Foraging for Ash Keys (Fraxinus excelsior) Oleaceae family

Learn how to identify the ash tree, then discover its food, medicine, and other uses.

As a staple tree of the British countryside, you are always near them, yet not many people know how to identify the ash, let alone know they can go foraging for ash keys.

Ash is a tall and graceful looking tree, with its branch tips curving upwards. Its form makes quite a distinctive silhouette in winter. When fully grown, ash can reach 35 metres high.

What’s in a name?

The first part of the scientific name Fraxinus is a modern adaptation of a very old word. The name for this tree seemingly has its roots in an ancient proto-european word ‘Bhrhg-s-inos’.

This is similar to the proto-european word for birch – ‘Bhrhgos’. Interestingly the Sanskrit namd for birch – ‘Bhurja’, has the same linguistic roots.

Our common name Ash has an interesting conundrum within it. How come it has the same spelling as our word for burnt residues?

Our English name for the tree comes directly from the old English word ‘æsc’. The old Norse word for the tree was ‘askr’. Both have their roots in the proto-european word ‘os’.

Our noun for fire ash, according to etymologists, has its roots from an old proto-european word ‘as’, meaning ‘to burn and glow’. The old English is æsce.  Modern spanish retains a borrowed word from Germanic languages – ascua, meaning ‘red hot coals’.

Ash is a fantastic wood for woodburners, heralded in old poems ‘that even when green it’s fit for a queen!’ I wonder if maybe the two nouns developed as they did, with such similarity, because of the excellent fires that ash makes? I would wager that our collective pyrotechnic understanding of ash, and the sharing of its knowledge, is far older than languages spoken 5-10,000 years ago.

Botanical description

To assist botanical newbies we have a glossary here, should any words befuddle you! All beginner foragers can get extra help from this guide to starting out foraging.

Antique botanical illustration of the Ash.

Leaves: Ash has large pinnate leaves. They are initially folded before rapidly expanding to full length. The leaves are sometimes copper-tinged as they first open. On a flowering tree the foliage appears after the tree has flowered.

Leaves are folded when first appearing.

When fully grown, the light-mid green leaves are approximately 25 cm long, with around 4 – 6 pairs of oblong leaflets, 6 – 9  x  2 – 3 cm. They have a single terminal leaflet.

Ash leaves appear in small groups.They can initially be copper-coloured as well.

Close inspection reveals the leaf margins are serrate, typically with 16 – 30 teeth.

Ash is the last of our native trees to come into leaf.

In the autumn, ash leaves turn a glorious yellow before shedding. Where you see them brown and shrivelled, this will be as a result of dieback. This devastating disease is discussed briefly at the end of this article.

 

Petioles: These tend to be swollen at the base. Typically around 10 cm long.

 

Roots: Large, branched and spreading ‘plate’ roots.

 

Twigs:  Olive-green when very young, developing into grey. The twigs have a few scattered whiteish lenticels and are flattened below the nodes. Ash twigs do not have an interpetiolar ridge.

Ash twigs are an almost olive green when young, and somewhat flattened at the nodes
Ash twigs are an almost olive green when young, and flattened below the nodes.

 

Buds: Charcoal black buds with three pairs of bud scales. The buds are velvety to the touch.

Ash buds are charcoal black and a little velvety to the touch.

 

Bark: Smooth at first, and for many years. Grey-brown and often with white patches.

Ash tree bark is smooth when young, often with white patches.

When mature, the brown-coloured bark develops narrow fissures.

Ash develops brown bark with narrow fissures on mature plants.

On old trees, you can also find mosses, lichens and moulds. Together they can make the tree quite colourful.

Older ash trees are often coated with moss and lichen.

 

Flowers: Ash has sprays of purple-coloured flowers without petals. The female flowers sit on yellow-green stalks.

Ash with male and female flowers.

Within a given population, ash trees can either produce male flowers only, or female only flowers, or can be hermaphrodite, producing male and female flowers on the same tree.

 

Flowering season: In most parts of the country, ash comes into flower from April into May. But we always need to remember the golden rules about altitude and latitude. These are that the seasons start earlier in the south and nearer sea level. Mind also that large urban areas are warmer than the surrounding countryside. So, our warmer southern areas will see flowers begin to appear earlier than elsewhere, often in late March.

Ash tree flowering in the evening light.
Ash tree flowering in the evening light.

 

Fruits: A winged fruit, botanically known as a samara, but commonly called keys.

 

Habitats: This is such a weedy tree that you can find it pretty much everywhere in the UK below 600 metres. This geographic distribution map confirms its almost omnipresence.

 

Parts used: Immature green fruits.

 

Harvesting: These seeds are designed to last 100 years. They quickly develop lignin and harden.

Ash keys turn brown and woody by autumn and can survive many decades.

So take the immature keys while you can still bite through them without fibrousness. The small round seed at the base soon grows, and if it is present beyond its initial stages, the fruits will be tough and of no use.

Ash trees don’t generally flower and fruit every year, but dieback may make them flower more.

Because eyeing up the age of the keys on the hoof is tricky, when I’m foraging ash keys I tend to keep an eye on certain plants from the early stages of flowering. Then I regularly monitor, and harvest as soon as I see them reaching full length (approximately 3 cm). Learning when to harvest these fruits is experiential, as are many other day-to-day harvesting techniques.

 

Edible uses: The fruits have been eaten for many centuries here in the UK. The gardener and diarist John Evelyn, produced a recipe for ash key pickle in the 17th century. This is what I base my pickle recipe on. It’s a simple method and was posted recently in my foraging guide to May.

 

Medicinal uses: Unlike its relative, the olive, our tree doesn’t appear to have much modern documented use as a medicine in Western traditions. Our ancestors used it to treat numerous maladies including leprosy and snake bites.

 

Other notes: Ash is a valued timber for wood turning, as well as for making long-lasting handles for many different tools and implements, such as axes, mattocks and various gardening tools.

The ash tree has many legends and myths associated with it. Most famously perhaps is the associations with Norse creation stories and mythology, where the ash is ‘Yggdrasil’, the tree of life.

