Category: Spring

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.
Cherry Plum blossom - 13 March 2018

Cherry Plums

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

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

Cherry Plums

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

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

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

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

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

Appearance: Distinctly wispy with slender branches and twigs.

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

Blackthorn

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

Flowering period: March – April

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

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

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

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

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

 

Young tender Beech leaves - translucent and soft.

A Trio of Spring Wild Booze Tipples

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

Beech Leaf Noyau / Gin

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

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

Épine Apéritif

Blackthorn leaves
Blackthorn leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oak Leaf Wine

Young Oak Leaves
Young Oak Leaves

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

Join us for a Booze Walk

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

Morels

Mission Accomplished

Morels are one type of fungi that I (and  lots of others) have struggled to find. They are a spring fungus and prize-eating; only truffles go for a higher price. There fairly picky about where they live and not that common. One fungi expert I know took 20 years to find his first. I’ve read so much about them, the habitats, the trees they are found with, the plants you might find with them and the soils they prefer.

I first saw some about 8 years ago, over 15 years after I started picking any wild mushrooms. A generous soul had found them and had an inkling what they were but wanted a second opinion. They were in the bottom of a hedge, I don’t recall what trees, probably Ash, but definitely on sandy soil. They were rather dry but no doubt, Morels. I returned to that spot the next spring and found … a few St George’s Mushrooms in the very same spot! Subsequent annual pilgrimages to check have all failed too.

Morels
Those first Morels c. 8 years ago – dry but still wonderful.

The fungi forums and dedicated morel discussion groups (yes, really) have been buzzing for a few weeks, the mild weather bringing their arrival forward by a month or so. In them, people show their finds or tell stories of failures, others plead for help. Each set of photos I saw raised my desire to find them again.

There are two species and two main types of location to look. One likes woodchips. I’ve heard stories of people filling their car boots with these Morels from Tesco car parks, motorway service stations and business parks. Every patch of wood chip I have seen for weeks has been scoured (or scanned as I drive past). But, not a single morel to be seen.

The other species preference is for sandy soils, often over chalk. Usually its scrubby Ash woodland with disturbed soil from rabbits or badgers. Plants include Celandine, Dog’s Mercury, Wild Garlic and Bluebells. They also like golf courses and orchards. I live near chalk, so evening dog walks for a couple of weeks have been scouring likely spots, again without success.

All the failures, rather than making me give up, made me even more determined; this pursuit was turning into an obsession. If the Mrs had a pound for every time I said “woodchip” in recent weeks, she would have been rich!

A weekend away to the Cotswolds got me thinking. Limestone produces alkaline soils, like Chalk does… The first evening’s stroll looked promising, lots of Ash scrub and Wild Garlic.

On the next day’s wander, there was plenty of good looking spots, Bluebells and Wild Garlic both just starting to flower, but no morels. Our walk nearly done, we emerged onto a grassy bank with a few Primroses, “semi-garden” , fringed by a hazel hedge with an Ash tree and an Elm. The grass had recently been mown carefully avoiding the clumps of Primroses. As we stopped near a stile to check the map, I spotted a bit of white on the grass. Close inspection showed it to be a tapering, hollow stem. Could it be….? I wandered around and soon found the mown bases.

A stem (right) and the bit in the ground (left) behind the dreaded mower.
A stem (right) and the bit in the ground (left) behind the dreaded mower.

More searching and a few broken pieces of several Morels, the honeycomb-like structure of the pieces of “cap” were unmistakable. Further searching found lots more but all had by the darned mower! Curses! so very close, probably only cut a few hours before – drat!

I remembered reading if you find one, mark the spot with a stick and search up and down wind based on the prevailing direction. A bit more scouting and an intact stem, getting better. Spotting a mound of leaf litter nearer the hedge, I gently cleared it to reveal a truly beautiful sight, a very fresh looking, intact Morel about the size of my fist.

Morels
That first intact Morel after so many mower demolished pieces. Dog’s Mercury and Lords and Ladies around, hedge of Hazel to left.

More searching found more bits and a few “babies”, each new find having it’s photo taken before picking (leaving a good proportion and the “young”). Thinking that was it, I peered over the stile and exclaimed “Oh my God”, there were about a dozen “lumps of honeycomb” beautifully golden in the bright sunlight.

