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).

Plant Poisoning foraging

Poisonous plants you should know as a forager

During the period of the Coronavirus lockdown with some food scarcities, the weather generally being good and some people having plenty of time on their hands, interest in foraging has rocketed. One Facebook foraging group has had membership increase by 10,000! I’ve written before (here) about the concerns and positives this brings. Some of the concerns are unfortunately demonstrating themselves repeatedly. This same Facebook group now routinely has 6 – 8 instances each week of people with poisonous plants, examples of them being tasted and very sadly, cases where these have consumed and people hospitalised.

A few “rules” to keep you safe and alive –  you don’t want to be in hospital at the best of times let alone at the moment.

  • Do not taste or eat any plant / berry / fungi unless you are 100% certain it is correctly identified.
  • Use multiple sources to confirm your identification.
  • Some plants and fungi are deadly and can resemble friendly species.
  • Start with safe species that you can definitely recognise.
  • Learn the poisonous species to avoid.
  • “If in doubt leave it out”.

Below are the four poisonous plants that are the most frequent source of problems. This is based on a much longer blog post “Cases of mistaken identity – confusing edible and poisonous plants“.

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. PEOPLE THAT ARE NEW TO FORAGING SHOULD AVOID FORAGING AND EATING ALL MEMBERS OF THIS FAMILY. The defining feature of plants in this family is that the flowers are in flat-topped or rounded clusters – an umbel.

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

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 - one of the most poisonous plants
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. (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).

Leaves of Hemlock Water Dropwort - one of the most poisonous plants
Leaves of Hemlock Water Dropwort

Roots: Distinctive. Cream / White, bunched.

Hemlock Water Dropwort drawing including roots - one of the most poisonous plants
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 - one of the most poisonous plants
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.

 

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Toxicity

Hemlock, like Hemlock Water Dropwort above is another Umbellifer. AGAIN, PEOPLE THAT ARE NEW TO FORAGING SHOULD AVOID FORAGING AND EATING ALL MEMBERS OF THIS FAMILY. It 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 - one of the most poisonous plants
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 - one of the most poisonous plants
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.

 

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. One of several commonly confused poisonous plants
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. One of several commonly confused poisonous plants
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). One of several commonly confused poisonous plants
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).

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

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)

 

Wild Garlic Cheese Scones made durign the Coronavirus pandemic

Foraging during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Life under Coronavirus; a very different world

Coronavirus means we find ourselves in a very different world to that of only a few weeks ago. Changes none of us could have believed have happened so quickly.

  • Access to food is not as it was, shelves in the shops have gaps and some foods are difficult to get hold of.
  • With schools closed to most, families have children to educate and entertain at home.
  • We are not able to move freely any more, no longer going where we want to when we want to.
  • Some people have time on their hands.
  • We must keep a distance from people outside of our households.
  • There is a greater awareness of healthy eating, exercise and fresh air.
  • Face to face foraging courses have been cancelled.

 

Heightened Interest in Foraging During Coronavirus

For these reasons and more, the Coronavirus restrictions mean many people are turning to the wild larder on their doorsteps and using their exercise opportunity to forage for wild food while following the social distancing rules. We are fortunate that the changes have coincided with a bountiful time in the wild larder and, so far, improved weather. This heightened interest is demonstrated by record levels of :

  • Web site / blog page hits
  • Sign-ups for mailing lists (welcome to all new readers!)
  • Activity (new members / posts / likes) in online foraging groups
  • Instructional foraging videos appearing
Lords and Ladies (left) can be confused with Sorrel (centre and right) or young Wild Garlic leaves - don't it burns your mouth / throat and you may be hospitalise
Lords and Ladies (left) can be confused with Sorrel (centre and right) or young Wild Garlic leaves – don’t it burns your mouth / throat and you may be hospitalise

Those that have foraged before, that know what can / cannot be picked and have access to suitable areas have lapped it. People such as me, with less pressures on their time than normal, have been incorporating far more wild food in their diets than ever before, enjoying tried and trusted recipes, but also getting new ideas from others and a degree of experimentation.

 

Concerns

Coronavirus means there are also many new or inexperienced foragers which in some ways is great. There are however concerns, they don’t know the “rules” on safety, sustainability and the law. On Facebook groups in the last week or two I’ve seen lots of positive things, such as first-time foraging families making and enjoying soup, but also:

  • Lords and Ladies (Wild Arum / Cuckoo Pint) in someone’s kitchen – it burns your lips / throat etc.
  • People asking about eating members of the Umbellifer (Carrot / Parsley) family which also contains deadly poisonous members such Hemlock Water Dropwort and Hemlock. Standard advice is that this family is not for beginners.
  • Someone nibbling plants said one tasted quite nice and wanted recipe ideas. It was the deadly poisonous Hemlock Water Dropwort!!!
  • Uprooted Wild Garlic – illegal without landowner’s consent – use the leaves (or buds / flowers / stems / seeds).
  • Mention of picking on a nature reserve. I don’t know the specifics; some owners don’t mind if what is picked is common, others have an outright ban on foraging on their land. Best to ask.
Hemlock Water Dropwort
Hemlock Water Dropwort is a deadly poisonous member of the Umbellifer (Carrot / Parsley) family. While it does contain edible species, both cultivated (Carrot, Celery, Parsnips etc) and wild (Alexanders, Common Hogweed etc), it is not a family for beginners to foraging.

 

While the above are issues of legality and safety, there is a lot of bad etiquette in the groups:

  • Countless uploading lots of photos of different plants – “Can I eat any of these?” The poster gives no indication of country or habitat and make no attempt at listing the features of the plant or attempting to identify it.
  • People guessing at others plant identification requests.

