From early March the plants awaken from their winter slumbers. Bright green spring growth is popping up everywhere but the best place to search is in the woods. A succession of wild flowers carpet the ground. First, in late February, come the white snowdrops and sun yellow winter aconite, then the wood anemones and lesser celandine, and in damper places moschatel and golden saxifrages. Cushions of primrose and violets bejewel the sunnier banks and rides and then in May the bluebells create one of the wonders of the natural world carpeting the woodland floor in purple and blue. Less famed, but equally wondrous, are the white carpets of wild garlic in flower on stream-sides and wet hollows accompanied by the heady scent of the garlic.
The hedgerows also come alive in Spring. It starts with the wild plums, cherry plum and bullace, then the blackthorn. Their white blossoms made whiter by the contrasting black branches. Then the buds burst and bright green leaves change the backdrop. On the heaths the golden yellow gorse flowers shine out against dark green foliage. Late March and the willow catkins add a soft grey green hue and the bright green “nuts in may” of the hawthorn leaves light up the lanes. Mid April brings the hawthorn blossom, like cream poured across the green hedges, and the cherries in white and shades of pink. After the cherry comes the apple blossom, white blushed with pink. By the end of May the scent of elderflower and then roses fill the air with frothy white and bouquets of pink.
With the whole plant kingdom bursting into life it is easy to gather twenty or thirty good edible plants on a short walk through the woods and quiet lanes. Perfect for a refreshing spring salad, a hedgerow pesto, a vibrant soup and simple green vegetables.
The Garlic Family Alliaceae
Wild Garlic Allium ursinum
Wild garlic is the plant that really kick’s off the foraging season in spring. It is a common plant in damp woods around springs and along the wooded banks of streams and rivers. It covers the ground apparently to the exclusion of other plants creating great carpets of white garlic smelling blossom. It is one of the easiest plants to forage and you can collect bagfuls of leaves in a short time while making very little impact on the garlic patch as a whole. Like all of natures abundant harvests it has a very short season. The leaves start to appear from the mud in early March, it is in flower by mid April and has gone to seed before the end of May. All parts are good to eat but the bulbs are very small so it is best to leave them in the ground for next years crop. The large spear shaped leaves have many uses, raw in salads and dips, cooked as a vegetable, or processed into soups, sauces and pestos. They can be pickled and lacto fermented too. The flower buds are stronger flavoured than the leaves and are excellent as a flavour bomb raw, as a pickle in vinegar or oil. The young green fruits are stronger still and can be made into garlic capers and the ripe black seeds make a lovely garlic pepper.
Three Cornered Leek & Few Flowered Leek Allium spp.
These are two very similar plants with narrow strap like lives with a distinct midrib. Both have a sharply triangular flower stem and the typical head of white garlic flowers. The difference between the two is that in the few flowered leek many of the flowers in the head form round green bulbils instead of flowers. Three cornered leek is common in the south east, especially near the coast. Few flowered leek is commonest in the West and North. They grow in more open habitats than wild garlic but can still cover large areas. They can be used in the much same way as wild garlic, as a vegetable, in pestos, soups and so on but the leaves are tougher so are best cut up before cooking.
Crow Garlic Allium vineale
This is a tricky plant to spot growing in coastal grassland. It has narrow tubular leaves, like chives but with a grey-green bloom, and grows in loose clumps. The tips of the leaves twist and spiral which distinguishes crow garlic from the close relatives such as field garlic, Allium oleraceum, sand leek, Allium scordoprasum, etc. These plants along with crow garlic are best used as a flavouring herb.
The Rose Family Rosaceae
Orchard Fruit Blossom Prunus, Malus, Pyrus and Cretaegus spp.
These familiar trees comprising the stone fruits and pomes mark the passage of spring with their blossom and it is the blossom that can be foraged and used. The season starts with the wild plums, bullace and cherry plum in February or March, then sloes and Almonds in March, the Cherries in April and the Pears, Apples and May Trees in late April and May. The seeds of all of these trees contain very small amounts of cyanide (it would take a cup full of ripe apple pips to make a lethal dose) which give them the distinct flavour of almonds. The flowers can be used fresh to decorate salads and desserts, made into syrups or crystallised in sugar, or infused into spirits.
Rose Petals Rosa spp.
Roses are one of the last spring flowers blooming in late May and June. The petals of the flowers make delicious cordials, syrups and sorbets with their wonderful perfumed fragrance. The stronger the smell the better the flavour. The colour is also taken up in the extraction creating white, yellow, pink and red depending on the rose used. Pick the petals after the flowers have been pollinated and you can leave the hips to develop to harvest later in the autumn. Rose petals can also be used in salads and desserts as decoration but you should remove the green base of each petal as this can be quite bitter. They can also be crystallised in sugar.