In ancient Norse creationism, this tree is depicted at the centre of the cosmos linking nine worlds. According to legend, the tree connects all things, beings, and gods. As such it represents the great cycles of birth, growth, death and rebirth. Odin is said to have sacrificed himself on it and was hung up on it for 9 days.

Many of our ancestors beleived that if the ash trees died, this would signify the end of the world. If you have heard of ash dieback, then like me, you may think it was inevitable that it would occur. Ash dieback is caused by a microscopic fungi Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. The fungi quickly kills leaves stems and eventually the crown. Look out in the summer in July and August and see the devastation.

I am hoping through my foraging for ash keys that I can find resistant ash specimens. From knowledge about this disease on mainland Europe, scientists sadly predict that about 10 %  of our ash trees will be naturally midly resistant but just 1-2 % will show strong resistance. It is these specimens that we need to find, and then propagate their seed.

Maybe you can help and keep an eye out for any perfectly healthy ash specimens…

So go out foraging for ash keys now and let me know what you think. Remember if you have any questions on our medicinal and edible wild plants, don’t hesitate to contact me. I will do my best to help.

Happy foraging!

 

 

Foraging in May. Ten wild foods you need to know!

Discover Britain’s tastiest edible wild plants with our guide to foraging in May.

It can seem ironic that having gone so many months with scarce pickings, we can almost be overwhelmed during the (hopefully) sunny days when foraging in May.

So what to focus on? Depending on your location, the answer to this question will be different. Literally hundreds of plants, and their various parts, are now available to harvest when you are out foraging in these longer days. Take your pick!

Nature’s increasing fertility, reaches a glorious climax this month. At this zenith of fecund expansion, foragers will begin to gently shift focus from abundant leaves and leaf shoots, to new tender flower stems, flower buds, flowers, fruits, seed pods, immature, and mature seed. 

Because of this I feel both enormous relief and joy at the beginning of summer. I don’t doubt that these are the very same feelings and emotions felt by my hunter gatherer ancestors, and all of my direct relatives who came before me.

At this time of year I still keep a keen eye out for the occasional carpets of seed leaves, regularly produced from a number of different species.

The late spring sees the mass germination of various ‘goosefoot’ species from the Chenopodium and Atriplex genera and the continual opportunities to harvest microgreens of many species.

Estuary mud-flats, stream and river banks, waste-grounds and various neglected areas of cultivation will always be worth visiting when you are out foraging in May.

Ten wild edible plants to get to know when out foraging in May. 

Before going out picking, it’s advisable to hone your poisonous plant knowledge. Anyone just starting out foraging, can quickly get up to speed with some of these basic tips and tricks.

Remember your responsibilities when harvesting wild plants. Ensure and enable the survival of the plant and plant populations, being mindful of the wider ecology you are working within, and are a part of.

You can also find some of these plants in March and April, and into June and beyond. Enjoy!

 

Sea arrow grass / Sea coriander (Triglochin maritima) Juncaginaceae family.

Only found on estuaries and salt marshes, the grass like leaves have wonderful coriander-like aromatics
Only found on estuaries and salt marshes, these grass-like leaves have wonderful aromatics.

This estuary-loving plant looks somewhat like clumps of dark green chives dotted about on the salt marsh. Just as it’s relatively new secondary common name implies, the leaves taste strongly of coriander.

There are potential issues with cyanide-based cyanogenic glycoside content in sea coriander, although no adverse reactions to eating this plant have been reported. Occasional use of the younger parts in the spring and summer is completely fine.  Watch my youtube video on estuaries and salt marsh.

 

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) Oleaceae family.

Ash keys are one of my favourite spring harvests. Pick and use when green ans young before the rpund seed de elops and the flesh gets to fibrous
Ash flowers produce ‘keys’ that are a great olive substitute. Pick and use when young and green.

Ash is the last of our native trees to come into leaf. It comes into flower before the leaf buds burst.

The fruits from this tree, also known as ‘keys’, are another great reason to go out foraging in late May. They are edible only when young and green, and made palatable and tasty only with preparation.

Harvesting ash keys are another of my favourite harvests when foraging in May. Ash is related to the olive tree, and similarly needs a few stages of simple processing. Bring to the boil in salt water, change the water and repeat. Then place into a spiced vinegar to mature for at least three months. Six is better. The texture of the flesh is just like olives!

 

Rosy garlic (Allium roseum) Liliaceae family.

Gorgeous pink flowers of rosy garlic can be found in bloom when foraging in May.
Rosy garlic’s gorgeous pink flowers can be found in full bloom when foraging in May.

This stunning-looking garlic relative was brought here into cultivation in 1752 and was first recorded in the wild in 1837. It loves rocky slopes, wastegrounds, roadsides, hedgebanks and various coastal settings. 

Rosy garlic is found scattered in various parts of the country. The flowers and bulbils are great whwn added to salads
Rosy garlic is found in various parts of the country. The flowers and bulbils are great whwn added to salads.

There are two varieties growing here. One of them (var bulbiferum) has pink-red bulbils at the base of the umbel in place of some of the gorgeous pink flowers. All parts of the plant are edible.  

 

Oaks (Quercus robur / Q.praetaria) Fagaceae family.

Young oak leaves are best picked for wine within a week or so of opening
Oak leaves are best picked for wine when young. The acorns are also edible with preparation.

Oaks can be used for food or medicine. The tannin-rich acorns from these trees has been used as a ‘fall-back’ famine food. The young leaves, with added raisins, make a good dry wine.

Depending on which species you use, it is possible to extract an oil from acorns or grind them into flour. Our two native oaks (Q.robur and Q.petraea) are suitable for processing into flour.

The holly oak (aka holm oak and evergreen oak) produces acorns with very low tannin levels compared to other oaks, and doesn’t require as much processing to make them edible. They are not as suitable for flour as our native species, due to their fat content, so are used for oil.

 

Lime tree (Tilia vulgaris) Tiliaceae family.

Salads from our various lime trees can be quickly gathered during May and June.
Salads from lime trees can be quickly gathered during May and June.

