If I mention about foraging nipplewort when I’m leading a wild food walk, it will likely raise smiles and sniggers. It’s just one of those words. Plants like arsesmart and bastard cabbage similarly make people grin.
From my web research, the generic part Lapsana is attributed to a name the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides gave to certain edible mustard plants with similar lyre-shaped leaves. Quite why this name stuck I cannot fathom. I feel there is more to the origins of this name than I have uncovered.
The species epithet communis alludes to the sheer numbers of plants that will germinate and grow together, given half a chance.
The English common name nipplewort is beleived to be due to the shape of the flower buds.
If you come across any difficult words, simply pop over to our foragers glossary for answers.
Leaves: Light green and mostly hairy leaves. Lyrate-pinnatifid shaped. Basal leaves grow to 15 cm long and often pinnately-lobed.
The leaves on established plants grow as rosettes, though in the summer, plants can bolt early.
The baby seedlings have large elliptical seed leaves. Their first true leaf comes without lobes.
On mature plants the terminal lobe is much larger than the 1 – 3 pairs of lateral lobes below it.
Nipplewort’s leaf shape does give it a similar appearance to charlock (Sinapsis arvensis), although this plant contains no pungent aromatics. The margins are generally sinuate-toothed, though entire on some specimens.
Petioles: Solid and up to 5 cm long on basal leaves.
Roots: This plant has a long thin, white taproot.
Stems: These are green, hollow, hairy towards the base, solid and weakly ridged. The branched stems can reach up to 100 cm high.
Flowers: Small yellow composite flowers are typically 15 – 20 mm across. Each flower produces around 15 notched ray florets, and just a few disc florets.
Flowering season: One of a number of plants that will regularly flower well into our milder winters. Its main flowering period is from June to October.
Fruits: Tiny achene fruits, attached to white pappus hairs.
Habitats: The plant has a habit of quickly germinating on all manner of disturbed soils. When you’re out foraging nipplewort you will occasionally find it in woodland clearances and shady hedge banks. As this map shows, you can see this plant in all of England and Wales, as well as low-lying areas of Eastern and South West Scotland.
Parts used: Whole seedlings, young leaves, mature leaves.
Harvesting: Pick whole seedlings with scissors and put straight into an airtight and preferably humid container. I love those clasp-sealing bags lined with foil. With added damp newspaper, these bags will keep leaves really fresh. Many more tips and tricks are found in my harvesting guide.
Edible uses: My favourite reason to go foraging nipplewort is for seedling microgreen salad. Young leaves can be used in salads as well but the hairyness means they’re better cooked as a spinach.
Medicinal uses: Scant medicinal evidence exists althoigh a lot of anecdotal references are abailable online. The plant is said to have an overall calming effect, reportedly helps the kidney function, and can help stop the flow of milk when breastfeeding mums want to wean.
With so many medicinal plants to choose from in this country, I feel happy enough to ignore this plant when looking for medicinal herbs!
Other notes: Although not one of my go-to edible plants, this makes a handy addition to spring salads. I will always try and make a point of harvesting nipplewort microgreens when found in large numbers.
More plant species are coming soon. Happy foraging!
Discover some of the best wild food plants and fungi with this UK guide to April foraging
Foraging in April suddenly means abundance. Only a while ago in January and February, we were on a limited winter palate of mostly green leaves. Then we began to see a steady increase of delicious wild plants in March.
Now we have longer and warmer days, April explodes everywhere with vigorous renewed growth. It brings a feast of new shoots, leaves, stems, flowers, and flavours. This is just what we need as our bodies fully awaken after a sedate winter.
Knowing our poisonous plants is more important than knowing the edibles. This guide to Britain’s poisonous plants, will help you stay safe. A revised edition will soon be essential reading on my upcoming online courses.
Get to know these nine great edible plants and one deadly poison when you’re foraging in April.
The following list is just a handful of the plants available to you when you go foraging in April. It also includes one deadly poisonous species that almost all active foragers will be seeing now and will want to know.
So let’s take a look at a few of my favourite wild foods that I go foraging for in April. They are in no partucular order.
Sea purslane (Atriplex portulacoides a.k.a Halimione portulacoides) Chenopodiaceae family
This woody perennial is one of my all time favourite wild food plants. It’s abundant and evergreen, with crunchy, salty, oval leaves. Foraging for sea purslane this April makes a great excuse to visit our estuaries and coastlines.
This is a fantastic plant to use raw, cooked, or preserved through pickling; either in lacto-fermented brine or vinegar.
Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) Grossulariaceae family
Knowing this plant is vital! Hemlock grows in much of Britain and should be easily found in most of our towns and cities. It loves riverbanks, roadsides and waysides as well as wastegrounds.
I can vouch for its extreme bitterness and the nasty sensation of microscopic skin-piercing crystals playing havoc inside my mouth. All this from a misidentified nibble!
This particular carrot family herb is being covered in full soon, to allow full comparison with other carrot family herbs including fools parsley, the Japanese hedge parsley or wild chervil. Hemlock is a large plant, in and out of flower. It is hairless, and with red purple-spots on its stems and leaf stalks.
Hemlock can reach 2 metres high with small lacy looking flowers that appear from late May or early June. The fern-like foliage has a rank smell, which is often described as similar to mouse urine. I’ve lived near to stands of hemlock and they definitely have a feotid stink. If in doubt about I/D, check the leaf stalk out!
