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.
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.
The plant can be found growing in hedges and waste places, limestone scree and as a garden weed. There are often Nettles nearby.
It is found in most areas of the Britain.
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.
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.
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.
They are rich in Vitamin C, Iron and minerals especially silica which is needed for nails, hair and teeth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Put in Pesto in place of Basil, or with Wild Garlic and / or Nettles etc.
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.
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.
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.
Scarlet Elf Cups
Lovely to see these beautiful fungi appearing over the last few weeks. Previous blog post on them here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Roots: Distinctive. Cream / White, bunched.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Berries: In Autumn a cluster of bright red berries
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.
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
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)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
Watercress (must be cooked if “wild”)
Alexanders (really check the ID, other umbellifers can be deadly!)
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)
Alternatives to a clove of garlic
Wild Garlic leaves
Three Cornered Leek – stem or leaves
Few Flowered Leek – stem or leaves
A few edible wild flowers e.g Primrose, Wild Garlic, Three Cornered Leek
Chopped herbs such as Crow Garlic
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)
Small bunch of Crow Garlic
A little extra cream or crème fraiche
Wash all leaves thoroughly.
Melt butter in a pan and sweat the chopped onion and garlic until soft but not brown (c. 10 minutes).
Add stock, potatoes and all the leaves.
Bring to the boil and simmer until the potatoes are cooked.
Season with salt, pepper and add the cream.
Put the soup mixture into a blender a bit at a time and blitz it.
A great edible plant to track down at the moment (June – September) is Fat Hen. It is also known by many names including Lambs Quarters, White Goosefoot, Common Goosefoot, Dirty Dick, Frost Blite, Dung Weed, Mutton Tops and Pigweed. It is a summer plant found on disturbed and cultivated areas such as arable fields, vegetable gardens / allotments and manure heaps. For those that don’t welcome its presence, it is a troublesome annual weed, each plant producing up to 20,000 seeds which can last in the soil for many years. It is common in most of Britain except mountainous areas.
Fat Hen is a member of the Goosefoot genus. Many other members are edible including the salt-tolerant Oraches found on shingle beaches.
Fat Hen has been eaten as a vegetable since Stone Age times. Its seeds made up part of the last meal of Tollund Man, a bog body dating from this period found in Tollund in Denmark. It remained popular until the 16th century when spinach and cabbage replaced it in our diets. One relative, Good King Henry, was a popular garden vegetable for hundreds of years and the seeds are still sold today though is less popular than in the past. A “trendy” relative is Chenopodium quinoa that grows in South America. It’s seeds are the source of Quinoa. Today, Fat Hen is still cultivated as a food crop in some countries including India.
Fat Hen Identification
Fat Hen, and other members of the Chenopodium family are sometimes difficult to tell apart. They are very variable and can hybridise!
Fat Hen is an erect, annual, bushy herb often reaching a height of a metre or more. It usually has striped stems and has dense clusters of tiny green flowers.
They are grey green ovate or triangular leaves which are paler underneath. They are 20-60 mm long and 5-30 mm wide with a pointed tip. Bigger leaves are usually lobed or toothed. All are mealy (covered with meal (a powdery coating)).
Smell / Taste
Fat Hen smells (faintly of) and tastes a bit like cabbage.
The leaves of the toxic Black Nightshade do look rather like those of Fat Hen. The flowers are however, very different, with those of Black Nightshade being like a white version of tomato or potato flowers – in the same family!
Fat Hen Risks
If you are gathering Fat Hen from a farmer’s field, garden or allotment, do check that it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.
Fat Hen can contain potentially harmful levels of nitrates though cases of poisoning are rare.
Some members of this genus contain saponins (they form a lather when combined with water), however:
Quantities are usually too small for any harm.
Most are not absorbed and pass without any problem.
They are also largely broken down during cooking.
Like many foods (Sorrel, Sea Beet and lots of cultivated plants like Sprouts and Parsley), they also contain some oxalic acid. Cooking will reduce the levels of this, but people with rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity should be aware that large quantities of Oxalic acid can aggravate their condition.
Fat Hen Uses
“Tops” (flower spikes, younger stems and leaves)
They can be the main ingredient for a soup, made as Nettle or Leek and Potato soups. In my opinion the flavour is like Cauliflower soup. I’ve served it to many people and it goes down well. If you’ve left the Fat Hen to grow a bit big, pass the cooked, blended soup through a sieve to catch any fibrous bits.