Hopefully, these people are learning and will:

  • Stick to plants they are 100% sure of the identification and that they can be eaten. There are lots of easy ones.
  • Learn the poisonous species first.
  • Leave a little of the raw plant to one side and tell someone what they have eaten just in case they don’t react well to it.
  • Ask for help with identification but do make some attempt to work out what it is first.
  • Not nibble wild plants without knowing their edibility.

 

Access to Foraging Spots Under Coronavirus

We should remember that under the Coronavirus restrictions not everyone has access to areas where there are foraging opportunities. We must exercise from home. One lady I was in contact with, lives in the middle of a city and her usual foraging spots are beyond walking distance. I don’t know her area but guess there must be some wild places not too far from where she lives – parks, waste ground, towpaths etc. Even if you and your family are in self-isolation, current NHS guidance allows you to spend time outdoors – “You can use your garden, if you have one. You can also leave the house to exercise – but stay at least 2 metres away from other people”. You could well have some wild foods growing in your garden – Nettles, Hairy Bittercress, Cleavers, Sorrel, Crow Garlic, Dandelions etc.

 

Stinging Nettles
Everyone can recognise a Stinging Nettle and will have them growing not too far from your house. You can use them in lots of ways some culinary (beer, cordial (amazing), soup (superb) and lots of mains), some not ( e.g. paper, rope, dye). Gathering and then making and eating some of these would entertain and educate children (but not the beer!).

Positives

Yes, the situation is terrible and very sadly, people are losing lives, but let us hope there are some positives that come out of the Coronavirus situation that we can take forwards into the future. I firmly believe that foraging can help now and after this:

  • Exercise / fresh air / relaxation / reduce stress.
  • A great activity for children – exercise and learning, both the outdoor, gathering part and then subsequent cooking and eating.
  • Make your food go further.
  • Reduce your need for supermarkets.
  • A diverse diet is good for you.
  • “Proper” cooking is better for you and your budget than ready meals / processed foods.
  • Many wild foods are very nutritious, helping boost your immune system.
  • You can eat seasonal, local, organic food – good for the planet.
  • Re-establish links with nature. The number of adults and children that cannot identify common wildflowers (e.g. a primrose) is remarkable.
Hairy Bittercress find in your garden during the Coronavirus pandemic
Hairy Bittercress can be found in almost every garden. I have it in the greenhouse, gaps between paving slabs and veg beds. A “branch” of leaves can be used as cress in a in an egg and cress sandwich, included in a salad or used in soup (if you have lots).

Resources

 Facebook Foraging Groups

 From our Blog – Spring Wild Foods / Recipes

Books

The below pages on our web site have our pick of foraging books. Links are provided for on-line ordering but please consider supporting support your local bookshop too – they may be able to post to you.

Cleavers stuck to my fleece

Cleavers – that sticky stuff!

While they might not know the name of it, if you describe Cleavers or Goosegrass to someone, they’ll know exactly what you mean. “That long green sticky stuff that kids stick on people’s jumpers or coats and think it’s really funny”. The sticking is due to little hooks all over the plant. They may have inspired Velcro, though the same is said of Burdock burrs. There are quite a few foraging uses for Cleavers, most in the Spring. You might decide that they are not your thing, but I would recommend juicing Cleavers.

Identification

Cleavers have creeping straggling stems which grow along the ground and over other plants. They attach themselves with the small hooked hairs which grow out of the stems and leaves. The stems can reach up to three feet or longer, and are angular or square shaped. The leaves are simple, narrowly oblanceolate to linear, and borne in whorls of six to eight (the leaves radiate from the stem).

Cleavers have tiny, star-shaped, white to greenish flowers, which emerge from early spring to summer. The flowers are clustered in groups of two or three. The globular fruits are covered with hooked hairs which cling to animal fur, aiding in seed dispersal.

Cleavers identification
Cleavers – Late March

Habitat

The plant can be found growing in hedges and waste places, limestone scree and as a garden weed. There are often Nettles nearby.

Cleavers habitat
Young Cleavers – often found near Nettles

 

Distribution

It is found in most areas of the Britain.

 

The Name

Richard Mabey’s classic Flora Britannica gives c. 20 names for Cleavers from different parts of Britain. Several include the word “goose” and many “sticky”. When I used to run foraging course in Wiltshire, many attendees knew it as “Sticky Willy”!

To cleave is old English for latching on. Cleavers has very small hooks or bristles all over it and it is these that “latch on” or stick when thrown onto your back or you walk through it. The Goose connection is that they, and chickens, use it as food.

Cleavers is a member of the Bedstraw genus – Galiums. Other members of this group include Ladies Bedstraw and Sweet Woodruff.

 

Caution

Some people get contact dermatitis (unpleasant localised rash) following skin contact with Cleavers. You can do your own skin patch test to see if you get on with it. If you don’t do this, you should only have a very small quantity the first time you try it.

  • Avoid if you are pregnant, may become pregnant or are nursing. Cleavers may work to stimulate uterine contractions in women.
  • Avoid if you have high blood pressure.

 

Medicinal Uses

Cleavers have been used since Ancient Times for medicinal uses. They can treat a variety of skin ailments, light wounds, burns, urinary infections, piles, scurvy, ulcers and to relieve poisonous bites and stings. Cleavers can help clean your body of toxins and wastes and help fight infection. Other reported uses include making natural shampoo and deodorant.

 

Nutrition

They are rich in Vitamin C, Iron and minerals especially silica which is needed for nails, hair and teeth.

