With wild berries and verdant greens all abundantly available, late summer and early autumn are peak season for foragers. But if the thought of all this natural bounty has got you reaching for your wellies, stop and ask yourself whether you really know what you’re looking for. Not everyone knows the difference between a chanterelle and a magic mushroom, so if you don’t fancy tripping as you eat your supper, its worth getting some advice from those in the know. We asked forager Fergus Drennan to share his wisdom.
‘Wild food plants can be found in the most unlikely locations, including in built-up urban environments if you have the knowledge,’ says Fergus. And the best way to accumulate a stock of foraging wisdom is to get out there and experience it for yourself, as books and guides can only take you so far. A short course such as the one run by Fergus is a good way to get started but there’s nothing wrong with getting out there on your own, as long as you’ve familiarised yourself with the species to avoid before you start picking. With foraging, the devil really is in the details. Many species of plants are strikingly similar, especially when they are growing together in close quarters, so getting out there and learning to recognise the small differences is essential.
So what’s on offer during the late summer months? According to Fergus, summer is the prime time for hunting for seaweed along the coast and also for checking out the hedgerows for blackberries, cherry plums and wild damsons. Along with hedgerows, the edges of fields and woodland, and wasteland are great for elderberries, rosehips and crab apples as well as blackberries. What’s more, fungi fans will be spoilt for choice. ‘Giant puffball, summer truffle, chanterelle, parasol, fairy ring and jelly ear are just some the mushrooms to look out for at this time of year,’ says Fergus. Woodland, arable land, parks and gardens are also good places to start your mushroom mission.
But it’s not just the prospect of free food that makes foraging rewarding: it can also help to establish a deeper connection with nature. The experience of picking wild plants for food lets you get to grips with natural world as a valuable resource. Modern life means that we tend to overlook the fact that we once depended on foraging for survival. There’s also a lot of old-fashioned plant lore that’s been supplanted by modern mores but can prove a helpful addition today. ‘With repeated encounters with plants in different habitats, after a while you’ll find that when you walk into a new area, you’ll be able to look around and guess fairly accurately the range of plants you’re about to see,’ says Fergus. And while being able to spot food plants from a distance is no longer essential for survival, it does mean that a free lunch is within your grasp.
Free food: what to pick right now
Fruit: Late summer and early autumn is the peak time of year for berries, so expect to find elderberries, black nightshade berry (caution advised), dog rosehips, mulberries and rowanberries everywhere you look. Also easy to spot are haws, staghorn sumac berries, blackberries, dewberries, bilberries, sloes, sea buckthorn berries, apples, crab apples, rowan berries, pears, figs, Hottentot figs, Himalayan honeysuckle berries (caution advised), yew berries (lots of caution advised), cherry plums, greengages, Juniper berries and hops.
Leaves: While late summer leaves don’t have the tenderness of spring’s young shoots, they more than make up for it in flavour. Watercress, sea aster, seabeet, sea purslane, perennial wallrocket, fat hen, water mint and other mints, Canadian fleabane, sow thistle, wood sorrel, common sorrel, ox-eye daisy, sea plantain, marsh samphire (tips), bristly ox-tongue are all easy to find.
Flowers: More than just a splash of colour, yarrow, heather, common mallow are all good to eat.
Roots/bulbs: You’ll need to get your hands dirty to get hold of burdock, horse radish, dandelion root and ramsons (wild garlic) but for adding extra flavour to soups and stews, they’re unbeatable. Use the burdock to brew up an old-fashioned batch of dandelion and burdock.
Nuts/seeds: Walnuts are still soft right now, so great for making pate, while beechnuts, Himalayan balsam seeds, hazelnuts, wild carrot seeds, fennel seeds, poppy seeds and common hogweed seeds all make worthy additions to the salad bowl.
Fungi: Giant puffball, summer truffle, chanterelle, parasol, fairy ring, jelly ear, penny bun and other boletes are all available right now as is the fly agaric, which needs to be treated carefully as it’s full of toxins that need to be carefully soaked out before consumption. Also worth hunting for are summer truffles, cauliflower fungus, beefsteak fungus, and the classic white field and horse mushrooms.
Seaweed: Find dulse, laver, Carragheen, grape pip weed, oyster thief draped along the seashore in company with most of the wrack species (bladder, toothed, horned, egg, spiral) and kelp.
Fergus' top tips
• Establish a relationship with your plants: get to know them through research
• Find out why and where your chosen plants grow? Think about their needs - and yours?
• Don’t believe the fear mongers: 100 percent certainty is not always the way to go. Experimenting with new plants is great way to gain knowledge
• Do harvest and germinate seeds, propagate wild plants and plant them out in areas where you have been harvesting them for food
• Try to see plants in their early stages of growth - it helps significantly with identification later because often the mature plant looks different
Do and don’ts
• Don’t pick up red spotted toadstools - they’re pretty but deadly
• Do avoid fungi that smell inky and/or flush canary yellow immediately on cutting the stem base
• Don’t eat members of the Amaranthaceae or Goosefoot family if they have a strong scent or mealy bladder hairs
For more foraging tips from Fergus, see www.wildmanwildfood.com
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