant or breastfeeding.
10. Share your knowledge. Teach others to respect nature and learn about the environment.
Food for Free, Richard Mabey Thrifty Forager, Alys Fowler
The Forager Handbook, Miles Irving 10% Human, Alanna Collen
Wildfood, A complete Guide for Foragers, Roger Phillips
A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvest, Fi Martynoga