Author: James Feaver

I have had a long term interest in wild food and foraging. This started in childhood with finding edible crabs and lobsters on the Gower coast of South Wales. The outdoors has always been my natural habitat with a passion for almost all aspects of natural history and its conservation. As a keen amateur botanist I have undertaken vegetation surveys of nature reserve for a number of Wildlife Trusts. I have been interested in fungi for many years and a member of the Cotswold Fungus Group and more recently the Dorset Fungus Group.

In 2008, regular requests to take people foraging lead to our Spring Greens. This sold out in no time and more were added to meet demand. The range of courses has been increased over time adding fungi, "fruit and nut" and a range of seashore courses. I now live in Dorset and work full time on foraging courses and a truffle hunting business (The English Truffle Company).

Leaves of Hemlock Water Dropwort

Cases of mistaken identity – confusing edible and poisonous plants.

If someone has accidentally consumed a poisonous plant, please see this information at the end of the blog post.


I don’t want to scare you or put you off but I’ve heard a few foraging horror stories recently. These are cases of mistaken identity, people consuming a poisonous plant thinking it was something edible. In this blog post, we look at the most common errors that are made, the identification of the poisonous species and some of these stories. This information is presented trying to avoid the same mistakes happening again. I’ve not gone that far back in time looking for these stories; a century or so ago they were more common place, and as treatments were less developed, the consequences often greater.

When I introduce people to foraging, plants or fungi, there are a few things that get repeated:

  • “If in doubt, leave it out” – if you are not 100% certain of what you are picking and that it is edible you shouldn’t eat it.
  • “Know your enemies” – don’t just know the good things to eat but be very familiar with the ones you shouldn’t pick and eat, that is the poisonous species.
  • If what you are picking is new to you, check the identification with at least two field guides. These are often better on identification then foraging books.

I strongly recommend that you spend time getting to know these four plants – the knowledge could save your life and the lives of your loved ones. Read and look at them in multiple books or online and track them down in the real world. Do not overly rely on online sources – some have errors!

Hemlock Water Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata)

Toxicity

Hemlock Water Dropwort is frequently described as ‘probably the most poisonous plant found in Britain’. No British wild plant has been responsible for more fatal accidents caused by identification mistakes. The whole plant, especially the roots, is extremely toxic with even a small amount ingested being deadly – you can be dead within 3 hours of consuming it. The mortality rate is quantity dependent but has been reported as between 30%–70%. If you a dog owner do be aware that a significant number of dogs die from eating it too.

The main toxic constituent of Hemlock Water Dropwort is oenanthotoxin.  Symptoms of Hemlock water Dropwort poisoning include nausea, increased salivation, and vomiting. There may be tremor, abdominal cramps, and diarrhoea. Seizures can rapidly develop, blood pressure falls. Acute renal failure has been reported too.

If you come into contact with it wash your hands as soon as possible and avoid touching your eyes and mouth.

 

Identification

Hemlock Water Dropwort and the next plant, Hemlock, are Umbellifers – members of the Carrot or Parsley family. With around 60 family members growing wild in the UK they are notoriously tricky to identify to species level. The defining feature of plants in this family is that the flowers are in flat-topped or rounded clusters – an umbel.

A flat-topped umbellifer
A flat-topped umbellifer

 

A rounded umbellifer
A rounded umbellifer

Note that touching some umbellifers followed by exposure to sunlight, may cause phytophotodermatitis, a serious skin inflammation. Symptoms of which include redness and blistering.

Descriptions for umbellifers use the word “pinnate”. This simply means “resembling a feather” having parts or branches arranged on each side of a common axis, in a plant the stem. In a bipinnate (or ‘twice pinnate’ leaf), the leaves are also divided. This idea is extended into 3 or 4 times pinnate.

Pinnate (left) and bipinnate (right) leaf structures
Pinnate (left) and bipinnate (right) leaf structures

Height: 1 – 1.5 m tall.

Stems: Grooved. Plant entirely hairless.

Flowers: July. Flower diameter c 2 mm. Groups or clusters c 5-10 cm (2 – 4 “) diameter.

Hemlock Water Dropwort Flower
Hemlock Water Dropwort Flower. Photo: H. Zell [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Leaves: 3-4 times pinnate with toothed wedge-shaped segments. Dark green and look like flat-leaved parsley with a distinctive celery or parsley smell.

Leaves of Hemlock Water Dropwort
Leaves of Hemlock Water Dropwort

Roots: Distinctive. Cream / White, bunched.

Hemlock Water Dropwort drawing including roots
Hemlock Water Dropwort drawing including roots

Habitat

Always found in wet areas such as streams, ditches, wet meadows, marshes, rivers and lakes. Note that following floods, the roots have been washed downstream onto beaches.

Hemlock Water Dropwort - always in or near water.
Hemlock Water Dropwort – always in or near water.

Edible Plants it might be confused with

The leaves look like flat-leaved Parsley. They can also be confused with other members of the carrot family such as Ground Elder, Alexanders and Common Hogweed as well as cultivated members such as Carrot and Parsnip. The roots known as “dead-man’s fingers” look a bit like cultivated parsnips or the roots of Lesser or Greater Water-Parsnip. The stems have been confused with Celery.

 

British and Irish examples of mistaken identify

Seeking Water Parsnip, consumed Hemlock Water Dropwort

A lady on one of my recent foraging courses told me that her brother had foraged for ages but confused Hemlock Water Dropwort with Water Parsnips. I don’t know all the details, but his flat mate came downstairs to tell him he was off to work an hour early and found him on the kitchen floor. The air ambulance came, and his heart stopped three times but survived. He still forages!

Seeking Water Parsnip, consumed Hemlock Water Dropwort

In 2002, a group of eight young adults who were on holiday in Scotland, consumed what they thought were Water Parsnips from a small stream in a curry. Over the next day there were seizures, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, sweating, and fever. While they were admitted to hospital a botanist identified the plant. Following treatment all were released from hospital. Source: British Medical Journal / BSBI News

Seeking Pignut, consumed Hemlock Water Dropwort

In 1976, a man living and working on a farm in Northumberland ate some Hemlock Water Dropwort root, assuming it was Pignut. He survived thanks to a combination of three things; his own prompt action when he realised something was ‘awry’, the farmer being easily found to get him straight to hospital and the A & E registrar who consulted an expert at Newcastle University. Source: The Poison Garden

Seeking Celery, consumed Hemlock Water Dropwort

In 1987 in Ireland, four Dutch holidaymakers mistook Hemlock Water Drop for Celery. They made soup with them. Seven hours after eating they all attended hospital complaining of nausea and vomiting; two suffered convulsions and one a seizure. Their symptoms were not, however, severe and all four were released from hospital after three days. Source: The British Medical Journal

Seeking Celery or Water Parsnips, consumed Hemlock Water Dropwort

In 1987, a young couple had a meal of ducks’ eggs, Nettles, and the boiled leaves and roots of Hemlock Water Dropwort picked beside the River Thames. Forty minutes later, he developed nausea, abdominal pain and other symptoms. On admission to hospital, he experienced major seizures. After considerable hospital treatment he survived. She ate less of the plant and made herself sick. She was released from hospital after 3 days.  Source: Postgraduate Medical Journal

Seeking Wild Celery, consumed Hemlock Water Dropwort

“So I was down in my allotment out on the cliffs near the coast path. I’d just popped by for 10 minutes to water some seedlings. Was just about to leave when I heard a tap on the door. It was a woman who’d been on one of my courses a few months ago and a few of her friends. (who hadn’t been on a course) They had a bunch of Three Cornered Leeks and had been out doing some foraging. All great. Had a nice chat about foraging. Then she casually mentioned in the conversation they’d eaten and picked some Wild Celery… Alarm bells ring.