Hop shoots (Humulus lupulus) Cannabaceae family
A riverside and hedgerow plant mainly. Known in other lands as ‘willow wolf foot’ due to its habit of clambering up and over various willow species that are found alongside streams and rivers.
This plant has a creeping underground network of rhizome roots. It can establish large perennial rootstocks. These are able to send forth numerous new stems each April. Pick the top 10 – 15 cm of the shoots. They are great fried in oil or butter for 2 – 3 minutes.
Hoary cress (Lepidium draba) Brassicaceae family
This firey-tasting brassica family plant seems to appear put of nowhere. Where established, the creeping rhizomes send up numerous leafy stems which quickly form the mini ‘broccoli’ florets. Cut and use the top 10 – 15 cm of the tender stem.
Rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) Apiaceae family
Only found by the sea. This tasty plant has distinctive-looking, and uniquely aromatic leaves. The plant was previously discussed in this full length article.
Travellers joy (Clematis vitalba) Ranunculaceae family
The new shoots from Traveller’s joy are a lesser known wild food, possibly because the plant has many references to it being poisonous. This plant, like a lot of buttercup family plants, contains the irritant compound protoanenomin. So it is definitely toxic raw. Fresh plants can cause burning sensations.
When cooked for 90 seconds in boiling water however, the compound breaks down. The result is a fresh-tasting spring vegetable, full of a sweet asparagus and pea-like flavour.
Salad burnett (Sanguisorba minor) Rosaceae family
A small pinnate-leaved herb with a big flavour! Find it in grasslands and on wastegrounds, especially on light alkaline soils. When you crush the leaves, it gives off a characteristic cucumber aroma. Pick the leaflets off the stem before eating.
Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) Plantaginaceae family
First prize in the best scientific name of the week. Its name sounds like a character in a children’s story. This succulent salad leaf can be harvested from many settings where there is slow flowing water. It is a lovely addition to salads and sandwiches.
Brooklime has round, fleshy leaves that could initially be confused for watermint. The two plants share similar habitats and will grow amongst each other. You will quickly discover which plant you have by smelling the leaves. Remember to engage all your senses while foraging!
Mushroom of the month. Fungi foraging in April.
By the end of the month, if you are determined and lucky enough, you can find the first of the new season mushrooms!
The St George’s mushroom (Calocybe gambosa) is a tasty April foraging treat. Its name is is due to the timing of its appearance, being first found around the 23rd April.
These stubby little mushrooms have a variable cap colour depending on how young they are when picked. I’ve seen them creamy-white to a light yellow-brown. They have an irregular cap, approximately 6 – 12 cm wide. Left for a few hours, the fruiting caps will produce a white spore print.
They are found in grasslands, where this is not too regularly or vigorously mowed. Very few other mushrooms are around at this time of year so positive I/D is not difficult.
So that’s plenty to fill your April foraging adventures. If you have any foraging questions then simply contact me here.
It seems to me that ever since humans learnt to exploit its abundant resources, birches have played a major role in our colonising of the planet.
What’s in a name?
Considering this plant has been used for such a long time, it may not be a surprise to learn that the name ‘birch’ is a suitably ancient word.
The scientific part of the name Betula stems from a Gaullish word for the various birch plants – betua. This word is beleived to be derived from an older word betuyā; which comes from an ancient proto-Celtic language.
The specific part of the name pendula, usefully describes the instantly recognisable, drooping habit.
Its English common name ‘silver birch’, obviously tells us about the silver-white colour of the bark. Its worth noting that this bark colour is also found on a number of other species in its genus, such as the widely-planted white birch (Betula alba).
If you come across any unfamiliar words, try the foragers glossary of terms. It contains almost all that a budding gastronomical-botanist needs!
Silver birch is another really well-known plant. In fact, it could easily be argued that the plant hardly needs a description. Well, that’s true when you see it as a mature tree, and also until you study another common British native birch species, the downy birch (Betula pubescens).
As a younger sapling tree, silvee birch can be more difficult to identify. When we go out foraging for silver birch though, we are looking for mature trees. In terms of their uses though, the birches can all be used in similar ways, so I/D to the species is mostly academic. However, lets take a look at the I/D features of this elegant tree, a plant that can grow to 25 – 30 metres in suitable settings.
Leaves: These tend to appear in April, but exactly when will depend on where you are foraging. The silver birch have triangular-ovate leaves. They sometimes have a flattened base and always come with a pointy tip. The small leaves are alternately spaced, and up to 6 cm long and 5 cm wide.
The shiny green leaves contain essential oil glands on both sides. The leaf margins are minutely and doubly serrated. In autumn the leaves turn, to give a glorious yellow glow.
Petioles: Approximately 10 – 20 mm long. Generally around 2 mm wide and channeled.
Twigs: A shiny red-brown colour. The new twigs are round, smooth and reasonably straight, with numerous light brown lenticels.
After staring up into birch canopies for a while, you will start to notice that certain specimens produce a mass of stems here and there. It looks a little like a rooks nest. What you are seeing is an infection commonly caused by a fungus Taphrina betulina. This microscopic parasite makes the plant produce a mass of densely-packed stems. These are known as ‘witches brooms’.
Although unsightly, this does not affect the plant too much. Owners of trees could prune them out during March.
