Foraging for Guelder rose / Cramp bark. Viburnum opulus. Caprifoliaceae
The Guelder rose is another stunning member of the beautiful honeysuckle family. This deciduous, perennial shrub is native to Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia.
This shrub is found scattered among our hedges and country lanes up and down the land. You may already know that many other Viburnum plants are popular shrubs with gardeners, and are widely planted in amenity settings.
From my foraging walks, the guelder rose is not that well known, compared to other hedgerow species. With all the other blossoms appearing during May, it probably gets drowned in all the colourful ‘noise’ out there.
Later in the year, the berries increasingly will catch your attention, especially during those dull grey Autumn days. As you wander past hedgerows, splashes of scarlet stand out to the eye amongst the thinning, yellowing, autumn hedgerows.
What’s in a name?
Medicinal herbalists know the plant well as ‘cramp bark’, because of its medicinal attributes. It’s main common name stems from the province of Holland known as Gueldersland. This is where the shrub was first recorded as being cultivated.
The generic name Viburnum is the old Latin name for this shrub and the other 150-175 mainly shrubby species in the genus.
The specific name opulus refers to a type of maple, in allusion to the maple-like leaf shape of this species.
Because the Guelder rose displays similar growth characteristics to the elder, it was historically known as ‘red elder’ and ‘rose elder’.
Habitats to explore
Guelder rose is said to be well suited to chalkland. Closely related to the elder tree, this shrub is almost entirely absent in Scotland, yet can be found most everywhere in England. Check out the UK distribution map for guelder rose.
It delights in copses of Alnus (alder) and Salix (willow), as well as in a range of hedges, woodland edges, bridleways, and country lanes up to elevations of 400 metres.
It can easily grow up to 4 metres high on many stems. The plant wil flourish in full sun or partial shade and can tolerate most soils other than very wet ones.
When planting this species, the advice has always been to avoid extremely hot or dry, exposed, and cold areas.
How to identify Guelder rose
Remember its related to elder, so family diagnostic features are the same. The branches have grey twigs, somewhat angular in shape. These carry opposite pairs of buds and leaves, mainly terminating with double buds.
Their buds are scaly, and appear thin when viewed from one side, but reasonably broad and becoming tapered when viewed from the other.
Its twigs carry a similarity in colour and form to the elder, especially the opposite pairs of buds.
When looking close you will see that the leaves are somewhat akin to a maple. They are often broader than long, usually deeply-divided into 3-5 lobes, and with toothed margins.
The leaves are sometimes voraciously eaten to a lacy outline by the Viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). It is not unusual to find some plants decimated by this insect in certain areas.
This plant’s most noticeable features are the distinctive umbel-like inflorescence and subsequent clusters of scarlet berry fruits.
The almost flat-topped, dense corymb is typically around 11 cm wide and snow-white coloured. It will be found in our hedgerows from May-July, although with global heating, they are increasingly found out in the south earlier than the field guides state).
The flowers of Guelder rose are conspicuous in the way that they produce large (15-20 mm wide) sterile outer flowers, surrounding much smaller (6 mm wide) fertile flowers.
They eventually give rise to the shiny red fruits that ripen into drooping clusters, and are ready from September-October.
Parts used: Inner bark. Berries
Harvest: Bark from 3-5 year old branches in early spring before leaf break. Berries in autumn.
Key constituents: Salicin (which converts to salicylate in the body); isovalerianic acid; sesquiterpenes (viopudial, viburtinal); catechin tannins; coumarin (scopoletin); bitter principle (viburtine).
Learn more about the medicinal plants, constituents and actions in this in-depth article.
Pharmacology and uses: As its name suggests, this plant has long been used to alleviate painful cramps and spasms.
The famed ‘cramp bark’ works by relieving and relaxing tense muscles, whether these are skeletal such as back muscles and limbs, or internal smooth muscles such as the intestines, airways, ovaries or uterus.
In North America, a closely related species, black haw (V.prunifolium), is often used interchangeably, although they have slightly different chemical constituents.
Certain indigenous North American Indian tribes such as the Meskwaki and the Penobscot reportedly used cramp bark for muscle swellings and mumps.
Cramp bark can also be taken internally as a decoction or applied topically. It has long been used to treat breathing difficulties in asthma as well as menstrual pains associated with excessive uterine contractions.
Some authors have noted it as being useful where miscarriage is threatened. Cramp bark is also helpful in cases of irritable bowel syndrome, colic, and the physical symptoms of nervous tension.
The molecule salicin, upon digestion, converts to salicylic acid. As a known anti-inflammatory, it will heal and support internal smooth muscles.
This plant also has value in treating cardio-vascular hypertension and is known to relieve constipation associated with tension. The anti-spasmodic action is known to be conferred in part by the substance valerianic acid.
In some cases of arthritis, where joint weakness and pain have forced muscles to contract until almost rigid, cramp bark can be used to bring remarkable relief.
This is because as the muscles relax, more blood can flow, metabolic waste products such as lactic acid can be removed and some degree of normal function can return.
Cramp bark can therefore be used in acute and chronic cases of muscle pains and cramps. It is also usefully used before embarking on any physical activity likely to bring pain.
The berries are not used medicinally. Some authors class them as poisonous whilst others mention them as edible. Tasted straight of the tree they are very bitter due to the substance viburtine.
The berries have been known to cause gastroenteritis when consumed raw. But cooking with the addition of sugar can make a nice enough preserve, but personally I prefer other fruit jams to this one.
Using the bark of Guelder rose is safe and effective for long and short term use, although maybe not if the patient is on anticoagulant medications. This is because the coumarins and salicylates are both known to thin the blood.
The plant has been reported to cause hypotension in large doses or even in average doses if taken by previously hypotensive individuals. Pregnant women ought to refrain from taking the bark of Guelder rose until they have consulted a qualified practitioner.
For tips on harvesting and other foraging hacks, take a look at my medicinal and edible wild plant harvesting guide. Happy foraging!
Safety is paramount. If in doubt, leave it out! Wild Plant Guides gives you a glossary of terms. This is a helpful friend. So pay it a visit!
What is a poison?
The British Medical Association defines a poison as “a substance that, in relatively small amounts, disrupts the structure and/or function of cells”. You can read more about the various substances and classes of molecules in this summary of medicinal plant constituents.
The subject of toxicity is an interesting yet by no means simple one. Simplicity would demand an answer to the question…What constitutes a poison?
A famous name in medieval alchemical science – Phillip Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as ‘Paracelsus’ (1493-1541), recognised that…
“it depends only on the dose whether a poison is a poison or not”!
Certain modern drugs, notably many anti-cancer agents (whether natural products or synthetics), are principally used because of their toxicity. The yew tree is a striking example here. A killer tree turned life-saver.
A number of our cultivated plants that we can safely consume in normal dietary amounts are potentially toxic, if consumed in larger quantities.
We all know of at least some of the health benefits from eating regular amounts of cabbage or broccoli. However, the knowledge that excessive consumption of cabbages, kale and cauliflowers (all are cultivated varieties bred from the wild cabbage, Brassica oleraceae) can lead to swollen thyroid glands is not so widespread.
There are documented cases of rural communities reliant on brassica’s as staple foods, inducing thyroid-related illnesses from over-eating cabbage and cabbage relatives.
