If you are thinking of foraging in the UK you may have searched the definition of foraging. If you look up the word ‘foraging’ in a dictionary, you will find:
gerund or present participle: foraging
- (of a person or animal) search widely for food or provisions. “the birds forage for aquatic invertebrates, insects, and seeds”
- obtain (food or provisions) by searching: “a girl foraging grass for oxen”
- search (a place) so as to obtain food: “units that were foraging a particular area”
In simple terms, it pretty much just means to search for food. Back in the stone age this is how the early humans would have survived, by looking for naturally growing food. This would have been our main way of obtaining foods along side hunting all the way up until the medieval period where trading was becoming much more prevalent. By this time, we had many more jobs to within the community other than a pure fight for survival meaning many people would have earned coins or other precious materials such as sheep’s wool or pottery for food.
Its now the 21st century and largely the need for foraging is long gone. Early day markets paving the way for the big supermarkets we have around every corner today. For some however, foraging is still a much loved hobby. For me, it was a childhood pass time that I never really appreciated, I was just too young to see its full potential but I would regularly go for bicycle rides with my dad around the quiet streets of the little market town I was raised in. On our way home we would always stop in one particular area next to wheat fields. This was home to a rather large blackberry bush that would give us a nice little snack for our journey home. Foraging, before I even knew what it meant to forage. Blackberries aren’t the only wild growing plant to feast on in the UK. Below I’ve compiled a list of things to forage for next time you go on a countryside walk.
1. Beech Nuts
The beech nut, from the beech tree is a seed like nut that falls as summer turns into autumn. You’ll likely see the spikey claw shaped cases that the nuts come in scattered all over pathways both in woodland and on your daily commute but perhaps you never realised that you can eat a nut that these cases hold. Whilst i pass a section of pavement lined with these shells is seems that finding the nuts is rare, they must be a favourite of the local wildlife, who rightfully deserve the first pick of the crop. Due to the presence of poisonous saponins, much like chestnuts, beech nuts must be cooked before eaten.
Now, what is a bilberry you ask, isn’t that a picture of a blueberry? Well, kinda. I personally cant tell the difference between bilberries and blueberries and as far as I can research, the only notable difference is the area of the world in which they grow. Bilberries grow around Europe and the UK whereas Blueberries grow in North America. So the bilberry is like our version of the blueberry. The bilberry bush is usually short, with oval slightly serrated bright green leaves and green stems. The older stems towards the bottom of the trunk will be light brown and woody.
A fruit we all know and love, these seedy little clusters of black balls filled with a tart, staining juice. The bushes of the blackberry are often called brambles and considered a rather pesky weed due to its long roots, thorns and ability to pop up out of nowhere. Blackberry bushes have dark green serrated leaves and sharp thorns down every stem to protect the bush from all the wildlife that enjoy blackberries. You can also eat blackberry leaves in salads but leaves are best taken when young, from plants that have not fruited yet.
Harvest: June – August
Now bullace is a difficult one for me to define because for many years I thought bullace fruit and damson fruit were the same thing. They certainly look very similar. This is because they come from the same family of plant and they are both considered wild plums. Bullace fruit is smaller and rounder than damson fruit, although still much larger than the sloe berry. Bullace fruit starts to grow on the fruit a very pale colour before ripening to a deep purple blue colour.
5. Chestnut (Sweet)
Chestnuts are a popular Christmas time treat here in the UK. You can buy them in most supermarkets but they must be cooked, usually roasted before eating due to the presence of saponins. Sweet Chestnuts are not to be confused with conkers that can be found all over the UK but are poisonous to both humans and dogs. Whilst chestnuts and conkers do look similar, they are easily distinguishable. Chestnuts have a lighter brown appearance with lines from bottom to top. Conkers are a very dark brown with no patterning or sometimes round lines similar to growth lines on a tree, if at all. If you would like a conker recipe, check out my conker soap recipe!
6. Crab Apple
The crab apple tree is very similar to most regular apple trees. Mostly grown for their decorative flowers and a common sight in many UK gardens and country sides. They’re so common in my area of the country we even have several roads named after them all within the same neighbourhood. Crab apples are roughly half the size of apples and generally less bright in colour, they can vary in colour like apples but instead of having a bright green to red shade its more of a muted yellow to pink. If you were to eat a crab apple straight from the tree you would likely be disappointed by its bitter taste, crab apples are much more suited to pies and jams. Crab apples are easy to spot, they can’t be mistaken for anything other than a true apple tree, and whose going to complain about that!
Harvest: September – October
I bet you didn’t know you can eat daisies! Whilst I prefer them more for their medicinal values, daisy flowers can be eaten too. Used mainly in salads and sandwiches (forget egg and cress, egg and daisy is where its at!) Their flavour reminds me of rocket. You can even pickle them and use them as a substitute for capers although i have never tried this myself.