Buds: The 6 mm long buds are also alternate. They typically have between 4 and 7 scales. These are green-brown, thin, and occasionally found with hairs.
Bark: The bark is initially brown but with age the plant soon develops its silver -white colour. Silver birch will often be found with peeling bark.
In contrast, when you come across a downy birch, you will find a smooth silver -white bark, almost all the way down the trunk. Downy birch will be covered here in due course. Numerous lenticels stud the bark of silver birch, aiding its survival in the coldest boreal forests of the arctic circle.
Trunk: Usually straight, with the lower branches discarded. The upper trunks are the classic silver-white colour. The lower trunk develops a rugged diamond pattern of grey-black angled fissures.
Flowers: The immature male catkins (25 – 30 mm) hang in large numbers all autumn and winter.
They begin to stretch, colour up and open in late April. The female flowers appear with the new leaf shoots.
Flowering season: April into May.
Fruits: The stubby cigar-shaped fruits ripen in the summer before it disperses thousands of seeds.
Habitats: Silver birch and its brother, downy birch, are the first trees to recolonise cleared land. These are both known as woodland pioneer species. After the last Ice age, Birch forests covered the land.
These days you can find silver birch all over the UK, both wild and planted. You see them on their own, or in large stands in newer woodlands. They are known to be a regular component of mixed woodland, especially on free-draining acidic soils. They are widely planted in parks and gardens, and as an amenity tree. This brilliant online resource has a map that shows the extent of its distribution.
Parts used: So much of this plant is useful, whether it’s the sap, distilled sap, new twigs with leaves, the inner bark, outer bark, or the various processed material able to be gleaned from these products.
Harvesting: Tapping sap: This can only be harvested before the leaves are open, and is best attempted during mid March.
Edible uses: The sap can be drunk as it is, or reduced into a dark coloured syrup. You will need approximately 90-100 litres of sap to make 1 litre of syrup! The sap can also be fermented into birch wine.
Leaves and new twigs with the leaves have been used in cooking to add a subtle minty flavour to peas or new potatoes.
Medicinal uses: The leaves contain essential oils including volatile derivatives of methyl salacylates. In Arctic countries such as Finland, people lightly beat the leafy twigs onto the body befor a sauna. This bundle of birch twigs is known in Finnish as a ‘vihta‘ or in English as a birch whisk.
The use of the twigs is known to open up the pores of the skin, and to promote blood circulation. It helps relax muscles and joints after strenuous physical activity.
The sap contains a wide range of health-boosting minerals and trace elements. It is now commercially produced and popular across the globe.
Other notes: Bushcrafters will regularly go foraging for silver birch because they are likely to know of its many uses. Let’s just leave it with Ray Mears to show you one of them, the birch bark canoe.
And a quick reminder that you can use many of the Betula species in the same ways. As ever, this does not disregard the personal need to test your tolerance on any new wild food plant you put in your body.
UK foraging guide to identifying the aromatic flowering currant. Discover its food, medicine and other uses.
I can remember the day around 12 years ago that I first positively identified and tasted the drooping red-coloured flowers of the flowering currant. As I handled the leaves and flowers, its beautiful aroma engulfed me, and I immediately christened it the ‘thyme n sage’ currant. This is now a plant that is always on my early spring foraging radar.
The flowering currant was first brought to Britain during the 1820’s and subsequently recorded in the wild here by 1916.
What’s in a name?
The first part of the scientific name Ribes, is beleived to be an old Arabic word for rhubarb – ‘rebās’. The Romans adopted the name and changed it to the word we know today.
It is thought that the sharp and sour taste of the berries led the ancient Arabs to bestow the name onto this group of woody shrubs.
The specific part of the name – sanguineum comes from the old Latin word ‘sanguis’, meaning blood. This obviously refers to the flower colour.
Leaves: The emerging leaves are initially folded. They soon become palmately-lobed. The margins are serrated and the leaves are usually wider than long. Downy hairs are present on the undersides. The mature leaves are a dull green colour.
The leaves are generally around 4 – 10 cm wide and are alternately spaced on the stem. Typically 3 – 5 lobes per leaf.
On hot days you can smell the fruity aromatics, especially when you crush a leaf. The leaf buds open with the flower buds.
Petioles: These are generally 1 – 3 cm long.
Roots: An initial tap root develops numerous lateral branches, and can send up sucker stems.
Stems: Initially a reddish brown colour, brown, then becoming a dark purple-brown. The stems have a few light brown lenticels. This plant can easily reach 2 metres high and can spread by the same distance.
Buds: These are quite thin, not clustered, spindle-shaped and scaly. Typically around 15 mm long.
Bark: The older stems and branches show the flaky, peeling outer-skin weathering away. Mature specimens have brown bark with increasing bands of lenticels.
Flowers: Numerous drooping racemes with clusters of pink-red flowers. Each flower has 5 petals per flower. There are typically around 18 – 24 flowers per raceme.
Flowering season: From around the spring equinox, but for only a few weeks. Flowering is mostly done and dusted by mid to late April.
Fruits: Round, dark purple to black-coloured fruits with hairs, similar in looks to small gooseberries. Approximately 10 – 12 mm across. Birds love them. I don’t think they are as tasty as blackcurrants or gooeseberries.