The medicinally valuable glucosilinates are widespread in members of the brassica’s, and are toxic in large amounts. However, in reality it is impossible to eat enough in one sitting.
Within the fruits of many rose family members, such as hawthorn, are minute amounts of arsenic-based cyanogenic glycosides (in the form of prussic acid – hydrogen cyanide).
Arsenic is known to be deadly poisonous. However, the concentrations are usually so low that they have beneficial medicinal effects.
Different plant parts will hold various concentrations of poisonous compounds. Typically the fruits, seeds and roots will contain considerably higher amounts of toxins than the leaves and stems.
Some plants will really let you know by their smell that they are inedible. For example, the scent of elder leaves are unpleasant to me and do not in anyway invite eating.
Britain’s poisonous plants are found in many common plant families.
Although these are edible, there is a need to point out the risks of eating plants with oxalic acid (see medicinal chemistry), the major constituent of sorrel (Rumex acetosa).
Oxalic acid is a ubiquitous plant constituent. High oxalate consumption can lead to kidney stones or gout. As a foraged or cultivated vegetable consumed every now and again however, this plant, or indeed the family as a whole, presents little danger.
Oxalic acid is also present in high concentrations in Rhubarb (Rheum spp), and in many other plants in this family.
Oxalis acid also appears in unrelated plants in high concentrations too. It’s presence in our native wood sorrel and other members of the genus Oxalis, inspired its scientific name Oxalis acetosa.
Be sure to wash the leaves of the dock family because they can have chrysophanic acid on the surface which can make the tongue numb. This property apparently gave them the common name of ‘smartweed’ in North America, as when eaten raw they could make the tongue smart!
The lily family
A number of bulbous plants in this family are edible and medicinal (Allium spp). Yet many more are not. Examples from our flora include bluebells (Endyion non-scriptus syn Hyacinthoides non scriptus) and true hyacinths (Muscari spp). Both contain toxic substances.
Alliums are toxic to our skin in large amounts. You will find the bulb garlic (Allium sativum) or their derivatives listed in CoSHH (Control of substances hazardous to health) manuals.
The very beautiful, but poisonous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), is found in damp meadows and woodland, especially in a belt of central England from North Dorset up to Shropshire and across to Oxfordshire.
Closely related plants in the Narcissus genus (Amaryllidaceae family) are also toxic, though a substance found in daffodils is known to help with types of dementia.
The gorgeous, spring-flowering ‘snakeshead’ fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), is poisonous due to its alkaloids.
These plants are usually quite rare in the wild now, and very easy to identify with their striking snakeskin pattern, so present no real danger of mistaken picking in reality.
During flowering it should be unlikely to mistake it for edible or medicinal species. Fritillaries do not offer us food or medicine but are a treat for the eyes when stumbling upon them.
The pea family.
These plants, or more specifically the seeds, are often inedible when mature and raw. The ornamental laburnum tree (Laburnum anagyroides) has extremely poisonous seeds.
Many of the whole-foods commonly we commonly eat are seeds of this family. These include the soya bean (Glycine max) and kidney beans (Phaseolus spp) amongst others.
Some of these plants contain trypsin inhibitors and other enzyme inhibiting substances which can interfere with our digestion and metabolism.
It would take a hell of a lot of the plant material to harm us in practice, so as with many of these ‘toxic’ substances, there is no real practical issue.
Our common wild legumes, including the Vicia (vetches) and Lathyrus (sweet pea )genera, are known to contain trypsin inhibitors.
We have the clover tribe of plants to thank for the rat-poison warfarin.
The nightshade family
Aside from mostly being very pretty to look at, this family supplies us with a range of different foods, medicines, hallucinogens, and outright nerve toxins.
A common nightshade family toxin is the alkaloid substance solanine. This is a central nervous system toxin and causes dizziness, nausea, diarrhoea, and potentially delirium, shortness of breath, and coma.
The well-known vegetable aubergine (Solanum melongena), is toxic unless cooked. All parts of the potato (Solanum tuberosum) except for the tubers (unless green) contain solanine.
When foraging, we need to become familiar with the following poisonous plants:
Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara); populates lanes and hedges throughout Britain. It has a twining, sprawling habit, decorated by its 8-10 cm oval leaves which often have two smaller pointed leaves at the base.
From June to September the purple and yellow-coloured flowers are scattered in amongst the green leaves of the hedge and are followed by increasingly noticeable scarlet berries in the autumn. These shiny red berries look enticing, but are to be left for the birds!
The ‘deadly nightshade’ (Atropa belladonna) can be fatal if consumed. luckily, yet is reasonably rare outside SouthEast England.
Deadly nightshade can be identified by its pointed, 20 cm long oval leaves, and its distinctive flower and fruit. The flowers are produced singularly, or in pairs, and are bell-shaped with more or less parallel sides and blunt lobes.
The corolla is striped, with a brown-purple or green hue and is succeeded by the solitary, shiny black berry. The fruit sits with the five-pointed calyx noticeably persisting behind it. This calyx/berry arrangement is happily unlike any edible berry and should not easily be misidentified for one.
The black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), is a common weed of agricultural fields and gardens alike and probably our most common nightshade. The green berries are poisonous, containing solanine, although the ripe black berries are edible.
The leaves of black nightshade also contain variable amounts of solanine but this is destroyed by boiling so they can make an acceptable wild green. The leaves also contain the amino acid methionine, which is rarely found in plants.
Both henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) and the thorn apple (Datura stramonium) are used in herbal medicine practice, and both are controlled under schedule 3 due to their toxicity.
These plants are therefore not advised to be used by unqualified people. Henbane has no resemblance to any edible species found wild in Britain, therefore is not of any real concern to the forager.
Datura on the other hand, although pretty uncommon, could be mistaken for one of the not uncommon beetroot family – the ‘maple goosefoot’ (Chenopodium hybridum).
With a similar shape and outline to their leaves, confusion is not impossible even though the foliage of the goosefoot does not smell like Datura. It is safest to avoid picking the maple goosefoot altogether, just in case.
The buttercup family
The vast majority of this family are quite unpalatable and poisonous to us. Have a nibble of a buttercup leaf and spit it out. They taste acrid, bitter and nasty and do not invite eating!
Indeed, one of the most powerful toxins known to man is in this family.
The monkshood, also known as wolfbane (Aconitum napellus), has a long historical use as a poison, especially as an arrow poison.
It contains the deadly poison aconitine, present in large concentrations in the roots.
The very common climbing-vine known as ‘travellers joy’ or ‘old man’s beard’ (Clematis vitalba), is rare for our buttercup damily in that it has only four petals not five.
This plant has also been documented as poisonous in some books, without noting that the young tips are edible with cooking.
When cooked, the irritant compound protoanemonin, common to many buttercup family plants, is broken down. This knowledge when used allows us to use plants like lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria syn Ficaria verna).
The other common name of this latter plant, ‘pilewort’, will tell you its primary medicinal use!
The carrot family
The following are all documented as poisonous by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
A number of these poisonous plants contain powerful nerve toxins. hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water dropwort hemlock (Oenanthe crocata) are both deadly poisonous.