Morels
Golden beauties basking in the sun. Plants include brambles, Wild Garlic, Cow Parsley, Dock, Ivy.

I should have been better prepared – no mushroom basket, no rucksack that always has a paper bag and mushroom knife, no hat that could be brought into emergency use, just a few of those multi-purpose little black bags us responsible dog owners carry at all times! Designed with one purpose in mind, I’ve used them for carrying home an unexpected wild food bonanza on a good many occasions. Also no decent camera, just my phone. No quick fix to that (and as I now see almost every close up is out of focus – double-drat!).

Morels
Emergency wild food carrier (Dog poo bag) stuffed with Morels

Being away and already having shopped, lunch was half of the 700 grams, simply fried on toast – delicious. The remainder are heading home, there I’ll be checking out Roger Phillips’ recipe for, my memory says, a dish with chicken, cream and the Morels.

Morels
The whole catch – c. 700 grams!

So, is the desire satisfied? Sort of, I now want to find some more!

Nettle Beer

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.

Stinging Nettles
Stinging Nettles

It is taken from Roger Phillips’ excellent book “Wild Food” (every forager should have a copy).

Ingredients

Scale the below proportionately based on how many bottles you have!

Nettle Beer Ingredients
Nettle Beer Ingredients
  • 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)

Method

  1. Boil the nettles in the water for 15 minutes.
  2. Strain, then add the sugar and cream of tartar and stir until dissolved.
  3. Remove from the heat and leave until tepid, then add the yeast and stir well
  4. Cover and leave for a day
  5. 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.

Pine Needle Cordial

While you might think any concoction made with pine needles would taste like you might imagine Toilet Duck might, Pine Needle cordial or tea have a light, crisp, refreshing flavour and are well worth making.

Pine needles have been used by Native North Americans for centuries. They were most valued in winter to provide nourishment and keep healthy. Shipwrecked sailors too, have long known that tea made from Pine Needles contain more Vitamin C than oranges and will keep scurvy at bay.

Pine needles
Pine needles – Norway Spruce – an old Christmas tree

Make sure you are not using the needles of the deadly poisonous Yew tree. Also avoid these types of Pine which could potentially be harmful – Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Common Juniper, Monterey Cypress, Norfolk Pine or Australian Pine.

Pine Needle cordial is incredibly simple to make – the recipe can be found here on Andy Hamilton’s web site; it is taken from his excellent book – Booze for Free.

640x480px_Pine Needle Cordial
Pine Needles steeping making cordial.

Tea is even more straightforward. As you might guess, put the needles in a cup, add near boiling water and steep for around 10 minutes, strain.

Picking Dandelions

Fields of Gold – Dandelion Flower Recipes

Some of our local fields are a picture at the moment with carpets of Dandelions. They are an opportunity not to miss, plentiful and nearby. In your garden you might view them as a troublesome weed. The Victorians, however, cultivated them, with the leaves eaten by the wealthy in sandwiches and salads. I once met a young girl on one of our foraging courses who was in her element grazing on the leaves, preferring them to chocolate or sweets. Foragers will make use of almost every part of the Dandelion – roots (land owner consent required to dig up ANY wild plant), leaves and flowers. In this post we look at some Dandelion flower recipes and uses. Among the uses are:

  • Dandelion Syrup – (recipe below)
  • Dandelion Drizzle Cake – (recipe below)
  • Dandelion Fritters
  • First Flower Champagne
  • Dandelion Bhajis
  • Dandelion Jam / Marmalade
  • Dandelion (Dandy) Brandy
  • Dandelion Wine

Search online for recipes for the other suggestions.

Fields of Gold
Fields of Gold

Clip on Dandelions from the BBC Series Flora Brittanica.

Picking Dandelions

  • Pick on  dry sunny day so the flowers are open and not wet.
  • People with sensitive skin may get contact dermatitis when touching the latex.
  • Your finger tips will go yellow, looking like you have a 40-a -day smoking habit!
  • Remove any stem you pick with the flowers as you go (saves time later!)
  • Pick a few here and a few there as they an early pollen source for bees and other insects.

Dandelion Syrup

The below recipe is taken from John Wright’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No 7 – Hedgerow. You can buy at a great price this here. Pick about a litre of flowers

Layer c. 2cm of flowers, sugar, flowers etc.
Layer c. 2cm of flowers, sugar, flowers etc. in a large jug pressing down each layer (a potato masher does the job!). Note how much sugar you use.

