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 Carrot Family – Apiaceae
Alexanders Smyrnium olusatorum
A common plant in coastal areas but spreading inland over the last 20 years. I have seen it on top of a mountain on the Portuguese-Spanish border and beside a canal in Wiltshire, England. All parts are edible. The leaves can be used any time as a pot herb or in pestos. The young tender shoots are great added to spring salads. The flower buds, stems and roots make delicious spring vegetables. The black seeds make great bitter and peppery spice.
Hogweed Hieracleum spondylium
Hogweed, not to be confused with it’s enormous cousin giant hogweed, is a common plant along hedgerows, verges and rough grassland. It is one of the best wild vegetables with a very long season starting with the young leaves in late winter and going right through to the ripe seeds in August. Depending on the way the land is managed, you can find plants at every stage of growth most of the year. Pick the young leaves in late winter, choose the ones that are not fully open. As the stem starts to grow you can pick the buds of the side shoots, again before the leaves open. When the flower buds form these too can be picked. The flowers are generally not used but the seeds are a great wild spice. The young fat green seeds have a lovely bitter citrus flavour while the fully ripe flat dry seeds add cardamom to the mix. The leaves, shoots and flower buds are cooked like asparagus as vegetable or can be done in a light batter like tempura. Use the young seeds to contrast with sweet vegetables like carrots while the fully ripe seeds are great in stews, curries, soups etc.
Wild Chervil, Cow Parsley Anthriscus sylvestris
A lovely spring herb, wild chervil grows along hedgerows and woodland margins and sometimes in the open too. The basal leaves begin in December or January and stay close to the ground until the weather starts to warm up in March when they put up their branching flower stems. The leaves and young stems are used as a pot herb or in pestos where you might use parsley. It is to hairy to use in salads. It is very important that you identify this plant correctly. There are a number of related deadly poisonous plants, Hemlock, Fools Parsley and some of the Water Dropworts. If you are not sure of your identification do not eat it. Wild chervil smells a bit like parsley, the deadly hemlock smells like a mouse nest. The deadly water dropworts all grow near or in water so take extra care near rivers, ponds and marshes.
Sweet Cicely Myrrhis odorata
Very similar in appearance and habitat to wild chervil but more common in the north of the British Isles. It is easily distinguished from wild chervil by the pale spot in the middle of each leaf and the smell of aniseed from all parts of the plant. As with wild chervil great care must be taken when collecting this plant so as to avoid the deadly poisonous look alikes. The leaves and young stems are used as a pot herb or in pestos. It is also a great flavouring for cordials and spirits. The seeds a great wild spice used like aniseed. Sweet cicely also acts a sweetener with sour things like rhubarb, gooseberries and black currants so that you can reduce the amount of sugar needed.
The Mustard Family – Brassicaceae
Wintercresses and Bittercresses Barbarea spp. and Cardamine spp.
These spring flowering cresses all have that lovely sweet mustardy taste. There are many species. The wintercresses are generally found in drier compacted habitats and have yellow flowers while the bittercresses prefer wetter places and have white or pink flowers. The basal leaves are the main part used, which are like miniature watercress.
Horseradish Amoracia rusticana
Horseradish is available all year round but the leaves die back in the winter so it is difficult to find. In spring the leaves start to grow again appearing first as a crown of white and green prong like buds in April which grow into large oblong shiny green leaves. They can be confused with docks but have the distinctive mustardy smell when crushed. The young leaves can be used as a spicy herb but it is the root that is the main part used to make sauces with a distinctly hot taste.
Garlic Mustard, Jack by the Hedge Alliaria petiolata
Garlic mustard is a wonderful spring plant. The first leaves appear in late March and it grows into a tall thin plant with a spray of tiny white flowers by late May. Often to be seen sunning itself in front of a hedge. With their mild garlicky mustardy taste the young leaves are perfect for a spring salad. Later in the season the more mustardy green seed pods add a bit of spice. The ripe seeds can be collected in June or July to use as a spice.
The Pink Family -Caryophyllaceae
Chickweeds Stellaria spp.
A very common group of plants found on disturbed ground in all sorts of habitats. They are easy to recognise with their bright spring green foliage, pairs of pointed ovals leaves on long struggling stems, and their tiny white star like flowers with five split petals. Chickweeds taste fresh and green, a bit like spinach. They are the perfect base for a spring salad to offset the stronger tasting leaves around at this time of year. Chickweed is also good as a vegetable cooked like spinach or as part of a hedgerow pesto.
Stitchworts Stellaria spp.
Stitchworts are late spring plants. They are easily overlooked when not in flower with their grey-green, narrow, pointed, grass-like leaves. Once flowering they are more obvious with a large version of the chickweed flower. The best part for foraging are the unopened flower buds which have a lovely fresh pea like taste. The rest of the plant is tough and wiry. Use the flower buds in a salad or as a garnish.
White Campion Silene alba
Campions come in two colours, white and red/pink. Only the white ones are safe to eat. They are robust plants about 30cm to 4ocm tall with pairs of pointed oval leaves. The flowers have a bulbous green calyx tube out of which the white petals emerge. The five petals are deeply notched. The similar white flowered Bladder Campion Silene vulgaris and Sea Campion Silene maritima are also edible. The flowers of these campions make a lovely sweet snack when out foraging and are perfect for decorating salads and desserts.
The Pea Family Fabiaceae
Gorse Ulex europea
A very common plant of heathland and dry sandy places. Gorse is a small shrub easily recognised by its sharp spiny leaves and bright yellow pea flowers. There is an old country saying that “kissing is in season when the gorse is in flower”. Gorse flowers can be found almost all year round but is at its best in March and April. When the sun is shining the flowers give off the exotic scent of coconut which is carried on the spring breezes. The flowers are the only part used and have a delicate pea flavour with the addition of coconut when collected from the sunny side of the bush. Use them in a spring salad, stir into rice dishes or make your own coconut liqueur.
Broom Cytisus scoparius
A common upright shrub of heathland and dry sandy places. Broom has short narrow leaves held close to the stems and produces long sprays of bright yellow flowers (cultivated varieties have flowers ranging from white to dark orange) in April and May. Much easier to collect than gorse, because of the lack of spines, broom flowers have traditionally been used to make a country wine. The flowers have a lovely pea like taste and are excellent for spring salads, stirred into rice dishes or as a foraging snack.
Vetches Vicia spp
These small scrambling herbs start to appear in late spring in grasslands, hedgerows and woodland glades. Their flowers are mostly varying shades of pink or purple. Like other members of the pea family they taste of peas. The flowers and young seed pods are the best parts to forage. Tufted Vetch is a good one to find with its large sprays of purple-blue flowers. A good tasting one is Bush Vetch which has very sweet pea pods. The commonest is Common Vetch with pairs of purple-pink flowers. The flowers and pods are best used in salads to keep the fresh pea taste.