Harvesting: Pinch off leaves, discarding the petiole. Pinch off or cut off the flowering clusters on the stalk. The fruits are juicy and will come away in your fingers with little effort when ripe. Lots more harvesting tips and tricks can be found in my short harvesting guide.
Edible uses: Leaves and flowers can be infused into water and made into sugar syrup or cordials. You can also flavour vinegars with the flowers or just use them in salads or as an impressive garnish. Fruits can be used in jam making or added to the traditional German Christmas treat, rumtopf.
Other notes: As urban foragers may meet this plant mostly in parks and gardens, it is worth remembering that you need to get to know about any pesticide use that the local maintenance crew might use, before you go picking. Safety first!
Foraging guide to identifying and using edible Magnolia flowers
When you go foraging for edible Magnolia flowers, you will hold in your hand something that has been on this planet for 100 million years! This is the world’s oldest flowering plant.
The various Magnolia species are special plants with no doubt. Although not in any way a wild or naturalised plant here, they are plentiful enough and interesting enough for foragers.
Their gorgeous, showy flowers evolved before bees appeared on the planet! Fossil records have proved that these trees existed in different sub-tropical regions approximately 100 million years ago, and were initially pollinated by beetles.
Given how much energy and nutrients that these large flowers need, it is of no surprise that our more recently evolved large trees have dramatically reduced the size, while increasing the numbers of flowers (see any catkin). Rather than rely on insects, many trees now use wind as their chief pollination method.
There are approximately 210 species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and trees in the genus. Magnolia trees are known to be native in the Americas and sub-tropical Asia.
Edible use of Magnolia flowers has long occured in their natural range. Research from ethnobotanical records provides us with patchy knowledge regarding the total numbers of species used. In summary, only a small number of the Magnolia flowers have documented use as food.
The species listed here are reported to be edible from a range of ethnobotanical sources, so for all you owners of Magnolia plants, you will need to know the species before experimenting with them.
List of Edible Magnolia flowers
I’m not a garden owner or a Magnolia connessieur, but I am a plant hunter, researcher and avid photographer. So this list is not the end of the story. Photos of the species, when positively identified, will appear here in due course.
Magnolia coco (evergreen)
First grown in the UK in the 1780’s. This small shrub / tree grows to about 3 – 5 metres high. Flowers are found at the end of branches and not from the leaf axils.
This deciduous shrub or small tree has fragrant, mid-size flowers approximately 8 cm long. Also known as the lily tree or Yulan Magnolia, this species can grow to a height of 9 or 10 metres. Regularly referred to as the prettiest of all the Magnolia species.
Very large flowerbuds and flowers. This is a plant that will be seen trained up walls.
Magnolia hypoleuca (syn M ovata)
A deciduous tree that can reach more than 25 metres. Commonly called the whitebark Magnolia, this plant is hardy enough to be grown in most parts of the UK.
A small and slender deciduous tree that grows to around 10 metres. Does not produce flowers until it reaches 12 – 15 years old.
This is a large evergreen tree that can reach between 25 – 30 metres high. The flowers have been used extensively as medicine for heart conditions, in thier native range. It is said the flowers mimic the actions of compounds from the well-known heart medicine foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).
Magnolia pterocarpa (evergreen)
A tall tree that can reach 20 – 25 metres high. The flowers generally open in April and are typically 12.5 – 15 cm across.
Magnolia x soulangeana
This hybrid Magnolia is probably the one you will find most often here in the UK.
What’s in a name?
Magnolia is one of a number of plants that has the same scientific name as its commonly used English name.
For me, the etymology of rhe name is disappointing because the name was simply given in honour of the French botanist and physician Pierre Magnol (1638 – 1715). Surely he tried eating them?
The deciduous Magnolia trees happen to be more distinctive and therefore easier to identify when they’re in bud and flower. The shape, size and smell are key. From my experience of foraging in Britain, nothing else looks like them. Should you need it though, my foragers glossary of terms will help.
Leaves: Most species have elliptical to oval-shaped leaves. They are usually a glossy green and often with a waxy cuticle layer and entire margins.
Petioles: Anywhere from 1 – 5 cm dependent on species.
Twigs: Young new twigs are red-brown or green coloured depending if it’s deciduous or evergreen. The twigs can be initially downy hairy when very young.
Buds: Large, yellow-brown, and more or less oblong to oval-shaped. They have a slightly curved and pointy tip and are covered in soft downy hairs. Some species have small buds, while others including Magnolia grandiflora, have large buds, around 5 -8 cm long.
Branches and trunk: The younger branches have a pinkish tinge to their smooth grey-green bark. Numerous light brown lenticels can be seen all over the bark.
Mature bark: Mostly grey and smooth with occasional whiteish spotting. Some species develop a warty appearance.
Flowers: Huge, showy flowers, typically with 9 large pink-white coloured tepals.
Flowering season: From around the spring equinox in March, through April and into May. The various species of Magnolia all come into flower with stunning effect.
Fruits: Conical, scaly and often described as like a pine-cone.
Habitats: This plant is only found in the British Isles in parks and gardens and as amenity plantings.
Parts used: Young flower buds. Flowers.
Harvesting: Snip off the flower buds just below the base. For open flowers, the kindest thing to so is to remove individual ‘petals’ from a number of different flowers.
