Category: Introduction

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.

One of those nasty foragers?

“So, you’re one of those nasty foragers!” – Why people forage.

So, you’re one of those nasty foragers!” said the middle aged, well-to-do looking woman to me at a charity event while I was manning a stall promoting my foraging courses. I bit my tongue and outlined to her what most newspapers omitted to say, that foraging is a good thing and that most foragers are passionate about “nature”, they care a great deal about the environment and practice “responsible” foraging. There are also lots of sensible reasons why people forage. I won her round to my way of thinking and she left with a very different view. One down, only tens of millions of people in the UK to go…

That was a few years ago and hopefully I’ve converted quite a few more people since giving talks on foraging and wild foods to WI groups, Wildlife Trusts, Young Farmers, gardening clubs and food festivals, as well as running foraging events for cubs, scouts, young carers and Friends of a country park.

In this blog post I look at some of the reasons why people forage.

Why People Forage

In her PhD thesis, Jennifer Lane Lee at Liverpool University found that people had a myriad of reasons for foraging:

Reasons for Foraging%
Free Food; No food miles25%
Connection to the land and the changing seasons21%
Enjoyment13%
Love of Food11%
Social9%
Exercise7%
Relaxation6%
Vitamins and Nutrition4%
Teach the Next Generation3%

1. Free Food; No food miles

Foraging can support people on low incomes reducing their food bill. There are some free foraging courses for families on low incomes to teach them how to collect and cook free wild food.

Foraging is wallet and waistline-friendly” – Paola Bassanese – The Foraging Home Cook.

 “I saved 30 per cent on my food budget by picking wild vegetables instead of buying vegetables at the supermarket.” (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

“The cost of the food is in time not money” (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

At a more global level:

  • India is looking at wild food species to tackle food security.
  • In a US study more than half of the foragers cited economic benefits as their main motivation. Foraged foods made up three times more of the diets of residents earning less than $40,000 per year than those earning more than $100,000. Moreover, for 10 percent of foragers, wild edibles accounted for 20 percent or more of their diets.

Keep calm and eat free food

Foraged food is usually sourced locally so has less environmental impact in its transportation than many other food items.

 

2. Connection to the land and the changing seasons

Going foraging improves peoples understanding and appreciation of the countryside. A higher value placed on it means they are more likely to defend it from threats. You work with the seasons, understand habitats and see some great wildlife which you recognise you may be sharing resources and space with.

Otter - River Stour Dorset - seen while foraging
I spent 15 wonderful minutes in the company of this Otter while looking for morels. I didn’t find any but I didn’t care! Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

Foraging encourages people to know where some of our food comes from. The ancestors of many modern species can still be seen in the wild.

Sea Beet - the ancient forefather of Beetroot, Sugar Beet, Perpetual Spinach, Chard and more. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest
Sea Beet – the ancient forefather of Beetroot, Sugar Beet, Perpetual Spinach, Chard and more. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

“A direct reminder that food is created by the earth and not Tesco”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

“I love the feeling of rooting on the land and seasons, the satisfaction of gathering it in myself and an appreciation of the riches of the landscape I live in”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

Foraging improves engagement / reconnection with the environment. A foraging event reaches an audience beyond that of the traditional Wildlife Trust / National Trust / Woodland Trust / RSPB / County Council etc. guided walks. Many of these groups organise wild food events appreciating the many benefits that they bring. A Washington University study said:

“Mushrooms are a wonderful way to engage the public with its natural resources and the environment. It could be an opportunity for the National Park Service to encourage a different demographic of visitors to value, understand and engage with the natural world.”

Foraging events (walks, courses and festivals) are a form of eco-tourism bringing benefits to accommodation providers (out of main season), pubs, indoor venues and so on. An example is the St David’s Seaweed Week bringing together artists, artisan food producers, chefs, conservationists and foragers.

 

3. Enjoyment

While economic reasons were a primary reason for foraging (section 1 above), many people are not foraging out of necessity like hunter gathers of long ago or rural populations in wartime. We are doing it as it is an enjoyable way of spending time. You enjoy the whole ritual of locating, smelling, identifying, collecting then cooking and eating, the sense of achievement that goes with it.

“The actual experience of gathering, including the scratches, being outside, seeing wildlife and so on.” (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

Very happy forager on one of our wild booze walks.
Very happy forager on one of our wild booze walks. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

4. Love of Food

Wild foods give a wonderful range of flavours and textures, often with no direct cultivated equivalents. It is often a short time from gathering to eating so the food is still at it’s absolute best.

Elderflower and Gooseberry Fool
Elderflower and Gooseberry Fool. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

 

5. Social

Whilst foraging can be done alone, it is often undertaken with family, friends or neighbours giving quality-time both in the outdoors and then in the cooking and eating. It can develop community through sharing / swapping foraged raw ingredients and finished food items. Social media foraging forums give people opportunities to ask questions and discuss, share pictures of finds and dishes and build a virtual community.

A study in the US of the social benefits of urban foraging found them “maintaining cultural practices, sharing knowledge, building community, engaging in spiritual practices, and connecting with nature”.

Enjoying a wild-food meal on a hen-do having learnt, gathered and cooked.
Enjoying a wild-food meal on a hen-do having learnt, gathered and cooked. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

 

6. Exercise / Relaxation

Going foraging is better exercise than shopping and better for the mind! It requires walking to look for the wild food, bending down or stretching up to pick the food and gives plenty of fresh air. It is also relaxing away from screens and the pressures of life. I once heard of an eye specialist who said looking for mushrooms was very good exercise for the eyes!

