I once flew to meet a man because he liked salad. He had come up with a recipe with hundreds of ingredients, many of which were foraged, and that was enough of a reason for a journey to the unknown.
I am a little obsessed with a good foraged salad. There are at least 15,000 edible plants in the world, but we in the west have allowed agribusiness and supermarkets to limit us to 10 or so basics, such as potatoes, onions, carrots, peas and broccoli. When it comes to salad, few of us think far beyond lettuce or tomatoes.
Unless you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse or vegetable plot, all these are usually grown far from your home, often requiring a high input of water, heat, peat, plastics and pesticides. This is not sustainable, while many plants that would contribute to a very fine salad grow by our back doors, on the way to the bus or in parks. These are ingredients that are easy to find and delicious to eat, such as lime leaves, dandelions, chickweed or oxeye daisy petals. There is a longer list below, as well as some clues to identification, but first a few words of warning.
There are not many edible-looking plants that could cause you to drop down dead after a mouthful, but there are a few – plus a lot more that will twist your stomach and have you running for the loo. If you are new to the game, check and re-check what you are gathering, using two or even three different foraging books. Each author will have a slightly different way of describing a plant, which is useful for building up the picture. Even better, go on a foraging walk with a guide. It is a great way to meet people, learn the rules and gain confidence.
As experienced hands will tell you, when identifying a plant, you need to look at the whole picture, not just the leaf. Is it growing in the right conditions? If it is a bog plant, you are unlikely to find it in the dry crack of a pavement; if it wants sun, it won’t be deep in the woods. Touch and smell are hugely important, too. Crush the leaf and smell it; if your nose says no, don’t eat something you are not sure about – many poisonous and inedible plants smell bad to us. (However, don’t assume that just because something smells good it is safe to eat. This is especially true of mushrooms: many highly poisonous ones smell delightful.)
For a salad, you always want the youngest, most tender leaves. The old ones will be tough and often bitter.
As far as the law goes, in the UK you are allowed to pick the four Fs – fruit, foliage, flowers and fungi – for personal consumption only. You are not allowed to pick commercially unless you have a licence. And you must not dig up roots or pick from any endangered or protected species. Where you can forage is a little more complicated, but you can do so anywhere that has “permissive access”, meaning that if people have foraged there historically, you can continue to. The landowner can tell you to leave, but can’t confiscate your basket of blackberries.
Don’t get too greedy: remember that every leaf you take, every flower you pick, every stem you pluck is someone else’s home, meal, nest. Tread lightly, examine carefully, move often and take much less than your stomach thinks it wants. And never take the first thing you find when you set out, nor the last. This forager’s rule preserves the outliers in a population, which is very important.
Before you pick, look carefully, look closely and look on the underside. Are there eggs; have the edges been rolled into a tent for young insects? Is a creature asleep underneath? Many insects are born and live out the first stages of their lives on wild greens. Do not eat someone’s home.
For your own wellbeing, never forage next to a busy roadside – essentially you are eating exhaust particles. Be wary of picking on industrial sites, too, as soil pollution is rife; that goes for the edges of urban canals as well.
Finally, be aware of pee. Dog pee is quite easy to identify: it adds a sort of oily sheen to the leaf. You can also just watch where the local dogs are going and stay well away. Fox pee is much harder to spot, but smells distinctly musky. With bitter experience, I can say that both taste awful, although fox strips your mouth of moisture and lingers far longer.
Now that we have wended our way through the dos and don’ts, we can journey into the delicious. I have limited myself to brief descriptions, to encourage you to cross-reference before you start plucking.
One of the finest bases for a salad is young heart-shaped leaves from the lime tree, the very best being from the small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata), which are hairless. These should be shiny and lime green in colour. They taste just like lettuce – surprisingly so – but I think they hold salad dressing better and don’t wilt so fast. They are exceptionally good in sandwiches.
I also like the very youngest leaves of hawthorn ( Crataegus monogyna); again, they need to be a vibrant, new green and just a few centimetres long. The leaves are alternate, as opposed to opposite, so borne along the stem in an alternate spiral, with five to seven lobes and teeth on the tips. Hawthorn leaves are said to protect the heart both emotionally and physically, and are known to be good for circulation. They taste fresh and grassy green and their pretty serrated edges make them attractive for salads.