For the beginner they can appear very similar to a number of other edible carrot family plants. This, then, is one of the overarching issues when foraging for umbellifers.
The two plants look quite distinct from each other but both look incredibly similar to tasty edible relatives.
This is why etreme care and caution should always be exercised when foraging for the carrot family. Avoid foraging for umbellifers next to waterways until you know them really well, for this is where a number of the poisonous ones live.
Let’s face it, no one wants to look silly by writhing in a hedge after mistaking hemlock for one of the numerous other similar looking umbellifers!
Hemlock contains the extremely poisonous alkaloid, and nerve toxin, coniine. As a very inexperienced, naïve and reckless forager many years ago,
I discovered this plant in my mouth seconds after misidentifying it from a peripheral glance as wild chervil, whilst strolling and nibbling on a mixed hedgerow salad (please, don’t ever be this stupid).
Its bitterness rapidly turned into unpleasant sensations akin to stinging needles erupting throughout my mouth and I quickly spat it out. Thankfully, I had pinched off only the top inch or so and had yet to swallow, so got away with a short, sharp, shock!
Many carrot family plants are documented as recording a range of photo-sensitive, dermatological effects. These are due to photo-toxic furanocoumarin molecules.
If sap from the stems (produced in profusion when flowering) comes into contact with your skin under the sunlight or U.V light, then mild blistering can occur, and in the case of giant hogweed, 3rd-degree burns!
As you will see from the following list, some of our common vegetables are included.
It needs to be stressed here that the giant hogweed is by far the plant most commonly documented as responsible for the most severe reactions. The others produce much milder effects, which not everyone experiences to the same degree, if at all.
The concentrations of furanocoumarins present, degree of sunlight, and an individual’s constitution will all play a part in reactions experienced following exposure to the sap under sunlight.
I know a farmer who has suffered mild burns from cutting down flowering parsnips in the summer sunshine.
I happily eat raw, peeled, wild chervil stems in the spring sunshine and do not have any problems from handling the plants.
Wearing gloves and harvesting on overcast days or out of direct sunlight is the answer if you are in any doubt. A number of plant families including the spurge (Euphorbiaceae) and citrus (Rutaceae) families also exhibit similar photo-toxic effects.
For safety, I do not touch giant hogweed at all much. The ‘drias plant’ I have not yet met.
A few more of Britain’s poisonous plants to know
Our native evergreen climber, the common ivy (Hedera helix) produces poisonous berries from November. These are initially green then turn black, often lasting through winters.
These berries contain the toxic substance hederin. It was formerly used as a purgative medicine, but one considered too strong for safe self-medicating. Leave this one for the pigeons!
The dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is a common hedgerow plant of the Cornaceae family. The masses of white spring flowers give rise to black berries in the autumn.
They may seem appealing, but leave them alone! There is an edible Cornus that occasionally will be found in the wild – Cornus mas – the Cornellian cherry.
The red berries of Holly, the well-known evergreen tree, contain the toxin ilicin in the berries. As little as two of these may induce nausea.
The same advice goes for two previously used strong purgatives, the buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), and the alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus). Both shrubs carry black fruits in the autumn following flowering.
Buckthorn’s broadly elliptical leaves are noticeable for their curving vein patterns. Their small and green flowers have four petals and are borne in clusters at the base of the upper leaves.
Alder buckthorn is thorn-less and also displays small flower clusters. The small white flowers contain five petals, and give rise to a black berry which is red until ripe. Both plants are found occasionally in hedgerows in Britain (although rarer in Scotland).
The perils of similar-looking yet unrelated species needs a mention at this point. The common ‘lords and ladies’ (Arum maculatum), has often been mistaken for two popularly foraged plants; sorrel and wild garlic (Allium ursinum).
I heard from a forager friend that should you try and eat the leaf from the lords and ladies, a sensation akin to the one I described for hemlock will ensue.
The Arum leaves contain toxic calcium oxalate crystals. Note that this compound is different to oxalic acid, present in the sorrel and prevalent in other members of the dock family.
Both the common sorrel and lords and ladies have a relatively similar shape to their leaves, especially when small, although their leaf vein patterns are unlike. The favourite habitats are also completely different.
Sorrel loves meadows, fields and other grassy areas, whilst lords and ladies is a natural woodland species and hardly ever extends from the protection given by woodlands, roadside verges, hedges, and darker edges of fields.
Beginners reading this may already be aware of the similarity between very young wild garlic leaves and any emerging lords and ladies leaves. The two plants often share woodland and other habitats.
Arum does not have parallel veins like wild garlic, and its prominent basal lobes are distinctive, as are the arrow-shape leaves. Compare these to the broadly-elliptical leaves of wild garlic
While its true that wild garlic tends to emerge after the lords and ladies is already up, and that the two plants soon display noticeable differences in leaf shape and detail, care should always be taken when you are first foraging.
If the leaves are too small for you to be sure of positive identification, move on. This advice goes for any plant!
Sorrel has another potential lookalike with similar habitata, the meadow resident, field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). This plant has similarly-shaped leaves to sorrel.
However, it’s striking, raspberry ripple striped flowers, and creeping sprawling habit, are completely different to sorrel.
Another common poisonous member of our woodlands is the perennial herb, ‘dogs mercury’ (Mercurialis perennis – Euphorbiaceae). This poisonous plant can carpet some woodlands and hedge-banks. It is a sign of ancient woodland.
Dog’s mercury can slightly resemble a nettle when in flower. It also has white, thin, and wiry clusters of flowers appearing from its upper leaf axils.
The rare, but pretty yellow-flowers on birthwort (Aristolochia clematis) contain the highly toxic compound aristolochic acid, which is known to cause renal failure.
Our only native member of the Cucurbitaceae family – Bryonia dioica, or ‘white bryony’, is also documented as a poisonous plant. Its palmate leaves could be mistaken for hops. Both plants share similar habitats.
The classic pumpkin family characteristic are shown in bryony’s spiraling, wrap-around, spring-like tendrils. These help the plant get into the light. The dainty white flowers can be seen dotted in the hedgerows during the summer months if looking closely.
The roots and berries are toxic. An alkaloid, bryonicine, is partly responsible. The young downy shoots stretching up from the soil could be mistaken for hogweed reaching for the light. Red berries follow the flowers.
The unrelated ‘black bryony’(Tamus communis) is the only species in the yam family to grow wild here in Britain.
Another of our hedgerow climbers, this plant is notable for its dark glossy-green, heart-shaped leaves and scarlet berries. This yam family (Diosceraea) species has been documented as a poisonous plant in some books but edible in others.
I have eaten the young tips, which similar to travellers joy, will need cooking to render the toxins present, harmless. The berries are certainly poisonous, but the root reportedly could be eaten if you are prepared to treat it in all number of ways first through boiling and such like. Hmmm, not for me.
I hope you are not now thinking that the land is awash with harmful plants. The reality on the ground is that only four of our poisonous plants here in Britain are likely to be confused with similar-looking edible or medicinal species.
These are hemlock, water hemlock, foxglove, and the yew tree. Both plants are dealt with elsewhere on these pages.
The yew tree does not offer the typical coniferous aroma from its foliage. Nor does it produce the typical cones. Instead, bright red aril fruits (the common vernacular is berries) become noticeable in late summer/autumn.