 

Harvesting

It’s often found near to Nettles so gloves may be wise. You don’t want the roots, plus it’s illegal in the UK to uproot a plant without landowners consent, so use scissors. You will easily get bits of other live and dead plants / grass tangled up in it so remove these.

Gathering Cleavers
Gathering Cleavers

 

 

Spring Drinks

In the Spring use the young plant – less than 6 inches or so long. They get hairier and more fibrous as they get older. When young they are a vibrant green.

Cleavers Juice

I’ve met quite a few people that juice Cleavers for its health benefits. It can be used as an alternative to Wheatgrass. I’ve made Cleavers juice and, in my opinion, “neat” it’s not that exciting a flavour, very green, perhaps with a bit of Pea about it. If I am to try to get it into a regular part of my diet I need to “spice it up”; I’ve found a few good suggestions for this.

You can make it in a couple of different ways. Once made, store in the fridge and it will keep fresh for a week

  • Put a couple of handfuls into a jug and cover with cold water. Stir every time you walk past. Leave overnight to infuse. Strain through a tea-strainer, sieve or muslin.
  • Alternatively, chop it up a bit and put in a blender. Add water and blend until finely chopped. Strain as above. Give it a shake before using as it will separate.
Cleavers Juice
Cleavers Juice

My forager friend Andy Hamilton illustrates the blender method below (YouTube clip), and has both methods in more detail in his excellent book, Booze for Free.

Andy Hamilton - Booze for Free - Cleavers

Rather than drinking it “neat” you could:

  • Follow the blender method, pour the juice into ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen, you can store the juice cubes in a freezer bag. They can be added to a smoothie e.g. banana, cocoa and barley malt.
  • Add other ingredients to your Cleavers juice. Make up your own recipe with some of:
    • Pear
    • Apple
    • A little fresh ginger
    • A shot of Vodka!
    • Nettles (the blending will remove the sting!)
    • Lemon Juice
    • Carrots
    • Parsnips

Here’s one recipe with lots of the above:

Stinging Nettles

If you really want to push the boat out (and there’s food in the shops – written March 2020), this sounds really nice – Tropical Green Smoothie with Cleavers (recipe buried within a bigger page). It includes Pineapple, Mango and Banana.

Other Drinks

 

Other Uses

Salad Ingredient

In early Spring the tips of the plant can be added to salads. As they age, they get tougher and develop a rough texture so should only be used when young.

 

Vegetable

Tender shoots can be boiled for 10 – 15 minutes then:

  • Eaten as a vegetable with a little butter.
  • Added to Omelettes.
  • Chilled and add to

 

Others

Add chopped Cleavers to soups, plus specifically:

Also:

 

Coffee

Cleavers are in the same family as coffee. The fruits of Cleavers (summer / Early Autumn), have been dried, roasted and ground, and then used as a coffee substitute which contains less caffeine. You can just use the ground cleavers, or optionally add fresh ginger, a pinch of cinnamon and some honey, like in this Youtube video.

Rachel Lambert Cleavers Coffee Youtube

Velvet Shank (on a Beech stump)

Winter Wonders

Yes, it’s still winter but there are signs of things to come and a good few things for the forager to look out for at the moment, some for now, some for the future.

Velvet Shank

I’ve seen quite a few of these fungi this winter. Found on dead Elm, Gorse, Beech and other trees they are happy to freeze, defrost and carry on growing. Built in “anti-freeze” is the cause of this and researchers are studying them in an attempt to make a safe-anti freeze that would be edible to us humans and our pets alike! it is the wild form of the cultivated Enoki or Enokitake sold widely, though looks very different as that is grown in cold, dark, carbon dioxide-rich growing rooms. Do check out the identification in several books / web sites. We like First Nature. They could be confused with Funeral Bell, which as it’s name suggests would not be a good thing. A spore print is helpful, with Velvet Shank having white spores and Funeral Bell’s being brown. Velvet Shank are a good edible mushrooms and should always be cooked before consuming. The stems are quite tough so only the caps are eaten, and the cap’s skin should be removed prior to cooking.

Velvet Shank (on dead Elm)
Velvet Shank (on dead Elm)

Scarlet Elf Cups

Lovely to see these beautiful fungi appearing over the last few weeks. Previous blog post on them here.

Beautiful Scarlet Elf Cups
Beautiful Scarlet Elf Cups

Gooseberries

Yes, Gooseberries. Clearly it will be months until they fruit but… the bushes are in leaf now (late January / early February) and as not much is in leaf in the hedgerows at the moment, it makes spotting the bushes a LOT easier than later in the year.

Gooseberry leaves - March
Gooseberry leaves – March but visible from late January / early February

 

Crow Garlic

Guests on my Spring Course get expert at spotting this. It looks like grass until you get your eye in but actually the leaves are tubes (like the closely-related Chives). The garlicky smell is a good check that you’ve got the right thing. As expected it has a lovely onion flavour. The leaves can be chopped and added to a salad, used as a garnish or put in a baked potato with mayonnaise. Crow Garlic does have a onion-like bulb but it is rather small and as always, it is illegal to uproot any plant without the landowners consent (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). The season for the leaves is Winter to late Spring. Later in the year, the entire seed head can be gathered and pickled while individual bulbils can be added to salads and bread.

Crow Garlic
Crow Garlic – January

Nettles

I need not say any more about nettles other than in the right place they are already big enough for picking. Lots of ideas including and going well beyond the forager’s classic soup in this blog post.

Young Nettles - February
Young Nettles – February

Wild Garlic

In Dorset, I’ve seen this in places since the middle of January, but now in early February it’s big enough to use. Dedicated blog post with id, recipes etc here.