Edible uses: The buds can be pickled as they are. Or made into sugar syrups, cordials and steeped in honey. They can be dried in a dehydrator and powdered. Try them finely chopped and sprinkled over salads. Flower petals can also be pickled and again made into cordials or vinegars.
Other notes: A quick reminder to always test your tolerance with any new wild food plant. Toxicity was previously discussed in this article on Britain’s poisonous plants. Beginner foragers can also add to or hone skills here.
Foraging guide to ivy-leaved toadflax. Learn to identify, then discover its food and medicinal uses.
Ivy-leaved toadflax is another wild edible plant that’s super-easy to identify. Only a handful of other plants will ever be seen growing where it loves to grow.
It was brought to Britain at the turn of the 16th century, and then reportedly escaped the walls of Oxford botanical gardens not long after.
The plant has found a good life here, prefering to grow where most species simply can’t survive. I’m pretty sure you know this herb already, becuase it decorates so many of our old stone and brick walls up and down the land.
What’s in a name?
The first part of its common English name tells us to expect to see ivy-like, lobed foliage. The plant displays a very similar leaf shape and growth habit, if in minature, to our common ivy (Hedera helix).
The generic part of the scientific name Cymbalaria, comes from the old Greek word ‘kymbalon’ – meaning a musical cymbal, in reference to the relatively flat and roundish shape of the leaves.
The specific epithet muralis literally translates from the Latin as ‘to decorate walls’. Doesn’t it just!
Other common names include Oxford weed, Oxford ivy, Kenilworth ivy, wandering sailer, and mother of thousands. I particularly love the evocative French common name of ‘Ruine de Rome‘.
Botanical description to identify ivy-leaved toadflax
Leaves: Small, glossy, dark-green and often looking palmately-lobed in appearance. They grow in oppositely-spaced pairs, on thin, trailing stems. Each leaf has between 3 – 7 lobes. The leaves are approximately 1 – 3 cm long and 1.5 -4 cm wide. They are also found with red margins.
Petioles: These are generally around 2 cm long.
Roots: Fibrous roots.
Stems: The vegetative stems are thin, trailing and often red-flushed. They can reach up to 40 – 50 cm long. The stems root at the nodes, enabling the plant to rapidly establish and thrive.
The flower stems are shorter, often red-coloured, and produce copious amounts of green and pointy flower buds.
Flowers: Mini snapdragon-like flowers with spurs. They have a yellow central patch, with mauve to purple and occasional white colour on the lobes of the corolla. The flowers are usually held only 2 cm or so away from the wall they grow upon.
Flowering season: As soon as it really starts to warm in April and May, this plant can explode with masses of flowers. See them all through the summer into early autumn.
Fruits: Small globular-shaped capsules (0.4 cm across) develop after pollination. The capsules contain around 50 small seeds.
Habitats: Ivy-leaved toadflax loves old stone and brick walls and any suitable rocky or stony setting, including some shingle beaches. It can be found on any of these suitable sites up to around 450 metres.
Parts used: Leaves and flowers.
Harvesting: Pinch off the leaves or cut a few of the trailing stems from different plants and pick them off. Pinch out the multi-coloured flowers as soon as you find them in April throughout the summer.
For more harvesting tips and tricks about all manner of plants, head over to this short guide.
Edible uses: Leaves can be used raw in salads, or cooked for 30 – 60 seconds in boiling water like fresh peas. I choose plants from shadier spots, and only really use the plant occasionaly in winter and spring, becuase they tend to be too bitter for my palate.
The scented flowers make a pretty garnish and addition to salads. You can put them into ice cubes…if you have that sort of magic power.
Medicinal use: There are reports of ivy-leaved toadflax being used as a vulnerary herb to staunch wounds. We have so many plants offering this type of medicinal action here in Britain, that I prefer to use them instead.
Identify white dead nettle with the UK’s only comprehensive plant I / D and foraging guide.
White dead nettle ticks many boxes for the forager. It’s easy to identify, available most of the year and abundant. It’s a fantastic wild plant source of Vitamin A, and one of the few plants that can give you a real sweet hit on the move, plus it can be a fun plant to play with!
At first glance, and from peripheral vision, it looks almost identical to nettles. So much so, that on my foraging walks people regularly draw a sharp breath when I pluck and handle this downy soft herb in front of them!
White dead nettle is possibly the most frequently found UK species from the aromatic mint family (Lamiaceae). There are 40 or so annuals and herbaceous perennials in the genus.
What’s in a name?
The generic part of the scientific name Lamium, comes from the old Greek word ‘lamia’, which translates as ‘swallower’. This word came from the Greek word ‘laimos’, meaning ‘throat’. If you want to know more about why the word lamia was used to describe man-eating monsters, female vampires and mermaids, click here.
The Roman’s proceeded to latinise the word to Lamium and used it to describe a group of similar-looking herbaceous plants. The genus also includes the previously discussed red dead-nettle.
The specific part of the name – album, means white. This of course, points to the colour of the flowers.
The English common name ‘dead nettle’ refers to its striking similarity with the unrelated stinging nettle (Urtica dioica – Urticaceae family). These two species are regularly found together. The hairs on white dead nettle are without stings, hence the ‘dead’ name.
Warning! Occasional botanical language is used here, so you may need to refer to my handy glossary of terms.
You won’t actually have to worry about botany much because this is a plant that’s really easy to identify by feel, smell and place. It really hardly requires a description of appearance at all. But here you go anyway!