Its fleshy and edible fruits distinguish it from many similar evergreens, as does its growth form, which is more typical of a deciduous tree than a coniferous tree.
Remember that all other parts of the yew could kill you, including the seed, so remember to spit it out if eating the berries!
If you liked this, then check out the Seasonal foraging guides
.Just as easy to spot in towns as they are in the countryside, these plants are constant foraging companions. In fact you have probably seen sorrel in many grasslands when in flower, but just written it off as just another dock.
Rumex is a large genus within the rhubarb family -Polygonaceae. Around 200 species of annuals, biennials, and perennials are found throughout the world. All the Rumex are technically edible. only a few are worth eating, and are tasty refreshing salads.
In the British Isles, this plant family is one of the most common plant families you will encounter. It has a golden rule of foraging to share so read my post on the Polygonaceae family!
It also contains the edible and medicinal japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), the well known ‘grain’ buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), and the integral ingredient in dock pudding, bistort (Bistorta officinalis)
The English common name ‘dock’ is derived from the old English word ‘docce’ – simply meaning ‘course large-leaved weed’. Hence, the unrelated burdock was known as ‘the coarse, large-leaved weed with burs’!
The edible and medicinal docks dealt with here are notable for their yellow tap-roots. This colour suggests the reason why docks were previously instinctively thought of as good for the liver, and for many bilious conditions.
Why go foraging for sorrel or other docks?
My favourite edible docks by far are the sorrels. I have found the common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) to be the most plentiful, whereas sheep’s sorrel (R.acetosella) is only locally common in some areas.
Sheep’s sorrel particularly enjoys life on acidic heaths, grasslands, and sand dunes. When out walking or foraging you will soon spot just how common sorrel is. If you haven’t tasted yet, you are in for a lovely surprise.
Kids seem to love the sorrels. The sour, ‘plum-skins’ taste is refreshing and unusual. It ticks lots of boxes that sweets can tick. Think of it as a gateway vegetable for any plant-averse children.
Identifying sorrel and other docks.
At a glance, the sorrels have noticably arrow-shaped leaves. Their leaves are smaller and more narrow than most other docks found here.
Common sorrel has downward-pointing basal lobes that always taper to a point. The prominent white mid-vein branches and (these two features separate the tasty sorrel from the dangerous lords and ladies – Arum maculatum).
Sheep’s sorrel leaves are smaller, and identified by prominent side lobes at the base of the leaf.
Close inspection of Rumex plants show the leaf margins are entire. Some species have undulating leaves.
The curly dock (R.crispus) has oblong-lanceolate leaves with distinctly wavy or crispy margins.
Its leaves are tapered inwards at the base. In general our docks have quite broad leaves on long petioles.
In the UK, the broad-leaved dock (R.obtusifolius) has the largest leaves. These are oval-oblong and display less of a wavy edge. They are typically cordate at their base.
The very young leaves of all docks may have a slight hint of oxalic acid like sorrel. I find the wood dock (R.sanguineus) to be a good salad when young and tender.
The wood dock and the great water dock are two other plants in the genus that I eat when out and about. Young wood dock leaves carry hints of oxalic acid, similar to sorrel, whilst older leaves quickly become bitter and tougher.
The great water dock (Rumex hydrolapathum) grows on very long leaf stalks. These are quite acidic and resemble a milder rhubarb.
This plant can grow in dense stands on mudflats and riverbanks, although I don’t commonly find it on our freshwater river systems. It can only handle bare ground.
Stems that bend with papery knees
One of the key diagnostic features for the whole family will be found on the stems.
Here you will see a pronounced, angled joint. These are always initially covered in a papery sheath, or ocrea. You can see this family pattern repeating across all the various members of the family. As the plant grows the sheath will brown and wither.
The stem leaves of broad-leaved dock become narrow on the flowering stem. Often the stem leaves will have stipules at the base of the petioles.
All docks have a very similar-looking inflorescence. The flowering stems are green but can also carry a red-stripe. The broad leaved docks are occasionally found with completely red stems.
The stems are smooth, round, and fluted, with a solid, pithy core and few hairs, if any Dock flowering stems branch at acute angles towards the top.
The flowers are individually small and don’t really catch the eye unless in close quarters. Although the reds and pinks you get from the stems on some species under dappled sunlight is quite striking. Other docks, like R.crispus are much more green-yellow to look at.
The flowers have six green, petal-like sepals. Three tiny outer ones, and three larger inner ones, surrounding the ovary. Typically 5-10 mm long, the flowers emerge from the upper leaf axils, growing on small stalks in dense whorled clusters, on branches 5-20 cm long.
Dock flowers are scentless, and often carry red ‘wart-like’ growths on the inner sepals. It is the size and shape of the sepals, plus the presence and shape of the ‘warts’ that helps distinguish between the numerous and similar-looking dock species.
As dock seeds mature, they and the stems turn a rich brown colour. these stems will persist right through into late winter.
Habitats to find sorrel and other docks
In a word, everywhere!
The common sorrel shares nearly all its habitats with other docks. Look in fields, woodland clearances and woodland edges, hedgerows, coastal locations and wasteground in urban settings. You won’t need to look too long.
Foraging facts about sorrel and other docks.
Parts used: Root, leaves, stems, leaf stalks, and seeds. Learn how best to harvest medicinal and edible plants in this guide.
Roots: early spring or autumn. Leaves: when small and young.
These plants are a somewhat recent addition to the European herbal pharmacopeia. However, they have been a mainstay in the repertoire of Native American indigenous people.
Via the tribes, North American physicians eventually brought these plants to the attention of western herbalists in the latter half of the 19th century. Previously the plant had enjoyed centuries of use.
The reported anti-bacterial action stems from phenolic acid components, whilst the flavonoids are known for antioxidant activity. Members of the Rumex genus are gentle laxatives or aperients.
It is likely that the small amounts of anthraquinones are responsible for this action as they are in rhubarb. In this overview of plant chemistry, you can read more about important medicinal plant constituents and actions.
The alterative herbs such as dock, act in a non-specific way on the digestive tract and liver. Through helping the liver remove toxins, alteratives are known as blood purifiers.
They are often employed to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, boils, eczema, and for any conditions where skin eruptions and itching are prominent.
As a medicine, Sheep’s sorrel is becoming increasingly well known as one of the herbs in Essaic tea. Manufacturers of Essaic tea point to the use of sheep’s sorrel in fighting cancer, and aiding cellular regeneration.
Docks can generally help the digestive system by enabling the increase of gastric juices, including bile, and by encouraging bowel movement.
This is partly due to their bitterness. Culpeper mentioned that ‘bloodroot’ (as docks were often called), ‘purified the blood and strengthened the liver’. By detoxifying and toning, the liver becomes less congested and stronger. In days long gone, docks were also used to treat scurvy.
With a high concentration of iron, docks are helpful in treating anaemia. The root has been used as a poultice for this very reason.
The tannins and their astringent qualities mean internally irritated membranes will be soothed and protected. Externally the root will be useful in treating haemorrhoids.
Many people have heard of using docks for treating nettle stings, and the majority of them might agree that rubbing dock leaves on the stings was basically pointless.