Young Shoots / Flower Spikes
The young shoots (less than 20 cm) and unopened flower spikes can be prepared and eaten like Asparagus shoots. If you leave them to get too big they may be a bit woody. Simmer until tender (up to 10 minutes), drain and serving with a little butter.
The young shoots / flower spikes could also go into a stir-fry.
The leaves can be eaten raw but only in in small quantities, see the notes above on risks.
They can be eaten as a vegetable, cooked like Spinach or used in place of Spinach in any recipe, for example:
Tarts / Quiches / Frittata
Curries (e.g. Sag Aloo or a Chickpea, Tomato and Spinach Curry),
Mushroom and Spinach Risotto etc.
One recipe that specifically calls for Fat Hen is Fat Hen Pesto Bake. I make this regularly in the season and thoroughly enjoy it. Vegetarian / vegan / nut-free versions can be made by altering the ingredients.
Fat Hen plants each produces tens of thousands of nutritious, but small and fiddly seeds. The close relative Quinoa is grown for its seeds. Fat Hen seeds can be ground and mixed with flour to make bread and cakes. Seeds should be soaked in water overnight and then rinsed to remove any saponins.
A selection of wild booze tipples using Spring ingredients that are about now. When I say Spring, I mean to make now then sit patiently until later in the year to drink. All three use young leaves that can easily be found – Beech, Blackthorn and Oak.
Beech Leaf Noyau / Gin
I think I first saw this in Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free (early version not in the more recent one I have), but it is also included in Andy Hamilton’s Booze for Free. It struck me as an unusual drink with most infusions being fruit or flower. I’ve also looked at the young Beech leaves looking so edible but being not particularly excited about putting them in a salad.
Pick enough young beech leaves to half fill a large jar. Cover with a bottle (70 cl) of gin. Put in a cupboard for a couple of weeks. Make a syrup solution, dissolving 225g of sugar in 300ml of water. Strain and discard the leaves. Add the sugar solution and optionally a glass of brandy. Bottle and store for at least 3 months.
Everyone knows Sloe Gin made with the fruit of the Blackthorn. A much less known tipple uses the leaves of the Blackthorn, picked around this time of the year (April – June). These give the drink an Almond flavour.
John Wright (of River Cottage “fame”) has a recipe in his Booze book. I found this version translated from a French recipe.
– 2.5 litres of red wine
– 400mls of eau de vie (or Vodka)
– 300 grams sugar
– A handful of young Blackthorn shoots
– Place all the ingredients (in a suitable container) and leave for 4 days to infuse.
– Remove the leaves and taste. If necessary, according to taste, replace leaves and leave a further 3 days.
– Strain and bottle.
– Enjoyed chilled as an aperitif!
I’d be tempted to leave it to mature for several weeks (John suggests a year!).
Do get your id right as other members of the Prunus family (e.g. Bird Cherry) contain high levels of Cyanides!
Oak Leaf Wine
Showing my age again, I remember Hugh FW trying this in his original TV series “A cook on the Wild Side” back in 1995. The recipe he has in the book of the series differs slightly from the one in Roger Phillips’s Wild Food. Hugh uses lemons, Roger uses Oranges – take your pick! Every forager should have a copy of Roger’s excellent book, if you are remiss, a. get one, b. you can find a version of it here.
Join us for a Booze Walk
On 1st June 2019 Andy Hamilton (www.theotherandyhamilton.com) will be leading one of his famous booze foraging walks in Dorchester. Andy is a multiple award-winning author, brewer and an expert on wild food and sustainability. He is the author of the best-selling Booze for Free and Brewing Britain: The Quest for the Perfect Pint. He writes for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph amongst others and frequently appears on TV and Radio talking about foraging and booze. You may have seen him on Autumnwatch, Countryfile, The Alan Titchmarsh Show and more. You can find more details and book places here.
The name doesn’t shout come and try me, sounding in the same league as a “Tom and Barbara” concoction such as Runner Bean or Parsnip wine, but, trust me, it’s darn good. I’d describe it as a bit like Ginger Beer. I’ve given it to hundreds of people over the years on my Spring Greens foraging courses and it always amazes people how good it is leading to requests of “where do I get the recipe”. If that praise has tickled (as oppose to stung) your fancy (whatever your fancy is), then here is the recipe. I’ve just got some underway and am looking forward to it being ready. I am no homebrew expert – it’s really easy to make, doesn’t require any special equipment, and (most important) is ready to drink in about a week, so give it a go – you will be pleasantly surprised. So get your gloves on, and go and pick yourself some nettles while they are nice and young.