Meadowsweet Fillipendula ulmaria
This is a plant that grows in wet places, in woods, along river bank, marshes. It has long arching leaves divided up into five paired oval leaflets, green above and grey-green below. It flowers in late June with sprays of fluffy cream, sweet scented blossom. The leaves have a bitter medicinal taste that was used to flavour beers or as a pot herb. The flowers, with their sweet scent were used to flavour mead and this is where the common name comes from, originally mead sweet. The flowers can be used to make cordials, small beers, wines, sorbets or fried into sweet fritters as a dessert.
The Mint Family Lamiaceae
Dead Nettles Lamium spp.
Dead nettles look similar to stinging nettles but don’t sting. They are obvious when they are in flower as they have whorls of white, yellow or pink flowers around the stem. As in all members of the mint family the flowers are tubular with a large lower lip with an arching hood over the top. The lip is often marked with various spots and lines depending on the species. The young leaves and flowers can be used raw in salads and desserts or cooked as a green vegetable.
Water Mint Mentha aquatica
Mints are easy to recognise because of their smell. They a low growing herbs and there are at least a dozen species plus hybrids. Water mint is one of the easiest to recognise because it grows in or near water. It has dark green rounded leaves often flushed with purple. Use it as a flavouring herb or make into teas, cordials and desserts.
Ground Ivy, Ale hoof Glechoma hederacea
This is a low growing, straggly, sweet smelling herb carpeting shady paths and open woodland. It has rounded green leaves and dark purple-blue flowers. You often notice the smell of this plant before you see it as you crush the leaves walking on it. Ale hoof comes from its traditional use as a flavouring for beers and meads. It can also be used as a flavouring herb, as a tea, in cordials, desserts, salads and sauces.
Hawthorn, Whitethorn, May Cretaegus spp.
Hawthorn leaves are traditionally gathered as the buds burst. They have a number of local names such as bread and cheese or, as in the well known nursery rhyme, nuts in May. Use them as snack along the path or gather for spring salads.
Beech Fagus sylvatica
The young leaves of beech trees are bright green, thin and almost translucent. They have a delicate refreshing taste. Use them as a base leaf for stronger flavoured herbs in a salad. They are also good steeped in gin for a couple of months to make a beech leaf noyau liqueur.
Rowan, Mountain Ash Sorbus aucuparia
The very young tender leaves of rowan have a delicious marzipan flavour. Use them in salads, dessert or as a snack along the path.
Nettles Urtica dioica
Nettles or stinging nettles are one our unsung super foods. They are a rich plant source of vitamin C, protein and iron. Not only are they good to eat, they have many health properties, can be used to make ropes, clothes, fertiliser to grow other foods and more. They should be familiar to most people as they like to grow near man. They often indicates sites of human activity in the wild being found round derelict buildings, charcoal burner mounds, abandoned gardens and so on. In spring the young tips of the plant are the best part to collect. Pick the top part of each shoot down to the second or third pair of leaves. To neutralise the stinging hairs pop them into boiling water for a couple of minutes. Drain them off and they are ready to use in pestos, soups, sauces or as vegetable like spinach.
Cleavers, Goosegrass, Sticky Willy Galium aparine
This common plant has many names and is familiar to all, even those that don’t know it’s name. A favourite of children everywhere as it sticks to what ever you throw it on. Cleavers is covered in tiny hooked hairs that help it clamber over other plants like nettles and cow parsley. It is in the same family as coffee and the small round fruits can be roasted to make a sort of coffee. It is a detoxifying herb good for the lymph system and the kidneys. Use the young spring growth as a vegetable mixed with other spring greens like nettles or as part of a hedgerow pesto. You can also make a cold infusion in water as a detoxing drink.
Spring Beauty, Miner’s Lettuce Montia perfoliata
Spring Beauty is a native of North America that has escaped into the wild in the south of England. It is a low growing herb. It has a short stem which produces first one fleshy, rounded, diamond shaped leaf, then when it flowers a second leaf which is fused to the first with the flower stem emerging from the middle of the two. The flowers are tiny and which which contrast with the bright green leaves. It is the richest plant source of omega 3 oil. It is a refreshing crunchy snack like an iceberg lettuce leaf and makes the perfect base for spring salads. You can also use it to make a green chlorophyll packed smoothie or cook it as a spinach-like vegetable.
Elder, Elderberry Sambucus nigra
The elder is one of the foragers friends. Most seasons of the year it is worth checking on a clump of elders as they are the host tree for the wood ear mushroom which appear anytime of year after rains. In spring, in May and early June the elder comes into flowers, covered in big white umbels of frothy white blooms. These have a delicious sweet smelling flowers are made into a range of refreshing drinks from simple lemonades to cordials, wines and champagne. The flowers can also be used to garnish salads and dessert or made into sweet fritters.