 

24 hours later
Cover and let stand for 24 hours. The moisture and flavour will be drawn into the sugar.

 

Dandelion Drizzle Cake
Tip the contents of the jug into a pan and add 100ml of boiling water for each 55g of sugar.

 

Heat and stir until the sugar has all dissolved then strain into a clean jug.
Heat and stir until the sugar has all dissolved then strain into a clean jug.

 

The finished syrup. Store in sterilised bottles (dishwasher / or hot soapy water) or freeze in old plastic milk bottles. Dilute to taste.
The finished syrup. Store in sterilised bottles (dishwasher / or hot soapy water) or freeze in old plastic milk bottles. Dilute to taste.

 Dandelion Drizzle Cake

A wild twist on the classic lemon drizzle cake combining the lovely flavour of dandelions with orange. Adapted from the lemon drizzle cake recipe in Pam Corbin’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No 8 – Cakes.

Preparation and cooking time – c. 1 hour

Ingredients:
For the cake

  • 175 g self-raising flour, sifted
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 175g unsalted butter cut into small pieces and softened
  • Finely grated zest of 2 oranges
  • 3 eggs
  • Petals from approx. 12 dandelions (remove all of the green parts).

For the drizzle:

  • Dandelion Syrup
  • Granulated sugar
Dandelion Drizzle Cake ingredients
Dandelion Drizzle Cake ingredients (plus syrup)

Equipment:

  • 18cm round or 15 cm square tin, greased and lined with baking parchment, or a 1 litre loaf tin, approx. 20 x 10cm, greased, base and long sides lined with parchment.
  • Skewer
  • Cake cooling rack

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180oC/Gas mark 4.
  2. Sift the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl.
  3. Add all the other cake ingredients and beat for about 1½ minutes, until you have a smooth think batter.
  4. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, levelling out the surface with the back of a spoon.
  5. Bake for 40 – 45 minutes or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
  6. Leave in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning out and placing on a wire rack.
  7. Prepare the drizzle. Mix some Dandelion cordial with some granulated sugar. Do not let the sugar dissolve. Prick the surface of the cake all over with a skewer and carefully trickle the drizzle over the surface, a spoonful at a time, ensuring each addition has soaked in before spooning over the next.
  8. The cake can be cooled fully or is delicious when still slightly warm. Serve with a little Dandelion Syrup infused natural yoghurt on the side.
Finished Dandelion Drizzle Cake.
Finished Dandelion Drizzle Cake.
Wild Garlic Pesto and Tomato Pasta Bake

Wild Garlic Pesto and Tomato Pasta Bake

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
Wild Garlic flowers
Wild Garlic flowers

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.

Ingredients:
Serves 4 – 6

  • 50g pinenuts
  • 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
  • Basil

Method:

  1. Wash and dry the wild garlic leaves.
  2. In a food processor crush the pine nuts and hazelnuts roughly and then decant them into a bowl and set aside.
  3. 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.
  4. Add the lemon juice and mix.
  5. Pour the wild garlic mixture into the crushed nuts and stir in.
  6. Season to taste.

 

Wild Garlic Pesto
Wild Garlic Pesto

Pesto Pasta Bake

Ingredients:
Serves 4

  • 400g pasta e.g. Penne
  • Pesto
  • 1 – 400g can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 – 2 cups of cheese (mozzarella or cheddar)
  • 1 onion, chopped

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C Fan/Gas mark 6.
  2. Get some hot water heating up for the pasta.
  3. 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.
  4. Add the tomatoes, season with a pinch of salt and pepper and turn down the heat. Gently simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile cook the pasta in a pan of salted boiling water according to the packet instructions.
  6. Once cooked, drain and pour into the pan with the tomato mixture.
  7. Add the pesto and some of the cheese and mix well.
  8. 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.
Wild Garlic buds and Sea Kale shoots

A bit of a pickle!

To foragers, generally if they think about preserving wild foods, the techniques and foods that come to mind are drying seaweeds and mushrooms, freezing wild fruit and making jams, jellies and drinks.  There are however other techniques that the forager can make use of and they include pickling and fermenting. This post looks at pickling wild food.

