I am presenting the plants below, with images, brief descriptions and links to recipes that you can use to cook the plant. There are only brief descriptions here though. If you want fuller or more complete descriptions, please visit the Celtnet Wild Food Guide and Recipes pages where there are well over 100 edible wild foods of all kinds listed.
1. Dwarf Thistle
|Dwarf thistle (Cirsium acaule) young plant|
Of the various thistle species, dwarf thistle is the most tractable as a wild food, for though the leaves are spiny they are covered in far fewer spines and burrs that most other thistles. To prepare, remove the mid-ribs from the leaves, scrape to strip any burrs then either boil or stir-fry.
Recipes using dwarf thistle:
Thistles with Spicy Prawns and Coconut
2. Wild Strawberry
|Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) plant in flower|
The wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is a perennial ground-covering flowering plant of the Rosaceae (Rose) family. The leaves are glossy, dark green and three-lobed and the small five-petalled flowers are produced in summer. The fruit itself is unusual in that it's classed as an accessory fruit.
Wild strawberries remain common in woodlands and on walls and banks. They prefer chalky soils and often colonize limestone walls. The leaves may be used as n herbal tea which is believed to aid in the treatment of diarrhoea and in spring they can also be used as a wild leafy vegetable, typically cooked in soups.
However, it's the fruit that are worth foraging for. They may be tiny in size, but they are very flavoursome (much more so than modern cultivars) and it's well worth the trouble of picking them. They are wonderful set in a wine-glass and topped with champagne. They also make a glorious coulis for use with other fruit where they are simply puréed with wine, black pepper and a little honey.
Recipes for Wild Strawberry:
A Spring Tart
Wild Spring Greens Soup
3. Hairy Bittercress
|Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) plant in flower|
Typically the plant germinates in the Autumn and remains green throughout the winter months. It flowers from quite early in the Spring until the Autumn. The small white flowers are borne in a corymb on wiry green stems, soon followed by the seeds and often continuing to flower as the first seeds ripen.
Because it remains green throughout the winter this is an important plant for the wild forager as it provides much-needed greens through the winter month though the best time to pick is during January and February. The plant is, as its name suggests, bitter in flavour and benefits from being gently wilted in heavily-salted water. This tempers the bitterness and yields a vegetable somewhat reminiscent of cauliflower greens.
Recipes for Hairy Bittercress:
Spring Salad with Wild Mushroom Potato Cakes
Goat's Cheese with Beetroot and Wild Herbs
Spiced Apple and Wild Spring Leaf Salad
4. Common Hogweed
|Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), a rather poor specimen|
starved of nutrients
It is a common and invasive plant in the British Isles and is typically found in woodland, by roadsides and at the base of hedges. It is smaller than it's close cousin the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which also has more crenellated leaves.
Common hogweed hogweed shoots, if picked before the shoots have fully opened make one of the best wild vegetables that you can forage for. The stems should be cooked whole in boiling water with butter and seasoning. Cook for eight minutes then serve with butter and seasoning as a vegetable. Young leaves are also edible and can either be steamed, or chopped and used sparingly in salads.
The flower buds are also edible and they look like miniature broccoli florets.
However, common hogweed is very similar to the closely related giant hogweed (the sap of which can be a skin irritant) and it is related to and can grow in the same places as the very toxic hemlock. Like all members of the carrot family (and this includes alexanders and wild carrot, described below), if you are not certain of its identification, do not pick.
The specimen shown in the picture is particularly weedy as it was growing in the cracks between a tarmac path and a stone wall.
Recipes for Common Hogweed:
Boiled Hogweed Shoots
Common Hogweed à la Polonaise
Hogweed in Rolled Chapati
Common Hogweed Muffins with Spruce
Pork and Hogweed in Hot Sauce
5. Sow Thistle
|Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) plant|
Sow thistles are common roadside plants, and while native to Eurasia and tropical Africa, they are found almost worldwide in temperate regions. Despite their common name, sow thistles are not true thistles, although are classified in the same family, the Asteraceae.
Young leaves have a flavour similar to lettuce and are excellent in salads. But older leaves tend to be bitter. However, they can be cooked by washing, adding to a pan with a little water and a knob of butter and cooked until tender (a minute or so). Cooked in this manner they have a flavour similar to chard.
