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Humans have been foraging for food since we lived in caves, and the practice was common until the convenience food boom of the mid 1950s. Whilst it can often seem like the days of picking your own produce are consigned to the past, for many of our grandparents it was a necessity in relieving the strain of rationing. With only 50% of Britain’s food now being produced domestically and supermarkets considering discontinuing the sale of many home grown favourites we risk losing some key flavours of our cultural history.

foraging in autumn
Photo by Hedgerow Harvest

The benefits of foraging

It’s a sad fact that in today’s world we have largely lost our connection to nature, but in severing that connection we do harm to ourselves. The rise in obesity rates and in the numbers of those suffering from mental health issues can both be traced to the societal changes of the post-war period. Is foraging the answer to all these problems? No. But being outside has measurable benefits to both physical and mental health and through foraging you can diversify your diet for free.

Foraging correctly

Successful foraging has two basic steps: Identify and pick. These steps are the key to the whole thing and cover your bases in all situations. Identifying things in the wild can be made much easier with guides like Food For Free or Harrap’s Wildflowers, but even then things like mushrooms are best entirely avoided by beginners. The general rule of thumb is: When in doubt, leave it out.

How much to take

It is key to remember that it’s not just you who is after wild food. Always be respectful of local wildlife and try and stick to the 30% rule and only take a third of what’s on offer.

Where to forage

In general, foraging is completely legal in the UK as long as you are doing it on private or common land for personal consumption. You may begin hitting restrictions when it comes to foraging on public land. In general Royal Parks will not allow you to forage in order to protect local biodiversity, and it is best to always check the policy of a public park beforehand just in case. It is likely that you will be foraging for personal consumption so try to avoid picking foods close to busy roads or in farmed land to avoid pesticides and other pollutants.

When to forage & what to bring

Autumn is the best season to be out collecting, you can go out anytime of the day and fields remain stable for most of the season, only declining when the frost start to set in. Just try and avoid foraging immediately after rainfall since the extra moisture can cause rot and mildew in fruit. The basic foragers toolkit is simply: Guide book, wellies, basket (or carrier bag) scissors and gloves, if you begin collecting mushrooms it may be beneficial to get a mushroom knife but beyond that, you can kit yourself out with items found around the home.

What to forage

Now for the fun bit, here is a shortlist of some of the best things to forage this autumn and some ideas of what to do with the bounty you collect.

Damson

The damson is a type of plum with dark blue flesh and yellow-green flesh. It can be identified by the slightly pointed fruit. The flavour of a damson will vary by variety, but a good guidebook should be able to help you there. You can usually find damsons growing in hedgerows and border hedges, to pick just gently twist them off the stem. Damson can be used to make a wonderfully tart jam or thick wine.

Damsons
Jonathan Billinger/Prunus insititia/CC BY-SA 2.0

Rosehips

A key ingredient in herbal teas, the rosehip is an accessory fruit of the rose plant. They can be found on a rosebush and are best harvested in the late autumn, just after the first frost. To pick them, make sure you wear gloves, grab an entire clump at once and gently pull from the stem. A ripe rosehip will come free easily. Fresh rose hips make a wonderfully tangy tea and are the key ingredient in Nyponsoppa, a Swedish soup.

rose hips
Max Pixels/Rosehips/CC0 1.0

Crab apples

Common to hedgerows across the country, the crab apple is a sharper tasting version of the apples we are used to and is best used as a cooking apple. Crab apple trees are a common sight and are best harvested in late summer/early autumn. They are as easy to pick as just pulling from the tree. Because of their high pectin levels, they are ideal for making refreshing jellies or as a setting agent in items made with low pectin fruit.

Crab Apple
Mike Price / Crab Apples on Clyro Common / CC BY-SA 2.0

Acorns

Oak trees are the most common woodland tree in the UK, and are a common fixture of British folklore. The oak tree produces acorns in the early autumn at a high rate. The acorn is a great source of protein, starch and fats. Acorns are best harvested once they have naturally fallen from the tree, just before to check them before collecting to make sure they are OK. Before cooking with or eating acorns they must be leached in order to remove tannins and other bitter flavours.

Acorn
Chris Radcliff/Acorn/CC BY-SA 2.0

Hazelnut

The nut of the hazel tree is a favourite of many with a sweet tooth, the key ingredient in both praline and many chocolate spreads. The hazel tree is relatively easy to identify and the nut itself is ready to pick as soon the outer husks have yellowed (usually mid-autumn). They are best picked directly from the tree or shook off onto a sheet. The nut itself is very versatile and can be cooked in many ways.

Hazelnut
Simon A. Eugster/Ripe Hazelnut/CC BY-SA 3.0

Elderberries

The elderberry is one of the most commonly used medicinal plants in the world, often cited as a supplement to treat cold and flu symptoms. These small black berries are ready to pick around early September, as soon as the cluster starts to droop due to the weight of the fruit. To pick, gently remove from the stem. You MUST cook these berries before eating. The elderberry is quite often used in home brewery and can be used to make port, wine or beer and is a versatile ingredient to cook with.

