Do you know your three-cornered leek from your hairy bittercress? Have you joined the wild garlic gang? On our podcast our super-keen in-house forager Barney Desmazery joins host Janine to share some edible plant treasures which often grow wild in the churchyards, parks and towpaths that wind through our cities. He explains what foraging can bring to a cooks table and gives plenty of advice on how to forage responsibly. Here we pick out some highlights.

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Listen to our interview with Barney on the olive podcast here:


Do your research on what you can and can't forage

If you're just getting started with foraging, make sure to arm yourself with some resources – either a good book or trusted websites. A good place to start is Food For Free by Richard Mabey, The Forager’s Calendar by John Wright or The Edible City by John Rendon.

Go out with someone else first who knows what they’re picking. There are lots of rules to follow and if you eat the wrong plant it can be extremely poisonous.

Ethically, you should always have the landowner’s permission and never pick more than you need. Remember that nature relies on what you’re picking more than we do, so don’t be greedy with what you take.

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Family group foraging for wild mushrooms in a forest

Never eat any foraged plant you're unsure about

This can’t be overemphasised: never, ever eat anything you’re not sure about. There are plenty of common plants that will kill you and don’t have a cure.

When it comes to urban foraging it can be more about identification than getting yourself a free dinner. Some plants have both edible and non-edible parts and for others it might not be clear what plant it is until it flowers, for example with bluebells and three-cornered leeks. The three-cornered leek smells mildly of garlic if you snap it open and smell it, but you could pick a bluebell that hasn't flowered yet thinking it's a three-cornered as they would look very similar at that point – and a bluebell is in fact poisonous.

Even when you know what something is, for example with wild garlic which is easier to identify, you need to make sure that you haven’t accidentally also picked up other plants with it too, such as dog mercury or cuckoo-pint. If you were to blitz them into a wild garlic pesto it could make you really ill as they’re toxic.

Another potential risk to be aware of is the toxic sap from a plant dripping onto an edible part of that same plant.

Person foraging in a forest

Be respectful with what you forage

Even after obtaining a landowner's permission to forage, you still need to be respectful. Digging up wild plants is illegal, as this would prevent them from coming back the following year. It’s not about obtaining sustenance from these plants, but more about having a taste of the wild or the enjoyment of finding and identifying them. You can even just take a photo if you don't plan on cooking with it.

It's worth being aware that not all parks are common land, and if they're owned by someone else, then you do have to specifically ask for permission from them to forage.

View of wild garlic in a forest

How to pick plants when foraging

As a starting point, take a normal, sturdy pair of scissors and a plastic bag. Depending on what you’re picking you may also need a pair of gardening gloves, for example with stinging nettles so you don't get stung or prickled by brambles.

Leave roots in tact and don’t forage all from the same spot. Nettles might be seen as a pest, but in fact bees need them for pollination. If it's not an invasive plant it's there for a reason as it serves a purpose in our ecosystem.

Primrose, for example, is illegal to pick due to depleting numbers. They used to be in abundance all over the roadsides - the first flowers are beautiful on desserts and in salads - but they’re now illegal to pick.

If you have dandelions in your garden (or somewhere else where you have permission to do this), when it’s starting to come up, cover it with a plant pot to blanche it. This makes the leaves paler and goes really well in French salads.

A close-up view of picking wild garlic in a woodland in Kent, UK. Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is a medium-sized bulbous perennial with a distinctive and pungent garlicky smell that pervades woodland in spring.

Wild garlic foraging

Many people have been introduced to the concept of foraging through wild garlic due to its massive insurgence on social media. Wild garlic grows in abundance and is an indicator of ancient woodland and soil diversity.

Although it does grow in large quantities, make sure not to pick too much. If you are being liberal with the amount you're taking, don't take it all from the same spot and go through the leaves to make sure you haven't accidentally picked any other plants at the same time which could be harmful.

The whole plant is edible and the stalks are really crunchy with a succulent burst of spring onion flavour. The young, tender leaves are at their best before they flower (around March), while the flower shoots can be finely chopped and used as chives. If you have wild garlic growing in your garden, you could dig up a few of its bulbs at any time of the year which are also delicious.

If you're lucky enough to forage some, try our wild garlic recipes.

Patterned bowl filled with gnocchi topped with wild garlic pesto

Summer foraging

Whereas wild garlic is best foraged in spring, the smell of the elderflower signals the start of summer for foragers. The flowers are beautiful in cordials, which then turn into purple-coloured elderberries. Elderberries have been linked to a lot of 'miracle cures' as they have more vitamin C than any other fruit and can help with colds and flu. Elderberries must be cooked and birds really rely on them for fruit, so make sure not to take too much. When cooked into a syrup they make a great hot winter tonic, packed with flavonoids to help combat winter germs. Discover our favourite ways with elderflower.

All roses are edible. The reason we don’t eat the roses we buy in the shops is because they’re covered in pesticides. If you grow your own roses and don’t use pesticides, you can eat them. The petals can be crystallised or infused into syrups, or leave them to turn into rose hips which are packed with vitamin C.

Nettles are particularly great from a nutritional point of view, they're packed with vitamin A and vitamin C. In terms of green veg, they're healthier than kale and spinach. As they can sting, wear a pair of gloves when picking and give them a good wash. They also must be eaten before June - or when they start to flower - otherwise they can contain a chemical that damages the kidneys. Early nettles are the perfect example of a plant we should all be eating as they are widely available and easily identifiable. Try our recipe for ravioli with ricotta and nettles from Petersham Nurseries.

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A plate of ravioli with nettles on top

More about foraging:

Autumn foraging guide: berries and nuts
The best foraging breaks in the UK
olive podcast: FORAGING and cooking in the Sussex countryside with Hunter Gather Cook
olive podcast: FORAGING and mushrooming with wild food expert Mark Lloyd
Coastal foraging guide
Hunter gather cook

Authors

Barney DesmazerySkills & shows editor

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