I immediately got her to take me to the plant shed eaten and confirmed my worst fears that it was Hemlock water dropwort. Apparently they’d eaten a few of the leaves and experienced a burning sensation in the mouth. Much to their horror and initial disbelief I explained the severity of the situation, wrote down the name of the plant and informed them to get to hospital ASAP. They went to the local A & E and were transferred to the hospital for monitoring. Ive heard from them this morning and thank goodness both are okay. One was discharged late this morning and the other was on a drip overnight but okay now. Apparently they’d picked more to enjoy in a salad when they got home.I’m so glad I was there at that specific time.”

Source: UK foraging teacher

Seeking Alexanders, nearly consumed Hemlock Water Dropwort

“A couple of days ago the wife of my housemate asked how best to cook Alexander’s as some was on the way. Onions were frying in anticipation when the Hemlock Water Dropwort arrived!”

Source: UK foraging teacher

Seeking Alexanders, nearly consumed Hemlock Water Dropwort

In April 2017, a lady posted in a Facebook group her photo of the “Alexanders” she had gathered for a risotto. It was actually Hemlock Water Dropwort. Fortunately a foraging teacher saw the post. There was then a mad scramble to try to find contact details for her. The search was succesfull and the teacher managed to phone her before she ate it potentially saving the lives of her and her family!

Source: UK foraging teacher

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Toxicity

Hemlock is deadly poisonous with no antidote to the toxins in it. Famously, it was used to put Socrates, and other prisoners, to death in the Ancient World. Chances of recovery increase markedly if it is diagnosed early. The toxins in Hemlock are alkaloids which cause vomiting, headaches, abdominal pain and muscular paralysis, leading to seizures, coma, respiratory failure and eventually death. Only a tiny amount of Hemlock can prove fatal. The toxins can also be absorbed through the skin, so if you come into contact with it wash your hands as soon as possible and avoid touching your eyes and mouth.

 

Identification

Height: 1.5 – 2.5 m tall.

Stems: Thick, smooth green stem, hairless, usually spotted or streaked with red or purple on the lower half of the stem (older plants are spotted).

Leaves: Main leaves twice pinnately divided, broadly feathery. Up to 50 cm long and 40 cm broad.

Hemlock stems and leaves.
Hemlock stems and leaves. Photo: MPF [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Smell: “Nasty” – often described as mouse-like, musty or like parsnips.

Flowers: The flowers are small, white, clustered in groups up to 10–15 cm (4 – 6”) across.

Hemlock flowers
Hemlock flowers. Photo: Mick Talbot from Lincoln (U.K.), England [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] via Wikimedia Commons

Habitat

Mainly wet places – on poorly drained soils, particularly near streams, ditches, and other surface water. Also, on disturbed ground such as roadsides and the edges of cultivated fields.

 

Edible Plants it might be confused with

Leaves look a bit like (cultivated) Parsley or Cow Parsley. The roots like those of Lesser or Greater Water-Parsnip.

 

British and Irish examples of mistaken identify

Seeking – unknown edible plant, consumed Hemlock

In 2001, a leading neurosurgeon and his companion were both seriously ill and hospitalised after eating what is believed to be Hemlock. The male was unconscious by the time he reached hospital in Inverness. He regained consciousness a day or so later and his condition, which had been life-threatening, was described as stable. His companion was released from hospital after a few days and he fully recovered over a long period.

Source: The Guardian

Seeking Wild Parsnip, consumed Hemlock

In 2018 in Dorset a forager accidentally consumed Hemlock when he hoped to find Wild Parsnip. It is not known what part of the plant, how much was consumed or if it was cooked. Shortly after eating it, he identified that his heart was racing and phoned his girlfriend to tell her what he had done. He asked her to ring him regularly and if he didn’t answer to call 999!

 

Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum)

Lords and Ladies is known by many different names including Cuckoo Pint and Wild Arum.

Toxicity

Consuming the leaves and berries of Lords and Ladies give an immediate burning sensation to lips and throat followed by significant swelling which can result in difficulty breathing.

The berries are one of the most common causes of accidental plant poisoning based on attendance at hospital accident and emergency departments. These are most often consumed by children. Usually the immediate burning in the mouth means they are rarely ingested.

 

Identification

Lords and Ladies (Wild Arum / Cuckoo Pint) - Photo by Sannse, 24 April 2004, Essex, England.
Lords and Ladies (Wild Arum / Cuckoo Pint) – Photo by Sannse, 24 April 2004, Essex, England.

Height: Up to 40 cm tall.

Flowers: Chocolate coloured poker-shaped “flower” partially enclosed in a leaf-like hood.

Leaves: A larger leaf is arrow-shaped to triangular and has rounded, backward facing lobes – a bit like an arrow head. Younger leaves do not have the lobes but still have prominent veins. The leaves may have blackish / purple spots.

Lords and Ladies / Cuckoo Pint / Wild Arum leaves
Lords and Ladies leaves at varying stages of growth (light green leaves to near left and right edges of the photograph are another plant).

Berries: In Autumn a cluster of bright red berries

Lords and Ladies berries (Arum maculatum)
Lords and Ladies berries (Arum maculatum) – Paul Henderson [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Habitat

Woodlands, hedgerows, gardens and shady places.

 

Edible Plants it might be confused with

Sorrel. The backwards pointing lobes on Sorrel leaves are pointed (like cut with scissors), on Lords and Ladies they are rounded.  Lords and Ladies leaves also have irregular edges and many deep veins. Sorrel is a plant of grassy fields, Lords and Ladies more shady places.

Sorrel (left) and Lords and Ladies (right)
Sorrel (left) and Lords and Ladies (right). NB Sorrel lobe tips have curled upwards but are V -shaped.

Wild Garlic. Smaller Lords and Ladies leaves can look more like a Wild Garlic leaf, but the veins should still be obvious. They won’t smell of Garlic! Wild Garlic leaves are long, pointed, “spear-shaped”. They do not have veins – just a prominent central mid-rib (looking like an extension of the stalk).

In the below photograph we have – from left to right:

1. Lords and Ladies – rear
2. Lords and Ladies – front
3. Wild Garlic – front
4. Wild Garlic – rear

Leaf comparison - Lords and Ladies and Wild Garlic
Leaf comparison – Lords and Ladies and Wild Garlic (see below).

British and Irish examples of mistaken identify

Seeking Wild Garlic, consumed Lords and Ladies

In April 2018 in the UK, a whole family were hospitalised for confusing Wild Garlic with Lords and Ladies.

Seeking (Common) Sorrel, consumed Lords and Ladies

I am personally aware of cases of inexperienced foragers eating young Lords and Ladies leaves when they were hoping to find Sorrel. The immediate burning sensation on the lips and mouth means it was spat out and they realised their mistake. There are many similar tales on the Internet.

 

Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis)

Toxicity

Symptoms of poisoning from consuming Dog’s Mercury appear within a few hours; they can include vomiting, pain, gastric and kidney inflammation, and sometimes inflammation of the cheeks and jaw and drowsiness. Larger doses cause lethargy, jaundice, painful urination and coma before death.

Identification

Dog's Mercury
Dog’s Mercury

Height: Up to 40 cm tall.

Stems: Downy / hairy

Flowers: Clusters of small cream / green flowers on upright, tassel-like spikes.

Leaves: Spear-shaped, toothed, fresh green leaves

 

Habitat

Woodlands and hedgerows where it can form a dense carpet.

Edible Plants it might be confused with

The main risk is accidentally gathering some when picking Wild Garlic or Nettles which it can grow amongst. Dog’s Mercury has however been confused with Ground Elder and Brooklime, furthermore, it could also be mistaken for a member of the Goosefoot genus.

Dog's Mercury in amongst Nettles
Dog’s Mercury in amongst Nettles

British and Irish examples of mistaken identify

Seeking Ground Elder, consumed Dog’s Mercury

In April 2017, a runner paused to take a break. Mistaking Dog’s Mercury for Ground Elder he ate a handful of the plant. The result was an increase in saliva and a feeling of nausea. He eventually vomited and was able to expel the plant from his body.