During mid May, these trees now produce large amounts of tasty leaves for salads. Hot on the heels of the leaves appearing, come masses of fragrant, calming flowers for teas and herbal medicines. The various lime trees were covered last year in this detailed article.

Honeysuckles / woodbine (Lonicera periclymenum) Caprifoliaceae family.

The honeysuckle can be found in many woodlands when you are foraging in spring
Honeysuckles offer gorgeous scent and colour to salads.

Lonicera species are climbing, trailing plants, with exotic looking flowers, full of honeyed scent. These plants are related to the elder and the Guelder rose. You can find our native honeysuckle in hedgerows and woodlands all over Britain, except on the fens and on higher peaks.

Together with the white dead nettle, honeysuckle are the flowers of my childhood. During spring and early summer, I would run out into the back garden to gorge on the nectar at the base of the flowers.

 

Dog rose and Japanese rose (Rosa canina and Rosa rugosa) Rosaceae family.

The almost ubiquitous Dog rose flowers are a quintessential English bloom, found foraging in May
Dog roses are quintessential English flowers easily found when foraging in May.

 

These are two abundant roses, whether you live in town or country. The dog rose is a quintessential English flower. Their flowers were laid down into our national consciousness through the imposition of the Tudor dynasty (1485 – 1605).

The first Tudor was Henry Tudor, who defeated Richard 3rd at Bosworth field. After Henry created his fiction of changing the date of his coronation to insist he wasn’t usurping, he then set about merging the emblems of the two previously feuding aristocratic houses, the famous white and red roses of York and Lancaster.

The Tudor rose emblem, developed by Henry Tudor in a blatant blag for the English throne.

Right now, the two main species of interest for me are the dog rose and Japanese rose. From May through into June, their short-lived beauty is a feast for the senses.

In the countryside, an array of subtle pinks and apple-whites from Rosa canina adorm the hedges on sunny late spring days. Contrast the dog rose flowers flowers with the larger, and often garish blooms of the schedule 9 invasive plant – Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa).

The Japanese rose hips appear earlier than the dog rose, being available in August
The Japanese rose hips are larger and appear earlier than our native dog rose.

This vigorous, suckering species comes into flower earlier than the dog rose. Their large, almost tomato-shaped fruit are ready in August, well before the hips of our native dog rose. The Japanese rose is planted a lot in our parks and gardens, and also around buildings in towns and cities. It will also be found naturalised in hedges.

 

Three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum) Liliaceae family.

One of my May foraging highlights are the sweet crunchy and garlic-tasting 'peas'
Three cornered leek seed pods are sweet ans crunchy and taste of garlic.

This plant is worth another mention after inclusion in November’s foraging guide. Right now you can collect the fantastic little ‘garlic peas’ from this invasive plant. Look out for the flower stalks bending over and notice the spent petals drooping around the swelling seed pod. The seed pods are edible when green and young. When mature and black they are hard and inedible.

The small, green seed pods are a superb wild food, with a lovely sweet garlic taste. The cunchy pods are perfect for scattering through salads. They are great for pickling, be this in vinegar, or even better, lacto-fermented in a salt brine.

 

Buckshorn plantain (Plantago coronopus) Plantaginaceae family.

Only fpund near the sea, the succulent and fleshy buckshorn plantaon is grown commercially for salad bags.
When foraging by the sea in May, try the succulent and fleshy buckshorn plantain.

The leaves and flower buds of this salad plant are available now. It loves estuaries and coastal settings. The est specimens offer a salty succulence. Their flavour is heavily influenced by whatever micro-climate they find themselves in.

 

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceloata) Plantaginaceae family.

Ribwort plantain is one of the finest medicinal herbs that can be harvested in May.

A superb medicinal herb, now offering a profusion of leaves, and flower ‘buds’. It was previously covered in my article on the extraordinarily helpful plantains.

Mushroom Foraging in May

Morels (Morchella species)

Morels are a foraging highlight for fungi fanatics during May.

Morels are very distinctive looking mushrooms. They are highly prized in Europe and North America. Make sure you can spot the differences between true Morels and the very poisonous false morels (Verpa bohemica).

Because the ridged and pitted appearance of the true morels and false morels is similar, you will need to examine the inside of the fungus to make sure you know which is which.

The true morels have caps that are attached to the stem. They true morels are hollow inside, while the false morel has a cap that hangs free, and have cotton-like fibres inside.

Hopefully this article is tickling your wild food tastebuds. More seasonal guides are coming soon! Happy foraging!

 

* Photo credits for “Morel Mushrooms” by ~flutterby~ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And for “Sea Arrow Grass, Triglochin maritima” by nz_willowherb is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

 

 

Foraging for hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) Apiaceae family

UK guide to foraging for hogweed. Learn to identify, then discover its many food and medicine uses.

This plant changed my life. Ever since reading Roger Philips’ superb book ‘Wild food’, more than 20 years ago, foraging for hogweed has become one of my favourite  wild food pleasures.

No author could say “unequivically the best vegetable I eat”, without meaning it. He was absolutely right! And for me, there are just a handful of other plants worthy of the same attention as I give to this plant during the spring.

Hogweed grows in all manner of settings.
Hogweed is a constant herbal companion, being there almost everywhere we go.

Every April I look forward with relish to the new leaf shoots, knowing how quickly dinner can be picked, and how tasty it will be!

Yes, there are some real toxicity dangers in foraging for hogweed, as there are with many carrot family plants. There is also a shed load of absolute tosh written about this plant on social media. So, these dangers are discussed at the end of this article.

Before picking anything though, all beginner foragers out there are advised to read my article on starting out foraging, as well this overview of Britain’s poisonous plants.

Antique French botanical illuatration.

What’s in a name?

The generic part of the scientific name, Heracleum, is from the old Greek word for the plant – Hērákleios, literally meaning ‘of Heracles’. In Greek mythology, he was the son of Zeus.

The specific part of the name sphondylium comes from an old Greek word spondylos, meaning ‘a vertebrae’. This refers to the stem segments.

The common English name ‘hogweed’ is apparantly attributed to the smell of the flowers resembling the smell of pigs. I can’t say that my nose detects a smell of hogs, but odours are in the nose of the beholder I suppose. Also, I have only spent a small amount of time with pigs!