Think of pickling and onions or eggs are the obvious things, but as well as garden / allotment / smallholding produce you can pickle all sorts of wild foods as a way of preserving them for consuming throughout the year.

Wild Garlic buds and Sea Kale shoots
Wild Garlic buds and Sea Kale shoots

What to pickle

As often with foraging and cooking, your imagination is the limit. Among the things you can try are:

  • Buds – Wild Garlic, Elder, Dandelion, Alexanders or Ox-Eye Daisy
  • Stems – Reed mace hearts, Rock Samphire, Alexanders, Fennel, saltmarsh plants individually or collectively (Sea Aster, Marsh Samphire, Sea Purslane, Annual Seablite etc.)
  • Flowers –  Magnolia flowers, Scots Pine Flowers, Hawthorn blossom
  • Seeds –  Wild Garlic Seeds, Ash keys
  • Miscellaneous – Burdock roots,  mushrooms (including Chanterelles and Jelly Ears), seaweeds (including Carrageen and Kelp), Walnuts, Limpets, Cockles!

Pickle Recipes

Recipes for making these vary enormously – experiment or find your own favourite. Pickles are straightforward to make. Essentially, they contain the wild food you want to pickle, vinegar, spices, salt and sometimes, sugar.

  • Vinegars – go for any of cider, white wine, red wine, malt or pickling vinegar. Pickling vinegar is usually malt vinegar with the spices already added for convenience. The vinegar should have a minimum acidity level of 5%.
  • Spices – your call but there are some suggested combinations below. Also try any of fennel seeds, mixed herbs, juniper berries, garlic cloves, star anise etc. For an easy life (to avoid having to make decisions!) you can buy pickling spice ready-made!
    • Mild – cinnamon, cloves, mace, whole allspice berries, white peppercorns, bay
    • Medium – cinnamon, cloves, white peppercorns, dried root ginger, mace, whole allspice berries
    • Hot – mustard seeds, dried chillies, chilli flakes, cloves, black peppercorns, whole allspice berries
    • Sweet – sugar (brown for brown malt vinegar, white for white malt or wine vinegar), whole allspice berries, whole cloves, coriander seeds, root ginger, cinnamon stick, blades of mace, lemon rind

Rules
The two basic rules for successful pickling are:

  • Jars and lids should be sterilised (washed in very hot (but not boiling), soapy water, then dried in a cool oven).
  • Your ingredients should be in good condition – fresh.

Pickled Wild Garlic Buds
Ingredients:
 Wild Garlic Buds

Wild Garlic Buds
Wild Garlic Buds

 200 ml vinegar
 ½ tablespoon caster sugar
 1 teaspoon salt
 15 black peppercorns
 ½ teaspoon fennel seeds

Method:
1. Use only stainless steel, enamel, or non-stick pans.
2. Wash and dry the buds (tea towel, salad spinner, kitchen roll etc.)
3. Put the buds into the jar.

Wild garlic buds
Put the buds into jars

4. Put the vinegar, sugar, salt and spices into a saucepan.
5. Heat until the sugar dissolves.
6. Pour over the garlic buds.

Buds with vinegar plus peppercorns, fennel seeds, sugar and salt
Buds with vinegar plus peppercorns, fennel seeds, sugar and salt (the buds float a bit).

7. Ensure that the lids are airtight.
8. Label and date each jar.
9. Store in a cool, dry and preferably dark place.
10. The buds are ready to eat in 2 weeks to a month.
11. If you find the pickle too acidic you can add more sugar or dilute slightly until you are happy.

Pickled Sea Kale Shoots
Ingredients:
Sea Kale shoots

Sea Kale Shoots
Sea Kale Shoots

Vinegar
Salt / sea salt
Black Peppercorns
Sugar

1. Wash the Sea Kale shoots
2. Blanch them by dropping them in a pan of boiling salted water for no more than 30 seconds.
3. Cool immediately in cold water.
4. Drain and dry (tea towel, salad spinner, kitchen roll etc.)
5. Pack Kale into a jar.
6. Cover with vinegar, add a pinch of salt, some peppercorns and teaspoon of sugar.
7. Ensure that the lids are airtight.

Pickled Sea Kale Shoots
Pickled Sea Kale Shoots

8. Label and date each jar.
9. Store in a cool, dry and preferably dark place.