Spring Wild Food Foraging
By Rhoda Mcgivern
Spring is my favourite time of the year. I love to explore the countryside as the sun shines on the unfurling leaves and the emerging flowers light up the hedgerows.
As the frost melts and the stark bareness of Winter gives way to fresh, bright and vibrant colour, nature’s kitchen begins to offer us an abundance of wild foods.
If you are new to foraging you may be surprised at how many of our native plant species are edible, maybe even more so at how great they taste. With a little bit of knowledge, you can discover plenty of wonderful wild ingredients that are full of nutrients, completely fresh and best of all free!
In this article, I will be covering my top ten and including a little information about any medicinal uses, but I highly recommend you research the subject further as it’s a vast and fascinating one!
Urtica dioica – Stinging nettles.
Often avoided and somewhat the villain of the hedgerow, the humble stinging nettle is, in fact, a fantastic wild food. A useful ingredient in a variety of dishes, stinging nettles are delicious in soups, teas and as a simple cooked vegetable.
Often used as a replacement for spinach, as the flavours are very similar, nettles are also used in cheese making (Cornish Yarg and some varieties of Gouda) and make a popular ingredient in pesto and purées.
Wear gloves when foraging to gather the young leaves at the tip of the plants. Cooking removes the sting so you won’t need to worry about that when eating.
Nettles are a good source of iron, calcium and vitamins A and C. They have been used for centuries as a medicinal plant in the treatment of many ailments, from kidney stones to arthritis.
A recent study by the University of Warwick even found that the Formic Acid found in stinging nettles increases the effectiveness of certain cancer treatments by 50%. Definitely more of a hero than a villain in my opinion!
Allium ursinum – Wild Garlic
Wild garlic, also known as ramsons, buckrams or wood garlic, fills the woodlands with a distinctive smell at the start of Spring. It grows near or amongst bluebells and is identifiable by its lush, long leaves as well as the strong garlicky aroma. Towards the end of the season it bursts into bloom with small white flowers.
Unlike domestic garlic, the leaves of wild garlic are most often used. The bulbs are also edible but are much smaller than the version found in the shops.
The flavour of wild garlic is much the same as that of domestic garlic, although it is milder. The flowers are also edible and make a delicious treat added to salads. Wild garlic leaves can be eaten raw or cooked and work well in soups.
Garlic is well known for its effectiveness in reducing blood pressure and hence the risk of heart disease and stroke. All garlic has this medicinal property, but wild garlic has a greater effect on lowering blood pressure than any other variety. It is also antibacterial, antibiotic and antiseptic.
Taraxacum officianale – Dandelions
The quintessential garden weed, dandelions are more often than not seen as a nuisance in an otherwise perfect lawn. In fact, every part of this common weed is not only edible but really tasty!
Dandelion leaves can be picked and eaten at any time during the growing season, but the smaller young leaves are much less bitter if eaten raw. Bigger leaves lose some of the bitterness if you steam them first. You can use dandelion leaves as a delicious ingredient in a salad, sandwich, soup or stir-fry.
The distinctive yellow flowers are sweet and crunchy and can also be eaten raw, are fantastic breaded and fried or can be used to make wine. The root can be used as a vegetable or can be dried and roasted as a coffee substitute.
If you need more convincing that this versatile plant is considerably more than just a pesky weed you only need look at the medicinal properties of dandelions. They are chock full of vitamins A, B, C and D and minerals such as iron, potassium and zinc. The roots are used to stimulate appetite and for liver and gallbladder problems, the leaves are well known as a diuretic.
Maybe next time you see dandelions in your lawn you’ll be tempted to harvest them instead of destroying them.
Umbilicus rupestris – Wall Pennywort
Pennywort, or navelwort, is a fascinating edible wild plant that is very easily identifiable. It grows, as the name suggests, in stone walls and crevices in rocks and has unmistakable round leaves, hence the name.
The plant is succulent and fleshy as it is adapted for survival in dry conditions and the leaves grow in rosettes, flowering in Spring with spikes of green/pink flowers.
Wall Pennywort leaves are best foraged when growing in moist conditions or after rain, as they lose their fleshy quality when dry. The flavour can be likened to crisp lettuce and is perfect in salads. Take care when foraging as these plants are shallow-rooted and can easily be pulled out of the wall in their entirety.
Wall Pennywort has been used as a homeopathic medicine and contains vitamins B and K as well as magnesium and zinc. It is thought to be beneficial for the central nervous system and effective in protecting the body from toxins.
Primula vulgaris – Primrose
It is surprising how many flowers growing in our hedgerows and gardens are edible. The Chinese are reported to have been the first to experiment with flowers as food and their many and varied recipes can be traced back as far as 3000 B.C.
One of the first flowers of early springtime, primroses grow in abundance the British countryside. Both the leaves and the delicately scented flowers are edible, with a flavour ranging between mild lettuce and bitter greens.
These pretty little blooms are one of my favourite salad ingredients. The leaves can be made into a tea and the young flowers are sometimes used for primrose wine.
In the early days of medicine primrose was considered an important remedy in muscular rheumatism and gout. The whole plant is sedative and in modern days a tincture has been used with some success for the treatment of insomnia and restlessness. The entire plant also has somewhat expectorant properties.
Beta vulgaris subsp. – Sea Beet
Sea beet grows in coastal places at tide lines, on shingle beaches, cliffs and sea-walls and in salt marshes. It is a favourite among foragers, described as magnificent, ever reliable and even aristocratic!!