In Russia and other Slavic speaking areas of East Europe, the plant is known as ‘Borschevnic’. The English name for the East European soup, Borscht, as well as the Polish name ‘Barszcz’, take their names directly from hogweed.

The plant is also called ‘cow parsnip’, but this name is much more commonly used in the U.S. than here.

Botanical description

A little bit of botanical language will follow, though I keep it to a minimum. If you do get stuck on a word here, simply visit the foragers glossary.

 

Leaves: Hogweed has very variable leaves. In this respect it is a great plant teacher. It shows us the individuality of plants within a species population, and reminds us, that just like the human species, there really aren’t two of them that look exactly alike.

I don’t yet know many other wild plants that can be so obviously variable as hogweed. Smooth sow thistle maybe?

Hogweed has extremely variable leaf form, so always use the petioles.
Hogweed has extremely variable leaf form, so always use the petioles to I/D.

Hogweed has large, triangular shaped, dark green leaves. Unlike the majority of others in the family, their leaves are only 1- pinnate. It’s leaves are notable for the terminal leaflet always being 3- lobed.

Contrast their foliage to others in the family, such as wild chervil, hemlock, hedge parsley, alexanders, wild angelica, or ground elder. Quite different.

Hogweed leaf form demonstrating why the leaf is shaped the way that it is. To allow for maximum sunlight capture.
Looking at hogweed provides many valuable insights. Like how the different leaf forms maximise sunlight capture.

Hogweed leaves can reach 50 cm long. On close inspection, each leaflet lobe has serrate margins.

Hogweed’s hairy leaves produce a silver sheen as they catch dappled sunlight.

Their leaves are hairy and a little coarse to the touch. They can produce a silver sheen where dappled sunlight strokes them.

 

Petioles: Depending on where you find the plant, the petioles will be anywhere from 15 – 30 cm long. Stem leaves are sheathed at the base.

Shade-growing plants will have longer, usually thinner, leaf stalks. You will also see them purple-coloured.

It becomes apparent when forsging for hogweed that the best leaf shoots are silvery looking with unfurled leaves.
Hogweed shoots like this one are the sweetest and most tender.

The petioles are mostly solid, ridged, and bristly-hairy. When cut in cross section, they look like a squashed horseshoe shape, with a large central groove. In this respect they are a little like wild celery (Apium graveolens).

Cross section of a petiole. Note the shape, hairs, and arrangement of vascular bundle fibres.

 

Roots: This perennial plant has a large, creamy white tap-root, just like many family relatives.

 

Stems: Hogweed is by far our most common, tall, white flowering umbellifer of the summer and autumn.

when you have been foraging for hogweed for a while you see how many planta will grow taller than 2 metres.
Hogweed flowers all summer and can easily grow taller than 2 metres.

When out foraging for hogweed you can find the plant often reaching more than 2 metres high. The stems are bristly hairy, hollow, ridged, and branched towards the top. Often purple-coloured. Flowers will appear from stem / leaf axils.

You can still go foraging for hogweed when it produces flowering stems. The smaller lateral flower stems give us a tender stem broccoli substitute..
Hogweed flower stems are bristly-hairy and easily reach more than 2 metres high.

 

Flowers: White or pink-coloured compound umbels. These are variable in appearance as well.

Hogweed on the Somerset levels, where masses grow on the riverbanks.

 

Many are are flat-topped, the others more curved, like an umbrella. The former family name Umbelliferae comes from the Latin word for umbrella. Occasionally you can find pom-pom looking hogweed flowers too.

hogweeds inflorescence can be quite variable. It can be flat topped, curved or produce a pom-pom display.
hogweeds inflorescence can be flat-topped, curved top or like a pom-pom.

The compound umbels are approximately 10 – 25 cm wide. The largest being the apical one (around 25 cm diameter). Hogweed typically has between 8 – 15  umbels per compound umbel. Generally, each individual umbel has around twenty spokes, or rays, holding the individual flowers.

The outer flowers on the umbels have larger and irregular-shaped outer petals, compared to the inner flowers.

Hogweed has irregular-shaped outer petals, larger than the inner ones.

Hogweed has very few, or no bracts. It will always have a few bracteoles under the individual umbels, but these can soon wither.

Before you go foraging, watch this common hogweed Vs giant hogweed video on my ipsophyto YouTube channel!

Giant hogweed in the bottom of the Char valley, near Bridport, Dorset.

Flowering season: Hogweed has a long flowering season, coming into bloom from June continuing into October. In discussing wild chervil, I shared my tale about the eight inch high hogweed flowering away in December, and why herbaceous perennials will be seen flowering more ‘out of season’ in the future.

 

Fruits: A dry, ridged, oval-shaped schizocarp. When crushed these ‘seeds’ produce a cardamom and citrus-like aroma, with hints of coriander.

 

Habitats: Hogweed grows in all manner of settings in rural and urban areas. These include wastegrounds, rough grasslands, hedgerows, roadsides, riverbanks and woodland clearances. As this map shows, you can find hogweed in almost all areas of Britain, growing at altitudes approaching 1000 metres.

Hogweed will be found in many settings such as waste ground and rough grasslands in a grassland habitat.
Hogweed will grow in many settings, here enjoying a woodland habitat.

 

Parts used: All parts of this plant can be used for food and medicine.

 

Harvesting: Leaf shoots and leaves can be collected as and when they appear in spring.

When you are foraging hogweed shoots, the best results are from harvesting the petioles before the leaf has fully unfurled. After this they get less palatable. Fully opened leaves have fibrous petioles, and so at this point, only the foliage is edible.

Stems and pre-flowering stalks need to be harvested when still supple and tender, before the flower buds open.

Emerging flower buds are best harvested with their stem before they fully open.

Flowers should be harvested when just open.

Fruits can be used young, plump and green, or later, when they are mature, brown and thin.

Roots are best harvested in the autumn, at the end of the first years growth. Read more tips and tricks on picking wild plants over here in my harvesting guide.

