You may remember that at the start of the year, the kids and I set ourselves the challenge of learning more about both foraging and identifying our native wild plants in general. The inspiration came from our favourite walk, and our aim is to be able to identify all the plants we see on it. You can read more about what inspired us here.
Last weekend I attended a foraging walk with ethnobotanist Robin Harford. The walk was a Christmas present from my brother, and along with about 10 other enthusiasts, I spent the morning with him in Oxford. The course promised to introduce us to identifying wild edible plants, as well as learning their stories, their nutritional values, and their folklore and history. And that’s exactly what it did! Although I did of course take my camera with me, I didn’t get it out once. I simply listened, and touched, and smelled and tried to absorb all the amazing knowledge that Robin holds in his head. It was a totally fascinating morning, and it felt completely immersive – I could happily follow him around for days, and actually felt quite deflated having to get back on the train and return home.
So what did I learn? I learned that I need to be using all my senses in identifying plants, and not to simply rely on books. To feel each plant, to roll it around in my fingers and to smell it. To focus and take my time, giving my brain the opportunity to take in all the information, process it and allow it to retrieve the knowledge that it already holds.
I also learned that plants communicate and interact with each other, so you need to look at the bigger picture when foraging, and take in a plant’s environment. Not only the obvious stuff like not foraging where every dog from the neighborhood pees, or next to a busy road, but also looking at the whole plant community, and whether it is thriving, or if there are poisonous plants present. Plants like us, are all individuals. So one patch may have a totally different taste from another, even when they are the same species. Likewise, we all may react differently to a plant – what suits one of us, may not another.
I learned that wild plants have huge nutritional benefits. For example, studies suggest that the humble stinging nettle boasts three times more iron than spinach, seven times more vitamin C than oranges, as much calcium as cheese and as much protein as some beans and chicken. It also claims some impressive medicinal properties, which frankly, makes you wonder why we aren’t all eating it.
It was also great to taste some wild edibles in a safe environment, Cow parsley, for example is something that I had never tried before, as I am always concerned over identification, and more importantly that the kids will copy me and get their identification wrong. Even plants that we know well, such as brambles turned out to be a surprise – did you know that their new stems are edible and have a coconut taste? Apparently they pickle well, which is something we will be trying.
The knowledge that I gained on the foraging course has already made such a difference to how I approach wild plants. I am seeing the world around us far more clearly, amd we are taking small steps to introduce more wild food into our diet. We are trying one edible plant at a time, here it is Alliaria petiolata (Garlic Mustard, Hedge Garlic, Jack by the Hedge), which we have tried both raw and in a familiar meal.
There are thousands of edible plants out there, and we are just taking our first tiny steps into the foraging world, but each plant that the kids and I learn to identify and use, feels like a step closer to both nature and our ancestral roots.
I would like to point out, as someone kindly did in the comments below, that foraging from the edge of agricultural land can result in picking plants that are contaminated with both the chemicals sprayed on crops, and pathogens from animals. Although our foraging walk crossed over this land, and I have included photos, we did not gather any edibles from these areas.