Recipes for Sow Thistle:
Wild Greens Gnocci in Tomato Sauce
Braised Sow Thistle and Button Mushrooms
Sow Thistle and Beans Soup
To make a Sallad of Burdock, good for the Stone, another of the tender stalks of Sow-thistles
6. Greater Plantain
|Greater Plantain (Plantago major) plant|
The leaves are edible and used in herbal medicine, but can be somewhat tough. The taste is that of very bitter salad greens with a lingering aftertaste like spinach. Young leaves are recommended as they are more tender. The leaves when dried make a good tea.
Recipes for Sow Thistle:
Creamed Plantain and Ham
Mixed Wild Greens with Poppy Seed Dressing
Plantain in Spicy Yoghurt Sauce
|Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) whole plant and close-up of flower heads|
For the wild forager, alexanders are a very versatile plant, in that the stems can be cooked like asparagus, the roots can be treated like any other root vegetables and the leaves can be used as a stock vegetable and are particularly useful in soups. The flower buds can also be steamed and eaten in place of broccoli.
The plant has some similarity to celery in the way it looks and in how it tastes (though its flavour is typically described as being half way between celery and parsley). Indeed, it was very commonly used in Roman cuisine in many dishes where it has now been replaced by celery.
Recipes for Alexanders:
Ancient Roman Baian Stew
Iron Age Pork and Beans
Battered Alexanders Shoots
Vegetable Purée with Alexanders
Fluffy Mashed Alexanders Root
Alexanders Greens Soup
Pork and Alexanders Buds in Hot Sauce
A grand Sallet of Alexander-buds
(see also yesterday's recipe for Alexanders flowers and pork stir-fry on this blog)
8. Dandelion (Common)
|Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) plant with flower buds|
Dandelion is a member of the Compositae family of flowering plants and it has one of the most extensive collection of common names of any plant, probably due to its extensive historic use as both an edible and a medicinal plant.
Typically, the common dandelion is a perennial growing between 15 and 25cm in height in when in flower. The flowers themselves are bright golden yellow and can be up to 5cm in diameter. Flowers are borne on long stalks and the plants are in flower from spring right through to autumn. The flower petals, like the root and the leaves are edible and are commonly made into dandelion wine. When damaged, the flower stems, leaf stems and roots of dandelions exude a white latex.
The leaves, root, flower petals and flower buds are all edible.
Recipes for Dandelion:
Reconstructed Ancient Hedgerow Salad
Easter Ledge Pudding
Saddle of Wild Rabbit with Dandelions
Dandelion and Orange Curry
Dandelion Roots with Soy Sauce
Dandelion Salad with Bacon
9. Ground Elder
|Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria) plants|
It was introduced into Britain as an edible plant by the Romans and was cultivated as a food crop and medicinal herb in the Middle Ages where it was mainly used as a food that could counteract gout, one of the effects of the rich foods eaten by monks, bishops and the high-born at this time. It prefers damp, shady, conditions (which is why it's a common hedgerow plant) but it will grow in any soil.
The leaves of the plant can be used as a foodstuff and are best collected when young and before the plant has come into flower (after that point the leaves become strongly laxative!). They can be used raw or cooked and have an unusual tangy, rather aromatic, flavour — a little like dandelion without the sharpness; on the way to sorrel without the lemony-ness.
It is still grown in Sweden as a potherb.
Recipes for Ground Elder:
Ground Elder Omelette
Ground Elder Soup
Steamed Ground Elder
Korean-style Wild Spring Greens
Ground Elder with Cheese Soufflé
10. Stinging Nettles
|Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) plants|
Everyone recognises the stinging nettle (generally referred to just as 'nettles') and many of us have been stung by this plant. Nettles are covered with tiny, nearly invisible stinging hairs that contain histamine and formic acid that produce an intense, stinging pain, followed by redness and skin irritation.
It should be noted that old nettle plants should never be eaten uncooked as, if eaten raw, they can produce kidney damage and the symptoms of poisoning. Thorough cooking, however, renders even old nettle leaves safe for human consumption. Nettle leaves are rich in vitamins, plant proteins and minerals and, because of this, some farmers encourage the growth of nettles in some regions of their fields for inclusion in hay and silage.