 

Edible uses: The numerous available plant parts, alongside its different agreeable aromatics, tastes, and textures, give this plant a lot of versatility in the kitchen.

The vegetative parts such as the leaf shoots, stems and pre-flowering stalks, I use in numerous ways.

The leaf shoots I tend to treat like asparagus. So I sometines steam and occasionally chargrill. I also love making gram-flour pakora with them.

The stems I will use chopped up in chutney’s, with other abundant summer stems such as burdock and one of the willowherbs, for example.

The pre-flowering stalks can be cooked for a few minutes like tender-stem broccoli.

The seeds have a number of uses. They can be dried and used as any other spice. I add them green to hawthorn jams for extra flavour. They go well as a replacement for their cousin, caraway (Carum carvi) in breads and biscuits. I have also read accounts of the green seeds being pickled, but yet to try it.

 

Medicinal uses: Plants from the genus Heracleum are well known and used ethnobotanical herbs, with many medicinally useful compounds and attributes.

This plant contains essential oils, and because of these, hogweed will be useful as a carminative, digestive remedy. Readers of my medicinal plant chemsitry page will know that this medicinal action is common to pretty much the whole family, apart from the ones that kill you that is!

The genus is antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic, amongst other actions, as is reported here in this excellent study.

The herb has a long history of use in East Europe, but not so in Western herbal medicine traditions. This makes me wonder why?

Known in Romania as Branca uruslui, the herb is used for hormonal and male reproductive disorders. I’ve noticed a discussion where it was called ‘ginseng-like’. (That was not an affiliate link, merely a page of interest. I currently don’t offer affiliate links).

I am absolutely fascinated by ethnobotanical traditions in other countries, and from different terroir. I love hogweed more now because of some things I’ve learned in writing this article. This plant never stops giving!

 

Safety warning!

All parts of the plant contain the phototoxic molecule furucoumarin. This compound is a known and potentially severe irritant to the skin, when it’s in contact under sunlight. For everyone bar a miniscule minority, its absolutely safe to eat.

The dangers of these molecules really require an article of its own.  The effects from contact with photo-toxic compounds is not a black or white scenario.

Aside from an individual’s own skin sensitivity, it is important to say that temperature and intensity of ultra violet light are the biggest determining factors in how much or how badly the sap will affect your skin.

From my own experimentation with foraging for hogweed, after I rubbed some sap on my skin on a warm bright spring day, it gave me 1st degree burns. A bit like a mild cooker burn.

Definitely not as bad as its close relative, the notorious giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), which can produce the equivalent of 3rd degree burns if sap gets on your skin. Ouch! Identify giant hogweed in flower here with our video.

I think its because of its similarity to giant hogweed and all the unpleasant headlines that it generates, that common hogweed has also become scary to people.

People with existing allergies to celery always need to seek professional advice about any member of the carrot family. I’m not qualified enough to say any more on health matters, aside from giving a reminder that testing your tolerance with any new wild plant is essential.

Lots of plants in the carrot family produce furucoumarins, but in different concentrations. There is as much danger in handling cut flowering parsnips as there is in collecting hogweed. Maybe more, because as already said, it depends on the person and climactic factors.

That all said, I don’t advocate eating a hogweed only diet and naked sunbathing.

If at all still worried, and to be fair, to be justifiably worried you will probably already have very sensitive skin, or have an allergy against celery, then harvest the plant with gloves on and choose a dull day to pick.

Happy Foraging!

Next up is my belated look at some of May’s wild food foraging highlights!

 

How to identify Dogs Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) Euphorbiaceae family

Learn how to confidently identify dogs mercury,and stay safe in the hedgerow.

Anyone who has regularly walked in ancient woodland here in Britain will probably recognise this plant. After reading this short article you will soon be able to confidently identify dogs mercury.

This perennial plant is known as an indicator of ancient woodland here in the UK. Because of this it can point to the presence of other species that also require settled, climax woodland ecologies.

In old woodlands are the best places to learn how to identify the perennial dogs mercury
Old woodlands are the best places to learn how to identify dogs mercury.

This is one of only a few native members of the large spurge family. This species, and the annual mercury (Mercurius annua) are quite distinct from the various succulent and tropical-looking members that exude a photo-toxic white sap. Dogs mercury is a common poisonous plant that all foragers who are just starting out need to know.

Antique botanical illustration of dogs mercury
Antique botanical illustration of dogs mercury.

What’s in a name?

A number of plants have the prefix ‘dog’ given to them. In many cases it inferred a plant with no medicinal use. Dogs mercury is also a fetid, rank smelling  plant.

This plant was reportedly called mercury because of its similarity in form to another plant known as mercury, but more commonly called ‘good king Henry’ or ‘Lincolnshire spinach’ (Chenopodium bonus-henricus).

The generic part of the name Mercurialis, means literally ‘of mercury’. Some online references merely suggest the plant was named in honour of the god mercury. That seems a bit wishy-washy to me.

So I side with the American University of Berkley state, whose botanical department point to it being named in honour of the renaissance Italian physician Geronimo Mercurialis (1530 – 1606).

The specific part of the name, perennis, tells us this herbaceous plant returns each year.

Botanical description

If you find any words that are unfamiliar to you, simply head over to our comprehensive A-Z foragers glossary.

Leaves: The leaves begin to appear in late winter. They are elliptical or ovate, dark green, approximately 3 – 8 cm long, and with a distinctive white mid vein.

Oppositecpairs of dark green leaves with white mid veins are tell tale features when learning to identify dogs mercury.
Opposite pairs of dark green leaves with white mid veins are key features to identify dogs mercury.

The opposite pairs of leaves only appear on stems. Tiny hairs are found on both sides of the leaf.

The leaf margins are quite finely serrate-crenate, with tiny white hydathodes at the tips. Ciliate hairs are present.

Petioles: Small, anywhere from 3 – 15 mm, with thin, triangular-shaped, green stipules. The stipules are similar to those found on the stinging nettle.

Roots: Dogs mercury has rhizome roots that creep and spread to form large, dense carpets. In some places it will be the only plant in many square metres of ground.