“I find it very therapeutic and relaxing.  I’m connected to the land”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

“Fresh air, peace, and pleasant primitive feeling – good for the soul”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

Being tall helps picking Elderflower
Good stretching exercise reaching for Elderflowers. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

 

7. Vitamins and Nutrition

Wild foods are often very nutritious especially greens and seaweed. Many are rich in vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, anti-oxidants etc. In the World War II the nutritional opportunities of wild foods were recognised by Government. A Ministry of Food leaflet “Hedgerow Harvest” in 1943, highlighted common wild foods and their preparation as well as promoting good “etiquette”. Co-ordinated programmes gathered a number of wild foods including Rose Hips for their vitamin C to boost that available to children and nursing mothers as imported citrus fruits were not available.

Hedgerow Harvest - Ministry of Food - 1943
Hedgerow Harvest – Ministry of Food – 1943

Today, in our gardens or allotments, we clear ‘weeds’ to grow crops, yet many wild plants are more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts. In the below table, you can see Nettles have twice the protein of Spinach, nearly 7 times the vitamin C, more vitamin A, twice the iron and about 4 times the calcium!

Nutrition in foraged foodsSource: Cooking Weeds. V. Weise, Prospect Books 2004.

Foraging also encourages healthy eating – back to basics / not processed (& more expensive / less healthy) foods.

 Most obvious benefits are the freshness of the products. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

 

8. Teach the Next Generation

Wild foods species and their stories are part of our national heritage and it is important to keep this alive. Stories of gathering Rose Hips, herbs, gel producing seaweeds and more as part of the war effort are part of our wild food history and deserve passing on to younger generations.

In the past wild foods were more important culturally and economically than today with wild foods like Blewitts, Bilberries (Whortleberries) and even Snails being gathered and sold in markets. In her Thesis, Jennifer Lane Lee makes a case study of Bilberry picking. The below postcard and quote is taken from the thesis.

Bilberry picking on Bulkeley Hills (1908) from Jennifer Lane Lee's PhD.
Bilberry picking on Bulkeley Hills (1908) from Jennifer Lane Lee’s PhD.

Whortleberry gathering was formerly looked upon as an extension of the harvest, and parties of women and children from all the moorland villages took to the open moor to collect the fruit. It was so vital that children were taken out of school as Whortleberry picking was regarded “as seriously as any other form of harvest”.

In her survey, responses included:

“I feel an ancient connection to my cultural roots”.

“So the next generation recognise seasonal wild foods and the art of jam making is passed on”.

 

9. Environmental Concerns

Jennifer’s PhD thesis was published in 2012 with the survey data from previous years. I would imagine all of the above reasons why people forage to still be true but would think that concerns for the environment might be a greater reason why people forage today.

a. Impacts of Conventional Food Production

Today, many people know (or care?) little about what they are eating, their focus being on price. They are less interested in where it has come from and what has happened to it; has it been genetically altered? What has been sprayed on it? What was the impact on the environment of its farming, transport and production? Concerns about food miles were mentioned in responses back in 2012, but the impact of agricultural intensification and types of fishing activity are greater concerns today. Foraging is FAR less damaging than the alternatives – intensive agriculture, trawling, mechanised seaweed harvesting, even some gardening (chemicals, water usage etc).

Tractor spraying herbicide on cereal crop
Photo Pixabay. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

b. Invasive Species

Certain invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam, Three-cornered Leek and American Signal Crayfish are all highly edible. Left unchecked they can reduce biodiversity. Traditional control of invasive plants usually relies on chemicals which can impact watercourses and non-target species. Japanese Knotweed is seen by most as a real villain. It’s control costs the UK economy around £165 million per year in control measures. Successfully eradicating Knotweed from the Olympic Park in London alone cost £70 million. In the US, Knotweed festivals have foods and other items made from it (e.g. soap) as an alternative control technique. Culinary uses include:

  • Food – soup, as vegetable (stir-fried, braised), in puddings (in the place of rhubarb in any recipe – crumble, fool, cobbler, ice cream, sorbet. etc.), fruit leather, muffins , jam, jelly, marmalade and bread.
  • Drinks – chutney, tea, vodka, cordial, beer and wine
Japanese Knotweed control in Cornwall, Invading Bluebell area in Dorset, Chutney, Vodka, Harvesting. Photos: Hedgerow Harvest
Clockwise from top-left. Japanese Knotweed control in Cornwall, Invading Bluebell area in Dorset, Chutney, Vodka, Harvesting. Photos: Hedgerow Harvest

 3. Food Waste

As an example, bagged salad leaves from supermarkets are reported to represent a high proportion of food waste in the UK. They are quite expensive, and they spoil quickly after you open a bag. Foraged salad leaves from your garden or nearby can be gathered when needed. Wild food also comes without any packaging!

Foraged salad
Salad leaves gathered on a foraging walk. Less than one food mile (on foot), zero chemicals, zero packaging. Very fresh, nutritious, delicious, free, exercise and enjoyment too. What’s to knock?

Conclusions

There are lots of reasons why people forage. For most it’s a combination of reasons. It gives the opportunity to source free, nutritious, delicious, seasonal local food with a much lower environmental impact than food produced by conventional means. It provides an enjoyable, quality time, relaxing and having good exercise be it alone or shared with friends or family, it shows children where their food comes from and connects us with the land. While foragers are often criticised in the media, as with many things, it is the behaviour of a minority that is reported or the reports have little hard evidence to support them. Foraging has so many benefits to the individual, society and the environment that are often ignored in such reports.