It is taken from Roger Phillips’ excellent book “Wild Food” (every forager should have a copy).
Scale the below proportionately based on how many bottles you have!
100 nettle stalks with leaves
12 litres (2 1/2 gallons) water
1 1/2 kg (3 lb) granulated sugar
50 g (2 oz) cream of tartar
15 g (1/2 oz) yeast (I use dried baking yeast)
Boil the nettles in the water for 15 minutes.
Strain, then add the sugar and cream of tartar and stir until dissolved.
Remove from the heat and leave until tepid, then add the yeast and stir well
Cover and leave for a day
Remove the scum and decant without disturbing the sediment and bottle.
Do use strong bottles as it can get rather excited; you don’t want exploding glass bottles! I use swing top homebrew bottles, but empty, plastic, fizzy drink bottles will do the job too.
We recently took a family out for an afternoon learning to forage in Dorset followed by cooking a wild food-based meal. They included a journalist who wrote the below great article about their experience. It was in The Daily Mail and numerous other papers / news sites across the US including the Washington Post and Yahoo News. The coverage was also in other countries including Canada, Namibia, Kuwait and New Zealand!
If you would like to experience a bespoke / private foraging activity for your family or group please look here.
“This,” said our guide James Feaver, “is our main course.”
We were standing in front of a dung heap in a high meadow in the English countryside. Pushing up out of the ooze was a low-growing weed. He bent down, plucked a sprig and held it up.
“Fat hen. Humans have eaten it for thousands of years. We’re going to need a lot of it.”
After a glance among us, my family and I set about picking with an approximation of gusto. When you are foraging for your food you can’t be too squeamish about little things like cow dung beneath your fingers.
I have long been fascinated with the idea of living off the land, finding sustenance among the wild plants that teem in hedges and fields. So a week’s holiday in Dorset, in southwest England — a county bursting with picture-book countryside — gave me the chance to see how abundant nature’s larder really is.
Foraging is increasingly popular in the U.K. and there are many teachers to choose from. On a recommendation, I contacted Hedgerow Harvest and booked a half-day course for me, my partner Fon and our 7-year-old son, Jimmy.
On a classic English summer’s day – meaning we experienced all weather conditions in one afternoon – we met up with James Feaver, who gave up office work for professional foraging eight years ago. He now runs courses in south and southwest England, but mostly in Dorset, his adopted home.
We met him in the village of Toller Porcorum, donned rubber boots and light waterproof jackets, and set off in search of wild provender.
We spent the next few hours walking through lanes hedged in with soaring banks, down tracks drenched in birdsong, beside clear streams and across uncut meadows in search of ingredients for a three-course meal.
If like me you can’t tell wild sorrel from a blade of grass, this quickly becomes daunting. But Feaver has gimlet eyes and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the edible.
High in a hedgerow, a spray of tiny white flowers stood proud of the foliage. He hooked it with his hazel stick, pulled it down to picking height, and inhaled.
“The smell of summer,” he said.
For centuries, country-folk have used the fragrant elderflower to add a zesty flavour to food and drink. Now it would bring its zing to our dessert. We plucked head after head. I lifted up Jimmy so he could join the harvest.
In quick order we found red currants, wild mint and tiny, sweet, wild strawberries. The wicker basket James provided — a nice touch — began to fill.
So far so idyllic, but this arcadia comes with thorns.
Of the many rules of foraging the most important is this: Don’t eat anything unless you are 100 percent certain you know what it is. Some edible plants look uncannily like ones that are deadly. For example, cow parsley goes well in salads but is easily mistaken for something you wouldn’t want near your dinner plate: hemlock.
Other rules include don’t uproot anything (it’s illegal), only take sustainably and don’t pick from ground-hugging plants near footpaths “where dogs can wee on them.” That was Jimmy’s favourite rule.
Time was getting on. From Toller Porcorum we drove down steep, narrow lanes to a nearby beach. Here you can see the stunning coastline sweep in an arc from Portland in Dorset right into neighbouring east Devon. A trove of fossils has earned it the name Jurassic Coast and UNESCO World Heritage status.
But we weren’t there for beauty or geology. We were there for sea beet leaves, a close relative of garden spinach that grows in low belts along the pebbly foreshore. More free food, right at our feet.
But don’t go thinking you can kiss goodbye to supermarkets just because your eyes have been opened. That’s not the idea of the course.
“Foraging isn’t really about survival,” Feaver had said at the start. “It’s about taking the best of the wild and adding it to conventional ingredients to make great-tasting food.”