That’s because it’s the gel from the new leaf shoots at the centre of the plant that help with stings and burns, not rubbing the leaf. I still prefer ground ivy for nettle stings, but finally I’m appreciating how docks work, thanks to Monica Wilde.
Research into the analgesic action of anthraquinones in Aloe vera, suggests it could be the same types of molecules present in the dock gel surrounding the emerging leaf shoots, that soothes the irritation from nettles. Read all about medicinal plant constituents and actions here.
Sorrel and other docks as food.
All plants of the Rumex genera have completely edible above-ground parts, though not many are tasty when eaten raw, like the sorrels.
The common sorrel has long been celebrated in France, where numerous recipes exist for sorrel soup and sauces.
The sour and tart flavour of sorrels makes it a superb accompaniment to fish dishes. Its distinctive sour flavour is due to oxalic acid.
The plant family as a whole are noted for higher-than-average oxalic acid content. People with kidney stones should avoid foods that are rich in oxalic acid. Sorrel or any dock should only be eaten occasionally for these reasons.
Saying this, I love collecting bunches of it when I’m making a wild winter salsa verde.
The sorrels, together with other aromatic herbs like ground ivy, wild celery, jack-by-the-hedge, various pungent Alliums, black mustard and watercress, are all available in our darkest months.
Sorrel and other docks are nutritious food plants, but the majority of them are too coarse for salads or tender ‘spinach’. In a survival situation, however, the docks will be one of the first going in the cooking pot.
The leaves contain a higher nutritional punch than spinach, containing roughly one third more iron. Docks have more fibre and Vitamin A than an equal amount of carrots.
The water dock will be found with leaves up to 1 m long and growing on 30 cm leaf stalks. When young these are worth using as a rhubarb replacement with a pronounced succulent crunch.
The blood-veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus var sanguineus) has become a popular salad variety, and will occasionally be found growing naturalised in the UK.
This plant is essentially a red-veined version of the wood dock, and so doesn’t replace sorrel in any shape or form for flavour or texture.
Discover more of my foraging tips and hacks to fast track your success. If you want to know at a glance which plant and what plant parts are in season, then check out my other guides.
If you would like to practically learn the practical skills of the forager, then check out our beginners guide. Finally, keep an eye out for my one to one foraging mentoring. There’s no better time to start learning than today!
A UK plant identification guide to foraging for rock samphire
An exploration of Britain’s southern and western rocky coastlines will often quickly bring us face to face with the unforgettable rock samphire.
You cannot misidentify rock samphire. It smells and looks unique, well, on these shores at least. I have yet to meet another plant that carries its features.
Whats in a name?
The botanical name is fascinating. A quick look at the etymology shows that the generic name Crithmum appears to have roots in the Greek word ‘Krithmon’ – which means ‘barley’. This probably alludes to the shape and size of the seeds.
The species name maritimum points to the only place where you will find the plant. This is one of many examples of why learning the scientific name is a massive advantage when you start learning i/d and go foraging for wild plants.
Rock samphire was formerly well-known and eaten, and in pretty vast quantities too. It fell away from popularity like alexanders did, facing a wide availability of imported and cultivated vegetables.
During the height of its popularity it was also known as ‘poor man’s samphire’.
Harvesting rock samphire was once a means for poorer country folk to make a scant and very precarious living.
It’s not difficult to believe that 400 to 500 years ago, foraging rock samphire was a difficult and dangerous occupation. It basically involved men and boys dangling off cliffs attached to ropes, battling with whatever weather the coastlines threw at them.
Understandably, more than a few people died in the process. Shakespeare famously described the harvesting of rock samphire… “halfway down, hangs one that gathers samphire – dreadful trade”.
Today’s casual forager of the rock samphire may not know about the extreme trials of the people in whose footsteps they follow. We simply pick the plant for the love of acquiring a unique wild vegetable and spice.
The traces of our rock samphire industry can now only be seen in how little of the former populations remain, compared to how it must have looked in Tudor times 500 years ago.
How to identify rock samphire.
This member of the carrot family is one of the easiest to identify. It has blue-green fleshy leaves growing in an outline triangular shape.
This outline triangular shape is a pattern of the carrot family, as are the tell-tale, repeatedly divided sets of leaflets.
Rather than the typical pinnate leaf divisions found on other members of the carrot family, the leaflets are more or less trifoliate (in sets of three’s). The fleshy leaflets are usually linear-oval in shape, with rounded and occasionally forked tips.
Its leaves are sheathed at the base, like other species in the family. During the colder months, it is common to find the leaf tips with a bronze or red tinge, likely as a result of the piercing cold winds that winter can bring.
Where it delights to grow, the yellow flowers of rock samphire appear in profusion. Masses of yellow flowers appear on rock samphire during the summer months.
Due to global heating, you will probably find rock samphire in flower much earlier than field guides will suggest.
Its flower stems are solid, unlike many relatives that are found here. The majority of carrot family plants have hollow stems. As a member of the Apiaceae family, it will produce the typical compound umbels.
The compound umbel typically has more than 12 rays, and the flower heads reach approximately 15 – 20 cm wide.
The compound umbel has narrow bracts below and the individual umbels have bracteoles. Common to the carrot family, the flowers have five petals, approximately 2 mm across.
Its seeds are plump and often are oval-shaped, about 8-9 cm long with thick vertical ridges. Eventually, they turn brown when ripe.
All parts of the plant are aromatic, especially the seeds. I would describe the smell as being a cross between carrot, citrus, celery, and parsnip.
This plant is another safe umbellifer for beginners to forage for. Just like with alexanders, there really aren’t any plants that it could be mistaken for.
It’s worth repeating that your sense of smell and touch, and taking conscious note of place(landscape and soil), are all as important as closely observing plant dimensions, features, and colours.
Being evergreen means you can go foraging for rock samphire at any time of year. When starting out, it’s well worth visiting the plants in the dead of winter as well. Seeing plants at this time of year is often like seeing them with fresh eyes.
In terms of look-a-likes, there really isn’t any danger, because of everything mentioned so far. However, one of the water dropworts, namely the much less common Parsley water dropwort (O.lachinelli) can occasionally be found in and around rock samphire.
This particular plant also displays narrow leaflets and is also only really found in coastal regions, where it enjoys brackish water.
Have no fear though because rock samphire has much thicker, fleshier leaves, without the pinnate leaf divisions. It has yellow flowers, not white, and lastly but most importantly, rock samphire smells totally different!
With this particular family, if you don’t take note of the subtle chemical clues, you are missing out on vital information.
Habitats to look in when foraging rock samphire
Rock samphire is a coastal specialist and won’t be found too far inland. It is a lover of the numerous crags and shelves on rocky cliffs, and will also be found on shingle beaches.
You will find the plant freely growing on walls and stonework by sandy beaches as well as lavishly decorating harbour walls. As its name suggests, this plant isn’t really bothered about the type of soil.
Generally, it won’t be found much at all on the eastern coasts of England, which tend to be much more sandy. As a rule of thumb, you are likely to encounter rock samphire in the UK from Suffolk, clockwise around the coast, to the Scottish Hebrides.
Check out this distribution map from the brilliant online flora of Britain and Ireland for more details.
The best leaves are found in the height of spring. Traditionally, the harvests in the Isle of Weight would be peaking in May.