Source: The Poison Garden

Seeking Brooklime, consumed Dog’s Mercury

In 1983, a couple washed, boiled and ate a large quantity of Dog’s Mercury leaves after mistaking it for Brooklime. Both of them were hospitalised complaining of nausea, vomiting, and severe pain and presenting signs similar to an allergic reaction. They recovered after treatment and two days of rest and continuous observation and monitoring.

Source: British Medical Journal

Seeking a salad leaf, consumer Dog’s Mercury

In 2017, a lady picked some Dog’s Mercury and ate it in a salad. Luckily, she didn’t feel happy with it and only ate a little, but that was enough to cause her lips, mouth and throat to burn. This was followed by a feeling of shaky weakness and a need for the toilet.

Source: Nature’s Secret Garden

 

Further reading

Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods wrote an excellent article for a magazine on foraging and umbellifers. You can find it here (PDF).

Poisonous Plants in Great Britain by Fred Gillam (book)

The Poison Garden (web site)

Foxglove and other poisonous plants (web site)

 


What to do in the case of accidentally consuming a poisonous plant

Adapted from NHS poisoning treatment information. Numbers / links are for UK residents.

Being poisoned can be life-threatening. If someone has eaten a poisonous plant (or fungus), don’t try to treat them yourself – seek medical help immediately.

If they’re showing signs of being seriously ill, dial 999 to request an ambulance or take them to your local A&E department.

Symptoms associated with serious poisoning include:

Call NHS 111 for advice if a person who’s been poisoned doesn’t appear to be seriously ill.

Helping someone who’s conscious

If you think someone has been severely poisoned and they’re still conscious, ask them to sit still and stay with them while you wait for medical help to arrive.

If they’ve been poisoned by eating a plant, try to get them to spit out anything that is remaining in their mouth.

Helping someone who is unconscious

If you think someone has eaten a poisonous plant and they appear to be unconscious, try to wake them and encourage them to spit out anything left in their mouth. Don’t put your hand into their mouth and don’t try to make them sick.

While you’re waiting for medical help to arrive, lie the person on their side with a cushion behind their back and their upper leg pulled slightly forward, so they don’t fall on their face or roll backwards. This is known as the recovery position.

Wipe any vomit away from their mouth and keep their head pointing down, to allow any vomit to escape without them breathing it in or swallowing it. Don’t give them anything to eat or drink.

If the person isn’t breathing or their heart has stopped, begin CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) if you know how to.

How to help medical staff

Medical staff will need to take a detailed history to effectively treat a person who’s been poisoned. When the paramedics arrive or when you arrive at A&E, give them as much information as you can, including:

  • what plant you think the person may have eaten
  • when the plant was eaten (how long ago)
  • if it was cooked
  • how much was eaten (if you know)
  • Details of any symptoms the person has had, such as whether they’ve been sick.

Take a sample of the plant with you – as many parts of the plant as you can for accurate identification – e.g. leaves, flowers, fruits, stem and roots. If there is any of the food left over take a sample of that too.

Medical staff may also want to know:

  • the person’s age and estimated weight
  • whether they have any existing medical conditions
  • whether they’re taking any medication (if you know)

There is an excellent Facebook group Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants. If you can post pictures of the plant / fungi and give your geographic location (e.g. Dorset / UK) you will get a rapid identification from extremely knowledgeable people around the globe.

Garnishign Nettle Soup with cream and chopped herbs

Super Spring Soup

I like soup, a lot. I probably have soup for lunch two or three times a week. When I had a “real” job, I regularly took soup to work to heat up in the microwave and other users of the office kitchen were always keen to know what the “weird” soup of the day was.

Spring is a great time for fellow soup lovers that forage, there are lots of great wild ingredients around that you can experiment with. Spring being the season of new growth and greenery, it is wild leaves that we make use of. You can follow the same basic recipe and easily and cheaply produce lots of different versions using either a single type of leaves or a combination. Adopt the basic recipe as you like with other ingredients or not blending it etc. The soups can be eaten hot or cold (gazpacho) and all freeze well. I use washed out plastic milk bottles to freeze them in.

As always, check the plant identification as there are some poisonous plants that it is possible to confuse with these.

Leaf Choices

  • Nettles (use scissors and gloves, cut the top 2 or 3 inches including the stem. Do not use when they get older as they get fibrous).
  • Wild Garlic (best before it flowers).
  • Common Hogweed (NB Avoid Giant Hogweed, and wear gloves if you have sensitive skin)
  • Ground Elder (best before it flowers, double check that it is not Dog’s Mercury)
  • Chickweed
  • Watercress (must be cooked if “wild”)
  • Dandelion
  • Alexanders (really check the ID, other umbellifers can be deadly!)
  • Sea Beet
  • Hairy Bittercress
  • Common Sorrel (mix with some lettuce, skip the garlic. Beware of Lords and Ladies which is confused with this).
  • Hop Shoots (beware of Black Bryony)

(Table scrolls right and left on mobiles, click on the photos for bigger / zoom-able versions)

Nettles
Nettles
Wild Garlic
Wild Garlic
Common Hogweed
Common Hogweed
Ground Elder
Ground Elder
Chickweed
Chickweed
Watercress
Watercress
Dandelion
Dandelion
Alexanders
Alexanders
Sea Beet
Sea Beet
Hairy Bittercress
Hairy Bittercress
Common Sorrel
Common Sorrel
Hop Shoots
Hop Shoots
 

Alternatives to a clove of garlic

  • Wild Garlic leaves
  • Three Cornered Leek – stem or leaves
  • Few Flowered Leek – stem or leaves

Garnishes

  • A few edible wild flowers e.g Primrose, Wild Garlic, Three Cornered Leek
  • Chopped herbs such as Crow Garlic
Crow Garlic
Crow Garlic – looks like, smells like and tastes like Chives

Ingredients

Serves 6:

  • 1/2 a carrier bag or a few large bunches of leaves – see above
  • A little oil
  • 1 large onion – chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic – crushed (or a handful of an alternative – see above)
  • 1 carrot – optional
  • 2 pints good stock (vegetable or chicken). I use Marigold Swiss Vegetable (or Vegan) Bouillon Powder.
  • 2 medium potatoes – peeled if you like (not really necessary), chopped into large pieces
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons cream or crème fraiche (optional)
  • Garnish (optional)
    • Small bunch of Crow Garlic
    • A little extra cream or crème fraiche

Method

  1. Wash all leaves thoroughly.
  2. Melt butter in a pan and sweat the chopped onion and garlic until soft but not brown (c. 10 minutes).
  3. Add stock, potatoes and all the leaves.
  4. Bring to the boil and simmer until the potatoes are cooked.
  5. Season with salt, pepper and add the cream.
  6. Put the soup mixture into a blender a bit at a time and blitz it.
  7. Return to pan, reheat and serve.
  8. Garnish with a swirl of cream and garnish.
Seaweed

An Introduction to Seaweed

When I ask a group of guests on a seashore foraging course “who has eaten seaweed before?” it’s usually about half that put their hands up. I ask if it was crispy seaweed and for most it was. However, on most occasions, it’s not seaweed that they were actually given but deep-fried spring greens – a type of cabbage! Those that have really eaten seaweed have usually done so in either Japanese restaurants or in the Welsh dish Laverbread. Almost everyone will have however eaten seaweed regularly as extracts from it are used in a wide variety of food products. For example, it keeps ice cream smooth and creamy, is used in beers for a more stable and lasting foam and in wines to help clarify the colour. As a thickener or stabilizer, it appears in sauces, syrups, and soups, mayonnaise, salad dressings and yoghurt.