Wild Garlic - early February, Dorset
Wild Garlic – early February, Dorset
automated picture recognition on the Danish Fungal Atlas

New mushroom identification by photo recognition web site and app – impressive results!

Enhanced safety message added to old blog post.

USING AN APP TO IDENTIFY MUSHROOMS COULD LEAD TO DEATH

Full article in The Times – link from photo (subscription required).

DO NOT rely solely on an app to tell you what a mushroom is.

DO NOT eat a mushroom based on what an app says alone.

DO learn how to identify mushrooms correctly.

DO use multiple information sources including several books.

DO learn from an expert – go on some courses.


There have been several mushroom identification apps / web sites around for a while. Some are:

  • Digital versions of an established key – for example the key in Roger Phillips’ Mushrooms book moved to a web site and an app with photos and descriptions. Roger’s app was around for many years but has disappeared.
  • Visual keys. The MycoKey MMI ® (Morphing Mushroom Identifier) is a great example. It is described as an innovative identification tool which models your fungus on screen as you enter the characters with automatic presentation of the most likely species. A more detailed version of MycoKey to install on your PC is also sold.
  • This category of mushroom identification apps perform identification based on a picture you take or upload. There have been apps before that have claimed to identify them from a photo alone, but experts have dismissed some as “potentially deadly“. You know that one random example of a particular mushroom species you encounter can differ from that wonderful specimen in a book . How young or old the specimen is, what the weather has been doing – washing out colours etc. all means this is a big ask.

A new web site / app takes mushroom photo recognition to a new level. In this blog post we try it out. Overall, I am very impressed. Yes, it needs to be used with caution and a good level of knowledge and use of several books is still wise. Might we make those numerous forum posts / emails – “I picked this, can I eat it?” a thing of the past? For more on mushroom identification look at this previous blog post of ours.

New Danish Website and App

This Danish website’s new tool and related app uses automated picture recognition and artificial intelligence (AI). It was trained on images from the excellent Danish Fungal Atlas. The system has been developed by Milan Šulc og Professor Jiri Matas from Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU), Lukáš Picek from University of West Bohemia (UWB) and the Danish Fungal Atlas. The latter group includes the respected Danish fungi authors of an amazing set of fungi books I am contemplating (Fungi of Temperate Europe (2-Volume Set) usually £94.99!).

Warnings

The authors strongly warn that you should “be extra critical and always consult a good mushroom book”, warning:

Warning: Never eat a mushroom because the system indicates you have found an edible fungus. Always seek advice from experts if you are not experienced yourself.

and

Note that the system should be used with great care, and not as tool to identify edible fungi without involving knowledgeable humans with experience in fungal recognition. So please explore with curiosity and sanity.

If users do follow the advice then great, I am concerned that they all won’t.

Tests

I installed and had a quick play with the Android version of the app (Danmarks svampeatlas). It has plenty of disclaimers about not eating them based on the identification. As expected, you take a photo and it gives you suggestions. You can then drill-down into each to see photos and description. At the time of writing it is still partly in Danish including the species names.

Far better, for now at least, is the web version of the same – https://svampe.databasen.org/imagevision

Upload a photo and it gives you suggestions. The species names are English, though not always the same common name as we widely use in the UK. You can drill down for their photo and details but that is in Danish, but along side several fungi books it’s very useable.

automated picture recognition on the Danish Fungal Atlas
Screenshot from the web version of the automated picture recognition on the Danish Fungal Atlas website. My uploaded Jelly Ear photo suggests a range of options, the first one being correct.

 

automated picture recognition on the Danish Fungal Atlas
Drilling down on the first suggestion gives their image and description, but in Danish.

Results

I did some tests with some of my many mushroom photos, edible, poisonous and non-edible species. Most identifications were correct (first species suggested) but of course will depend upon your photos / specimen:

Correct Species

  • Fly Agaric
  • Death Cap
  • Candle snuff
  • Parrot Waxcap
  • Scarlet Hood
  • Bay Bolete
  • Parasol (photo from underneath!)
  • Dryads Saddle
  • Field mushroom (picked specimen on its side)
  • Scarlet Elf Cups
  • Cauliflower Fungus
  • Chanterelles
  • Stinkhorn (even though the top was covered in flies!)
  • Bearded Tooth
  • Collared Earthstar
  • Scarlet Caterpillarclub
  • White Spindles

Correct to Genus (Group)

  • Royal Bolete
  • Holly Parachute Mushroom
  • Oak Bolete

Wrong Species and Genus

  • Sandy stilt puffball
  • Snowy Waxcap

I did try and push it a bit further (it’s a bit addictive!) and interestingly:

  • An icing Fly Agaric of my 50th birthday cake was correctly identified!
  • It identified Hedgehog mushrooms in a basket of them and Autumn Chanterelle (they were in separate groups).
  • Unsurprisingly, it failed on a very mixed basket.

Conclusions

This app can identify SOME fungi species correctly, but:

DO NOT rely solely on an app to tell you what a mushroom is.

DO NOT eat a mushroom based on what an app says alone.

DO learn how to identify mushrooms correctly.

DO use multiple information sources including several books.

DO learn from an expert – go on some courses.

DO learn the poisonous species and how to avoid mushroom poisoning.

Fairy Ring Champignon (edible) and Fool's Funnel (poisonous)

Avoiding Mushroom Poisoning

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

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


Disclaimer. I do not have a medical background so this blog post is purely for information and should not be relied on to decide if you require treatment or not.

This is written from a UK perspective and ignores poisonous species not found in the UK. It does not give detailed identification information.