Elderberries
Stephen McKay / Elderberries / CC BY-SA 2.0

Nettles

Commonly known as the stinging nettle, these plants can found almost anywhere in the wild and are often thought to just be weeds. But we have been using them in cooking for thousands of years.  In Cornwall, they are used to make Cornish Yarg cheese, and they are the main ingredient in some Nepalese curries. Nettle tea has anti-inflammatory benefits and acts as a natural antihistamine.  To pick nettles, you should bring scissors and gloves with you.  Cut an unflowering nettle and the base of the stem. When you get home wash them in hot water until they wilt to remove the sting.

 

Dandelions

We often think of these plants as weeds, but they are in fact herbs. They grow throughout the autumn and can be found in most places. You only need to pick the flowers from the top of the stem. When you get them home dry them out in the sun. Dandelions have a peppery taste and can be ground up to make a pesto and are great with eggs.

 

This is a  basic list of things for the beginner to look at foraging for in the next few months. It is best, when starting to collect wild food, that you start slowly and get comfortable with your skill in identifying and harvesting before moving on to other items. With a good guidebook and a few months experience, it won’t be long until you are picking a wide variety of foods for free. For more ideas on how to cook with natural ingredients check out our Autumn Harvest Cookbook

Gary ClarkeGary works in the Primrose product loading team, writing product descriptions and other copy. With seven years as a professional chef under his belt, he can usually be found experimenting in the kitchen or sat reading a book.

See all of Gary’s posts.

Dakota Murphey, Gardening Year, Grow Your Own, Hedging, How To

Wild food foraging

Who doesn’t have fond memories of collecting blackberries along an overgrown pathway? Even city dwellers will have come across an alleyway with a siding of brambles somewhere. Of course the countryside is the best place for foraging, especially woodland, and getting the family out of the city for a day without spending a fortune is a great idea, if only for a breath of fresh air.

It’s a great way to get the kids away from screens and indulge in some good old-fashioned fun. Much has been written about the health and developmental benefits of engaging children with nature, so a foraging adventure will be doing much more than you think.

Foraging for food can be risky if you don’t know what you are picking. Many plants, flowers and berries are poisonous and mustn’t be consumed. But don’t let that put you off. With a watchful eye and a little education you can safely pick the things that are edible and teach your children a thing or two about nature along the way.

Read through our safety tips, to be clear about what it is you are foraging for and you’ll have a fun and fruitful day. If you don’t feel confident, there’s plenty of information available from organisations such as the Woodland Trust. Or experience day companies, such as Into The Blue offer foraging courses with an expert (a great gift idea for the nature lover in your family).

foraging in the wild

Safety tips

  • Avoid picking plants from busy roadsides, near to landfill sites or close to stagnant water/foul ponds.
  • Don’t pick plants that look as though they have been recently sprayed – check for signs of wilting or residue on leaves.
  • Don’t consume diseased or dying plants, and never eat dead leaves.
  • Only take what you need, and try to pick leaves from several plants rather than all the leaves from one plant, so that the plants can continue to flourish.
  • Wash all your leaves and fruit before eating.
  • NEVER consume anything you aren’t able to 100% identify as safe. If in doubt, leave it alone!
  • There are some plants you should never eat raw, so do your research.
  • Wear gardening gloves to protect from spikes and thorns.
  • It is illegal to disturb or pick plant material that belongs to any protected wild plant.

Test your tolerance

Some people are extremely sensitive to certain foods and for that reason it’s really important to test your tolerance of a new food you haven’t tried before.

Take a small piece of the raw edible part of the plant (make sure it is a plant that is edible raw). Put it in the front of your mouth and bite on it a few times, then spit it out. Wait for 60 minutes. If you experience no bad reaction, proceed to the next step.

Now try a larger piece of the plant (edible part only!). Try boiling the edible part of the plant you are tolerance testing and eating and swallowing a tiny quantity of it (about a quarter of a leaf for example). Wait for 60 minutes and see how you feel. If you don’t experience any negative reaction, proceed to the next step.

Try a tablespoon mixed into a suitable recipe. If you do not experience any negative reaction after 60 minutes, your body should be OK consuming that specific wild edible plant in larger quantities. But don’t overdo it.

foraging tips

Here are some tips on a good old family hedgerow favourite to get you started. Good luck with your foraging!

Blackberries

Plump blackberries are a winner for the kitchen. A foraged crumble is the perfect treat after an afternoon of standing on tippy toes to reach the most luscious and juicy fruits on offer. These divine hedgerow berries are ripe for picking in August and September and are great in lots of favourite family recipes. Try cheesecakes, smoothies, hedgerow jams, or simply mix with roughly chopped almonds and plonk on top of a bowl of porridge. Yum!

High in antioxidants and vitamin C, blackberries have great health benefits too. Be careful of the blackberry bush thorns while you are picking, and beware the juice stains, so don’t wear your best clothes. Inevitably a few nicks and stains will be forgotten about when you get to eat the fruits of your labour. If you are out picking with younger children, be mindful of the height at which they are picking. Better to lift them up, than gather contaminated fruits at doggy-leg height! You get the gist!

Family tip: make some smoothies with blackberries. Your children can set up a stall to sell small cups at the end of your driveway, or instead deliver a surprise smoothie treat to neighbours. Soak your fruits in water for 30 minutes and rinse before eating, or using in recipes.

Dakota Murphey

Dakota Murphey is an independent content writer who regularly contributes to the horticulture industry. She enjoys nothing more than pottering around her gardening in the sunshine. Find out what else Dakota has been up to on Twitter, @Dakota_Murphey.