Our mild autumn here on the Isle of Wight, means that the foraging season has been extended and you can still find some of nature’s edible goodies in the hedgerows, forests and fields, plus materials to make useful and beautiful things and even medicines if you wish.
Vav Simon is a chiropractor and healer who works with both humans and animals and Julian Drummond is a self-taught forager and wilderness survival expert. But remember when foraging that it is in fact illegal to take flora and fauna from land without the owner’s permission, although quite often they will turn a blind eye.
“There is a huge difference between foraging and trying to live from the land,” stressed Vav Simon. “Lots of things are readily available but taste awful and you wouldn’t want to eat them. Equally lot of things are nice to eat but need to be processed in a kitchen.” Vav has a company with husband Dave called Hedgerow Harvest, making jams, chutneys and liqueurs and runs courses in the summer. Next year she will be running ‘Living Off Of The Land’ with falconer Steve Hain, which sounds particularly exciting.
The first thing that Vav points out is a plant that looks a bit like fat cow parsley – Hogweed can be used in a tempura. The tall aniseed smelling fennel next to it is a natural flea and nit remedy if you grind the seeds into a powder and dust them on to the head (or animal). Valerian root can be used as a sedative although the bright pink variety we have more commonly in this country is too strong for human consumption. Ripwort Plantain can be wrapped around a wound like a plaster smooth side down or rib side down if you want to draw out a splinter, according to Vav, and plantain heads would have been used as a form of corn.
Comfrey is also known as ‘knit bone’ and can be eaten but was more often used to make ointments and the leaves used as a poultice as the active ingredient symphytum has bone healing properties. Willow is the natural source of aspirin and people would have chewed the twigs, although you can make concoctions from the bark.
“If you were starving you could eat thistle stalks but you’d have to be starving – boiled they would be a bit like celery. Burdock root is what you would survive on carbohydrate wise but it tastes foul,” said Vav. “You’d probably expend more effort on digging it up though,” she laughed. “Chickweed is a good salad crop or you can make pakoras with it that are high in nutrients. You can also eat horseradish – the leaves are like that of a parsnip and wild horseradish root is about the size of a carrot.”
This has been a good year for sloe berries and Vav Simon had some enormous ones, that are more likely to be bullace, in her hedgerows at Aldermoor farm where she has an animal chiropractic and healing centre. Sloes and bullace are more bitter relatives of damsons and plums and are used to make sweet strong gin.
Blackberries are now over but rowan berries are still plentiful and can be used to make jelly. Hawthorn berries are everywhere and would have been used to make a heart tonic, according to Vav. “You can make fruit leathers from Hawthorn berries and liqueurs can be made with them,” she explained. “Rose hips make sweet rose hip syrup, very high in vitamin C, and children scrape out the inside of the hip to make itching powder.
“Brambles can also be used to make cordage – you need to strip the outside layer off and use the more pliable centre of the stems. Nettles are also good for this but again the outside has to be removed and rotting the stems slightly will soften the outer layers.” Nettles are also a good source of food and can be made into soups or used in quiches and stews. You pick out the tender tops of the plants carefully (wearing gloves!), preferably in the spring when they first emerge, and cooking will destroy their sting.
In the woods…
Up in the woods Julian Drummond made me my first ever pine needle tea. For this you just need to break up some pine needles and add hot water that has been boiled and then left to cool for a few minutes. The result is a fresh clean tasting drink with a slightly resinous aftertaste that is very pleasant and high in vitamin c according to Julian.
Chestnuts and hazelnuts have been abundant this autumn but the former have been quite small within their cases and there’s been a bumper crop of acorns on the oak trees. Squirrels are particularly fond of acorns but we can only eat them if they’re leached with water to get rid of the tannins and the bitter taste. “Acorns are edible if you process them and high in tannin, which is good for closing wounds,” explained Julian.
Ones to avoid…
“Dock leaves are edible but bitter and best picked in the spring when they are young. Dandelion too, but the smaller and younger the less bitter it is,” said Julian. It’s probably best to steer clear of anything that looks like parsley as Water Dropwort and Hemlock have similar leaves and are poisonous.
Foxglove and Mullein have medicinal uses but the former is also poisonous and it’s illegal to pick it anyway. The seed inside the yew berry is very poisonous. “If you sit under a yew tree in the summer it can make you drowsy,” said Julian.
If you fancy forgaing with an expert, Julian runs courses on how to survive in the wild during the summer months and you can arrange foraging walks with him too. Call him on 07917 773888 or contact him at Julian@ancientwisdomschool.com
Note: We have not covered fungi in this article for obvious reasons. You have to be very careful when foraging for food, but never more so than when looking for mushrooms. Do not eat anything, especially fungi, without consulting an expert!