Seaweeds are most popular in East Asian cuisine (Japanese, Chinese & Korean). Nearer to home, there is a long history of using some species in Ireland and Wales. Seaweeds are rich in minerals especially iodine, proteins and vitamins. One has 10 times the calcium of cow’s milk, twice the vitamin C of oranges, and 50 times the iron of spinach!

Foraging for Seaweed

Gathering seaweed
Gathering seaweed

Seaweeds are probably the least foraged wild food group, however, there is lots of good news for the forager:

  • Of the 500 or so species in British waters about a dozen are eaten, so learning them is a lot easier than plants or fungi.
  • There is only one poisonous species, but you won’t encounter it being only found in very deep waters, like midway across The English Channel.
  • If you like East Asian cuisine, we have many of the same or equivalent species on our coast.
  • Seaweeds can be preserved for future use.
Species of edible seaweed
Some of the species of edible seaweed

The coast is perhaps the most dangerous foraging environment with more ways to come a cropper than other environments. I won’t go into detail here, but among the dangers are being cut off by the tide, hit by a landslide, slipping on rocks and getting stuck in mud. Take care!

The best time to gather seaweed is as the tide is falling and the best months are May and June. You should look in areas away from sources of pollution such as sewage outfalls and where rivers come to the coast. So your seaweed gathering has minimal impact, you should always cut it with scissors and not tear it off the rocks. Do not cut too near the holdfast (“root”), leaving a third of the length and it will happily grow back. You should generally, only gather seaweed that is still attached so it has not deteriorated. As with all types of foraging, take a little here and a little there.

At the coast, rinse it in seawater to remove any sand, shells or creatures. The easiest way is to put a handful into a bucket / large bowl of water, give it a good swirl then put into a colander to drain. If it is sandy, give it multiple washes. Once cut and washed, put it in string bags (e.g onion sacks) to let the water drain. I strongly recommend that you put each species in a separate bag so you don’t need to spend hours at home sorting them out! If you’re collecting on a warm day, use a cool box to keep the seaweed chilled until you get home. If it becomes too hot it will start to break down and get mucilaginous and slimy.

The Law

The usual law that applies to foragers, The 1968 Theft Act, covers fruit, fungi, foliage and flowers but not seaweed. You should be okay collecting it for personal use but technically you need permission from the owner of the foreshore (Council, National Trust or private landowner). Below the High Water Mark, the landowner is usually The Crown. John Wright’s Edible Seashore book includes excellent coverage of the legal aspects of seashore foraging.

Seaweed in The Kitchen

The key thing for cooking with seaweed is that you need to appropriately use each species. It’s not just a case of boiling any of them as you would a vegetable, each has its own role in the kitchen. They are more versatile than you would think, besides being used in soups, starters and main courses, they can be used in puddings, breads, cakes and drinks. On our “Seaweed and Eat It” day long foraging course, learning about their roles is our focus. There are, however, simple ways that you can easily add seaweed to your regular diet and enjoy the health and taste benefits.

Dried seaweed flakes, here Gutweed.
Dried seaweed flakes, here Gutweed.

It is easy to produce a jar of dried seaweed flakes. This is one or more of Dulse, Sea Lettuce, Laver (Nori), Bladderwrack, Gutweed and, optionally, a little Pepper Dulse. These seaweeds are washed thoroughly and then have been dried (below) and ground / flaked (below). The result is stored in a glass jar where it will keep for a long time (though once you get the flavour you will use it regularly!). You can:

  • Sprinkle on cooked vegetables, salads, eggs, noodles, pizza or pasta dishes, popcorn, soups and sauces.
  • Put in a salt shaker with sea salt and using as a condiment.
  • Add when making bread / savoury scones etc.
  • Mix into soft butter for Seaweed butter, optionally adding lemon or lime juice, chilli flakes etc. Serve on bread or with fish, vegetables, noodles or pasta. This can be frozen.
Seaweed Soda Bread
Seaweed Soda Bread

 

Seaweed Butter
Seaweed Butter

 

Savoury Scones
Savoury Scones

Drying Seaweed

Your technique will depend upon how much time you have, the size of the seaweed and the weather. Natural drying in sunlight and fresh air is the traditional approach but if it is too windy or wet you may have to rethink – garage, conservatory or greenhouse (ideally not the house – you will get complaints!). If drying flat, turn them occasionally. Whatever your approach, they want them to be totally dry but still pliable. Dried seaweed can then be stored for years in sealed plastic bags or glass jars in a cool, dry place away from direct light. Some are used dried; others are rehydrated before using.

Options:

  • Sunny windowsill
  • Cake cooling racks
  • Clothes drying rack
  • Dehydrator – 40 degrees C so the nutrients are not damaged. You can use this for drying mushrooms, fruit and veg too. C. £40
  • Mushroom trays
  • Sheets / tarpaulin
  • A very low oven (40 degrees C) overnight.
  • The washing line / a rotary drier / a sock drier
Drying Gutweed (in the green house - a bit windy for outside!
Drying Gutweed in the green house – a bit windy for outside!

Flaking Seaweed

To flake the seaweed, you may need to crisp the dried seaweed removing all moisture by either:

  • Putting on a tray or ovenproof fish in a hot oven. Check it every minute or so to see if it can be crumbled; put back if not. The time required will vary with the thickness of the seaweed and how thinly you have spread it.
  • Placing in a grill pan with a piece of greaseproof paper over the seaweed to stop burning. Put well away from the heat, turning the seaweed occasionally checking if it is crisp.

When it is crisp you can crush it, your method based on whether you want flakes or powder:

  • Pestle and mortar
  • Freezer bag / rolling pin
  • Rub between the fingers (carefully as some seaweeds may have sharp edges)
  • Food processor / Coffee (Spice) grinder (shorter time for flakes, longer for powder)

Learn More

Join us on our “Seaweed and Eat It” day long foraging course. You will find most of the edible species, understand harvesting and preserving them as well as working together to prepare, cook and eat a three-course meal with seaweed in every course. Afterwards we will email you lots of information including the recipes.

There are a good number of books on seaweed foraging and cookery with some wonderful recipes. You can browse and order some of our favourites here.

 

 

Cherry Plum blossom - 13 March 2018

Cherry Plums

Yes, it’s February as I write this. These wonderful plums, also known as Mirabelles, are ready to pick in around August, but there is good reason for mentioning them now – they are in flower. The pretty blossoms are distinctive, there’s nothing else to confuse them with at this moment and you can spot them as you drive past at 60. If you track them down now, you can head back later in the year for their fantastic fruit. Get your skates on though as the Blackthorn will be out before too long. Yes, it’s still worth knowing where Blackthorns are for your Sloes, but Cherry Plums are less common. The focus of this post is telling them apart. One blog I found gives one possible way:

The simple way to tell the difference is to plunge your arm vigorously into the bush and wriggle it about. If it is covered in bloody scratches when you retrieve it, odds are it was a Blackthorn…
You will be pleased to know that there are other, pain-free ways of telling them apart, admittedly they are a bit more complex.

Cherry Plums

Cherry Plum blossom – 16 February 2019 (note the open leaves are on Honeysuckle. One unopened Cherry Plum leaf visible middle left.

Flowering period: Can flower as early as late January, but can carry on into March and April

Twigs:  The young twigs are hairless and distinctively green. Bark dark grey. No spines.

Flowers / leaves: The leaves develop at the same time as the flowers.

Habitat: Scattered, but locally frequent and easily overlooked when it grows in hedges with Blackthorn but given away by the early flowering. Can make a small tree (up to 8 metres). They are non-native, and sometimes used for landscaping or highways planting.

Appearance: Distinctly wispy with slender branches and twigs.

For more information on identifying Cherry Plums see this Woodland Trust page.

Blackthorn

Blackthorn blossom - 16 April 2018
Blackthorn blossom – 16 April 2018

Flowering period: March – April

Twigs:  The dark brown / black bark is smooth, and twigs form straight side shoots, which develop into thorns / spines.