Stems: These are pretty much round-shaped, sometimes with two ridges.

Dogs mercury has round stems, approximately 40 cm high, slightly swollen above the nodes, with stipules.
Dogs mercury has round stems, slightly swollen above the nodes, always with stipules.

The stems are swollen above the nodes. Stems are unbranched. They are hairy to mostly hairless.

Dogs mercury stems are always unbranched.

Flowers: Small catkin spikes of tiny, delicate-looking green-yellow flowers.

Dogs mercury has catkin-like spikes of green- yellow flowers
Dogs mercury has catkin-like spikes of green-yellow flowers, without petals.

The flowers are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are on seperate plants. The flowers consist only of sepals and no petals. The anthers are yellow tipped.

The flowers open to reveal delicate-looking yellow tipped anthers
The flowers open to reveal delicate-looking yellow-tipped anthers.

Flowering season: March to May.

Habitats: Old woodland, hedgerows and green lanes are all prime sites to spot this plant. It can also be found on our uplands, at altitudes of around 1000 metres. This map from the BSBI shows the extent of its range here in Britain.

Tou can easily find and identify dogs mercury in ancient woodlands and hedgerows.
You can easily find and identify dogs mercury in ancient woodlands and hedgerows.

Parts used: None.

Edible and medicinal Uses: None

Other notes: I couldn’t find any modern records of human poisoning, although many instances of cattle and livestock poisoning have been documented.

It may well be the case that as a species, we have long since learnt not to eat this plant. It is known to contain saponins, as well as bitter and acrid constituents.

So, now you have learnt how to identify dogs mercury, how about learning how to identify hundreds of plants in a day?  This must read, two-part article introduces the most common and important plant families for foragers here in the UK. Both part one and part two will fast track your plant I/D skills, and take your foraging to another level.

Coming up next…foraging for common hogweed.

 

How to Identify Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) Ranunculaceae family

Learn how to identify marsh marigold, then discover its food, medicine, and other uses.

This is one of those plants that is much rarer these days, thanks to humans dramatically altering our landscape, and destroying much of its preferred wetland habitat.

It is still widely found though, and this foraging guide will show you quickly how to identify marsh marigold, and reveals its edible uses.

Because this herb is no longer found in the numbers it once was, I am not advocating the harvesting of marsh marigolds. I am merely documenting that it is a wild food plant, albeit one that we should only think about eating in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

What’s in a name?

The common name marsh marigold points to its preferred habitat of wetland areas. Marigold is a name given to many unrelated bright yellow flowering plants, named after the virgin Mary. The plant is also commonly known as ‘King cups’.

The generic part of the scientific name Caltha, is from an old Greek word ‘kalathos’ meaning ‘goblet’ or ‘cup’, and alludes to the shape of the flowers with their upturned petals.

The specific part of the name, palustris, means ‘of marshy areas’, and helpfully tells us where we might find the plant.

Botanical description

If some of the botanical terms are new to you, then simply turn to our A-Z foragers glossary for help.

Leaves: Large, glossy green, hairless, kidney-shaped leaves, with crenated margins. The leaves are paler on the undersides.

identify marsh marigolds by its leaves in early spring. They are unlike most other plants sharing its habitat.
You can identify marsh marigold by its glossy, kidney shaped-leaves, in early spring.

The basal leaves have white-ish netted veins and tiny white hydathodes at the tips. The leaves are anywhere in size from 3 – 30 cm.

You can learn to identify marsh marigold from just its leaves, as they are unlike the other plants that share their habitat.

Marsh marigold has hairless leaves, a long petiole, with white veins and tiny white hydathode tips.
Marsh marigold has hairlss leaves with white veins and tiny white hydathode tips.

Petioles: These are purplish at the base. Aproximately 10 cm long. The petiole is sheathed at the base. Stem leaves form ochrea; a plant tissue found at the nodes of the stems, and hopefully recognised by readers of my article on sorrel and other dock family plants.

Roots: Short rhizome roots.

Stems: The hollow stems grow to around 40 cm high in flower.

Flowers: Large buttercup yellow flowers, approximately 10 – 50 mm. Like many buttercup family plants, this one has no true petals, but rather, five to eight sepals. These open to reveal a mass of yellow stamens surrounding the fused pistil. When it’s in flower is the best time to try and identify marsh marigold.

In the spring a number of dfferent insect pollinators are attracted to the flowers. These include bees, moths and hovver flies
Marsh marigold attracts a wide range of pollinators including hovver flies.

A range of insects love the flowers. Syrphid flies (flies disguised as bees, including hovver flies), moths and bees all fancy the flowers and will be seen buzzing around and on the plant on warm sunny days.

Flowering season: You can see this plant flowering from April into May.

The main flowering season and best time to identify marsh marigold is during April. It can bloom as early as March if warm enough.
Marsh marigold wil be found in flower during April and May.

Fruits: The fruits look like a spiky crown. They typically have 12 segments, each containing a number of tiny seeds.

caltha palustris has spiky looking fruits, typically divided into 12 segments.
The fruits of Caltha palustris , by Stefan.lefnaer is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Habitats: As the name suggests, this plant loves marshy areas. It enjoys slow moving streams and rivers, canals, and wet meadowlands, except on very acid soils. It can be found in much of Britain, but nowhere near the numbers that proceeded the draining of many wetland habitats for development and agriculture.

Parts used: Leaves, flower buds, and roots.

Harvesting: Leaves can be picked in spring, as can the new flower buds. The roots are best harvested in early autumn.

Edible uses: Leaves can be boiled, but should never be eaten raw due to the presence of the irritant compound protoanenomin. Cooking breaks down the molecule however, rendering the plant safe to eat.

The flower buds can be pickled like a caper. Historical anecdotal evidence suggests these capers were enjoyed by Queen Victoria. The roots can also be eaten after cooking.

Medicinal uses:  Historically the plant was used in a number of folk medicine preparations, for various maladies. I’m quite happy to follow suit with Henriette Kress, who assures us that this plant has no known modern herbal medicine uses.

