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Foraging Basics

This is a guest post from our foraging expert Christopher Robbins and was originally featured in the June 2017 issue of Crumbs Magazine. If you'd like to join Christopher on a hands-on wild food walk, keep an eye on our upcoming foraging courses.

The perfect justification for owning a dog could be getting into foraging. Its not the only reason for foraging but what better excuse for taking the dog out.

Foraging is trending now. Any celeb chef on TV or social media must have wild garlic or stinging nettle in a recipe. Get invited to a party and there’ll be some wild plants in the nibbles. Wild foods are like a stigmata that says ‘These novel foods can’t be bought: they have to be foraged’.

To enjoy the fruits of foraging you have to get out and do it…The foraged foods are wild foods. They are not available in supermarkets or farmer’s markets. They are unique pleasures to the walkers with the wisdom…If you aren’t already at it, here is a simple guide to the basics.

Foraging is not new. It used to be done by every household to expand the range of kitchen greens and fruits. They also foraged their herbal home remedies. From around the 1950s it rapidly fell away until blackberrying on Sunday afternoons is all most people associate with foraging. As foraging was forgotten, so was the knowledge of wild plants; what to pick, what to avoid, what is ready in what season.

Know your plants

Confidence is the key to contented foragers. This means feeling safe in knowing you can identify what to eat and what to avoid. Very few plants are harmful but you need to know you know. This is easy. There is no need to brush up on wild plant identification (ID) to the level of a Degree in Botany. Start by making a list of plants you can forage and that are good to eat. This will be only about 15-20 plants. Experienced foragers may not harvest more than this in a year (they may like you to think they harvest and eat 100s, but that is only a myth, like the Holy Grail.) To start foraging, you need know the ID of only the plants you want to start with. That won’t get you a tenderfoot Botany Badge, but you will be a safe forager.

Start with a few, maybe only 3 or 5 plants, then add some more. Build up a regular list and your confidence.

Forage only plants that are good to eat

Too many foragers teach or write about umpteen plants they call ‘edible plants’. That means only they wont harm. Mow your lawn and the clippings are usually ‘edible’, but they will taste awful. Try it. You wont repeat it.

You should forage only those plants that are worth eating. The tasty ones. Those that are delicious. You’ll want to repeat foraging them.

Learn how to identify them

Before you go foraging, make a list of plants you expect to find and ones you would like to try (see our three easy to forage plants to get started with). Check their ID. There are good websites (see list at the bottom of the article), a few small ID books to carry, and one of two Apps for your mobile. For herbs, look at the leaf size, shape, and colour: at the flowers (shape and number of petals, not only colour): and any specifics like stings or soft fuzz on stems or leaves: and at the aroma (eg. mints or wild garlic). For trees and shrubs note the leaf shape and size, the flowers, and the fruits, but don’t forget the bark’s appearance.

Most of the good foraging plants are quite distinctive and not easy to confuse with anything. Look up Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), and Chickweed (Stellaria media). These are hard to confuse if you study their ID features.

Note the Latin names too. You don’t have to learn them but they are very useful. Bilberry and Whortelberry are two common names around Bath and Bristol but their single Latin name is constant (Vaccinium myrtillus). Also the same common name is often used for many different plants with different Latin names. Look up the different plants called Woundwort. They all have different Latin names. You can travel all over Europe where the same plant will have different common names in different languages, but the Latin name will be the same. Neat, ok! The Latin names are the same around the world. Latin is useful for a forager.

Any interesting plant you find that you don’t know, just photo it on a smart phone or digital camera. Make sure you get clear close-ups of leaves, flowers, and any fruits. These photos can be looked up in books or online back at home, or sent off to Ispot ( where experts will do the ID for you and then send the correct name back.

Where and when to forage

Good wildflower books and sites, or foraging sites will usually give details of what soil or landscape to find specific plants in and they will usually give the season they grow or flower/fruit in so you can plan your outings.

The Roger Phillips Wild Flower books are great. They are full of plant photographs, and are arranged by season with a date on each page the photos were taken. So you can look up the May or June pages, for example, and they will show all the plants that will be available in those months.

Clever foragers will notice plants growing when they are driving in the car, on their bike, or walking, even walking around towns and cities. They make a note of where and when they see interesting and accessible plants. They can come back at the right time or year or maybe just a convenient time to harvest.