Flowers / leaves: Flowers appear before the leaves start to show.

Habitat:  Grows naturally in scrub and woodlands, but commonly used in hedges. Can grow to 6 or 7 metres tall.

Appearance: Usually an impenetrable mass of very spiny straight-branched bushes.

For more information on identifying Blackthorn see this Woodland Trust page.

 

The stunning Bearded Tooth in The New Forest.

Theft of Protected Fungi / An Overview of Protected Species

It was very saddening to read a recent newspaper report of the deliberate taking of the rare Bearded Tooth (formerly Lion’s Mane) fungus from three locations in The New Forest. This is one of four species of protected fungi listed under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act as they are endangered. Most offences are punishable on summary conviction by six month’s imprisonment and/or a fine.

According to the newspaper article (not available online), they were taken by “unlicensed foragers”. There is only one licensed forager in The New Forest (it’s a long story!). Collecting wild fungi for commercial purposes requires landowners’ consent, without it such collection is theft (1969 Theft Act). The Forestry Commission in The New Forest do not give consent for commercial collection and their fungi picking campaigns of the last few years are aimed at commercial collectors (though this is not at all clear from their signage). Whoever took it you have not done any favours for legitimate people foraging for personal consumption. You are not representative of the rest of us, like football hooligans, a small minority may well tarnish the reputation of the law abiding majority. The Police, Natural England and The Forestry Commission are investigating the thefts. Anyone with information is encouraged to share it with the police via 101 or The Forestry Commission.

I have seen Bearded Tooth only on one occasion knowing immediately what it was and whooped for joy at being so fortunate to see it. It is a stunning species looking like melted wax cascading out of a fallen tree. Only photos and memories were taken.

With a mycologist friend I returned to that spot this year and there was no sign of it. Poor memory was blamed for forgetting the exact location but I now wonder of this was one of the spots where it had been taken.

The name refers to the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish and not the big cat. The species is edible – “a superb seafood-like taste compared to crab or lobster” but clearly should not be eaten from the wild. If you are keen to try it, it can be cultivated so you can buy it in Asian grocery stores, online and occasionally in supermarkets. Alternatively, your can try to grow your own with plug spawn. It is also sold as powders, supplements and extracts from some health food shops being revered by Native Americans and East Asian cultures where it is traditionally known as an immune booster, memory booster and styptic (stems flow of blood).

As a member of The Association of Foragers, I have been active making sure our legal right to pick wild fungi for personal consumption is allowed to continue. As Hedgerow Harvest, I organise educational fungus forays and walks in The New Forest and pay for a permit from The Forestry Commission to run them. The events are undertaken following strict rules as to what and how much we can pick and as well as teaching identification and safety do emphasise sustainable and legal picking. We are privileged, The New Forest is one of the best places for fungi in Western Europe and is home to rare and protected species as well as good numbers of much more common species.

It may be that this illegal picking was ignorance of the law rather than deliberate targeting. Some fungi books list Lion’s Mane as “edible” without mentioning the legal status, however, such “ignorance of law excuses no one”. To try and educate people I have tried to put together a guide to protected fungi species. To read the interesting background to these lists (e.g. the politics), Peter Marren’s excellent book Mushrooms is highly recommended. (According to a review in The independent it is “The greatest book about mushrooms you’ll ever read”).

Legal Protection

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 it is an offence to pick, uproot or destroy any wild plant listed. “Wild plant” means any plant (including fungi) which is or (before it was picked, uprooted or destroyed) was growing wild and is of a kind which ordinarily grows in Great Britain in a wild state. This means that picking these critically endangered species is strictly forbidden. Most offences are punishable on summary conviction by six month’s imprisonment and/or a fine. The four species of protected fungi listed are:

Sandy stilt puffball

Taxon nameBattarrea phalloides
HabitatInland sandy commons / roadsides
DescriptionLink - First Nature
Distribution MapLink - NBN Atlas
Sandy stilt puffball
Sandy stilt puffball is protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and picking this critically endangered species is strictly forbidden. Licensed under Creative Commons Wikipedia Compatible v3.0 – Copyright © 2009 Landsnorkler.

Royal bolete

Taxon nameBoletus regius
StatusEndangered.
HabitatParks or woods with veteran trees
Description (source UK Biodiversity Group Tranche 2 Action Plans - Plants and Fungi)Royal bolete is known mainly from grassy areas under broadleaved trees in ancient, deciduous woods, particularly hornbeam or beech woods but also oak, on calcareous or acidic sandy soils. It is an ectomycorrhizal species which depends on old host trees. Many of its known host trees are old oak pollards. It has attractive, edible fruiting bodies which generally appear between May and September, although it is not known how reliable its fruiting is. The fruiting bodies are reddish in colour with a cap 6-15 cm in diameter.
DescriptionLink - First Nature
Distribution (source UK Biodiversity Group Tranche 2 Action Plans - Plants and Fungi)In Britain, this species is only known from southern England. There is very little information on its historic distribution in Britain. It may always have been rare, but some experts suggest that it may have declined over the last 40 years. In recent years, it has only been seen at three sites: the New Forest, Ashgreen (Surrey) and Windsor Forest. Elsewhere, this species has been recorded in scattered locations across central Europe.
Distribution MapLink - NBN Atlas
Royal Bolete
Royal Bolete is protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and picking this critically endangered species is strictly forbidden. Licensed under Creative Commons Wikipedia Compatible v3.0 – Copyright © 2008 Ken Stavropoulos (pennybun).

Bearded Tooth (formerly Lion’s Mane)

Taxon nameHericium erinaceus
StatusEndangered
HabitatParks or woods with veteran trees
Description (source UK Biodiversity Group Tranche 2 Action Plans - Plants and Fungi)Hericium erinaceum grows mainly on the wounds of old living trees and on the ends of felled trunks in deciduous woods. It often grows high up on its host trees which are usually beech, but may also be oak. This species has an extremely local distribution in Britain, possibly because it is restricted to areas of woodland where there has been a long continuity of old trees. Fruiting bodies appear in late summer to autumn. Techniques are available for cultivating this edible species, and it is now being sold in supermarkets as a fashionable addition to cuisine.
DescriptionLink - First Nature
Distribution (source UK Biodiversity Group Tranche 2 Action Plans - Plants and Fungi)This species is scattered but locally common in southern England, rare in the Midlands (only one record from Herefordshire) and is absent from other parts of the British Isles. There are 12 records from approximately seven sites since 1960. Recent records include sites in the New Forest, Windsor Great Park and Oxfordshire.
Distribution MapLink - NBN Atlas
The stunning Bearded Tooth in The New Forest.
The stunning Bearded Tooth in The New Forest is protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and picking this critically endangered species is strictly forbidden.

Oak polypore

Taxon namePiptoporus quercinus
StatusEndangered.
HabitatParks or woods with veteran trees
Description (source UK Biodiversity Group Tranche 2 Action Plans - Plants and Fungi)This species causes brown rot in mature oaks or on recently dead oaks, but never on any other species. It mainly occurs in wood pasture habitat where there has been a continuity of mature oak trees. The fruiting bodies which are edible, but have a very bitter taste, generally appear between May and December.
DescriptionLink - Arkive
Distribution (source UK Biodiversity Group Tranche 2 Action Plans - Plants and Fungi)In Britain, this species has been recorded at Sherwood Forest and from approximately five other sites in Derbyshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Oxfordshire and Herefordshire. There is no evidence for a historic decline in this species.
Distribution MapLink - NBN Atlas
Oak Polypore
Oak Polypore is protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and picking this critically endangered species is strictly forbidden. Licensed under Creative Commons Wikipedia Compatible v3.0 – Copyright © Vavrin 2011.

