The bright yellow flowers of gorse bushes are very distinctive and easy to identify. You may not realise the flowers are edible and used in a range of edible or medicinal recipes. The gorse is evergreen and flowers pretty much all year but flowers have the strongest flavour in springtime. The latin name for gorse is Ulex europaeus.
The flowers are edible but .. beware.. gorse has big thorns so wear thick gloves and be very careful when picking!
I took this picture on the Anglesey coast in mid-November.
Gorse flowers have a very slight flavour of coconut and make a lovely wine or cordial. If you want to have a go at making your own cordial there is a simple gorse cordial recipe on the Eat Weeds website.
Some of you may know that Gorse is one of the Bach Flower Remedies and it is used for hopelessness and despair. It can be especially helpful when someone has been ill for some time and they feel there is no hope of recovery. Gorse helps to see things from a different perspective and gives hope for a more positive outcome.
Several old monasteries and castles have medicinal or poison gardens and one of the most famous is at Alnwick Castle better known as the location for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
Poison Garden is a fantastic website from John Robertson the former Poison Garden Warden at Alnwick. It includes a vast amount of information, much of it gleaned while he was researching plants to be planted in the garden there.
Whilst many wild plants and flowers are edible some are extremely poisonous. Aconite in the picture above is also known as monkshood and is very toxic – it has very pretty purple flowers and is commonly found in gardens – the picture above was taken in a council car park!
Aconite is used in herbal medicine in many parts of the world and widely used in homeopathy but never, ever try and make your own medicine from the fresh plant.
The Poison Garden website has an excellent A to Z of poisonous plants as well as many short videos like the one above with key identification points, folklore and uses of some of the plants.
Many poisonous plants have a great deal of folklore or old stories attached and if you would like to find out more about that sort of thing I highly recommend Dangerous Garden: The Quest for Plants to Change Our Lives. David Stuart has crafted a fascinating and engaging read full of stories of poisonings, plague, medicines, mass hysteria and a wonderful insight into the role poisons play in our lives. Click on the image below and it will take you to the book on Amazon – however, I quite understand many peoples have issues with Amazon and prefer to shop elsewhere. If so, have a look at Alibris UK which is like Amazon but nicer and full of independent booksellers.
Meadowsweet is a common flower which grows to about 4 feet high and has very distinctive fluffy cream flowers. The latin name is Filipendula ulmaria or may be in older books as Spiraea ulmaria. It is usually found in wet or boggy ground in places like edges of fields, grass verges, canal or riverbanks or railway embankments.
The scent of flowers is a bit like honey with a hint of marzipan. The leaves have tiny leaves between the larger ones and when scrunched up give off a smell a bit like old fashioned antiseptic.
In traditional herbalism meadowsweet has a wide range of uses for digestive troubles, headaches and pain and can be used as a tea – just add a teaspoon of dried or fresh flowers to a cup of hot water and leave to brew for about 5 minutes. Meadowsweet contains salicylic acid which is what aspirin was originally synthesised from.
However if you are pregnant, asthmatic, taking warfarin or have a known allergy to aspiring then it is best avoided.
As with all medicines, this one isn’t always going to be suitable for everyone; people with known allergy or intolerance in relation to aspirin should be cautious when trying this herb as should those suffering from asthma. Salicylic acid also helps to reduce platelet activity in the blood, which is good news in terms of avoiding heart attacks and strokes, but to be avoided if taking drugs such as warfarin or heparin and for the few days immediately prior to any kind of surgery. It should also be avoided in pregnancy.
You would have to take a lot of Meadowsweet to amount to the equivalent of a tablet; on the other hand, due to its soothing, anti-inflammatory effects it is a gentle but powerful medicine and works without the caustic side-effects of its pharmaceutical cousin.
In this short video Monica Wilde of Napiers the Herbalists talks about how to identify meadowsweet and its historic and medicinal uses.
In this next video Monica shows you how to make Meadowsweet Cordial. Use about 250g of sugar and 1 litre of water for 30-40 heads of open flowers.
I came across a Treehugger article about Falling Fruit this week – their website is https://fallingfruit.org/ They have a world map and are encouraging people to add to it to create a wild food larder for anyone to find. A wonderful idea.
From the Falling Fruit website..
Not just a free lunch! Foraging in the 21st century is an opportunity for urban exploration, to fight the scourge of stained sidewalks, and to reconnect with the botanical origins of food.