In many southern places you can start gathering from early spring, and in places like Torbay, I can harvest in February.
The leaves are usually happy enough to come away with a pinch of the fingers, but a sharp knife will speed things up.
You can harvest leaves at other times of year but they are going to be tougher and stronger in flavour. I use the spring leaves as a vegetable, and at other times use the leaves for pickling.
The plant was formerly and perhaps most famously used as a pickle. Barrels of rock samphire were packed off to London for trade in the markets and for sales on the street.
For a tasty pickle, simply dry salt for a few hours (to help retain its crunch), and place in a spice-infused vinegar of your choice. I often heat up the samphire in the spiced vinegar, as this quickens the infusing.
I like to add mustard seeds, peppercorns, a few cloves, a couple of bay leaves, and some chili flakes in the vinegar infusion.
As a vegetable, I find its best to prepare and cook it quite simply. During the spring and summer months, you may be able to use all of the leaves, including the stalk. But in the autumn and winter, I tend to snip off most of the leaf stalk, which otherwise can be too fibrous.
To cook, I generally par-boil in salted water for a few minutes, then fry in butter or olive oil for another two or three minutes. Cooking this way helps to dampen the strong aromatics, which are not to everyone’s palate.
Cooking twice in water will further reduce its bitterness while frying in oil or butter off-sets and compliments the taste. The flavour of this plant, like all other plants, can be affected by the growing conditions prior to harvesting.
If you are interested in learning more about the practical skills of wild food foraging, then my beginners guide to foraging, upcoming online courses, and new one-to-one foraging mentor membership, may be of interest.
Foraging for alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) Apiaceae family. Another never-ending wild plant affair.
No matter the time of year, it’s always time to go foraging for this easy to identify carrot family plant.
Foraging for alexanders, just like many other plants I cover in these pages, is a never-ending affair, offering us all year round harvesting opportunities.
This plant deserves our attention. In fact, invasive plants such as alexanders tend to demand my foraging attention because of the plentiful supply of plants as well as their versatility in the kitchen.
Although their environmental impact may be well known, their nutritional and medicinal virtues are not and need highlighting.
This is especially true after austerity and coronavirus continue to define our economic zeitgeist. Invasive edibles need harvesting, processing, experimenting with, and eating!
A flick through antiquated gardening books will show that alexanders is one of numerous wild edible species that were formerly consigned to the compost heap of history.
Now though, thanks to a resurgence in interest in our wild foods, these plants are rightly regaining favour in the kitchens of the adventurous.
Alexanders was brought to Britain from the Mediterranean by Romans, who knew it as the ‘rock parsley of Alexandria’.
It took an instant liking to our rich fertile soils, especially at the coast.
Nowadays, it will be found in large, often unmanageable numbers, in and around the seaside. This includes our inner-city seaside ports like Bristol.
Alexanders is endowed with some extraordinary abilities to thrive. I once picked a specimen, from what I thought was soil covered by leaves, only to find a large concrete slab just a couple of inches below the decaying leaf mold.
Yet a substantial tap-root had adapted to these surroundings and grown in an ‘L’ shape and was as big as if grown vertically in a rich, loamy soil.
How to identify alexanders
If you are unsure about the term ‘umbellifer’, then a reminder to head to our glossary of terms for explanations. As a member of the carrot family, extreme caution should always be exercised before picking.
While it’s true that the carrot family plants overall are often difficult to correctly identify, here in the UK the yellow species are less common and actually quite easy .
And while it is also true that a number of the umbellifers are deadly poisonous, alexanders offers the curious beginner a safe introduction to identifying these notoriously difficult plants.
Start with the easy ones, and in time you become well acquainted with the carrot family as a whole.
Alexanders is a hairless and aromatic plant, containing its essential oil glands within the leaves. This contrasts with another aromatic family – (Lamiaceae – mints) which tend to produce external oil-bearing glandular hairs.
So when seeking out the aromatics unique to a species, crushing and sniffing a leaf is, as ever, vital. More information on medicinal plant constituents and their actions can be found here.
What’s in a name?
The generic name Smyrnium alludes to the myrrh-like aromatics, whereas the specific epithet olusatrum refers to the black colour of the mature seeds and the skin on the roots.
Another common name is horse parsley. Maybe we could learn from our equine friends, by employing common sense, getting rid of ‘fly-grazing’ Byelaws and introduce horse grazing on problem areas of alexanders invasion (and there are many examples all over the UK).
Alexanders leaf and leaflet guide
The basal leaves are on large petioles – sheathed at the base and often found with a pink-tinge.
The hollow petioles are shaped like flattened cylinders and covered with thin lines. Upper stem leaves are sessile (without stalks).
When out foraging for alexanders, it is possible that untrained eyes may confuse it with wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) or wild celery (Apium graveolens), which can both be found sharing the same coastal habitat.
On close inspection however, you will notice a number of clear differences. Alexanders leaves are triangular-shaped – like numerous umbellifers, but the leaflets appear in groups of three (ternate) – in contrast to many other relatives with pinnate divisions (pinnae: Latin – feather).
The glossy lime-green leaves of alexanders are able to be identified with a single characteristic: the tiny white hydathodes (glands that exude water on the teeth or tips of a leaf). These are not found on any other umbellifer in Britain. The leaflets are oval(ish), with rounded crenate-serrations.
In contrast, fully grown angelica leaves will show 3 to 4 pinnate divisions, typically with a purple tinge to each leaflet margin as well as the leaf stalk.
Whereas celery has glossy, once pinnate leaves, with lobed leaflets, on deeply grooved and ridged petioles. The distinctive celery smell immediately sets it apart from other umbellifers.
Alexanders in flower
Alexanders produces young flowering stems in February and March. These are solid at first, becoming hollow with age. When cutting you may briefly see a white latex. The stems are branched and slightly ridged with green vertical stripes.
The umbrella-like inflorescence quickly unfurls in early spring sunshine. The yellow flowers have five petals, and are followed by the large aromatic seeds – green at first, turning black when ripe.
Cookery ideas using alexanders
The leaves can be added to soups or used sparingly in salads when chopped. The young emerging leaf shoots with their tender white bases are great steamed, stir-fried or battered in gram flour or rice flour.
For me, the tender young flower stems are delectable when harvested at the right time. The timing is all and will be site-specific.
Stems need to be picked well before the flowers are out, to ensure tenderness. When steamed, they are magnificent served simply, with cracked black pepper and butter or olive oil.
For lovers of preserves, the stems also make a superb late-winter jam when combined with early forced rhubarb. Somehow, the two plants produce a melon or kiwi fruit flavour!
I recommend leaving the thinner stems unpeeled, as the stripes add more visual impact in the finished product.
The stems can be candied if you fancy, just like angelica, but most of the aromatics are lost with repeated heating, and its a fiddly, time-consuming business.
Better still, the very young, tightly packed flower buds can be made into an unusual aromatic fudge-like sweet, with muscovado sugar, vanilla pods and butter, and they make a great wild replacement for cauliflower in a tangy piccalilli (Thanks Anna!)
I occasionally use the roots in soups, or par-boiled, before being sautéed or roasted. They have a somewhat floury texture when roasted, but will retain a hint of bitterness.
it’s worth knowing that flower initiation begins up to five weeks before we see evidence. During this process, the roots will begin to become more fibrous, so early specimens are best.