 

Other Protection

Biodiversity Action Plans

In response to International moves to help reduce or halt the significant losses in global biodiversity, the UK, like many other countries, has summarised the most threatened or rapidly declining habitats and species and created detailed “Species Action Plans” for their conservation. As well as priority habitats, action plans have been created for birds, plants, fish, fungi and other groups. Following devolution there are now priority lists for England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland.

UK BAP priority fungi species

Note that lichens have been omitted. Includes rusts and smuts etc. U = unknown

Scientific nameCommon nameEnglandScotlandWalesNorthern Ireland
Amanita friabilisFragile AmanitaYNYN
Armillaria ectypaMarsh Honey FungusYYYY
Bankera fuligineoalbaDrab ToothYYNN
Battarrea phalloidesSandy Stilt PuffballYNNN
Boletopsis perplexaBlack FalseboleteNYNN
Boletus immutatusConstant BoleteYNNN
Boletus pseudoregiusThe PretenderYNNN
Boletus regiusRoyal BoleteYNNN
Boletus rhodopurpureusOldrose BoleteYNNN
Boletus torosusBrawny BoleteYNNN
Bovista paludosaFen PuffballYNNN
Calocybe onychinaLilac DomecapNYNN
Cantharellus friesiiOrange ChanterelleYYNN
Cantharellus melanoxerosBlackening ChanterelleYYNN
Chlorencoelia versiformisFlea's EarYNNN
Chrysomyxa pirolataWintergreen RustYYYN
Cotylidia pannosaWoolly RosetteYNYN
Entoloma bloxamiiBig Blue PinkgillYYYY
Geastrum berkeleyiBerkeley's EarthstarYNNN
Geastrum corollinumWeathered EarthstarYNNN
Geastrum elegansElegant EarthstarYNYN
Geastrum minimumTiny EarthstarYNNN
Geoglossum atropurpureumDark-purple EarthtongueYYYY
Gomphus clavatusPig's EarNNNN
Hericium coralloidesCoral ToothYNNN
Hericium erinaceusBearded ToothYNYN
Hohenbuehelia culmicolaMarram OysterYYYN
Hydnellum aurantiacumOrange ToothNYNY
Hydnellum caeruleumBlue ToothNYNN
Hydnellum concrescensZoned ToothYYYY
Hydnellum ferrugineumMealy ToothYYNN
Hydnellum peckiiDevil's ToothNYNN
Hydnellum scrobiculatumRidged ToothYYYN
Hydnellum spongiosipesVelvet ToothYYYY
Hygrocybe spadiceaDate-coloured WaxcapYYYN
Hygrophorus pudorinusRosy WoodwaxYNNN
Hypocreopsis lichenoidesWillow GlovesYNYN
Hypocreopsis rhododendriHazel GlovesYYNN
Lyophyllum favreiGilded DomecapYNNN
Microglossum olivaceumEarth-tongueYYYY
Mycena renatiBeautiful BonnetYNNN
Myriostoma coliformePepper PotNNNN
Nyssopsora echinataSpignel RustNYNN
Phellodon confluensFused ToothYYYN
Phellodon melaleucusGrey ToothYYYN
Phellodon nigerBlack ToothYYNN
Phellodon tomentosusWoolly ToothYYYN
Pholiota astragalinaConifer ScalycapYUNN
Phylloporus pelletieriGolden Gilled BoleteYYYY
Piptoporus quercinusOak PolyporeYYYN
Podoscypha multizonataZoned RosetteYNNN
Poronia punctataNail FungusYNYN
Psathyrella caput-medusaeMedusa BrittlestemUYUN
Puccinia clintoniiLousewort RustNYNY
Puccinia physospermiBladder-seed RustYNNN
Puccinia scorzoneraeScorzonera RustYNYN
Puccinia septentrionalisAlpine RustNYNN
Puccinia thesiiBastard-toadflax RustYNNN
Sarcodon glaucopusGreenfoot ToothNYNN
Sarcodon scabrosusBitter ToothYYNN
Sarcodon squamosusScaly ToothYYNN
Sarcodontia croceaOrchard ToothYNNN
Sarcosphaera coronariaViolet CrowncupYNNN
Stephanospora caroticolaCarroty False TruffleYNNN
Stropharia hornemanniiConifer RoundheadNYNN
Tephrocybe osmophoraSweet GreylingYNNN
Tracya hydrocharidisFrogbit SmutUNUU
Tremella moriformisMulberry BrainYNNN
Tremellodendropsis tuberosaAshen CoralYNYN
Tricholoma colossusGiant KnightNYNN
Tricholoma robustumRobust KnightNYNN
Tulostoma melanocyclumScaly StalkballYNYN
Tulostoma niveumStalked PuffballNYNN
Urocystis colchiciColchicum SmutYNYN
Urocystis primulicolaBird's-eye Primrose SmutYUNN
Uromyces gentianaeFelwort RustYNNN

Source – Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)

Red Data Lists

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (also known as the IUCN Red List or Red Data List), founded in 1965, has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. It uses a set of criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies. These criteria are relevant to all species and all regions of the world. With its strong scientific base, the IUCN Red List is recognized as the most authoritative guide to the status of biological diversity. A series of Regional Red Lists are produced by countries or organizations, which assess the risk of extinction to species within a political management unit.

A Red Data List of Threatened British Fungi was produced in 1992 and 2006 by the British Mycological Society (BMS). However, neither of these achieved official approval by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, thereby diminishing their effectiveness in conservation decision-making.

Preliminary Assessment: The Red Data List of Threatened British Fungi – 2006

Introduction / methodology

Species list

To remedy this, the family Boletaceae (Boletes) was chosen in 2012 to establish a template for fungal conservation status assessments. The aim was to facilitate production of British Red Data Lists conforming to international standards set by the IUCN and published by JNCC.

Working with Natural England, the Association of British Fungus Groups and the British Mycological Society and a team at Cardiff University, Kew mycologists produced this first official (pilot) fungal Red Data List for Great Britain, which was duly published by JNCC in 2013. Of the 68 Boletes studied, 13 were assessed as threatened and 37 are now ‘red-listed’. Even now, in late 2018, no further families have been added.

Red List of Fungi for Great Britain: Boletaceae. A pilot conservation assessment based on national database records, fruit body morphology and DNA barcoding - 2013.

Report / list
Wood Blewitts

Wood Blewits

As I write this in late November you could be forgiven for thinking that most foraging opportunities are finished for the year but this is far from the truth. There are still some wild greens and fruit about and while most fungi finds are slowing up, with a frost or two already past, it becomes time to hunt for Wood Blewits. They can be found from September to January or February. While not as well known as other “top table” fungi like Ceps and Chanterelles, these are right up there for flavour and versatility and used to be sold in markets in this country.

Habitat

Many woodland fungi are mycorrhizal. This means that the mycelium (underground web of fibres making up the majority of the body of the fungus) grows on the roots of trees. It takes up water and nutrients to pass to the tree in exchange for sugars. Wood Blewits are saprophytes. They feed on dead or decaying organic matter such as leaf litter. The name suggests that they are only found in woodland, however, some of the best places I know are nice, old (unimproved) grasslands, including along the coast where agriculture is often less intense. Here they can be found growing in huge rings. They are also found under hedgerows (linear woodlands), in gardens (including mine occasionally!) and on road verges.

Ring of Wood Blewits in unimproved, coastal grasslands.

Identification

We strongly recommend you check identification with several books.

Wood Blewits are violet when young but become light brown / tan with age. I could identify one blind-folded due to their distinctive smell, described as floral, aromatic, sweet, perfumed or best of all, “frozen orange juice” according to one source!

You need to be very careful that you do not confuse them with some of the larger purple species of Cortinarius fungi which can be of a similar colour. The Wood Blewit has pink spores and all Cortinarius fungi have rusty brown spores. A spore print will confirm their colour.