Our map of urban edibles is not the first of its kind, but we aspire to be the world’s most comprehensive. While our users explore, edit, and add locations of their own, we comb the internet for any pre-existing knowledge, hoping to unite the mapping efforts of foragers, foresters, and freegans everywhere. The imported datasets range from small neighborhood foraging maps to vast professionally-compiled tree inventories. This so far amounts to 745 different types of edibles (most, but not all, are plant species) distributed over 611,390 locations. Beyond the cultivated and commonplace to the exotic flavors of foreign plants and the long-forgotten culinary uses of native plants, foraging in your neighborhood is a journey through time and across cultures.
Join us in celebrating the local and edible! The map is open for anyone to edit, the entire database can be downloaded with just one click, and our code is open-source. If you pick more than you can use or are overwhelmed by the bumper crop from your private trees, we encourage you to donate the surplus produce to charity or your neighbors with the help of local food redistribution programs.
There are some other cities with well established edbile maps. Edible York have an edible map of the city and it also has areas of guerilla planting as well as wild food. Urban Edibles is another site which has been mapping the city of Portland, Oregon for a long time.
If you are new to the idea of foraging then comfrey is something that can be a bit confusing. It has white, pink or purple flowers, can be used as fertiliser and compost accelerator and is much loved by organic gardeners. The leaves and sometimes roots are mentioned in older wild food and medicinal herb books but newer ones tend to go on at length about the potential dangers and talk of toxic components.
See this article from Monica Wilde which goes into the research, history, pros and cons of comfrey.. it is long but well worth reading. http://monicawilde.com/is-comfrey-edible/
Personally.. I do eat comfrey and have no problem at all with it. Like most things, I believe moderation is the key. The vast majority of people who do eat it are unlikely to have more than a few leaves a month (unlike the poorly rats in the study who ate it constantly for weeks .. and rats don’t normally even eat it).. but it is your choice.
Comfrey is used widely in herbal medicine and homeopathy for its wound healing and bone setting qualities. If you decide to make any medicinal creams or concoctions then symphytum officianale is the one that you need which is the one with white flowers. Most wild comfrey is crossed with other varieties, usually the purple Russian variety, so I suggest you get some ‘proper’ dried comfrey or tincture from a reputable medicinal herbal supplier like Baldwins so you make sure you have the right stuff.
I am often asked about best wild food and foraging books and the basic answer is.. there are loads out there and most people end up with quite a collection. If you do decide to delve into the world of foraging you’ll probably end up with a few favourites you use a lot. See Forage Kent blog for another take on foraging books.. we only have one in common!
Depending on your interests or where you live you may also want some more specialised foraging books. I love making simple medicinal lotions and potions so Hedgerow Medicine is one of my favourites. I live miles from the sea but if you are close by you might want to invest in the excellent Edible Seashore from the lovely River Cottage folk.
One of the huge problems with wild food books is that some are good for identifying things, some have great recipes but there are very few that do both. So.. I suggest you have a rummage in a charity shop or get a couple second hand to get you started.
A common problem with both wild food and herb books is that the plants are often listed under their latin names, the common names will always be in the index but it can be quite off-putting if you aren’t really sure what you are looking for.
Food For Free by Richard Mabey is a great basic book for identifying things and has been around for over 40 years in various editions. We have a normal size and a pocket size one which is handy for foraging trips. I also suggest you get a good herb book. These often have much better photos which makes identifying plants clearer. Many herb books also have recipes, simple medicines, dyes and even things like hand creams so have a nose and see what you like the look of.
A recent addition to my bookshelf is The Hedgerow Handbook: Recipes, Remedies and Rituals which I absolutely love. A bit of mythology, some interesting recipes, plants listed by their common names which are all great .. but the best part is the wonderful plant pictures which highlight some key features so makes identification easier.
I have a books page on this website which links to Amazon but other books and booksellers are available.. these below are ones that I really like for a range of reasons. Some have good pictures, some have good recipes and other have some quirky folklore and stories in them. Many books on Amazon now have a few pages you can look at in a preview.. so if you like the look of one you can browse the first chapter or so and get a feel for whether it might be for you. I quite understand many people have issues with Amazon and prefer to shop elsewhere. If so, have a look at Alibris which is full of independent booksellers.