Great tasting? We’d be the judges of that.
Back at our holiday cottage, Feaver supervised the preparation of the feast. For starters, sea beet soup. For main course, fat hen pesto bake, with more fat hen as a side dish, washed down with sparkling elderflower wine. To finish, elderflower and gooseberry fool, garnished with wild strawberries.
It was a revelation, especially the sea beet soup which was one of the most delicious soups I have ever had: rich, velvety and homey, like swallowing a big bowl of contentment.
It had been a long day. We’d started at 1:30 p.m. and the last spoon didn’t scrape its empty bowl till 9 p.m.
As he packed away his stick, basket and scissors, Feaver said that after doing the course, “people look at the countryside with different eyes.”
Thanks very much to the good people that joined us on our Seashore foraging walk on Saturday on the Dorset coast. They had a great time as we found:
A range of plants including delicious greens, expensive invaders and seriously DEADLY species.
A good number of types of edible seaweed.
Plenty of shellfish – both molluscs and crustaceans.
For most the highlights were the razor clams and the anticipation of what was in the pot – a remarkable 4 Shore crabs and 4 Spider crabs! Birthday-boy Mike got to take the razor clams home, and I had the Brown Shrimps and the biggest Spider Crab. Guess what I had for lunch today!
On the way home I picked some St George’s mushrooms which dried in the sun yesterday as did some Gutweed which the people on the course kindly gathered.
Yesterday, I hit the coast again and picked the below plus some Wild Rocket, Dulse and Carrageen.
Thanks to some of the course attendees for supplying photos.
Wild Garlic Pesto is a classic use of the bountiful Wild Garlic leaves in the Spring. I am always on the look out for new uses for it. Here are some new and old ideas:
Toss through pasta, gnocci or veg
Swirl on top of soups
Use on bruschetta or crostini
Spread on bread with hummus
Stuff or coat chicken or fish – as is or mixed with butter
Use as a salad dressing
Mix in to mashed potato or potato salad
Use as a dip
Put on prawns
Bake into your favourite bread dough
Put on baked potato
Try as a sandwich filling
Wild garlic cheese scones!
Stir into risotto
Add a spoonful to egg dishes like an omelette or frittata
Feeling inspired the other day, I made up my own recipe “Wild Garlic Pesto and Tomato Pasta Bake” – recipe below. Serve with a nice green salad – ideally foraged!
Read more about Wild Garlic – finding, season, id, other uses etc. here.
Wild Garlic Pesto
Pick your favourite recipe from the many online or adapt the below. The below is vegetarian-friendly omitting Parmesan cheese. It is a recipe that you can freely tweak to your own personal tastes. You can freeze the sauce in ice-cube containers, which will then give you a supply of this wonderful pesto throughout the year. Alternatively, it will keep in a jar in the fridge for a couple of months if covered with a layer of oil.
Serves 4 – 6
75g hazelnuts (or all walnuts)
175ml extra virgin olive oil
150g fresh very young tender garlic leaves
2 tbsps lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Options / Alternatives:
Nuts – cashews, almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts in place of the pinenuts
Oil – Olive, Rapeseed or Sunflower
Cheese – Parmesan, hard goats cheese or even a strong cheddar
If you prefer your pesto a little crunchy you can add the nuts at the end and blend a little more
Wash and dry the wild garlic leaves.
In a food processor crush the pine nuts and hazelnuts roughly and then decant them into a bowl and set aside.
Puree the wild garlic leaves with a pinch of salt with the olive oil just enough to break up the leaves to a rough texture.
Add the lemon juice and mix.
Pour the wild garlic mixture into the crushed nuts and stir in.
Season to taste.
Pesto Pasta Bake
400g pasta e.g. Penne
1 – 400g can of chopped tomatoes
1 – 2 cups of cheese (mozzarella or cheddar)
1 onion, chopped
Preheat the oven to 180C Fan/Gas mark 6.
Get some hot water heating up for the pasta.
Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the oil and gently cook the onion with a pinch of salt for 4-5 minutes or until soft and translucent.
Add the tomatoes, season with a pinch of salt and pepper and turn down the heat. Gently simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile cook the pasta in a pan of salted boiling water according to the packet instructions.
Once cooked, drain and pour into the pan with the tomato mixture.
Add the pesto and some of the cheese and mix well.
Pour this into a medium-sized ovenproof baking dish. Top with the rest of the cheese and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until bubbling and golden.