Introduction

When I tell people that I pick and eat wild mushrooms, the usual reaction is to tell me that I'm brave. This fear of mushrooms, “mycophobia” is prevalent among British, the main concern being some mushrooms are poisonous if eaten. Mushroom poisoning means harmful consequences from consuming toxic substances present in some. Let’s put some perspective on this:

  • Globally, of 100,000 known fungi species about 100 are thought to be poisonous to humans.
  • In the UK, we have about 4500 species. Of these, about 200 are edible, 50 poisonous and the rest are inedible or tasteless.
  • Most mushroom poisonings are not fatal.
  • Fatalities are extremely rare, the most recent deaths from mushroom poisoning in Britain were in 2012 and 2008.
  • You will not be ill from touching a poisonous species. Don’t put your fingers in your mouth, nose, eyes etc and wash them before eating anything.

There are mainly five explanations as to why people get mushroom poisoning:

  1. Misidentification – confusing a toxic mushroom with an edible species. Usually this is due to mistakenly eating a “look-a-like” with a similar appearance or a lack of knowledge
  2. Consuming certain species while uncooked or undercooked.
  3. Young children accidentally ingesting mushrooms while crawling on a lawn.
  4. Individuals attempting suicide or homicide.
  5. Individuals looking for a hallucinatory high.

In this post we concentrate on the first two reasons and help foragers avoid mushroom poisoning. We don’t want to put you off. By limiting yourself to species you can identify with confidence, eating picking and wild mushrooms is safer than walking down the road. Mushroom hunting is one of the greatest pleasures the countryside offers. The fact that many are poisonous, in my view, adds to, rather than detracts from the fun!

Avoiding Mushroom Poisoning

  • NEVER eat any fungus if you are not absolutely sure of its name and you know that it is safe to eat.
  • Familiarise yourself with the poisonous species such as the Death Cap and the Yellow Stainer.
  • Avoid picking young specimens, that have not developed fully, as they are more difficult to identify.
  • Stick to a selection of easy to recognise species that you feel confident about. Be aware of any possible “look-a-likes”.
  • Learn from a good field guide or, better still, by going out with an expert. We run day long fungus forays and 3 hour fungus walks with our focus on teaching identification skills. See also our blog post on Identifying Mushrooms.

We recommend you avoid:

  • Small brown mushrooms (except Autumn Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis)).
  • Any mushroom with red on it.
  • All Amanitas - mushrooms with white gills, a swollen base or bag at the base of the stem and, usually, a large ring on the stem.
  • Any mushroom with brown spores.
  • Young mushrooms that are still at the “egg” stage. They are very difficult to identify. If eating Puffballs, cut them in half lengthwise. Young Puffballs in the edible stage have undifferentiated white flesh within; whereas the gills of immature Amanita mushrooms can be seen if they are closely examined.
Destroying Angel
Young mushrooms that are still at the “egg” stage are very difficult to identify. They are actually deadly poisonous Destroying Angels (Amanita genus) though could be confused with Puffballs.

In a bit more detail:

  1. Unfamiliar Species: Check and re-check your identification, especially looking out for a similar poisonous species. If still in doubt, ask an expert or throw it away.
  2. Examine each specimen. Always check each specimen in case a different species has got in amongst your collection of edible ones.
  3. Keep your collections separate. Do not mix edible and non-edible species in your basket if you are collecting for the pot. It is a good idea if collecting for the pot to only collect edible species and not other species for identification purposes - the spores of some species can be deadly.
  4. Check the spore print. A simple operation, leaving a cap on some paper and covering for an hour or so. This will help check your identification.
  5. Do not eat raw wild fungi. Some wild fungi are poisonous if eaten raw, e.g. Morels (Morchella species) Wood Blewit (Clitocybe nuda), the Blusher, (Amanita rubescens) or species of Helvella. Always cook your collections. Heat destroys the toxins in these species, in the same way that it does for Kidney beans.
  6. Retain an uncooked specimen. This is a very sensible idea. Keep one example of what you have eaten in the fridge. In case, you do poison yourself, this will help others identify what you have eaten and therefore know how to treat you. Different species contain different toxins; therefore, treatments will vary.
  7. Only eat good specimens. Many poisoning cases occur when edible species are eaten in poor condition – decaying / dirt. Only eat good specimens - microscopic fungi and bacterial infection can occur in decaying mushrooms. Food poisoning can be caused by collecting old or partly rotten specimens, collecting in plastic bags or closed containers, or through spoilage by incorrect long-term storage.
  8. Keep your collections in the fridge. This keeps your specimens in good condition.
  9. Experimenting. If experimenting and eating a type for the first time, only eat a small amount. Different people react to fungi in different ways and it is safer to test your own body out gently! A classic cause of gastric upset is Chicken of The Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). Roughly 9/10 people get on with it, but about 1 in 10 is ill from it.
  10. Alcohol. Avoid drinking alcohol with species you haven't eaten before and with certain species, e.g. the Common Ink Cap (Coprinus atramentarius)
  11. Fear. Do not feed wild mushrooms to people who don't want to eat them. Fear can make people sick.
  12. Susceptible people. Do not serve wild fungi to young children, old or sick people. Their resistance to mushroom toxins may be lower.
  13. Greed. Do not eat large quantities of wild mushrooms in one sitting. This alone can make you sick.