Keep a foraging notebook

Forget your pride, become a geek and start a Foraging Notebook. Record the places where and when you find plants, the finds you enjoy eating, the ID info as well…Make sketches, put GPS waymarks or OS map grid-references where you spot exciting finds. Keep phone numbers of foraging friends to call when you just need one to help.

Get your foraging kit ready

You wouldn’t go to war without your Swiss Army knife. Ditto with foraging. It is surprising how having a small kit handy makes it easy to do a little foraging when the call comes. Start with a Swiss Army knife, but keep it from view. (The blade must be less than 3 inches and you may have to justify carrying it. You need it to cut your sandwiches, eat apples, and cut plant parts to examine or to take home etc). Get a small rucksack to carry small waterproof, plastic bags, gardening gloves (nettles sting, damsons stain, blackberries prick), a worn kitchen dessert-spoon for digging, mini first-aid kit (3 elastoplasts, 30ml bottle Calendula 90% lotion, 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda to treat nettle stings (rubbing with Dock leaf doesn’t work), 1 m strong string, and small-bar best chocolate), small ID book, and your Foraging Notebook. Get yourself a Hazel thumb-stick for walking, holding down barbed wire to climb over, picking mushrooms from under brambles, and testing the depth of muddy puddles lest you lose the children. Always wear the right shoes or boots to avoid crying. You’re set.

Herbal home remedy kit

Remember that herbal remedies were mostly foraged too. Think what ailments your family has and choose wild remedies to suit. They can be very effective and safe.

Think Lime tree flowers for relaxing children; Lemon balm leaves for calming adults; Oak bark or galls, powdered to stop bleeding of small cuts and also disinfect them; Chamomile flowers to ease eczema or mild sunburn; Comfrey leaf or root to settle sprains or pulled muscles; Meadowsweet infusion to ease inflamed stomachs; wild Mint infusions to ease colic and indigestion. All of these can be collected, dried and stored until needed. Oh!.. To have a Forager’s Pharmacy is bliss.

The trick of wild crafting

Foraging doesn’t have to be at the mercy of nature. You can control when and where your favourite plants are there for you. That is wild crafting.

Stinging nettle naturally is available from March to July when it flowers and gets too tough to eat. However, if you cut it down to about 20 cms in June or July, it will reshoot, giving you lovely fresh young shoots. Repeat this every month until the frosts kill the tops. Nettle delight nearly all year. The garden weed, Ground Elder, responds to cutting back and reshooting until first frosts. It’s delicious when the leaves are still young and unfurled. Just like celery in salads.

You can also prune wild plants like Brambles, Damsons or Crab apples to make then easier to harvest. The wonderful Elder tree grows easily from cuttings of 1 year-old wood. Plant them in local lanes, hedgerows, or around the garden shed. In three years you will have elder flowers, and the black berries, where you want them.

And of course you can harvest seeds from wild plants and replant them in wild places or bring them home to plant in the garden. They are still the same as wild plants and can be nearer to your kitchen.

Use your imagination. There is potential to tailor your foraging.

A bit of legal stuff

There is a right to roam, but no simple right to pick plants. There are several laws and together they are complicated and not clear. But if you are not picking from the wild to sell, but only for your own uses, it is simpler.

The basic rule is always ask permission if you are picking from private land and never dig up or damage a whole plant. Even National Parks like the Mendips or the Brecons are covered and you should ask permission. There may be special bylaws that forbid foraging at all. Places like the National Trust, some special Nature Reserves etc may have passed these bylaws, but there should be displayed notices to this effect. You can still ask permission, which is likely to be granted. Don’t pick anything on protected sites like SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest). Most roadside verges are owned or controlled by Local Authorities or the State. You can approach the Highways to ask permission but take special care foraging along roadside verges.

So to avoid hassle, check where you are thinking of foraging, try to find out who owns it then try to ask permission before you forage and you should be fine.

Forage safely!

  • Always check the ID of plants before you attempt to eat them.
  • Never put anything in your mouth, even just to taste, unless you are completely sure of the ID.
  • Pick only what you need.
  • Always try to get permission before you trespass on private land and pick.
  • Take care of the environment.

Further reading:

For more hands-on experience with wild food foraging, keep an eye on our upcoming foraging courses.

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