If you liked this article and want to know more about plant identification, then I strongly advise you spend a few minutes reading my ‘how to identify plants in a day article’, parts one and two. For students of herbal medicine wanting to find out more about medicinal plant constituents, simply head over to our page about medicinal plant chemistry.

Happy foraging!

 

 

Foraging ox-eye daisy for capers (Leucanthemum vulgare) Asteraceae family

A UK wild food guide to foraging ox-eye daisy for capers. Learn to identify, and discover its food and medicinal uses.

I absolutely love foraging ox-eye daisy for capers. In this article you can learn how to confidently identify, responsibly harvest, and enjoy this tasty plant in the kitchen.

Ox-eye daisy is an abundant perennial plant in the large composite family of plants. Aside from the orchids, this is known to be the largest plant family in the world.

Beginner foragers may also want to read this instructive ‘how to identify plants in a day’ article, showing how more than 20,000 species can be identified using a few simple observable patterns.

Ox eye daisy has unique savoury flavours. The flower bud capers are one of my favourite spring preserves. It’s an easy plant to get to know, surviving over winter in small rosettes and larger established clumps, allowing you to identify it all year round.

The plant over winters as leaf rosettes, allowing you to identify the plant all year round,
The plant grows during winter, giving you plenty opportunities to identify.

What’s in a name?

You may well have seen this plant with the scientific synonym Chysanthemum leucanthemum. Plant names do occasionally change when more is known about them. Either name will prove ok to use when searching online for information.

The common name ox-eye daisy seems self explanatory. Other common names include moon daisy, marguerites, and dog daisy.

The generic part of the scientific name Leucanthemum comes from the Greek words ‘leucos‘ meaning white, and anthemon, which means flower.

The specific part of the name vulgare originally meant commonly known to the people. It also describes a common garden plant.

ox-eye daisy is commonly found in cottage gardens, hence its name
Ox-eye daisy is commonly found in gardens, hence the specific part to its scientific name.

Botanical description

I try to keep technical terms to a minimum, but if any botanical words are new to you, then simply find their meaning here in the foragers glossary

Leaves: Dark green, hairy, and aromatic when crushed. The leaves are spoon-shaped or oblong-shaped. Usually found acutely tapering at the base.

A young ox-eye daisy rosette in late winter with its hairy basal leaves.
A young ox-eye daisy rosette in late winter with its hairy basal leaves.

Basal leaves are around 5 cm  x 2 cm, and are smaller than many stem leaves (up to 8 cm long). The margins are toothed, with 5 – 10 pairs of teeth per side.

The spoon shaped or oblong leaves have numerous teeth and sit on long petioles
The spoon shaped or oblong leaves have numerous teeth and sit on long petioles.

The leaves are found over winter, growing as rosettes, and also in larger established clumps.

Petioles: 5- 7 cm long, hairy and often a reddish tinge down the centre.

Roots: Creeping rhizome roots.

Stems: Red-brown coloured, 5- angled, hairy and branched. They can reach around 75 cm high.

ox-eye daisy begins to send up flowering stems in late April. They are hairy, angled, and red-brown coloured.
Ox-eye daisy has hairy, angled, red-brown coloured flowering stems.

Flowers: Large daisy-like flowers appear from the striped flower buds. Anywhere from 25 – 60 mm diameter.

In late April you can find the flowerbuds appearing. Ox-eye daisy has striped, tightly packed flower buds.
Ox-eye daisy with its characteristic stripy flower buds.

Once open, white ray florets surround a dome of yellow disc florets. The whole flower is about 7 –  9 cm diameter. They are found in large numbers in meadows and pastures.

ox-eye daisy flowers in grassland during the summer produces a wealth of flowers
“Ox-eye Daisies in summer” by Sarah Ward Aviatrix is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Flowering season: May through to September.

Fruits: Tiny, ribbed, black achenes, without pappus hairs.

Habitats: You can find this plant all over Britain up to altitudes of around 845 m. It loves all manner of grasslands and meadows, as well as cliff tops, wastegrounds, railway sidings and roadsides.

Ox-eye daisy loves roadsides as well as all manner of grassland settings.

Parts used: Leaves, flower buds, and ray florets.

Harvesting: Pinch off the tight young flowerbuds in April and May. Pinch off leaves from the base of the leaf stalk as and when required. Ray florets are easily stripped off.

Edible uses: The leaves can be used whole or chopped in salads. Try steamed like spinach with oil and seasoning. Toss the ray florets through salads or use as a garnish.

Ox-eye daisy flowerbuds when found tightly packed like this are ready for foraging for capers.
Ox-eye daisy flowerbuds like this are ready for foraging for capers.

The flower buds are my favourite part. Every spring I look forward to going out foraging ox-eye daisy for capers. They make a great caper substitute. Pick the buds when young and tightly packed. Dry salt the buds for a few hours and pack as many into a jar as you can.

Next, infuse spices into a white whine vinegar, with a little added honey or demerara sugar. Bring the spiced vinegar to a light boil, take off the heat, then add the flowerbuds. Leave for at least a month. These deliciously-flavoured, crunchy capers will delight your taste buds!

Medicinal uses: Ox-eye daisy has been used in herbal medicine all over the world. Similar to other daisy family plants, such as the common daisy and Arnica (Arnica montana), this herb can be used to treat bruises and sprains. It is also used externally as a wound staunching herb.

The flowers are used to treat different coughs and chest complaints. They are used to reduce night sweats, and as Henriette Kress mentions, to treat nervous excitability. Some herbalists also use ox-eye daisy as an antispasmodic, to replace its cousin, chamomile.

Other notes: Ox-eye daisy is smaller than its close relative, the ‘shasta daisy’ (Leucanthemum x superbum) also commonly found in parks and gardens. This popular plant can reach 120 cm tall, begins to flower much later (July – September) and its large flowers are much bigger, at around 60 – 100 mm diameter.

I hope you found this article useful. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.

Happy Foraging!

 

 

Foraging Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis darwinii) Berberidaceae family

Foraging Darwin’s barberry. Learn how to confidently identify, and discover its food and medicine uses.