Source: How to avoid mushroom poisoning (adapted from Shelley Evans' guidelines in Guides for the Amateur Mycologist - No.4 Guide for the Kitchen Collector: Preservation and Cooking of Fungi. British Mycological Society, 1994)

Types of Mushroom Poisoning

Each poisonous mushroom species contains one or more toxins, which may be classified based on the mushroom’s physiologic and clinical effects in humans, the target organ toxicity, and the time to symptom onset. The clinical spectrum and toxicity vary with the following factors:

  • Species consumed
  • Amount consumed
  • Season
  • Preparation method
  • Individual response to the toxins

A. Rapid Onset Mushroom Poisoning

With this category, symptoms appear within 6 hours of eating a mushroom. These are usually are not life-threatening; they may last a few hours, occasionally a few days. There are five basic types of rapid-onset mushroom poisonings.

1. Gastrointestinal

Species involved: Various

The most common type of rapid onset mushroom poisoning is usually gastrointestinal upset - vomiting and diarrhoea. Typically, there is no long-term damage. It is recommended that medical assistance should still be sought if this type of poisoning is suspected particularly in the case of children.

2. Alcohol Sensitisation

Species involved: Common Ink Cap (Coprinus atramentarius)

 

Common ink cap
Common Ink Cap (poisonous with alcohol)

These mushrooms contain the toxin coprine, which causes an Antabuse-like reaction. Antabuse is a drug given to alcoholics to make them sick if they drink alcohol. Symptoms begin within minutes of ingesting alcohol (including medications) up to 5 days after eating the mushroom.

3. PSL (perspiration/salivation/lacrimation) syndrome

Species involved: Species of the Fibre Cap (Inocybe) and Clitocybe genuses.

Mistaken Species: Fool’s Funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa) and Deadly Fibrecap (Inocybe erubescens) have both been confused with:

Fool's Funnels have been confused with Fairy Ring Champignon (Marasmius oreades) and The Miller (Clitopilus prunulus).

Fairy Ring Champignon (edible) and Fool's Funnel (poisonous)
Fairy Ring Champignon (left) (edible) and Fool's Funnel (right) (poisonous)

The toxic substance is muscarine. Symptoms may include sweating, dizziness, muscle twitching, confusion, coma and occasionally seizures. With treatment nearly all people recover in 24 hours. Without treatment, death can occur in a few hours with severe poisoning. One fatality was recorded in Surrey in 1937.

4. Hallucinations

Species involved: Often in the Psilocybe genus, for example Magic Mushrooms (Psilocybe semilanceata)

A group of psilocybe semilanceata , better known as Liberty Caps ("Magic Mushrooms"), in Belgium (Flanders) by DimiVeBE is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Symptoms are delusions, euphoria or anxiety, altered space and time, and occasionally seizures, especially in children. These symptoms go away without treatment, and serious consequences are rare, so specific treatment is usually not needed.

5. Intoxication/delirium

Species involved: Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) and Panther Cap (Amanita pantherina).

Foragers enjoy looking at fungi too, such as these magnificent Fly Agaric.
Fly Agaric (poisonous)

They may be eaten intentionally or accidentally by humans and pets and should be suspected whenever the victim is described as "acting drunk”. The toxins are ibotenic acid/muscimol. Symptoms may include apparent intoxication, in-coordination, hyperactivity, muscle spasms, collapse, anxiety, visions, and finally, a coma-like sleep. Fly Agaric has been used ritually for thousands of years as an inebriant.

B. Delayed Onset Mushroom Poisoning

These are life-threatening, late-onset poisonings, where symptoms appear over 6 hours after ingestion. The results are organ failure potentially resulting in death. Serious symptoms do not always occur immediately after eating, often not until the toxin attacks the kidney or liver, sometimes days or weeks later. The types are based on the symptoms resulting from the toxin in the mushrooms consumed.

1. Gastrointestinal/headache/liver damage

Species involved: False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta)

False Morel (poisonous). I got the photo from a library where they are free for commercial use. The photograph description said "Morels" - I hope the photographer didn't eat them!

Mistaken Species: False Morels have been confused with the highly prized mushrooms Morels (Morchella species).

Morels
Morels (edible)

The toxin involved is monomethylhydrazine (MMH). Symptoms are delayed vomiting, diarrhoea and a low blood sugar level. Other problems include brain toxicity (such as seizures) and, after a few days, liver and kidney failure. While not 100% confirmed, a lady died and 18 people were taken ill following eating a dish containing Morels in a restaurant in Valencia, Spain. Initial blame pointed to the Morels.

2. Gastrointestinal/liver damage

Species involved: Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa), Funeral Bell (Galerina marginata) and Dapperlings (Lepiota species)

The toxins involved are amatoxins. The first two species listed below are both members of the Amanita genus. While there are some edible members of this genus, our advice for beginners is to avoid them all. Another point is that young specimens of Amanitas at an immature or “egg” stage look completely different and are easy to confuse with other species. With the stem not developed and no cap yet, the mushroom is still entirely encased in their universal veil and you won’t be able to identify them with any confidence.

Death Cap (Amanita phalloides)

Death Cap (poisonous).

The Death Cap is the most dangerous and poisonous mushroom, responsible for 90–95% of fatal mushroom poisonings globally. Just one mushroom is likely to contain enough toxins to kill an average adult human. The toxins are not destroyed by cooking, boiling, soaking, or drying. It is widely distributed in Europe and has spread to Australia, Asia, Southern Africa, and the Americas on the roots of imported trees. I see it in the UK about 3 or 4 times each year. It is reported as being palatable (tasty).