Harvest: May – August
Dandelion is another flower commonly found in UK gardens, most gardeners seem to spend half their time trying to eradicate dandelion flowers and their leaves from gardens. I, however, get really excited when dandelion leaves start cropping up in my lawn. Why? Free salad of course! I love salads made with spinach and dandelion leaves and they’re also great in sandwiches too. The leaves are best picked when young before the flower has emerged. The flower is also edible however I prefer to use the flowers medicinally. If you’re not used to searching for dandelion leaves without the flowers, search for circular growths of jagged misshapen leaves that look like a larger, spikier version of rocket.
Harvest: April – June
The elder tree is so well utilised due to both the flower and the berry getting commercially used. Elderflower, the small what flower grown in clusters is a popular flavour for summer time drinks and in particular flavoured water and wines, although i have to admit floral tastes are not my favourite personally. For me the berries are much more appealing. The berries are tart and best mixed with other sweeter berries to make jams or dessert fillings these berries are great for your immune system and the main reason I search or them however in the winter berries can be scarce and I like to leave plenty for the birds.
Harvest: Flower April-August Berry: October-February
10. Garlic (Wild)
Wild Garlic, also known as Ramsons, is a strange little plant that you wouldn’t expect from the name. Typically when we think of garlic we think of a white bulb root that we can break apart and use as a fresh herb. Wild Garlic or Ramsons are a very different plant. Named wild garlic due to the smell that fills the air on warm summer evenings. I always say that it smells like garlic, tastes like onion and cooks like spinach. To me, its almost like all three vegetables in one. Its great in most dishes especially salads and stews. To identify wild garlic, look for long green leaves all coming from the base of the plant. If you are not careful you could mistake Lily of the valley, a poisonous plant for wild garlic. Lily of the valley will have stems that split of into different leaves so this is the main way to tell the plants apart as they both have very similar white flowers. Like many plants, the leaves are best consumed before the plant flowers.
Harvest: June – August
10. Gorse Flower
Gorse is a plant I am very familiar with, many of my regular walks involve long stretches of land lined with gorse bushes. Their bright yellow flowers stand out amongst their long, sharp needle covered stems. They are easily distinguishable. It wasn’t until i did a little research recently that i found out gorse flowers are edible so its not one i have tried personally. Care must be taken when picking these flowers. These plants are so laden with long thorns that people have actually died as a result of injury. In one case I have heard of, a man tried to squeeze through a gorse bush as a short cut, not realising how sharp it was and ended up stuck in the bush and had sadly passed away before he was found.
The Hawthorne tree can grow up to 13ft and features long oval leaves that split of into three lobes. They remind me of oak leaves but smaller. Hawthorne trees feature masses of little red berries, just like the ones your mum told you never to eat when you were young. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can eat these little berries as long as you have identified the correct tree. These little berries are full of antioxidant and anti inflammatory properties. Like many fruits they contain a little pip inside that contains trace amounts of cyanide so you want to avoid eating these pips.
Harvest: May – August
Hazelnuts, from the hazel tree are probably one of the most well known snacks on this list. They are common in shops both on their own and in mixed bags of nuts, often found in cereals and paired with chocolate. I love hazelnuts so much I’ve planted a hazel tree in my garden, although it may be a few years before I see any nuts. From a distance they do look a lot like chestnuts however hazelnuts are much smaller and like chestnuts you will have to break the shell to get to the nut inside.
Harvest: September – October
I had a huge honeysuckle bush for years before I found out it was edible. Honeysuckle flowers can be added to drinks, syrups or made into a tea of its own with a subtle sweet flavour. Honeysuckle has many medicinal properties and is largely used with those benefits in mind. Do not mistake similar looking lily flowers for honeysuckle.
Harvest: August – October
Mallow is a plant from the hibiscus family which is a common flavouring for many drinks especially herbal teas. The mallow plant particularly is regularly used for its medicinal benefits which are particularly useful during the cold and flu season. The leaves of mallow can be used much the same as spinach, wilted down and added to dishes or scattered through a salad.
Yes, stinging nettles, the ones you avoid and hope that you never find in your garden. Nettles are actually a pretty spectacular plant that you SHOULD have in your gardens. Not only are they vital for the survival of caterpillars but they are also edible. Once cooked, the nettles no longer sting. They can be used much like spinach, wilted down and added to a wide variety of dishes however the most common stinging nettle recipe would be for a very healthy nettle soup. To use nettle, find young unflowered plants away from roadsides or pathways to avoid any that have been used by dogs.
Harvest: March – June
If you go and look into your garden, on your lawns or even on your daily walk you will likely find some plantain, also called ribwort. This is a leaf that can be added to salads or used for its medicinal properties. You can identify the leaf by the lines running down the leaf all the way to the bottom.