Darwins barberry is a great plant. Not only is it an easy plant for wild food and herbal medicine foragers to learn how to identify, it offers a number of different plant parts to use, providing numerous harvesting opportunities.

This plant originates from the temperate parts of southern Chili and southern Argentina. Here in the UK, we have one native species from the genus – the common or European barberry (Berberis vulgaris).

Darwin’s barberry is another of those plants that are found more easily when you are foraging in towns and cities than if looking in rural places. Although from my experience, any sizeable village will also likely be home to this useful and popular garden shrub.

This is a pretty foolproof plant for beginner foragers, with no lookalikes to confuse matters. It is evergreen, so provides constant chances to learn how to identify it. Within minutes you can be ready to confidently go foraging Darwin’s barberry.

What’s in a name?

The first part of the botanical name, Berberis, is the type name for a genus of around 400 shrubs. I can’t discover much about the origins of the name, adide from one disputed theory. This theory suggests that it comes from an old Arabic word ‘Ber-berys‘, which was an Arabic name for fruit from these thorny plants.

The many barberry plants alledgedly take their name from an old Arabic word for the fruits.
Barberry plants take their name from an old Arabic word for the fruits.

The specific part of the name, darwinii, is in honour of Charles Darwin. The great Victorian naturalist discovered it for western science on a trip to Patagonia, on board HMS Beagle in 1835.  Hence our common name simply being ‘Darwin’s barberry’.

Botanical description

Just like in a wild flower field guide, I use occasional technical terms, all of which are covered in this glossary.

 

Leaves: Evergreen and glossy looking, they are alternately spaced, approximately 2 – 4 cm × 1 – 1.5 cm long.

Darwin's barberry has glossy evergreen leaves. They have small teeth and spines, looking like mini holly leaves.
Darwin’s barberry has small, spiny, holly-looking leaves.

The minature holly-looking leaves are obovate-shaped, or occasionally oblong, and each has 2  – 3 teeth per side which are tipped with 3 mm long thorns.

 

Petioles: None. This plant has sessile leaves.

 

Twigs: The new twigs are initially red- green coloured.

New twigs are red-tinged and already downy hairy.

The older twigs and stems become densely brown-hairy.

Darwin's barberry has shaggy brown hairy twigs and stems.
Darwin’s barberry has shaggy-looking hairy brown twigs and stems.

 

Roots: This plant generally produces rhizome roots.

 

Stems: Left to grow naturally the plant produces numerous branched stems, eventually reaching more than 3 m high and 3 m wide. I would wager that when you are foraging Darwin’s barberry you will mostly find badly pruned specimens, or well-clipped hedges.

Darwin's barberry will reach more than 3 metres high if it can
Darwin’s barberry will reach 3 metres high if left to itself.

 

Bark: Underneath the brown outer bark, the cambium layers are yellow coloured. This is due to the medicinally valuable alkaloid berberine, also present in greater celandine, previously covered here.

 

Flowers: Small drooping clusters of orange-yellow flowers, on red stalks. These are terminal, and found arising from axils.

Drooping clusters of orange flowers are a striking sight.
Darwin’s barberry with its drooping clusters of orange flowers.

The flowers consist of numerous orange sepals in whorls of three. The six petals are in two whorls of three. Inside the flower there are yellow-orange stamens that surround a flat disc-topped stigma.

A flat disc topped stigma inside the pretty, sour-tasting flowers.

 

Flowering season: Dependent on your location, this plant usually begins flowering in late February / early March, through into May. While in mild climates like the South Hams in Devon, it regularly flowers before Christmas during mild winters.

You can go foraging Darwin's barberry flowers from around February til May.
You can go foraging Darwin’s barberry flowers from February til May.

 

Fruits: Small, spherical, blue-purple coloured berries. Approximately 8 – 10 mm diameter. They are ripe and ready by the end of June / beginning of July. The colour comes from yeasts, which easily rub off.

New swelling fruits will eventually be ripe towards the end of June, just after summer solstice.
New swelling fruits. These will eventually be ripe just after summer solstice.

 

Habitats: Mostly found around urban development as amenity plantings, and as hedges.

Because it is evergreen with dense branching, the plant is often found as a hedge.
Where found as a hedge, you can get plenty of flowers in a minute or two of foraging Darwin’s barberry.

You can occasionally find naturalised specimens. The plant is increasing in numbers here in Britain, with birds freely eating and sowing seeds. This map shows the extent of its distribution.

An untamed specimen, with numerous thrusting branches.
An untamed specimen in Totnes flowering away in late November.

 

Parts used: Flowers, fruits, bark, roots.

 

Harvesting: The medicinal barks and roots are best harvested in October and November. Take the cut from as low down the branch as possible. Angle the cut so water will drip away from the plant.

Flowers can be pinched off easily and cleanly with fingers. Or use scissors. The berries come away easily when ripe. Laying a sheet down and gently shaking any larger, untamed specimens you find, will prove, er, fruitful! Discover more tips and tricks with my harvesting guide.

 

Food uses: The flowers are sour-tasting, similar to sorrel, but with some citrus tones in there. Toss into salads and use as garnish. They make a refreshing nibble while walking in towns on a hot spring day.

The berries are one of the sweeter-tasting fruits from this genus. Most others are quite tart due to high concentrations of vitamin C. They are ideal for snacking on walks, and are great processed into jams, jellies, pies, and as replacements for raisins in Welsh cakes. I have also made a fruity ketchup from them.

Medicinal uses: The medicinal barks and roots have long been used in their native regions.

The plant contains large amounts of berberine, chiefly found in its roots and inner bark. Chemists first isolated this strongly antibacterial substance in 1917. It is present in many other unrelated plants such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), from the buttercup family.

Berberine is very useful in treating a range of conditions. These include urinary tract infections, cystitis, type 2 Diabetes, and numerous digestive disorders. Recent research into berberine has shown it has neuro-protective abilities and could be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease. A plant not to forget then!

 

Now I challenge you to take your foraging to the next level and discover how to identify plants in a day! My two part article covers what I feel are the most important 12 plant families for foragers here in Britain. Both Part one and part two will revolutionise your plant I/D skills!

Happy foraging!