The seeds are a great hedgerow spice! They can be made into a pickle when green, with vinegar, but I’m sure they will naturally ferment.
Or just use as they are when black and mature, either raw or in your cooking. If you are pan-roasting first, like with other whole or ground spices, the flavour profile will soften and balance out further, similar to using its family relatives coriander, cumin, assafeotida, and fennel.
This plant is another of the 52 featured species in my foragers playing cards – a perfect way to learn and play! These cards together with my other sets of wild food cards, are available currently on request. Please contact me for further details.
Foraging for sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides) Chenopodiaceae family
Learn all you need to know how to find, identify, and use the gourmet sea purslane!
When you go down on our salt marshes and estuaries, some plants like sea purslane are really easy to find.
This plant is a fantastic edible and one you really should get to know. It grows in huge numbers and can be seen from a distance, which means that when you find sea purslane, you’ve found it for life!
Estuaries and salt marshes are superb places for foragers to visit. The various coastal settings here in the UK are usually gloriously abundant habitats, providing gourmet foraging opportunities all year round.
A number of other well-known and much sought after wild plants can be harvested from our shorelines and estuaries.
These include sea aster, marsh samphire, sea beet and sea kale (although the latter has suffered a lot of over-picking, so I recommended you grow it if possible).
We are lucky here in Britain, because no matter where you live, you are never much more than 80 miles from the coast.
How to identify sea purslane?
This perennial plant belongs to the completely edible ‘beetroot’ family and cannot be confused with anything else..
Its relatives include the Andean grain – quinoa, fat hen / lambsquarters, good-king-henry / Lincolnshire spinach, red orache, samphire, Salsola, and the numerous varieties of cultivated beets and chards.
Sea purslane is an evergreen and available all year round. It has fleshy, grey/green elliptical leaves, which in the sunlight look silver. They grow on perennial woody stems. You will find dense carpets of sea purslane in its particular habitat niche.
The common name ‘purslane’ is bandied around a few plants, some of which are unrelated. Sea purslane is not related to any other purslane you will read about. The connection, I believe, is that they all have succulent, mostly oval-elliptical leaves. All are edible.
Sea purslane leaves grow in opposite pairs, with some branching from the leaf axils.
You may well notice a dusty coating on the leaves, especially at the growing tips and flowering tops, much like what you will find on numerous family relatives, and other unrelated plants.
This mealy appearance is due to tiny, single-cell thick bladder hairs, which possibly help to stave off the harsh maritime habitats.
The presence of bladder hairs are one of the key identifying characteristics for many members of this fantastic plant family. See, I told you plant i/d was easy!
In flower, sea purslane will typically reach around 50-80 cm high, unless being grazed by animals.
The branched, spiked inflorescence consists of little flowering clusters. Each flower has sepals but no petals, and grey-yellow . You can usually find it in flower anytime from June to September.
Habitats to find sea purslane
You may see sea purslane written about as a coastal plant. This is true but forgets to mention it’s actually a coastal specialist.
The areas of coastline that it grows in are almost exclusively our estuaries and salt marshes. Along the areas of rocky coastline, it finds it hard to get any sort of foothold.
The Gower, South Wales, is a great example. On the southern part of the peninsula, where its mostly cliffs, rocks, coves, and bays, you don’t find much.
Go a few miles north to the estuary salt marshes at Penclawdd and you will be amongst expansive stands of sea purslane.
For here, like every salt marsh, it especially loves the edges of tributary streams, pools and tidal river banks. in this niche habitat, sea-purslane has adapted to a regular, if brief, daily salty submergence.
So you will probably find the plant coated in estuary silt. This is not a plant you will be eating while you pick!
How sea purslane survives the salt marsh
It’s ecological niche and success is due to a couple of natty techniques to survive in what is otherwise an inhospitable setting for most plants.
Like other salt marsh specialists, it has developed large, air-filled root cells, enabling the free transport of oxygen around the roots.
Within other areas of the plant, notably in the leaves and stems, the cells have a higher internal concentration of salt than is found in the surrounding water, thereby enabling the absorption of water.
Harvesting sea purslane
As an evergreen, you can pick it whenever the fancy takes you. What more could a forager want, when many other plants have such a small window of harvesting opportunity!
The leaves are at their best during the spring flush of new growth when its new stems are still tender.
Other than this time of year, the leaves will need to be fully plucked from the fibrous stem before cooking.
I have found that I need to use scissors or a sharp knife outside of the spring, because if you try and pinch the stems and leaves off at other times, it is likely that you will pull the woody stem away as well.
This isn’t nice for the plant as it damages the regenerative capabilities of the plant.
More harvesting tips for use on all our wild plants can be found on this guide here
Sea purslane in the kitchen
Sea purslane is increasingly popular with foragers and chefs. Its versatility in marrying up with fish or lamb dishes is one reason, while its salty flavour and succulent crunchy textures are others. If you like samphire, you will love this.
It can be simply served as a vegetable, either raw or lightly cooked for a minute or so, either by steaming or lightly sautéing in butter or oil. The salty flavour and fresh crunchy texture of sea purslane is loved by nearly everyone who tries it.
It is also a great vegetable to preserve, either by lacto-fermentation, or pickling in a subtly-spiced vinegar.
When fermenting, I tend to dry salt succulent material for a good few hours to draw out some moisture, and this guarantees to retain its bite.
When pickling in vinegar, I also dry salt initially, to ensure the crunchy texture. Use either the delicate flavours of white wine vinegar, or a slightly sweetened and spice-infused cider vinegar.
This wild food makes a superb accompaniment to fish and lamb dishes. Indeed, one of the reasons salt marsh lamb is so tasty comes from the fact that these animals graze on a number of salty tasting plants, including this one, lending a distinctive flavour throughout the cooked flesh.
Many recipes using sea purslane can now be found online, and its popularity in the kitchen increases, but I personally think that the less you do with it, the better it is. Used simply as a garnish, its silvery leaves offer a lovely distinctive counterpoint to the colours of numerous dishes.
Heart-boosting medicinal food is in easy reach when you go foraging for hawthorn berries
Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) Rosaceae family
When you are out in the hedgerows foraging for hawthorn, you are coming face to face with a truly remarkable tree.
Hawthorns are the plant mainly responsible for the success of numerous acts of enclosure here in the UK, from the 14th century onwards. As such this plant is one of the reasons that I, and most other people living in the British Isles, are landless, and why I have such a keen interest in foraging.
As common a tree as you can get, these spring-flowering, summer-beckoning mainstays of the hedge offer us unique nutritional and medicinal benefits which you will do well to take advantage of.
It’s no point foraging for Hawthorn above altitudes of 600 metres. The abundance we see in numerous lowland settings will often be a result of its use in enclosing common lands.
Hawthorn are classically used as a principal component of hedges (from which it derives its name – the word haw being a corruption of haeg, from the old English for hedge).
They naturally love the edges of woodlands and can often be found on waysides and roadsides, as well as in little groves in some districts. Hawthorns are also happy on their own in a great number of places, as can be seen by the large numbers of amenity plantings in parklands.
A good number of the 250 Crataegus species able to be grown here carry larger and far tastier fruits than our native strains.