Spore print showing brown spores. Produced by cutting the stem off, putting the cap on a piece of paper with a glass over it (to stop draughts), then waiting a few hours.
Spore print showing brown spores. Produced by cutting the stem off, putting the cap on a piece of paper with a glass over it (to stop draughts), then waiting a few hours. A darker piece of paper will help show lighter coloured spores (e.g. pink)

The genus name Cortinarius means “curtained”. A young specimen will have a “cortina” between the cap and the stem. A cortina in this case, is not the United Kingdom’s best-selling car of the 1970s, but a “veil”, a web of threads between the mushroom stem and cap. Remnants of it may be seen on older specimens.

Good view of the Cortina (veil).
Good view of the Cortina (veil) of a Cortinarius and brown dust of the spores sticking to the cortina and stem.

Another species that you will head off the path in pursuit of, thinking from a distance it is a Wood Blewit, is The Clouded Agaric. A closer inspection will reveal the lack of violet and the distinctive smell. As they make most people that eat them ill, you will soon learn to despise Clouded Agarics.

Preserving

As Wood Blewits can be found in good numbers they can be preserved for later consumption. While drying is an option, I usually fry them and then put the cooked mushrooms into freezer bags and the freezer with the amount I would need for a meal in each bag.

Wood Blewits can often be found in quantity.

Cooking

Wood Blewits must be cooked before consumption. Raw they can cause indigestion or stomach upsets. A minority of people find even thoroughly cooked Wood Blewits indigestible so it is recommended you should try a small amount the first time that you eat them to check they like you.

They can often have a lot of water in them so when you cook them, you may need to drain off any surplus liquid so you fry them and not boil them. They are very good sautéed and served with a range of meats or poultry. They can be one of a number of mushrooms in a risotto or pasta dish.

Elderberries in basket

Elderberry Syrup – Recipe and Uses

Elderberries

Elderberries are far from the most foraged berry. This is a bit of a shame, used the right way they are a great wild food ingredient. They make a good jam or jelly, but you wouldn’t really want a pudding with them “neat”. Adding another fruit like Blackberries improves the flavour. Where they do come into their own is in drinks, one of the best wild fruit wines, a great spirit-based infusion (think Sloe Gin but with Elderberries and Vodka or Whisky), or most commonly as Elderberry Syrup. This is one of my favourite fruit syrups and can be used in a number of ways.

Uses for Elderberry Syrup

Most will go in the freezer to reappear when the winter colds or flu strike. Defrosted then a little in a mug of hot water (squeeze of lemon juice or a drop of whisky are optional extras) will relieve the symptoms of colds and flu. I add cloves to mine and the fruity/spicy remedy soon starts to work wonders. The combination of certain acids, vitamin C and anti-oxidants has proven in trials that “Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier …. in those receiving elderberry extract compared with a placebo“. The medicinal benefits have been known since the Ancient Egyptians and Greek. You can today buy cold remedies with Elderberry in, but why, when you can make your own cheaply. I use the recipe in Roger Phillips’ excellent Wild Food.

I’ve known people use it as a no-alcohol version of mulled wine. The spices, such as cloves, ginger and / or cinnamon, make it fill the role very well.

You can drizzle a little of the syrup on to ice cream, pancakes, rice pudding or similar.

Elderflower Syrup
Elderflower Syrup

Recipe

I use Roger Phillips’ recipe from his excellent Wild Food: A complete guide for foragers.

Ingredients:

  • Ripe elderberries
  • Sugar
  • Cloves

Method:

  1. Pick the fruit on a dry day. Wash well and drain thoroughly.
  2. Strip the fruit from the stems (with a fork) and put into a pan, adding just enough water to cover.
  3. Simmer for 30 minutes until the berries are very soft.
  4. Strain through a jelly bag or muslin and measure the juice. Allow 450g sugar and 10 cloves to each 600ml of juice.
  5. Heat the juice gently, stirring in the sugar until dissolved. Boil for 10 minutes and then leave until cold.
  6. The syrup may be frozen in small quantities (I use well-cleaned old milk bottles) or packed into small screw-topped, soft-drink bottles which have been sterilized.
Elderflower Syrup
Quality assurance and bottled ready to freeze.

Elderberry Risks

Please note that Elderberries do need to be cooked before being consumed. Eating raw berries or juice may lead to nausea or more severe symptoms.

Hop Cones - Late August, Dorset

Uses for Hops (cones / flowers)

I’ve blogged about Hops before but at a very different time of the year – April. My target in the Spring is the young shoots, these have been called “Poor Man’s Asparagus” and are one of the world’s most expensive vegetables sold in Belgium for around $1400 / kilo. The shoots have lots of great uses covered in the blog, I frequently put them in frittatas or have them as a vegetable.

Hops can occasionally be found in hedgerows even in areas where there is no history of hop growing. The hop vines grow up to a foot a day and the cones (the proper word for the flowers) are blossoming at the moment. Seeing them in their summer guise did make me think about what you can do with them beyond the obvious use. I did a bit of web searching and this post contains what I found. When it’s stopped raining and we’ve had some sun, I am going out to gather some hops to dry and try out some of the below ideas.

Picking / Storing Hops

September and October are the months for harvesting hop cones. They can be dried for later use, however, note that they will lose their potency when exposed to light and air or after a few months’ storage.

If you have sensitive skin, you might want to wear gloves and make sure your arms are covered when picking them. Dermatitis sometimes results from harvesting them. Please note hops are toxic to dogs.

 

Brewing

Hops are obviously used as a bittering, flavouring and stability agent for beers. As well as bitterness they give floral, fruity or citrusy flavours and aroma. There are many cultivated varieties of hops used for different styles of beer.

I’m no home-brew expert but it would be interesting to try a beer made with foraged hops.

"<yoastmark

Hops as Decoration

Stems of dried hops have been used as a garland or in floral arrangements for centuries. Today, they are usually seen in pubs hanging from rafters or above the bar. I was once asked where to find some for decorating a wedding reception!

Flower arrangement with Hops.

Medicinal and Cosmetic Uses of Hops

A pillow filled with hops is a popular traditional remedy for sleeplessness. You can easily make your own and can optionally add an equal measure of dried lavender flowers to sweeten the scent. Wrap it well (make a “pillow case”) to avoid the hop’s oils from staining your bedding! Put under your pillow to help you sleep.

Do not disturb

The calming and relaxing effects of hops are utilised in herbal medicine as treatments for anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. They also used in cosmetics – natural soaps and deodorants.

 

Hop Tea

They have been used in tea for at least as long as they have been used in beer. The tea is often used as a bedtime drink due to its natural sedative properties. You can dry foraged hops and use them for making tea. It can be very bitter and might need sweetening with honey. Some people add other, complementary flavours to hop tea – ginger, citrus peel, chamomile, lemongrass, lemon balm, or other herbs.

Herbal Tea

Culinary Uses

I was already aware of most of the above uses for hops but was unaware of any culinary uses. What I did find repeatedly in my search were warnings that they are incredibly strong, and their bitterness can take over a dish. The trick is to use them lightly. According to one source “If there’s one word to keep in mind, it’s this: restraint”.  Another source summed it up nicely:

Hops are the ‘spice’ of beer, and they play a similar role when added to food recipes

It’s worth giving them a go, they add robust flavours, aromas and textures to dishes. A test run using them as a dried and flaked condiment is a suggested way of being introduced to them.

  • A garnish for mashed potatoes
  • Sprinkled on soup
  • On pasta or chicken

Among the other uses I found – search for recipes / inspiration:

  • Adding like a bay leaf to a soup or stew
  • Yeast cakes
  • Sausages
  • Bread
  • Salmon and cauliflower with hops béarnaise
  • On pizzas, like you would use oregano or basil
  • Infuse oils with hops for salad dressings
  • Dried and ground as a baking powder substitute (1 tablespoon to 1 lb plain flour)
  • Mustard to go with hoppy sausage
  • Infused honey to top a malted barley custard
  • Hop-infused ice cream
  • Hot chocolate
  • Churros (fried-dough pastry – a traditional snack from Spain and Portugal)
Fat Hen with its huge numbers of seeds. Here growing in the margin of an arable field.

