There was a time when all of our food was gleaned from the wild. Within the timeline of human existence, our species essentially became what it is today through foraging. The Hunter-Gatherer way of life persisted for hundreds of thousands of years; it was only relatively recently (10-12,000 years ago – it’s not as long as it seems) at the start of the Neolithic Revolution that humans started to move towards a more sedentary, agriculture-based way of producing food.
It’s fair to say that foraging today is much more of a gentle pastime – the chances of being marooned in the wild and having to live exclusively off the landscape are relatively slim. Many people forage as a means of supplementing shop bought food with wild items that have been gathered for free. This is by no means confined to the countryside; it’s amazing what can be found in most towns and cities.
Is foraging legal? What should you be mindful of?
Foraging is perfectly legal, but there are exceptions. One can collect the four Fs (flowers, foliage, fruit and fungi) for personal use, but it is against the law to uproot a wild plant in the UK without the landowner’s permission. Always pick with discretion and only ever take what you need – don’t over-harvest.
People often worry about the hazards of gathering wild food and one has to be clear from the outset – there are risks. There are plenty of leaves, flowers and berries out there that are easy to identify and taste delicious. Others, on the other hand, will leave you notably worse for wear (to put it lightly). Only eat a foraged plant or mushroom if it has been 100% positively identified – even then, try a little first and wait for 24 hrs, just in case you have an allergy or intolerance to the plant that has been hitherto unknown.
Where can we go foraging?
You can forage pretty much anywhere, but there are a couple of general guidelines. Try not to pick near busy roads where car exhaust fumes are an issue and if gathering along public footpaths, be mindful of areas that might be at – how can I put it, ‘Dog Lavatory Level’.
What are some examples of good stems and foliages you can add to an arrangement during different times of the year?
Spring, as you might expect, is a wonderful time for blooms. Wildflowers are very much commonplace in contemporary floral arrangements today, but this hasn’t always been the case. In 1938, pioneering florist Constance Spry filled a church with nothing but Cow Parsley for a London society wedding, which was seen as daring and revolutionary at the time. Cow Parsley is lacy, delicate and architectural – other good Spring stems in bud and flower include Pussy Willow, Cherry and Blackthorn.
Summer is a great time for wild flowers and foliage. Ox-eye daisy, Dog rose and Meadowsweet are tried and trusted floral favourites, while wild grasses and seed heads add height and drama to an arrangement.
Autumn brings with it a whole new palette. Reds, oranges and yellows can be added to arrangements as the leaves of Oak, Beech and Birch start to turn, while the stems of Bramble (Blackberries) and Dog Rose (Rosehips) are set with jewel-like berries that add texture and decadence.
Here are three wild plants to pick and eat in spring and early summer. They are easy to identify and taste great:
Nettles are abundant, flavoursome and are packed with vitamins and minerals. Use early season, young leaves as you would spinach – they’re great in homemade pasta and smoothies. I’ve even made cakes with them before, they’re that versatile. Don’t worry about getting stung; the tiny hairs that pierce the skin and cause pain and inflammation disappear almost instantly when cooked.
Wild garlic is one of the best things to forage in Spring; give the leaves a smell and if you’ll be in little doubt that you are holding a member of the garlic (allium) family. Use Ramson leaves in soups, pestos and flavoured butters, while later on in the season the tiny white flowers can be scattered over Spring salads.
Pick these in early Summer to make the queen of wild syrups – Elderflower cordial, which can be used in cakes, desserts and cocktails. Cheers!