Recipes for Nettles:
Nettle and Smoked Fish Stew
Simple Nettle Purée
Beef and Nettle Greens in Peanut Sauce
St Columba's Broth
Nettle and Spinach Cake
11. Wild Carrots
|Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), large single plant|
As the name suggests, the wild carrot is closely related to our modern cultivated carrots. Indeed, the cultivated carrot was developed from a subspecies of wild carrot, Daucus carota subsp
As a member o the carrot family, it has a long, slender taproot and fine, lacy, leaves. When the roots are dug up and snapped in two, they smell distinctly and strongly of carrot. Formally, the plant is described as: An erect, biennial herb; leaves basal and alternate, two-pinnately divided with narrow segments; flowers small, white, in a terminal, umbrella-shaped cluster; 20 florets, often with red spot in middle; seed small, dry, ribbed, with bristly hairs.
Unlike the cultivated carrot, wild carrots produce lots of xylem in the root and they soon become tough and woody. As a result, only young wild carrots are of any great use in cookery. It should also be noted that the leaves of wild carrot contain furocoumarins that may cause allergic contact dermatitis from the leaves, especially when wet. Later exposure to the sun may cause mild photodermatitis. When cooked, however, the wild carrot greens are safe to eat (the same is true of cultivated carrots) and they make a palatable addition to stir-fries.
In common parlance, the wild carrot is often called 'wild carrot' during it's first year, when the roots are edible, but is called 'Queen Anne's Lace' in its second year, where the flowers are edible.
Wild Carrot Recipes:
Queen Anne's Lace Jelly
Vegan Wild Carrot Cake
Stir-fried Wild Carrot with Mint
Wild Carrot Fritters
Angelica and Wild Carrot Soup
Welsh Wild Carrot Pudding
Wild Carrot Flower Fritters
|Bedstraw (Galium spp), close-up of growing plant tips|
Interestingly the plants are edible and, if young, can be finely chopped for inclusion into salads. Young stems and leaves can be cooked as a leafy green or used as the base for soups and stews (older stems become stringy). The next time you're grubbing this weed from your garden, why not try eating it rather than throwing it on your compost heap?
Goosegrass and Chickweed Kedgeree
Spicy Chicken and Goosegrass
Cleavers and Red Lentil Wot
Goosegrass Polenta with Almond Crust
|Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris) young plants|
The leaves are very succulent and tender and have a pleasant flavour. They are a very useful salad vegetable, but should only be picked when green and where they grow in profusion.
Grey Mullet with Wild Sea Beet
Braised Bean Curd
Goat's Cheese with Beetroot and Wild Herbs
14. Common Wintercress
|Common Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris), single plant|
It tends to grow in damp places such as hedges, stream banks and waysides and comes into flower from May to August. In the past, in England at least, it was cultivated as an early salad vegetable. It makes a wonderful salad green when young and the greens are also an excellent vegetable if treated kindly. Lightly steam or gently sweat in butter until just wilted. The unopened inflorescences (flower spikes) can also be picked and steamed like broccoli.
Common Wintercress Recipes:
Boiled Wintercress Greens
Stir-fried Wintercress Greens
Pickled Wintercress Salad
|Primroses (Primula vulgaris), single plant in flower|
The primrose is a common sight in the spring-time hedgerow and the flowers of this plant are slightly sweet and excellent to eat. They make a colourful addition to any salad, can be used to decorate ice-cream in a dessert and can be candied by preserving in sugar for later use to decorate cakes. Please note, however, that the picking of primroses or the removal of primrose plants from the wild without the permission of the owner of the land on which they are growing is now illegal in the UK (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Section 13, part 1b). Moreover, the primrose has become increasingly rare in some regions of the country, so please do not collect even from hedgerows.
However, as you can grow it in your own garden you can still taste this plant. The flowers and leaves are edible.
It should be noted that, in common with other members of the Primulaceae some people may be allergic to the stamens of this plant (though such cases are easily treated). Saponins may cause hypotension. Excessive/prolonged use may interfere with medication for hypertension (high blood pressure).
A Spring Tart
Candied Primrose Flowers
Wild Greens Pasta Primavera
Sea Spaghetti and Wild Greens Pasta Primavera
Primrose Ice Cream
That's a grand total of 15 edible plants spotted on quite a short walk... that is not a bad haul of wild edibles. I would have expected to have seen chickweed, but did not. I did see a few trees that would bear edible components: elder and hazel most notable amongst them but they were not photographed.
I also saw some young hawthorn trees. Now, the young leaves of hawthorn are edible and good in spring salads, but the tree was buried in a hedge and I could not get a good photograph.
The other plant that I noticed was a gooseberry plant that was growing beneath an abandoned garage. In effect this was a garden plant that had gone wild. Were it bearing fruit it would also have made it onto my list.