A few of these have documented scientific evidence supporting their medical use in Western medicine as well as traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.
However, it makes sense to concentrate here wholly on our two native plants. Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus leavigata are almost identical and offer us very similar medicinal benefits so we can use either one interchangeably.
The roots of the generic name Crataegus stem from the Greek-Kratos meaning strength. This could be in allusion to the dense hardwood found in hawthorns. I like to think it is due to the potency of the medicine found in hawthorns to strengthen the heart muscle and blood supply.
So how do you identify hawthorn from all the other trees? Easy! Not many plants can be mistaken for hawthorn when in leaf fower, or fruit. Possibly the field maple (Acer campestre) could be, at glance when looking at a hedge.
The species name monogyna reveals the fact that this species contains one (mono) seed (gyna). The midland hawthorn C.laevigata in contrast has more than one seed in the fruit.
As with many plants of the rose family, hawthorns have oval-shaped leaves, albeit in hawthorn’s case this is the overall shape, disected by its deeply-cut lobes. Hawthorn leaves have serrated margins.
The midland hawthorn in contrast will typically have leaves without such deep lobes, and prefers to grow mainly in the northern reaches of Europe. Our most common hawthorn (C.monogyna) on the other hand, is found throughout Europe, and far into the Middle-East.
Hawthorn flowers are unmistakably those of the rose family, having five sepals, five petals and numerous stamens. They often reveal a pink-red tinge on the stamens, and some varieties have pink petals.
Our native hawthorn’s branches are decorated with sharp thorns, approximately 2.5 cm long. Both the infamous blackthorn and the less dangerous hawthorn will give you a very nasty sore from a puncture wound.
They are not as bad as the hawthorn relative, blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), but its best just to be extra vigilant when foraging hawthorn, especially in thickets , hedgerows, and dense woodland edges.
The hawthorns are one of the first woodland species in leaf to herald the returning spring, following the blackthorn and elder tree. Within a couple of months or so of breaking into leaf, the swollen flower buds burst open beginning their spectacular display. The magnificent multitude of white flower clusters, is a signature of the hawthorn and of hedges in May.
When foraging hawthorn in the evenings during this time, the subtle yet pervading scent is easily caught on the wind. I think hints of almond can be deciphered amongst the sweeter tones, though it has been written that the midland hawthorn has blossoms emitting an odour of semen or rotting flesh! Beauty is in the nose of the beholder I suppose!
Some of the aroma is due to the molecules of methylamines present in the flowers of hawthorn. These are also found in some Sorbus species, such as the rowan tree. Other aromatics detected will be due to the bitter almond quality of the cyanogenic glycosides found in small amounts within many stone fruits of the rose family.
Of the numerous hawthorn species which have beautifully-tasting berries, the University parks in Oxford contain an avenue of around 18 different species, which have an array of orange, scarlet, red, brown, and black haws.
Until you try some, you must take my word for their diverse array of aromas and flavours, ranging from subtle peach and apple to mild rose tones. It is possible that your local park will have hawthorns with similarly delicious fruits.
Ok, the common or garden haws are generally not superbly tasting from the hedgerow plants, due to their small size and tough living conditions, but they are more than palatable raw.
When ripe, they take on a creamy, somewhat avocado-like texture, which becomes drier, mealier, and claggier when over-ripe. It has been written that ripe haws taste a little like sweet potato. Unripe flesh is a green colour, changing to a light creamy-yellow colour in ripe fruits. Over-ripe flesh turns brown. Certain trees from my experience, mainly with the darker duller red haws, give decidedly sweeter, and apple-tasting fruits than others.
Parts used Young leaves, flowering tops and berries.
Harvest Leaves and flowers in April and May. Berries from late September-November (dependent on species and location).
Pharmacology and uses One of the reasons that foraging hawthorn is a super idea is because hawthorn is a superfood.
They are literally everywhere, so it is no problem introducing them into your diet. Traditionally, this plant has been used to treat arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and cardiac failure. All are prevalent killers in western societies, especially Britain. Hawthorns will thus help prevent these conditions.
The flavonoid molecules will expand the blood vessels and strengthen capillaries. Hawthorn helps blood vessels dilate and therefore assists the peripheral circulation significantly, but also has a specific action on the coronary circulation itself.
It is now well known to improve the nutrition, activity, energy reserves, and the energy release of the heart muscle. This and the power of the cyanogenic glycosides, make hawthorn ideal for those people with either high blood pressure or cardiac arrhythmias.
In experiments, alcoholic extracts of leaves and flowers have been proven to improve cardiac functions as well as reducing blood pressure, whilst not affecting heart rate!
Through eating hawthorn berries it’s known that we stimulate increased performance of the anti-oxidant called superoxide dismutase. This enzyme promotes the scavenging of harmful ‘free radical’ molecules. Hence the anti-aging adverts of plant-based products with this and other anti-oxidants
Some of the anti-oxidants packed into these trees are in the form of oligomeric proanthocyanidins. These molecules were saluted by the mainstream press only a few years ago.
Newspaper adverts sprung up in popular daily papers enticing us to pay lots of money for a few grams of exotic berries shipped from halfway around the world purely because they contained these medicinal compounds! Unsurprisingly, there was no mention anywhere of foraging hawthorn for free!
In diverse places such as Devon, the Isle of Man, and the Highlands of Scotland, hawthorn has traditionally been used in folk medicine as a primary heart tonic, as well as being used for centuries to correctly balance high and low blood pressure. This shows foraging for hawthorn is as old as the hills.
Hawthorn has no contra-indications for use, although it can reportedly interact with beta-blockers and other hypotensive drugs. It may increase the effectiveness of them, as well as potentially beneficially interacting with foxglove cardiac glycosides. Patients already on heart medication should seek advice before using.
One of the many delights of this and some other medicinal trees is that come the autumn and early winter, we can go back to the same trees we visited for leaves and flowers early in the season and then harvest the berries. Plus, you will have had another cardiac-strengthening walk under your belt!
The leaves are a more than useful addition to salads during the early spring. Always take the fresh palatable new leaves, rather than the tougher, far more fibrous and darker-green, older leaves.
A number of tree species can give off a new spurt of growth around the end of July, sometimes referred to as the ‘Lammas flush’. This is another opportunity to harvest new leaves, although in far smaller quantities.
Many books make reference to hawthorn leaves being called ‘bread and cheese’ by rural folk. Now, either our taste buds are completely different to a few hundred years ago, or country people were not eating much bread and cheese back then and were probably wishing they had some as they nibbled on hawthorn!
Saying this, the young succulent leaves are lovely accompanied by a dressing and mixed with grated roots such as beetroot (Beta vulgaris), carrot (Daucus carota), and ginger (Zingiber officinalis).
Every autumn I look forward to foraging for hawthorn and making more hawthorn ketchup from the abundant haws. They are brought to the boil and simmered in cider vinegar and a muslin bag of spices, for 45 mins or so, before straining through a sieve, adding molasses and muscovado sugar and some seasoning. It’s a stunningly delicious and simple sauce that livens up many a dish. Foraged medicinal food at it’s best!
So I hope you will see the benefits of going out foraging for hawthorn and harvesting this super medicinal food! Happy foraging!