I cannot get enough of dandelions (Taraxacum officinalis) at this time of year. Every part is edible and packed full of good stuff: they are rich in potassium, for instance. They are bitter, like an endive, but sometimes more so, thus you need to go for the very youngest inner leaves, again lime-green, indicating new growth. If the bitterness is too much, soak them in salted water for 10 minutes or so. In salads, I am also mad about the flower stems, which taste a bit like Italian chicory (puntarelle) and can be treated exactly the same way. You only want the new stems of flower buds or flowers; by the time the plant is setting seed the stem will be full of chewy fibres. I chop the stems diagonally into segments, salt them well and then dress them in oil and little else. They are very good with chopped boiled eggs and a little finely diced red onion.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is another excellent base, with a flavour not too dissimilar to that of corn salad. It may well be in flower now, but if it is growing somewhere damp enough, will still be tender. It is low-growing and mat-forming, with delicate little egg-shaped leaves and tiny white flowers.
The wild garlic (Allium ursinum) season is almost over, but in cooler spots you may find unripe seed to pick. These will appear on the ends of the seedheads and are ball-shaped, in clusters of three. They should be bright green in colour, rather than yellow. They give an intensely sweet garlic burst and are particularly good turned into salt (mix equal parts coarse sea salt and seeds), which will preserve into winter. This is very good in salad dressings.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and perennial wall rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) are garden escapees that are often found in abundance in cities and towns along paths and walls and are excellent for bulking out a salad.
Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is another good one, though you want it growing somewhere damp so that it is succulent. In dry spots, it gets very tough. It has oblong, arrow-shaped leaves and tall spikes of pink flowers. If it has flowered (which is likely right now) and gone to seed, steal these if they are still bright pink and fleshy. Scattered through a salad, they give a pleasing burst of lemon.
The unopened flowers of narrow-leaved or ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) can be briefly steamed until tender, allowed to cool and dressed with a vinaigrette and tossed into a mixed salad or treated a little like asparagus, although they taste surprisingly like mushrooms. The leaves are long, narrowly oval with veins running parallel from the base to the top. The flower spikes are square and the unopened flowers are pine cone-shaped.
Likewise, the unopened flowers of oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), which looks like an oversized lawn daisy and grows to 60cm high, can be briefly steamed and marinated, or pickled like capers. The white petals are lovely scattered in for some colour. The leaves are also edible, although they are quite bitter and perfumed by the time the plant flowers. If you can find them before then, they are much more desirable.
A better option are the leaves of the common or lawn daisy (Bellis perennis), which can be used raw, where they have an interesting fleshy texture, or cooked, which is my preferred method. The leaves are paddle-shaped and slightly hairy. Once cooked, they soak up dressing in a very pleasing manner. The flowers can be eaten too – they don’t taste of much, but look pretty.
Finally, there are excellent vinegars to be made from creamy white umbels of common elder (Sambucus nigra), the long, tubular yellow flowers of common honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) and palest pink petals of dog rose (Rosa canina). All can be found in hedgerows right now. The adventurous can make these vinegars from scratch, by fermenting the flowers in sugar and water, but that takes time, so for a quicker solution use good-quality white wine vinegar or raw cider vinegar and infuse just the flowers (never the stems) for several days for a deliciously perfumed dressing.
Food for Free by Richard Mabey remains the bible for foraging, but don’t overlook Miles Irving’s The Forager Handbook and Forage, Harvest, Feast: A Wild Inspired Cuisine by Marie Viljoen, which is US-based, but still very relevant.
Instagram has some very good accounts: the US-based Alexis Nikole’s @blackforager is brilliant and funny. Closer to home, both Fern Freud and Tamara Colchester offer walks and workshops.
The Woodland Trust has some very good pages on its website for what to forage each month. I also like WildFoodUK.
Alys Fowler is the author of The Thrifty Forager: Living Off Your Local Landscape (Kyle)