Fat Hen – Flocking to a field near you

A great edible plant to track down at the moment (June – September) is Fat Hen. It is also known by many names including Lambs Quarters, White Goosefoot, Common Goosefoot, Dirty Dick, Frost Blite, Dung Weed, Mutton Tops and Pigweed. It is a summer plant found on disturbed and cultivated areas such as arable fields, vegetable gardens / allotments and manure heaps. For those that don’t welcome its presence, it is a troublesome annual weed, each plant producing up to 20,000 seeds which can last in the soil for many years. It is common in most of Britain except mountainous areas.

Fat Hen is a member of the Goosefoot genus. Many other members are edible including the salt-tolerant Oraches found on shingle beaches.

Fat Hen has been eaten as a vegetable since Stone Age times. Its seeds made up part of the last meal of Tollund Man, a bog body dating from this period found in Tollund in Denmark. It remained popular until the 16th century when spinach and cabbage replaced it in our diets. One relative, Good King Henry, was a popular garden vegetable for hundreds of years and the seeds are still sold today though is less popular than in the past. A “trendy” relative is Chenopodium quinoa that grows in South America. It’s seeds are the source of Quinoa. Today, Fat Hen is still cultivated as a food crop in some countries including India.

 

Fat Hen Identification

Fat Hen, and other members of the Chenopodium family are sometimes difficult to tell apart. They are very variable and can hybridise!

Fat Hen is an erect, annual, bushy herb often reaching a height of a metre or more. It usually has striped stems and has dense clusters of tiny green flowers.

Leaves

They are grey green ovate or triangular leaves which are paler underneath. They are 20-60 mm long and 5-30 mm wide with a pointed tip. Bigger leaves are usually lobed or toothed. All are mealy (covered with meal (a powdery coating)).

Smell / Taste

Fat Hen smells (faintly of) and tastes a bit like cabbage.

 

Young Fat Hen (and the smaller Chickweed) growing in a greenhouse.
Young Fat Hen (and the smaller Chickweed) growing in a greenhouse.

The leaves of the toxic Black Nightshade do look rather like those of Fat Hen. The flowers are however, very different, with those of Black Nightshade being like a white version of tomato or potato flowers – in the same family!

 

Fat Hen Risks

If you are gathering Fat Hen from a farmer’s field, garden or allotment, do check that it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.

Sprayed Fat Hen - it just doesn't look vibrant and good to eat.
Sprayed Fat Hen – it just doesn’t look vibrant and good to eat.

Fat Hen can contain potentially harmful levels of nitrates though cases of poisoning are rare.

Some members of this genus contain saponins (they form a lather when combined with water), however:

  • Quantities are usually too small for any harm.
  • Most are not absorbed and pass without any problem.
  • They are also largely broken down during cooking.

Like many foods (Sorrel, Sea Beet and lots of cultivated plants like Sprouts and Parsley), they also contain some oxalic acid. Cooking will reduce the levels of this, but people with rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity should be aware that large quantities of Oxalic acid can aggravate their condition.

 

Fat Hen Uses

Fat Hen "tops" picked for soup.
Fat Hen “tops” picked for soup.

“Tops” (flower spikes, younger stems and leaves)

They can be the main ingredient for a soup, made as Nettle or Leek and Potato soups. In my opinion the flavour is like Cauliflower soup. I’ve served it to many people and it goes down well. If you’ve left the Fat Hen to grow a bit big, pass the cooked, blended soup through a sieve to catch any fibrous bits.

Making Fat Hen Soup
Making Fat Hen Soup

Young Shoots / Flower Spikes

The young shoots (less than 20 cm) and unopened flower spikes can be prepared and eaten like Asparagus shoots. If you leave them to get too big they may be a bit woody. Simmer until tender (up to 10 minutes), drain and serving with a little butter.

The young shoots / flower spikes could also go into a stir-fry.

 

Leaves

The leaves can be eaten raw but only in in small quantities, see the notes above on risks.

They can be eaten as a vegetable, cooked like Spinach or used in place of Spinach in any recipe, for example:

  • Tarts / Quiches / Frittata
  • Lasagne
  • Curries (e.g. Sag Aloo or a Chickpea, Tomato and Spinach Curry),
  • Mushroom and Spinach Risotto etc.

One recipe that specifically calls for Fat Hen is Fat Hen Pesto Bake. I make this regularly in the season and thoroughly enjoy it. Vegetarian / vegan / nut-free versions can be made by altering the ingredients.

Fat Hen Pesto Bake (with Sea Beet and New Potatoes)
Fat Hen Pesto Bake (with Sea Beet and New Potatoes)

Seeds

Fat Hen plants each produces tens of thousands of nutritious, but small and fiddly seeds. The close relative Quinoa is grown for its seeds. Fat Hen seeds can be ground and mixed with flour to make bread and cakes. Seeds should be soaked in water overnight and then rinsed to remove any saponins.

Young tender Beech leaves - translucent and soft.

A Trio of Spring Wild Booze Tipples

A selection of wild booze tipples using Spring ingredients that are about now. When I say Spring, I mean to make now then sit patiently until later in the year to drink. All three use young leaves that can easily be found – Beech, Blackthorn and Oak.

Beech Leaf Noyau / Gin

I think I first saw this in Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free (early version not in the more recent one I have), but it is also included in Andy Hamilton’s Booze for Free. It struck me as an unusual drink with most infusions being fruit or flower. I’ve also looked at the young Beech leaves looking so edible but being not particularly excited about putting them in a salad.

Pick enough young beech leaves to half fill a large jar. Cover with a bottle (70 cl) of gin. Put in a cupboard for a couple of weeks. Make a syrup solution, dissolving 225g of sugar in 300ml of water. Strain and discard the leaves. Add the sugar solution and optionally a glass of brandy. Bottle and store for at least 3 months.

Épine Apéritif

Blackthorn leaves
Blackthorn leaves

Everyone knows Sloe Gin made with the fruit of the Blackthorn. A much less known tipple uses the leaves of the Blackthorn, picked around this time of the year (April – June). These give the drink an Almond flavour.

John Wright (of River Cottage “fame”) has a recipe in his Booze book. I found this version translated from a French recipe.

– 2.5 litres of red wine
– 400mls of eau de vie (or Vodka)
– 300 grams sugar
– A handful of young Blackthorn shoots

– Place all the ingredients (in a suitable container) and leave for 4 days to infuse.
– Remove the leaves and taste. If necessary, according to taste, replace leaves and leave a further 3 days.
– Strain and bottle.
– Enjoyed chilled as an aperitif!

I’d be tempted to leave it to mature for several weeks (John suggests a year!).

Do get your id right as other members of the Prunus family (e.g. Bird Cherry) contain high levels of Cyanides!

Oak Leaf Wine

Young Oak Leaves
Young Oak Leaves

Showing my age again, I remember Hugh FW trying this in his original TV series “A cook on the Wild Side” back in 1995. The recipe he has in the book of the series differs slightly from the one in Roger Phillips’s Wild Food. Hugh uses lemons, Roger uses Oranges – take your pick! Every forager should have a copy of Roger’s excellent book, if you are remiss, a. get one, b. you can find a version of it here.

Join us for a Booze Walk

On 1st June 2019 Andy Hamilton (www.theotherandyhamilton.com) will be leading one of his famous booze foraging walks in Dorchester.  Andy is a multiple award-winning author, brewer and an expert on wild food and sustainability. He is the author of the best-selling Booze for Free and Brewing Britain: The Quest for the Perfect Pint. He writes for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph amongst others and frequently appears on TV and Radio talking about foraging and booze. You may have seen him on Autumnwatch, Countryfile, The Alan Titchmarsh Show and more. You can find more details and book places here.