Spring is the time when nature bursts into life after the winter slumber. Buds swell and erupt into new leaves, shoots push up through the ground and flowers begin to show their faces and tempt the first bees out of hibernation. It’s the time to take joy in fresh new greens, new life and a new year.
After long months living on potentially poor or limited food- dried supplies and increasingly sparse stored vegetables our ancestors ( and here I don’t just mean tens of thousands of years ago, but within living memory) will have been more than ready to make the most of the new growth.
Possible pitfalls to be aware of;
>You are often foraging plants when they are babies, so ID features may not be fully developed. Some plants also overwinter in a slightly different form to that which is usually found in books so it can be confusing.
> A lot of spring plants have evolved knowing that they are going to be a sought after food for hungry animals. So a lot of spring plants ( bluebells, lords and ladies, lesser celandine, dogs mercury ) are toxic. Many of them also grow in areas where you will be looking for edibles. In particular Lords and Ladies often sneaks into collecting baskets with Wild garlic, and sorrel which it resembles.
What are the best foods?
This obviously comes down partly to personal taste, but the ease of identification, ease of harvest, taste and availability are also a factor. These are the ones I always look forwards to;
Nettles My favourite greens are Nettles. You can’t beat them. They grow everywhere, and once washed, steamed possibly garnished with a little butter…. Are absolutely delicious. In fact this year I actually froze some for future use. Use them when they are up to 1ft high, ideally less. And try not to pick the roots ( unless you want the roots for various medicinal preparations- nettle root is good for certain prostate conditions) you can also use them in soups, bread, cakes, scones, houmous, pesto, pasta dishes… whatever you like! white and red dead nettles are also edible, but not as nice. Nettles are extremely nutritious, containing Vitamin A, C as well as calcium, more iron than spinach and a reasonable amount of protein and carbohydrate for a ‘green’ Medicinal benefits are well documented with uses ranging from allergies to blood sugar issues and anaemia. If you are so inclined, the young shoots can be blanched and frozen for future use, though with regular picking, they can continue to produce new shoots all season ( the first true spring shoots are the best though)
Shown below; nettle cake, nettle tempura and nettle & wild garlic pesto.
Lime leaves ( Tilia sp.) Lime leaves come out a little later, towards the end of April, but they are one of the best Salad leaves and remain edible into early summer, especially where the tree is grazed and new leaves encouraged.
If you are interested in learning more about foraging and other ancient skills have a look at the workshops we offer. https://www.prehistoricexperiences.com/experiences
Spring foraging continued....
Hawthorn ( Crataegus Monogyna.)
Hawthorn translates as hedge thorn in Olde English, and it will grow in all sorts of unlikely places, including out of walls, on windswept hillsides and inside other trees. The old addage ' cast not a clout till May is out' doesn't mean the month of May, but refers instead to May blossom, aka hawthorn. Which had a key role in Mayday celebrations as portrayed at Kentwell hall in Suffolk;
The leaf buds are available from early March and are a tasty little salad green as you walk about enjoying the spring sunshine. As they age they become a bit more bitter and become less worth eating. As a general guide, I tend not to use them as a food once the flowers are out in late April or May. It's fairly easy to pick enough to add to a salad, but try not to denude any one tree.
The leaves in particular have been shown to live up to their reputation as a treatment for various cardiovascular issues, and I like to think of them as a spring tonic to get the blood pumping.
Wood sorrel can sometimes be found all through winter in the UK, its clover-like leaves dotting the floor in shady areas of woodland. But the chewy old leaves of winter cannot compare to the delicate, acid green leaves of spring. They have a delicious apple peel flavour that perks up salads and makes a nice change from a lot of the more nondescript ‘green’ tasting wild foods.
Wild garlic This wonderful plant appears in March and carpets areas of damp woodland with clumps of lance-shaped strongly garlicky leaves. You may smell it before you see it! Unlike Lords and ladies which deals with being an early spring temptation by being poisonous, Garlic has evolved a strong taste… Unfortunately for the plant, humans quite like it.
Be aware of of look alikes- particularly Lily of the Valley and young lords and ladies as well as other plants that can stowaways with picked handfuls. Check every leaf!