There is no complete antidote for Death Cap mushroom poisoning – survival depends on early diagnosis and treatment. Vomiting and diarrhoea start in 6 to 12 hours. Sometimes the blood sugar level drops dangerously low. Symptoms subside for a few days, but then people develop liver failure and sometimes kidney failure. Liver failure causes the skin to turn yellow (jaundice). People with kidney failure may have reduced urination or may have stopped urinating. Sometimes the symptoms disappear on their own, but about half of the people who have this type of poisoning die in 5 to 8 days. People with liver failure may survive if given a liver transplant. IN 2018, a lady in Essex was hospitalised after eating Death Caps. She survived.

Death Caps have been mistaken for other species, especially when immature, even by people with some experience in identifying mushrooms. A proportion of the fatalities from consuming Death Caps are cases where people have been used to picking and eating edible Amanita in their home country and have then moved to a different country and picked and consumed Death Caps by mistake. These include the Thai lady that died on the Isle of Wight from eating Death Caps. Also, unfortunately, in 2 weeks in September 2015, there were over 40 cases of mushroom poisoning in Germany, where refugees from other countries confused Death Caps with edible Amanita species.

Mistaken Species:

Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa)

This is another member of the Amanita genus which contains the same toxins as the Death Cap.

Destroying Angel (poisonous)
Destroying Angel (poisonous)

Read here someone's experience of nearly dying after eating Destroying Angels.

Mistaken Species:

The Dapperlings (Lepiota species)

Stinking Dapperling (suspected of being poisonous), other Dapperlings are poisonous

Mistaken Species:

3. Kidney, later liver damage.

Species involved: Fool’s Web Cap (Cortinarius orellanus) and Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus)

Deadly Webcap
Deadly Webcap (poisonous)

Mistaken Species:

The toxin involved is orellanine. Vomiting and diarrhoea may last for 3 days. Kidney failure, with symptoms of flank pain and a decreased amount of urine, may occur 3 to 20 days after the mushrooms are eaten. Kidney failure often resolves spontaneously.

In the UK, there are cases of these being accidentally consumed leading to kidney failure including holiday makers in Scotland in 1972 as well as Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, his wife and two other relatives. Evans had assumed they were Ceps but overlooked that the mushrooms had gills rather than pores. All four victims were informed that they would require kidney transplants in the future. Several years later, Evans received a kidney donated by his daughter. The other three eventually received transplants after some searching for donors, despite Charlotte having only eaten three mouthfuls of mushroom.


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

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

Being poisoned can be life-threatening. If someone has eaten a poisonous mushroom (or plant), 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 mushroom, 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 mushroom 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 mushroom you think the person may have eaten.
  • When the mushroom was eaten (how long ago)?
  • If it was cooked.
  • How much was eaten (if you know)?
  • Any alcohol consumed?
  • Had the patient consumed this mushroom before?
  • Is a specimen of the mushroom available?
  • Is a photograph of the mushroom available?
  • How long after ingestion did symptoms begin?
  • Details of any symptoms the person has had, such as whether they’ve been sick.

Take a sample of the mushroom and photographs with you for accurate identification. 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 mushroom (or plant) and give your geographic location (e.g. Dorset / UK) you will get a rapid identification from extremely knowledgeable people around the globe.

Slug nibbled Fly Agaric

Mushroom Identification

The below great quote on mushroom identification is saying that there is no easy way of telling poisonous from edible species.

“A toadstool has a cap and a stem and you can’t eat it; a mushroom has a cap and a stem and you can”.

If you want to pick and eat wild mushrooms, the way to avoid risk is to learn the physical features of each species. If globally, people that pick and eat mushrooms recognised 10 of the most poisonous mushrooms,  the incidences of mushroom poisoning would decrease dramatically.

In the UK there are c. 4500 species of mushroom. Even experts can have difficulty identifying some species. For some complicated ones, identification of spores under microscopes or the use of chemical reagents are required. However, with the right approach and some practice, even without such techniques, you should be able to identify a good number of species of fungi.

1. Dangerous Myths

The first lesson is that there are no shortcuts to identifying a mushroom. There are lots of old wives’ tales and myths about safe eating of mushrooms. They are all misleading and dangerous.

Slug nibbled Fly Agaric
Slugs can happily nibble this Fly Agaric. To humans, symptoms from eating it may include apparent intoxication, incoordination, hyperactivity, muscle spasms, collapse, anxiety, visions, and finally, a coma-like sleep!

 

  • I saw a slug / squirrel / deer / rabbit eating it so it must be safe. False
  • If the cap can be peeled it is safe to eat. False
  • Poisonous mushrooms turn a silver spoon / copper coin blue / black. False
  • If silver and copper coins boiled with them don’t change colour, they are safe to eat. False
  • All mushrooms growing on wood are edible. False
  • All mushrooms in meadows and pastures are safe to eat. False
  • All white mushrooms are safe. False
  • Poisonous mushrooms taste bad. False

 

2. Apps can be dangerous

Don’t rely on an app designed to identify mushrooms in the wild using just a smartphone photo. A recent newspaper headline read “Experts Call This Mushroom-Identifying App ‘Potentially Deadly‘”. There are some mushroom apps that are helpful however, see below.

 

3. Books

Mushroom books are great, I have quite a few and could happily buy many more. You can see some of our favourites here. They should be taken outdoors with you to use and not just left on the shelf. Yes, they’ll get wet or dirty, but they are invaluable in the field for correct mushroom identification. However, they need to be used correctly, just thumbing through pictures in a book is unlikely to work.