Leaves: SImple, hairy, heart-shaped leaves approximately 8 cm long and 5 cm wide. The aromatic leaves grow in opposite pairs. New growth at the top is often red-tinged. This colouring can sometimes be a result of colder weather.
The wrinkly leaves have crenate- serrated margins. Veins are raised below. You don’t find the leaves growing as a rosette, but rather as small clumps of very short stems, with just the very top leaves.
Petioles: These can reach anywhere from 1- 5 cm long. They can be red-coloured.
Roots: Creeping rhizomes and stolon roots.
Stems: Square, hollow and hairy, typically reaching around 30 – 40 cm high. The stems are green or red coloured. They are easy to snap. Compare them with the stems of stinging nettle which are solid, fibrous and tough as old rope.
Flowers: These come in whorls. Flowers are two-lipped, white, and appear in the leaf axils towards the top of the stems.
The flowers have petal-lobes that are fused into a distinctive hooded, corolla tube, held in a five-pointed calyx tube. Essential oil glands are present on the calyx.
A sweet nectary lies at the very base of the corolla tube. My earliest plant-munching memories involves sucking the nectar from the base of these flowers.
Flowering season: You can spot the new season’s blooms appearing from early March after milder winters (almost every year now). It’s in full show all over the place by April.
Fruits: Four small brown nutlets, in the base of the calyx.
Habitats: White dead nettle grows in much of the British Isles. You will find it in hedgerows and hedgebanks, dotted about in new woodland, wastegrounds and rough ground, as well as by roadsides, and in parks and gardens. This is one of numerous plants that are close attandents of human habitation.
Parts used: Leaves, flowering tops, flowers.
Harvesting: You can harvest the new leaves from February onwards. Pinch them off, or use scissors or a small knife. In urban areas, the mower and strimmer will provide fresh new growth at different times during the year, so just treat them in your mind ike cut-and-come-again salads.
Edible uses: Chopped leaves can be used as a pot herb. Add them to omelettes and frittata. The whole leaf can be cooked like spinach, and added to numerous dishes, say as a filling with mushrooms and ricotta cheese, in ravioli.
Like so many of our wild plants, It is much more packed with nutrients than cultivated vegetables. White dead nettle is loaded with Vitamin A and C and rich in a number of minerals including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium.
The flowers are a lovely wayside nibble, if you get there before the bees! It’s a pretty enough addition to salads and easily gathered in numbers. Country winemakers have traditionally made use of the sweet, nectar-rich flowers.
Medicinal uses: This is a plant with a long history of medicinal use. As with all plants that contain essential oils, white dead nettle leaves and flowering tops are antiseptic. The softness reveals its demulcent qualities. The bitters make it a digestive aid, and the tannins always provide astringency.
It has traditionally been used as a wound staunching herb, and as a general uterine tonic, especially useful for internal uterine bleeding and for excessive menstrual flow.
Other notes: A number of its relatives will be found in many of the same habitats. These include red dead-nettle, yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), the not-so-frequently found henbit dead-nettle (Lamium amplexicaule) and the various, often invasive plants in the closely-related Lamiastrum genus. You can use any of them as food in pretty much the same way.
Coming soon is our guide to April’s foraging highlights. Don’t forget that I’m happy to answer any of your foraging questions, right here.
Learn how to identify red valerian with the UK’s most comprehensive forager’s plant identification guide.
The following article will hopefully enable you to quickly and confidently identify red valerian. At the same time it will help you know the differences between this herb and its related namesake, the medicinal valerian (Valeriana officinalis), for which it is often confused.
This plant was reportedly first brought here during the 1590’s. It was first recorded in the wild by 1734. Red valerian is a plant that some love, and some hate, but, if social media is anything to go by, many still regularly mis-identify. That is surely down to to plain old misplaced assumptions, because it is quite a distinctive looking herb, especially in its preferred habitats.
What’s in a name?
The first part of the scientific name Centranthus is derived from the Greek words ‘kenton’ meaning spur, and ‘anthos’, the old Greek word for flower. The specific moniker ruber, means red.
It shares both a family and a common name with the medicinal herb valerian. This name, as readers of the corn salad article will already know, comes from the Latin word Valere, and translates as ‘to be healthy’. Red valerian shares nomedicinal properties or actions.
Other common names you may see include ‘Foxes brush’ and ‘Jupiters beard’.
Leaves: The leaf shape is generally elliptic. The leaves will be found as upward thrusting rosettes throughout the winter. This should help to raise a forager’s interest levels when you are out foraging in December or January. New leaves appear in March.
The simple, hairless and somewhat glossy-looking leaves, have a raised midrib below and a few whiteish veins above.
The leaf margins are minutely crenated with a series of white hydathodes visible with close inspection. Contrast these leaves with the large compound-pinnate leaves of the medicinal valerian.
Petioles: Typically the small leaf stalks on basal leaves reach 5 cm or so. The oppositely-spaced stem leaves are smaller, and become sessile.
Roots: This plant has a winter-hardy, fibrous and rhizomous rootstock.
Stems: The flowering stems start to rise in late spring. They grow up to around 1 metre or so. They are typically round to weakly angled, and not swollen at the nodes. Eventually they become hollow and will snap audibly. Try it! During May the plant begins to put on an often spectacular display, especially when found en massé.