Recipes abound- young leaves in salad, on pizzas, in pasta dough… older leaves ground up to add to butter, in soups, in pesto, houmous, bread, scones, Lacto-fermented/ Kimchi, pickled, dried, mixed with salt.. the possibilities are endless But my favourite is to blend some WG up, mix into pancake batter to produce luridly green pancakes, then serve with smoked salmon and Crème Fraiche. ( see below. Also shown is grilled smoked fish garnished with WG flowers, a selection of garlic butter, garlic pesto, garlic salt, fermented garlic buds, and the two main ingredients for wild garlic pesto laid out ready for blending.
All parts are edible, including the bulb, but unless you have permission you shouldn’t really be digging it up. The flowers are my favourite- sweet, oniony and quite beautiful as a garnish on salads and soups. There are also two invasive relatives which crop up as invasive garden escapees- Few flowered leek, and three-cornered leek- they are non-native- feel free to fill your boots with them!
Please note though that before the flowers are out you could easily mistake it for Lily of the valley, star of Bethlem, even bluebell and as mentioned above poisonous dogs Mercury and Lords and Ladies also grow in amongst carpets of Wild garlic- so pick carefully, and sort your pickings before stuffing them in the pan!
“But that’s really poisonous!!!” I hear you cry.. No, you’re thinking of hogweeds’ bigger more unpleasant cousin- Giant Hogweed, which is definitely not one to tangle with.
Common hedge hogweed is a delicious spring green. You are looking for the furled shoots that emerge at the centre of the sparse rosette at ground level. They are often hidden in grass on verges. Look for more mature leaves, follow them back to the centre and snap them off. They are delicious steamed or boiled. I would not advise eating them raw. Although Hogweed is fairly innocuous, it can cause blisters in some people, especially if it’s growing in bright sunlight- I’ve never had a problem though. However, as you might have surmised, this plant has some seriously horrible relatives. You need to be careful with all plant IDs, but ESPECIALLY with this family.
Stitchwort flowers and buds
This delicate rambling little plant is usually found in semi-shade, on verges and on woodland edges. The buds are tiny but have a sweet, mealy taste which is interesting in salads and the flowers are beautiful as a decoration
Sweet violets ( and other violets)
Again, not really a food, but a delight for the eyes and taste buds. The serrated heart shaped leaves are edible, but the beautiful purple flowers are the prize. Traditionally they were coated in egg white then dipped in sugar to create a sweet, fragrant decoration for puddings and cakes. Many flowers are edible and can be used in this way including marigold, magnolia, lilac, any of the edible deadnettle family, gorse, primrose, rose, grape hyacinth etc etc.
Jack by the hedge
This plant can be found all winter, but the winter leaves are tougher and more bitter. It has an interesting Flavour that lives up to its other name of Mustard garlic. It‘s good in salads, and even better in sandwiches with greasy meats such as sausages, or ham. I personally would avoid cooking it as the flavour isn’t as good, but it is good in soups and pesto etc. The best bits are the younger leaves that grow on the upright flowering stalk, and the flowering tops. Try to get them when they are shiny and translucent and bright yellow-green.
The same family as above, but hotter, much more like horseradish. I like to pick the young leaves and the shoots of the young flowering stems, chop them and pickle them in slightly sweetened vinegar. It’s excellent with ham and cheese sandwiches. It is usually found in dampish places, so look along ditches, rivers etc. it is sometimes called dittany too, although this plant ( familiar to some of you from the Harry Potter books) is nothing like Dittander, so be aware of this potential confusion.
This is a genuine case of 'Eat the enemy'
Japanese knotweed is a pernicious weed, it spreads like wildfire. Any dropped fragment can rapidly multiply into a dense, deeply rooted thicket that shades out native vegetation. The only way to remove it is the repeated application of seriously horrible chemicals. .. But its not all bad!
If you can find a patch that you know has not yet been poisoned, and get the fat asparagus like shoots before they become too woody, you're in for a treat. They taste like fragrant Rhubarb. You dont want to eat any baby leaves- so trim them off. They MUST be cooked before disposal, as causing the plant to spread is an offence, and bad for the environment. I like to stew them in a small amount of water with ginger and brown sugar. The resulting mush looks pretty horrible, but makes excellent compote, or crumble filling. Preparations of the roots are also being investigated as possible treatments for lymes disease!