17. Raspberry (Wild)
Raspberries! Did you know that they can grow naturally in the UK? They can however they are quite rare. Personally, i have only seen raspberries grow in places where they have been planted or encouraged and then left to grow freely where they will spread wildly just like blackberries. I haven’t seen any raspberries growing in the wild near me so i have planted a very small raspberry plant in my garden which 2 years later is well over 8ft tall and providing a glut of berries every summer.
18. Red Clover
Now i think everyone knows what a clover is, typically three leafed but occasionally you will find a four leaved clover which is considered good luck. But did you know that the clover plant actually flowers too? And, you can eat those flowers! Best used as an additional garnish for salads. Personally, I prefer to leave this one for the bees as it is a known favourite of theirs and particularly in the spring the bees are much more in need of the red clover flower than I am.
Harvest: April – July
Its probably no secret that rose petals are edible, the floral rose flavour is common in many sweets and drinks both soft and alcoholic but you probably had never thought of eating the fresh petals on your salad had you? Whilst roses do grow wild in the UK I find they are much more common in gardens. They are so common that you likely have a friend, family member or neighbour that grows them and they will likely let you have a flower or two if you ask them politely.
Likewise, before a rose turns into a flower it has a bulb called a rosehip. These are hard and always bright red, they remind me of a rose that has not opened its petals yet. These are also commonly used to make drinks or jams if you like the rose flavour.
Harvest: Petals: May-August Hips: November-February
20. Rosebay Willowherb
Rosebay willowherb, also known as fireweed is possibly my favourite plant on this list. Not only does it look absolutely stunning but you can use the flowers of this plant to make such a beautifully flavoured honey that i love to swirl into a yogurt. I’ll have a recipe for this amazing syrup coming soon so be sure to keep an eye out. Follow me on social media @healthyheartywholesome to make sure you don’t miss it.
21. Rowan Berries
The rowan tree, also called mountain ash is a really common tree around my area of the UK, they spread easily and I have had to remove one from my garden several times over. I never really realised how special they are. Not only is their wood strong and good for carving but their red berries are actually edible. They are slightly sour so best used in cooking and often paired with crab apples. You can distinguish rowan trees by searching for their bright red berries amongst long thin leaves that are almost fern like in shape with 5-8 smaller leaves making up one leaf.
Harvest: July – October
22. Sloe Berries
Sloe berries, from the blackthorn tree are a pretty common sight in UK woodlands and hedgerows. Looking similar to the damson and bullace with its dusky blue colours but much smaller, about the size of a blueberry. Sloe berries are very tart in flavour and commonly used to make sloe gin or in a mixed berry jam where the flavours are diluted. I havn’t yet found a recipe for them on their own unfortunatly.
Sorrel is a leafy green often found in lawns and green fields. Its leaves look similar to spinach although slightly more elongated with a split in the leaf near the stem to make them look almost arrow shaped. They can be used in much the same way as spinach, either in salads or wilted into various hot dishes. Avoid mistaking for meadow bindweed and arums (lords and ladies) which can look similar when young.
Harvest: May – September
24. Strawberry (wild)
To my knowledge, wild strawberries, also called alpine strawberries are quite rare in Britain. They were common in my neighbourhood whilst i was growing up often popping up through cracks in pavements and between paving stones in my childhood garden. Unfortunately, I don’t think i have come across them yet in Yorkshire. Typically they look just like cultivated strawberry plants only you will find that the strawberries themselves grow much smaller than those you may be used to eating.
Walnuts are nuts from the walnut tree and grow well in the UK although they are not native. They have very strong, desirable wood and their nuts are very popular at Christmas time especially. I have actually never come across a walnut tree however i am told they are commonly found around parks and fields. If anyone knows of a walnut location in or near Yorkshire please let me know!
26. Violet (sweet)
Sweet violets are where we get the violet flavour which has been artificially recreated to create things such as the Palma Violet sweet by Swizzels. Naturally, the flavour is much the same in my opinion, obviously without the added sugars. Sweet violet can easily be mistaken for the more common dog violet which looks very similar and both grow in woodland or shaded areas. The easiest way to tell the two apart is by smell. Sweet violets will have a strong sweet smell whereas dog violets will not smell at all.
Harvest: February – April
Mushrooms: A Warning!
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned one of the most popular foraging foods, mushrooms. Unless you have been specifically trained to identify mushrooms foraging for mushrooms can be seriously dangerous. For every edible mushroom out there, there are several identical poisonous options that will make you very ill or worse. In my opinion, picking mushrooms without proper knowledge just is not worth the risk. Look out for mycology courses in your area if this is something you want to look into. I have been trying to learn how to identify mushrooms for a while now and still cannot tell the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms. I went on a search for mushrooms recently, I picked one of every type of mushroom I could find in my local woodland and ended up with about 7 different mushrooms. Every single one was identified by a professional as a poisonous mushroom, just to point out how common dangerous mushrooms really are in the UK.