Flowers: Although most specimens have pink -red flowers, many will display brilliant white blooms. A darker magenta colour will also be found.
Flowering season: This plant will be in full bloom in our increasingly warmer climate from June. It then flowers all through the summer into late September and early October.
Fruits: The pollinated flowers produce numerous tear-drop shaped, ridged seeds, with short pappus hairs. The seeds are dispersed mainly on the wind.
Habitats: This plant thrives in Britain in habitats replicating its Mediterranean home. Absent in the higher parts of England, Wales and Scotland, you can find it in large numbers by the coast.
It also loves life on stone walls and old crumbling buildings, railway and road embankments, distubed ground and other free-draining lowland sites. The plant is absent on higher ground in England, Wales and Scotland.
Parts used: Leaves, flowers and roots have all been used as food.
Harvesting: Leaves are best harvested in the winter months when they are not as bitter as they can get in the hotter months. Flowers can be picked as soon as they appear. Roots are best picked in the late autumn and winter months.
The young flowering stems are possibly worth experimenting with, as many pre-flowering stems are. The small flowers can also be added to salads. The roots have been documented as an edible, after cooking.
Other notes: As pretty as it is, this plant will quickly damage old stone walls. With the price of stonemasonry, this should be enough warning for homeowners to remove the plant from places other than the tops of walls.
Learn how to identify green alkanet, know its lookalikes and discover its history and uses.
It is well worth getting to know how to identify green alkanet. Then you will also be able to confidently identify and harvest other similar-looking plants. This is because a study of green alkanet also requires a little study of its relatives, comfrey, borage, and forget-me-not’s.
Experienced foragers will already recognise this plant as one that we only really enjoy for its early spring show of flowers. Whereas beginner foragers will often ask… “is this plant borage, or forget me not’s, or comfrey?” This article can hopefully be used to answer the now yearly spring time social media barrage of questions and answers relating to sightings of this plant.
With its coarse hairiness, and the presence of bitter alkaloids (incluing traces of pyrollizidine alkaloids), many wild foodies already know that this plant is mostly off the menu. But that does not necessarily mean these plants are of no interest to us at all.
Green alkanet was reportedly first brought to Britain before 1700 and first recorded in the wild in 1724. It feels right at home here in many settings.
Before we look into the origins of the name, and its botanical description, I just want to remind all beginner foragers that there are hundreds of other plants to explore here, both written and photographed. These include an overview of the relatively small number of toxic and poisonous plants that reside here in Britain.
For the more serious wannabe gastronomical botanists, there is my two-part, fast-track version of learning how to identify plants in a day, simply from the flower patterns they produce. Take your time to read and memorise the keywords in part 1 and part 2, because this will save you hundreds of hours of fruitless, back and forth searching through field guides, like I did when first getting to grips with plant I/D.
What’s in a name?
Unlike the previous plant covered here, Gorse, the green alkanet does not have a particularly interesting origin to its name.
The second part of its common name ‘alkanet’ derives from the old Arabic word for Henna, al hinna – alluding to the fact that there is a red coloured dye that can be obtained from the roots.
It must be noted however, that this is not the same red-coloured dye as is extracted from the roots of the related plant Alkanna tinctora. This particular herb is native to the Mediterranean region and is now widely known as the ‘dyers alkanet, or also simply just ‘alkanet’. Plants with the name ‘tinctoria’ and ‘tinctora’ are all pointing to their valued use in dyeing.
The generic part of the scientific name Pentaglottis comes from the old Greek language, and simply means five tongues. The word ‘penta’ equals five and ‘glottis’ refers to the tongue (although medically it’s the part of the throat where we find the vocal chords).
The specific epithet sempervirens is two cojoined Latin words that translate to ‘evergreen’ or ‘always alive’. True to its name, you can find this plant happily over-wintering here in Britain as large rosettes, looking a lot like borage, or comfrey.
Leaves: This plant produces mostly basal leaves. These are characteristically ovate to lanceloate shaped, and always tapering towards a sort of wedge-shape at the base. Typically they reach around 15 cm – 25 cm long and 7 cm or so wide. The margins are mostly entire, but are occasionally found with a few very obscure and irregular teeth.
In comparison, forget-me-not’s have much smaller leaves; comfrey’s are more narrow; while borage has a wider, shorter leaf and it’s much more wrinkled in appearance.
Green alkanet’s leaves are always noticeably bristly hairy. In common with other members of the family, these hairs can cause a rash on sensitive skin.
The leaves will mostly, but not always, show a number of raised white spots on the surface. None of its relatives discussed here have white spots. Green alkanet suffers from rust and many plant leaves will appear with small brown rust patches.
Petioles: These are always present except on the smallest stem leaves. Reaching up to 10 cm or so, the winged and channeled leaf-stalk is covered in bristly hairs.
Roots: Big, brittle taproots with black skin and yellow-orange inner flesh.
Stems: The green, hairy, angled stems can reach up to 1 metre high. They either grow on their own or with several others. Their branched stems appear from March.
Flowers: Striking blue or blue-purple splashed flowers, with a white centre spot, that resemble large forget-me-not’s. They appear in leaf axils as well as in small clusters. (This inflorescence is botanically classed as a cyme). Five petal lobes are fused together and form a small corolla tube. Hidden from sight in the centre of the tube are the stamens and stigma.
