Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Wild salads on my doorstep

I have recently become more interested than ever in foraging. By this I mean harvesting wild foods. It is a hobby / pastime / practice that had all but died out until recently, and I believe it is undergoing a bit of a comeback. From what I see and read, many top chefs are very keen to include foraged ingredients in their dishes, and such things can often command a high price.

Well, I'm not into commercial foraging, that's for sure (and I'm dubious about the ethics of this practice anyway), but I'm not averse to including a little bit of wild food in my diet. As regular readers will know, I often collect Chestnuts, Blackberries, Elderberries, Rosehips and Sloes. Last year I was lucky enough to identify a place to get loads of wild Plums (I will be visiting it again!), and I even dug up some wild Horseradish. If I had more knowledge of the subject I'm sure I could pick lots of edible fungi, of which there are many, many types around where I live. You have to admit it: we are surrounded by free food.

Today I want to mention a few plants that are very commonly found, and very well known, but seldom seen as sources of food. They are all growing in or very close to my garden.

Allotment-holders and gardeners all round the country know this one all too well - Stellaria media, aka Chickweed.

It grows in profusion on many allotment sites, and seems to have a particular liking for freshly-turned soil. But how many gardeners know that it is edible? It can be used in much the same way as cress - for instance in an egg sandwich, or as a garnish for other types of salad.

If you look carefully, I bet there is some in your garden, or along the side of your road. (If you're planning to eat it, just be careful about where you pick it!)

This next one is also a plant that is very widespread - Cardamine hirstuta, commonly called Hairy Bittercress

This is what Wikipedia has to say about it: "This plant grows best in damp, recently disturbed soil. These conditions are prevalent in nursery or garden centre plants, and hairy bittercress seeds may be introduced with those plants. Once established, particularly in lawn areas, it is difficult to eradicate." Very true! I find this plant popping up again and again in my garden. Fortunately it is quite easy to pull up  complete with its roots, but you can be sure that more will grow. Maybe the best approach is to treat it as a crop. Then you will actually welcome large quantities (maybe)! Although it is certainly edible, you wouldn't want to eat large quantities. The clue to this is in its name.

What about this one? Everybody know it - the Dandelion, Taraxacum.

Gardeners normally treat it as a weed, but it is definitely edible. In fact it is more edible than most other plants; you can eat leaves, flowers and roots. Here in the UK (and elsewhere too) it has an image problem, being known mainly for its diuretic effect. the French call it "pissenlit" (bed-wetter). This is unfair, because the part of the plant with the strong diuretic effect is the root, which is seldom eaten. The leaves, on the other hand, make a competent salad ingredient, especially when blanched, which makes them sweeter. The name "Dandelion" is allegedly a corruption of the French "Dent de Lion" (Lion's tooth), being a reference to the pointed tooth-like edges of the leaves (see photo below).

What do you think of this statement, taken from Wikipedia:
"The dandelion plant is a beneficial weed, with a wide range of uses, and is even a good companion plant for gardening. Its taproot will bring up nutrients for shallower-rooting plants, and add minerals and nitrogen to soil. It is also known to attract pollinating insects and release ethylene gas which helps fruit to ripen."

Although this particular specimen is growing in my garden and not therefore wild, I offer it as a representative of its type - Allium ursinum, Wild Garlic, also known as Ramsons or Ramps.

This plant grows in damp woodland places, and if conditions suit it, spreads rapidly. For this reason, some people have said I ought not to have introduced it to my garden. So far, mine is under control, but I shall keep a good eye on it!

The Wild Garlic leaves have a strong garlic-ey smell and flavour, and I don't think I would enjoy this as a salad ingredient (though lots of people apparently do), but it is fine made into sauces or pesto. A small quantity added to buttered vegetables can be very pleasant.

If you are interested in foraging, maybe you would like to get some books on the subject. Try these for a start:
Food for Free by Richard Mabey (still the forager's "bible")
River-Cottage Handbook No7 - Hedgerow by John Wright
Wild Food by Roger Phillips

You might also be interested in this website: (My thanks to Lucy at Loose and Leafy for this link.)

