Some of the earliest wild Edibles
Cleavers, Chickweed and Nettles.
Slightly Later Spring Edibles
Dandelion, Garlic Mustard and Sheep’s Sorrel.
Cleavers foliage (Galium aparine)
Known for clinging (cleaving) to clothing and fur it’s not a good choice for the salad bowl due to its ‘raspy’ texture but steamed alongside other vegetables it’s lovely. Otherwise, try making it into a fresh herbal tea or juice with apples as a smoothie! It’s incredibly useful for detoxing and for any kind of gentle cleansing but it is also recognised for use in more chronic long-term illness, much like sheep’s sorrel. Its particular leaning is for clearing swollen lymph glands and treating skin diseases like eczema and seborrhoea.
Chickweed foliage (Stellaria media)
As a favourite of mine, this delicate tasting and textured herb is mild and fresh to the palate. I spoke about this wonderful herb in a blog/facebook on the 10th February when it was just emerging after winter. Its bright green foliage, sprawling habit and pretty tiny white flowers make it easy to spot (and all of this can be eaten). Medicinally it’s a skin soothing plant, often calming itchiness and rashes when all else has failed (eczema, psoriasis, nappy rash, varicose ulcers etc). But it will also be a useful anti-inflammatory plant for all chronic inflammation like rheumatic joints where it will encourage tissue repair.
Cautions- Use liberally but not internally in overly excessive amounts as it can cause diarrhoea and vomiting.
Nettle Leaves (Urtica dioica)
Well, who won’t recognise this! Brought to us by the Romans to keep themselves warm (urtication) it has been used internally as a spring tonic and vegetable ever since. Of importance for helping chronic inflammation, one could now say it has an added and very important modern disease significance.
It is hugely detoxifying and will join all the other ‘spring cleansing herbs’ in this role. It’s very high flavonoid levels increase urine production and will help speed up the elimination of waste products, equally helping arthritis, rheumatism, gout etc.
It is anti-allergenic and is a premier choice for Hay fever where its high level of histamine quickly prevents over-production of histamine which causes some of the hugely uncomfortable symptoms and drowsy feelings.
Pick the leaves as young as possible. This will keep a patch permanently young of course as you virtually crop it. Older stringy nettles are not pleasant and do change their biochemistry, so avoid.
Dandelion Leaves and Roots (Taraxacum officinalis)
The leaves of the dandelion are perhaps the most powerful diuretic in our foraging kingdom which like conventional diuretics won’t leave a deficit of potassium as they contain so much of it. Dandelion root is an extremely effective detoxifying agent and it works by motivating the liver and gallbladder to effectively remove all manner of waste products from environmental toxins to bacteria. Equally, it is also capable of stimulating the kidneys, increasing wastes exiting via the urinary system.
You can use both the root and leaf but I’d suggest the root going into smoothies balanced with cinnamon or carob to gently ‘sweeten’ the bitter roots. Whilst the leaves, although bitter, are a pleasant ‘bite’ in a spring salad and have a fresh light flavour compared to the older summer versions. Of course, the flowers are delightful visually added as ‘petals’ to any salad throughout the year.
Garlic Mustard Leaves (Alliaria petiolata)
This highly invasive [Jack by the Hedge] plant has both a mustard flavour with a ‘garlic like’ taste on top, which comes from its sulphur compounds. When young and tender these leaves are really the best season to enjoy it before they become tougher and much too bitter and stringy to enjoy. In fact, as prolific as it is, you can make a kind of pesto by adding olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper and a nut of your choice.
As a herbalist, its medicinal uses intrigues me because it comes from the hugely healing Brassicaceae/Cruciferae family renowned for their vitamin, mineral and antioxidant biochemistry. And true enough it is especially rich in vitamins A, C, magnesium, calcium and many trace elements. And also omega 3 fatty acids, flavonoids and of course the ‘isothiocyanetes’ which are natures antimicrobials like other members of that particular botanical family.
It’s a natural wound healing plant helping everyday cuts and abrasions but also internal ulcers. Equally, it will help asthma and reduce fevers. It will usefully stimulate circulation and promote general health as tissues and systems receive better oxygen supply and wastes are got rid of much more efficiently, thus working well as a ‘cleansing and detoxifying herb’. Keeping it raw in salads or smoothies is essential if you want to keep its hugely medicinal biochemistry intact.
In the past people wrapped (bruise the leaves beforehand) these leaves over wounds to keep infection away. (They also wrapped up food in them to keep the food fresher). They also used to wrap the leaves around rheumatic and arthritic (and gout) aches and pains with a hot water bottle on top.
An old recipe which I still make and use today is to add freshly chopped leaves to apple cider vinegar (liquidise together using as much foliage as possible) leave to soak for two weeks, strain and use. This is wonderful for bacterial and viral infections and will warm you through and help any chest/sinus infections as well.
Sheep’s Sorrel Leaves (Rumex acetosella)
These have long been used as a salad vegetable but they are also notorious as an ingredient in the famous Essiac formula due to their detoxifying properties. Equally, they make a good long-term treatment for all manner of chronic disease, in particular, those involving the intestinal tract.
More Foraging Help
My friend and herbal practitioner colleague Julie Bruton Seal wrote ‘Hedgerow Medicine’ and also ‘Wayside Medicine’ where she discusses 50 native plants as a herbalist in the most helpful and fascinating manner. Julie is also a foraging teacher running walks, courses and workshops. So if you want to get in touch, go to the International and Professional Foragers Association www.foragers-association.org. They specifically promote sustainable and ecological stewardship through their teaching methods.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Wild Picking
Clean source, away from pesticides, get permission from landowners. The list is long and the above website will really help you get your bearings.
Be really careful that you are 100% sure about what you are picking. I’ve watched people make mistakes thinking they’re really positive on their recognition skills. But the fact is that a ‘young’ plant can look very different to its mature self and leaf shapes and sizes that are not fully formed can be deceptive.
Be Sure to Avoid
Foxglove, Lords and Ladies, Common Ragwort, Hemlock and more.
To Help you be Safe and get it Right
‘Wild Flowers of the British Isles’ by David Streeter or/and ‘Poisonous Plants and Fungi’ by Marion Coopers.
Also and still a favourite of mine ‘Wild Food A Complete Guide” by Roger Phillips.
Making your own wild salad can be fun to do on a daily basis, varying the ingredients slightly each day. Decorating with dandelion petals and other wild flowers can be tasty and attractive.
Don’t Forget All The Emerging Young Leaves On Our Trees Too
Once the canopy of tree foliage starts emerging it’s time for us to look up rather than down. The potential harvest for our salad bowls is infinite but be quick, pick these delicate leaves at their really soft emerging state to harness the sweeter softer flavours:-
Birch Leaves (Betula pendula)
Silver birch leaves are a tiny bit bitter but lend a nice punch to other leaves. They are tremendously detoxifying as they remove toxins via the urine at speed and they are also antiseptic.
Hawthorn Leaves (Crataegus monogyna and other species)
Like birch leaves, hawthorn leaves are good at motivating the kidneys to release water and toxic waste more speedily. But the leaves are perhaps best known for improving heart function, helping to normalise blood pressure (high and low) and generally aiding circulation. (Later on, the hawthorn flowers will do the same, (but they do smell like cats pee!).
Enjoy your walks.