Flowering season: Green alkanet will flower here in Britain from March through into early May. The earliest flowering plants are usually in sunny and protected urban spots.
Fruits: During the late spring and early summer, four slightly ridged nutlets will be found in each flower.
Habitats: Green alkanet has been bern described as an urban loving, street fighting bruiser! It appears on many types of soils throughout much of Britain, although only in lowland settings below 350 metres or so. It particularly likes wastegrounds, hedgerows, scrub, woodlands and riversides. This plant can be very invasive, and will spread quickly by its copious seed and by shards of root.
Parts used: The flowers can be used as garnish or plonked into ice cubes for cocktails and mocktails. The roots have a orange-red pigment that can be harvested for dyeing.
Harvesting: Flowers can be picked most of the spring, from March. Roots can be collected in the early autumn.
Medicinal uses: I have struggled to collect any medicinal information on this herb.
Other notes: This is a fantastic early season plant for certain bees, butterflies, moths and flies, who adore this plant, just like they adore its relative, borage. For gardeners, the leaves of green alkanet can be composted down to make a liquid plant feed, as you would comfrey.
More plant articles are coming soon. Happy foraging!
Discover quite literally how horrific it is to go foraging for gorse flowers in the UK!
For the more patient wild food afficianados, foraging for gorse flowers reaps a tasty, if occasionally painful reward.
This is another of Britain’s wild plants that many people know already. If so, you may only want to read the fascinating origins of the how gorse got its name, discussed presently.
The botanical description is primarly designed for absolute beginner foragers, taking you through the key identification features, which in the long run will help you separate this plant from the dwarf gorse or the Western Gorse, if you fancy that sort of thing.
To help you, this more than useful foragers A-Z glossary is here to be your constant friend. For difficult words, just look them up!
What’s in a name?
The English common name Gorse is acknowledged by professional wordsmiths to have its roots in the archaic proto-Germanic language, where the plant was known by the name ‘Gorst‘. This old word came from the ancient language which eventually morphed into the current Dutch, German, and English languages.
The Old German word, as well as the old Saxon word for this plant, is ‘gersta’. In Germany, the cereal grain we know here as barley, is commonly called ‘gerste‘. This grass is identifiable from its long bristles on their flower heads.
It further transpires that the original source word comes from even before the Germanic language. The word ‘gorst’ has its roots in an Indo-European word ‘ghers‘, which means ‘to bristle’. Incidentally the Germans now call gorse ‘Stechginster‘ and a gorse bush ‘Stechginsterstrauch‘.
Brilliantly, the word horror also has its roots in this ancient word ‘ghers‘, as does the scientific name for barley (Hordeum vulgare). That’s amusing to me because I imagine that most people in Britain would find the idea of picking a few hundred grams of gorse flowers absolutely horrific! They would literally be correct.
As the English language developed and changed, the plant name evolved into ‘Gors’, then finally turning into the word we have today, whenever it was our modern English was formatted.
The generic part of the scientific name – Ulex, was originally a Latin word, apparantly meaning a ‘shrub like rosemary’. Although I have also seen reference to the word ascribed to the Roman diarist Pliny, and being used to describe gold mining. The specific epithet europaeus tells us this is the common species that grows all over Europe.
Leaves: When first growing as a seedling, gorse has trifoliate leaves that soon change into spines. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, mentions in his book “The metamorphosis of plants”, that if gorse is put in controlled conditions under glass with 100% humidity, it grows clover-like, trifoliate leaves.
Gorse’s numerous rigid spines are sturdy and wider at the base. Terminal spines are longer (25 – 30 mm) than the lateral ones (10 mm). All the spines have small (2mm) tips. You need to be constantly vigilant of the spines when foraging gorse flowers.
Roots: This shrub initially develops a tap root but soon develops a large, matted, fibrous root system.
Stems: Irregular-shaped. From green, hairy, young first year twigs they they turn woody and light brown from the second year.
Bark: Light brown with wavy fissures.
Flowers: From the oval green buds, emerge bright yellow flowers with the classic pea family shape and arrangement. These pretty and somehow beautifully exotically-scented flowers have a large ‘banner’ petal lobe, two winged lobes, and a ‘keel’, which consists of two petals fashioned together underneath.
Flowering season: The old saying goes ‘that kissing is out of fashion when gorse is not in bloom’. This points to the fact that you can always see some gorse flowers during any month of the year. Its chief flowering period, depending on your location in the UK, will be from late March to May.
Fruits: The dead brown flowers persist for a long time, protecting a small, hairy, brown – purple pod. They are easily visible in the summer and autumn months. These eventually split open in hot weather to reveal two or three black seeds.
Habitats: It can thrive where many other plants cannot. Gorse loves rocky, sloping clifftops, sandy and slightly acid heathlands. It can also be found in woodland rides and clearances as well as on wastegrounds and alongside railway tracks. It is a lowland plant generally, but has been recorded at altitudes of 600 metres.
Parts used: Flowers for food; branches and stems for hot burning fires!
Edible uses: Wines, cordials, soft drinks and sugar syrups can all be made. Flowers can also be tossed into salads for a little pea- like flavour.
Other notes: A couple of other Gorse species, the dwarf gorse (U.minor ) and the Western Gorse (U. gallii) also grow in the UK, although moreso in the Western side of the country. These two species are much more low-growing and they come into flower at a different time.