Sea beet grows year round but is at its best in the Spring, its rich, luscious leaves the ancestor of many of our modern vegetable garden staples, including perpetual garden spinach, sugar beet, Swiss chard and beetroot.
All parts of the plant are edible, including the flowers in summer and the roots, but it is the leaves that are most commonly used. They behave very much like garden spinach when cooked but can taste a little stronger, especially the larger, older leaves.
Any bitterness can be mellowed by cooking and sea beet can be used as a replacement in any recipe that calls for spinach or chard.
Sea beet is scarcely used in modern times for medicinal purposes although it is said to clear dandruff when mixed with vinegar!
Sambucus nigra – Elderflower
Summer wouldn’t be the same without cordials and champagnes made from the wonderfully aromatic elderflower.
As Spring gets into full bloom the Elder trees become heavy with fragrant white flower heads which just cry out to be picked and made into a truly delicious drink. Elderflower cordial is sold commercially all over Europe and many a larder across the land contains home-made elderflower wine as a perfect summer tipple.
Elderflower heads can also be dipped in a light batter and made into fritters. It is worth noting that all green parts of the tree are highly poisonous, only the flowers and the berries can be consumed.
The Elder tree has a long history in herbalism, used by the Greeks and Romans amongst others, and was revered as a magical plant.
The berries have been proved in a placebo controlled, double-blind study to be effective in treating Influenza B. The flowers can be made into a tea for relief of congestion in coughs and colds.
For me, elderflowers mark the transition from Spring into the long hazy days of Summer and I pick them every single year.
Crataegus monogyna – Hawthorne
Referred to in the UK as the “Bread and Cheese Tree” most likely due to its abundance in the hedgerows making it a common foodstuff, Hawthorne leaves have long been eaten by those living in the countryside.
The leaves are at their best in the Springtime before they get too much sun and have a rich, nutty flavour. You can eat them straight from the tree, in a salad or chopped up and sprinkled as a parsley substitute.
A mix of dried leaves and blossom (which usually appears in May) make a lovely tea and the berries (Haws) make great wine and jelly. The berries don’t usually make an appearance until early Autumn.
Hawthorne is an extremely valuable medicinal herb, used mainly for treating disorders of the heart and circulatory system, especially angina. Strongly antioxidant bioflavonoids in the fruit are said to reduce or prevent degeneration of the blood vessels and much modern research has been inspired by the Hawthorn’s traditional use as a heart tonic.
Morchella esculenta – Morel
One of the most recognisable species of fungus and highly sought after, the morel is a mushroom which sparks much excitement amongst foragers in the Spring.
A versatile ingredient, the morel can be fried or stuffed with meats or vegetables and baked. It should not be eaten raw as morels contain a gastrointestinal irritant which is only removed by cooking (parboiling or blanching will suffice).
These wonderfully tasty mushrooms can also be dried by threading them onto string and hanging them in the sun, this intensifies the flavour and allows them to keep for longer periods.
There is some suggestion from laboratory studies that morels have several medicinal properties, including anti-tumour, antiviral and immuno-regulatory effects. Extracts have also shown antioxidant activity and the fungus is listed in the IUCN National Register of Medicinal Plants in Nepal.
Oxalis acetosella – Wood Sorrel
I have saved my absolute favourite wild food for last! The remarkably zingy, deliciously sour wood sorrel grows along trails and in hedgerows. With a taste reminiscent of apple skins or lemons this lovely little plant is perfect as a refreshing mid-hike snack or an ingredient in a variety of meals.
The French used to make lemon-free lemonade from a mixture of dried wood sorrel powder and sugar and it can be added to soups and made into sauces and seasoning. Traditionally an excellent accompaniment to fish it makes a great stuffing for your ‘catch of the day’ cooked on the camp-fire.
A word of warning though! Wood sorrel should not be consumed in excess raw as it can cause a nasty case of the runs. The high quantity of oxalic acid can also cause problems for people with kidney disease, kidney stones, rheumatoid arthritis and gout. Cooking does reportedly render the oxalic acid harmless though so these issues can be avoided.
Wood sorrel has a range of medicinal uses being diuretic, antiscorbutic (treats scurvy) and cooling. It is soothing to the stomach and can relieve indigestion. Sorrels are commonly used by cancer patients because of their blood cleansing properties.
That completes my top ten wild edibles, I hope that you are inspired to go out and forage for some new ingredients to use.
Be aware that many edible plants are easily confused with species that are poisonous and you should always consult a local wild food expert before picking or eating anything if you are unsure about identification.
Take care not to forage in places that may be polluted by traffic, industry, chemical fertilisers, pesticides or even dog pee!
Always forage with respect for the plants and your environment. Never pick a plant that is endangered or the only one of its kind in an area. As a rule, I never take more than 10% of what is growing. It is also worth pointing out that it is illegal to take any entire plant (dig up by the roots) without the landowner’s permission.
To use plants medicinally I would always seek the advice of a qualified herbalist. Herbal medicine is a holistic practice which aims to help the body to heal itself and requires expert knowledge to use to good effect. Always consult your doctor to make sure that what you are taking has a positive impact on your health and will not interfere with any other medications that you are taking.
Rhoda has been an adventurer all her life. Born in South Africa, she spent her early years exploring the natural environment with her father, learning skills from tree climbing and foraging to astrology and wildlife identification.
After moving to the UK Rhoda continued her passion for wildlife, studying Zoological Conservation Management and learning wildlife and man tracking from one of the world’s foremost trackers. Through her studies of the origins of tracking an interest in indigenous people and tribal cultures was ignited.