 

4. The correct process of mushroom identification

There are 4 stages to identify an unknown mushroom – observation, examination, using a key and finally, checking the answer.

a. Observation

You start WITHOUT YOUR BOOKS / APP – with observation about the surroundings of the fungus you are trying to identify:

  • What sort of habitat are you in?
  • What species are the nearest trees?
  • How it is growing? in rings? Singly? in clusters?
  • What is it growing on? Wood (if so what type of tree)? the ground? Dung? Other fungi? Woodchip?
Parasol
Observations about the surroundings: this fungus has been found in grasslands, there are no trees near to it, it is one of a number in a circle and was growing on the ground.

b. Examination

Examine the specimen studying as many fine details as you can think of. Look at specimens in at least two stages of development. This is because they can vary in colour and shape depending on the stage of growth and maturity. The weather will make a difference too; rain will wash-out the colours and make a normally dry cap wet or sticky.

Always gently lever unknown mushrooms out of the ground and handle them with care. This will preserve important characters for identification.

This image shows some of the different structures found under the cap, gill attachment options and cap shapes.

“Mushroom cap morphology” by debivort is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Examine:

  • The cap – size, colour, shape (see above image), stickiness, scales etc.
  • What is under the cap? (see above image) gills, pores or spines/teeth
  • If it has gills, are they crowded or closely spaced ? (see above image) Are they attached to the stem or free? Do they run down the stem (decurrent)? etc.
  • Is there a ring on the stem? what is it like?
  • What is the stem like? Thickness, flexibility etc.
  • What is the base of the stem like?
  • Is there a colour change on cutting or bruising?
  • Does it have a smell?
  • What colour are the spores? In the field you may be able to determine this by seeing where they have dropped onto the cap of another specimen or on the grass / leaf / log below. Often, but not always, the spores are the same colour as the gills. The ideal approach for a definitive answer is to take it home to make a spore print.
Making a spore print

A spore print shows the colour of the spores of any given mushroom. To make one is very straightforward:

• Cut off the stem.
• Place the cap (gills downward) on a piece of paper.
• Leave the cap in place for a few hours.

There are many spore colours including white, cream, pink, purple, brown and black. If you wish to keep the spore print, you can "fix" them with spray glue or hairspray or laminate them.
Mushroom Spore Prints
A selection of spore prints.
Under a Parasol Mushroom
Examination of this mushroom (the same species as in section a above): • Cap – 12 cm across. Mainly white with large brown scales. Centre of cap brown and slightly raised. Not sticky. • Gills are crowded (not close together) and are not attached to the stem. • Large double ring with frayed margin. The ring can slide up and down the stem. • Stem – about 1.5 cm diameter and 14 cm long, thickening towards base, brown and white pattern a bit like a snake’s skin. Stem does not snap if bent. • No colour change on cutting or bruising. • Smell not distinctive. • Spores are white or pale cream.

 

c. Use a key to find out what it is

Keys are an easy to use, valuable tool that are not just used for mushrooms but also for wider species identification (plants, dragonflies, shells etc). The standard approach is to ask questions based on easily identifiable features. Dichotomous keys use questions to which there are only two answers. For example, “Is the cap bigger than 5 cm?”. The key can be presented as a table of questions, or as a branching tree of questions with one answer leading you to the next question. They will include some technical terms but the book will have a glossary to explain them. Some keys will get you to species level, others to the genus. Here is an a short extract from MushroomExpert.Com’s Key to Major Groups of Mushrooms

Question No.QuestionAnswer / Go to question
1.Mushroom growing on other mushrooms or the decayed remains of other mushrooms.Mycotrophs
1.Mushroom not growing on other mushrooms.2.
2.Mushroom with gills on its underside.3.
2.Gills absent.5.
3.Growing shelflike on wood (or, if not, then gills concentric rather than radial); mushroom very tough and leathery, corky, or woody (try tearing it in half); gills tough and hard, sometimes maze-like; cap frequently (but not always) with concentric zones of colour.
Polypores
3Not completely as above.4.

Another key approach is a visual one. The MycoKey MMI ® (Morphing Mushroom Identifier) is a great example. It is described as an innovative identification tool which models your fungus on screen as you enter the characters with automatic presentation of the most likely species. A more detailed version of MycoKey to install on your PC is also sold.

MycoKey

Most mushroom books have a key, people are often unaware that they are in the book or haven’t used them. There are some good App keys too, some being a computerised version of a book’s key. Note that any key will only include the species in that book, not all that you may encounter. For example, one popular mushroom book contains about 100 species of the 4500 or so found in the UK.

Identifying mushrooms can be difficult; individuals of the same species will vary with age and the weather, but a key makes the task a lot easier, far better than flicking though the pictures looking for one that looks right. Give them a go. We teach using keys on our courses and attendees soon get the hang of them, identifying many examples we find.

If you followed a key you would have worked out the the mushrooms shown in the observation and examination sections of this post is a Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera). MycoKey gives a number of possibilities and ranks how well they fit. You can then “drill-down” to read more about each suggestion.

Parasol Mushroom in MycoKey
Parasol Mushroom in MycoKey

 

d. Check the answer

Check the species that the key has led you to in as many books as you can. Use the pictures and the descriptions. Is every detail correct? Make sure that the descriptions, seasons, preferred habitats and the photographs all agree with each other. If it says only found in the Spring and it is Autumn, you are wrong. Similarly, if it says only found with Oak and you are in an area of just Pine trees, again you are wrong. They may mention “lookalike” species which are worth checking. An Internet search may help in finding more pictures – though there is no guarantee that any picture online is correctly labelled – I am aware of serious errors on reputable web sites!

If the answer given by your key is not like the mushroom your are trying to identify, revisit your key answers in particular any subjective answers like “small”, “bendy” or “sticky”.

One of my “go to” web sites for checking fungi identifications is First Nature. If you look at the entry there for Parasol Mushroom you can check the details of our identification.

 

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.