As spring arrives, Dr Sid Hick our foraging expert introduces us to a whole new way of looking at the weeds in our gardens and highlights some excellent herbs to be found in our hedgerows…
Hardly have the new shoots of spring sprung, let along the first cuckoo cuckooed, than the forager is emerging from his lair. Bearlike, having spent the winter living off flounders and the fat laid down in autumn, he has little time or energy for marauding over bleak downs in search of succulent tips when the first port of call for free food is his own back garden.
Plants that many consider weeds are ideal fodder in the early spring. None other than the esteemed garden designer Gertrude Jekyll suggested early in the 1900s that gardeners should seek revenge on Bittercress by adding it to sandwiches. She was absolutely right too, as used sparingly the peppery taste adds an extra dimension to an otherwise dull platter, or can be used copiously in place of soft spring herbs once cooked to diminish the cress’ inherent astringency.
Elsewhere in the garden, look for lush mounds of Chickweed; the very tip sprigs of this plant are an excellent salad leaf at a time when most salads are air freighted from the Middle East. Weeds collected at this time have a tendency to be quite gritty from rain splash, so collect during a spell of fine weather. If washing really is necessary, ensure that Chickweed is dripped dry before eating; otherwise, at best it is like eating mush and at worst, it will give colic that would make a horse blush.
Gathering weeds from one’s own garden will have the added bonus of being free from weed killer. The next door neighbour may not share our appreciation of weeds, seeing them solely as the resistance in the struggle towards Petuniary utopia.
When we venture further afield, we once again start taking risks with our selection of wild forage. Coastal hedgerows will have plenty of Alexanders to be picked. This herb has a choice celery taste to it; the young plant is also less stringy now than later in the year, when it may be confused with less palatable and inedible members of the parsnip family. Alexanders is one of the legion of plants believed to be medicinal, whereas its true beneficence is that it belongs to a smaller group of plants that are simply, truly benign.
Not so the “high risk” plant, Bracken. Bracken has a long history of usage in Britain and abroad; the only continent on Earth without this species is Antarctica. Early Britons used dried Bracken to pack meat and fish for its preservative properties. The Japanese pick the very young spring crosiers and treat them as an asparagus-like delicacy. Having tried this personally, there is a lot to recommend it, however Bracken has documented carcinogenic properties. Japan also has higher than base rate cases of stomach cancers. You are an adult, you act responsibly, you decide…
Read Dr Sid Hick’s second instalment in Wondrous Weeds & hedgerow harvests… free food to be foraged. Part II