If you need help with plant identification, you could try these people And yes, it is a team of people who will try to identify plants and fungi from photos you send in. They responded to an open query I posted on Twitter the other day, and I got a 95% certain ID within about 5 minutes of asking.


  1. All of these are my favourite ingredients for spring dishes. I use Dandelion and Wild Garlic leaves to make a salad. As for Cheekweeds, I have it a lot in my vegetable garden beds. Smile to that weed, it tells that the soil is well worked and fertile. I would add Sting Nettle to your list. I make a nettle sauce in spring when the nettles are the richest in nutrients. I prepare it in a similar way as spinach sauce, with garlic and cream. Besides, the nettles contain twice as much iron and other nutrients than spinach.

  2. I just can't bring myself to eat, what we know as, weeds. My rabbits enjoy munching on dandelion leaves though.

  3. We have lots of lots of chickweed here but I have never eaten though I knew it was edible. I pick it by the bucket and feed it to the chickens who absolutely love it (it is called chickweed for a reason). I have seen the bittercress and, of course, the dandelion but we are so dry that neither of them grow well here like the do in the North where I am from.

  4. My favorite spring wild edibles are dandelion greens, wild garlic and sweet grass...interesting post and subject. I'd like to add a few more favorites to my list :)

  5. Here in Cyprus the locals forage for wild asparagus which grows along the side of the road.

  6. Must admit I'm not brave enough for wild foraging. I'd happily pick wild blackberries and elderberries if we didn't have them on the plot but couldn't bring myself to eat weeds, We get lots of fat hen on the plot that is also supposed to be edible. I know it's illogical as the lettuce that we grow could be affected as much as wild plants but I worry about where rats have been, Wild watercress once grew in our garden pond and I wasn't 100% sure whether we should eat it as it could have been something other than watercress

  7. Well, I admit that I didn't know chickweed was edible, but I can report that I have enough on this acreage to stop world hunger. Mark, I hope you keep your foraging to plant material...rock soup doesn't sound very appealing! By the way, what about Poke weed, or as is known in southern U.S., "Poke Salad".

  8. I use a lot of chickweed for medicinals, and my hens love it. But, to me - it just tastes like a big mouthful of weeds. I like knowing I could eat if I had to to, but otherwise, no thanks!!

  9. There's far too much chickweed and hairy bittercress in my borders but I wouldn't eat any of it as I know there are foxes patrolling at night and leaving their calling cards! I'm with Sue on foraging for anything on ground level - I spotted a dead rat just the other day, thankfully not actually in the veg garden - although …. oh, let's not go there!

  10. Although there are a lot of wonderful edible fungi, I am afraid, Mark, I so much lack confidence in my identification skills, I dare not even eat a wild mushroom!
    Now hairy bittercress,absolutely superb, especially the larger leaved strains. Pity about all the grit on it splashed up from my sandy soil! I wonder about your Wiki quote. The writer must have a very poor lawn if the grass does not suppress it!

  11. Years ago, when we had budgies, one of their favourite treats was a posey of chickweed. I have it in spades over here and am getting quite fed up with it to be truthful. But I do support natural foraging and I really liked this post a lot.

  12. I'm not the best when it come to plant identification either - although I do know a dandelion when I see one. On our camping trips back in the 70's, my mom would pick dandelion greens to lace our salads - they were yummy! In fact, I'm fairly certain you can actually buy dandelion seeds nowadays for that very purpose.

  13. I'm interested in wild food too, though like you I usually stick to things like chestnuts and elderberries. I've tried chickweed from the plot and back garden before, adding it to sandwiches. I'm with Kate on this one, on its own it just tastes a bit weedy to me but know it's probably got more nutrients etc in it than cultivated salads. Maybe I'll try using it more this year.

  14. Nobody has mentioned ground elder, which is lightly steamed like cabbage. The Romans introduced it.


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