We hear all about the incredible health benefits of goji berries and acai, but we don't always consider what is lost when these products are shipped from across the ocean, in terms of nutrients and also more generally in terms of sustainability and the many modern day considerations we should be taking into account when it comes to food and, well, just about everything really. If we can get the same nutrients and amazing health benefits from British grown produce, then surely we really should educate ourself and start looking at our own front doorstep. It's all perfectly fresh and untravelled, healthy and has all the medicinal benefits that botanical advocates have known about for years.
Above, we found Shepherd's Purse, a member of the cabbage or umbellifer family, recognisable by it's heart shaped pods. It's worth noting though that all pods can be different, as they are the seeds, which can change. They will always though spiral round the stem in a distinct manner. The flowers are yellow or white. With every wild plant, as Chris, the expert forager informed us, smell the plant first. Every time. It's this that you will help you best identify and verify a plant. You will recognise the sulphurous cabbage smell in this case. Shepherd's purse has been historically used for staunching wounds and for lady time. In the instance of the women's monthly blight, take the root and leaves and steep in hot water to serve as tea.
The next plant we came across was Common Mallow, Recognised by it's creased leaves and the purple spot at it's base. It's a relative of the marsh mallow. The root of the common mallow can be very sweet when made into a broth, it is also very good when used as a thickener. It's soft, mallow-ey leaves are great to build up the texture of a soup or sauce. It's classed as a soothing, demulcent herb which can be good for respiratory conditions - or to place on inflamed skin. Mallow leaves are great when mixed with other leaves, as part of a salad or in a soup or broth.
In America, they often use the root of jack by the hedge - as it has a pungency similar to horseradish, it also notably has large white flowers, white like many of the other brassicas. The seeds have a mustardy type heat, and it's worth noting that all parts of this plant are edible. Wonderful.
As a word of reassurance to those out there thinking, what if a dog has relieved itself on this plant I just found? Well, if a dog has done it's business on a plant, it's going to be pretty darned obvious. The leaves will have discoloured or they may be mottled or brown. Like any food, look at it first, if it looks healthy, then the odds are in your favour. Don't pick something if it looks brown or soiled...
As I write this in September, Hawthorn berries are absolutely abundant. You will see them everywhere you go, all around London. Completely edible and completely useful in the same way as other common berries. They are apple-ey in texture and can sometimes be a little bland. Go for the darker ones if you can, for flavour. They are completely full of anti-oxidants and goodness. Hawthorn berries have long been used as a medicinal treatment for ailments of the heart. See this link for plenty of useful information. They really are quite incredible in terms of their uses, as a berry goes, and it's on our own doorstep; it's free and it hasn't travelled halfway across the world. I can't emphasis this point enough! It's just so important and exciting to get involved with what we already have available to us, rather than jumping on board the overseas and imported superfood trend, we've got them all right here! Just don't eat the seed... it's full of cyanide and we don't want that.
Hawthorn berries are always smaller on wild plants, like in the picture above, but domestically they can get to the size of a cherry and become much more peachy in texture and taste.
This plant which flowers in the Spring with clusters of yellow green flowers is a Mediterranean plant brought here by the Romans. They referred to it as the pot of alexandria as every part of it was edible. It has a celery, fennel like plavour, which sometimes can be bitter and more in the aniseed range. A little bit lovage-esq. It's stems can be lightly steamed and eaten like asparagus, the leaves can be treated like any other leaf and ether eaten raw as part of a salad or cooked as part of a full range of dishes. When the Alexanders are a new growth, they are tender and tasty, so this is worth being aware of. You could take the flowers and infuse these in olive oil. The seeds are very much like pepper in texture, but more aromatic, and you could treat these in the same way as pepper or any other spice. If you roast them then the flavour mellows and you get rid of the more volatile parts.
Now, onto some exciting stuff.
So, the words of caution when it comes to picking any umbellifers. Hemlock, the most deadly umbellifer, is quite fatal. Hemlock doesn't have any hairs. There is often a red spot in the middle of the flower and 99% of the time there are red spots on the stem. Hemlock also smells a little like urine - fetid. Carrot on the other hand is nicely scented, and as we had heavily pointed out to us by Chris the lead forager, ALWAYS smell everything. It's going to confirm to you that what you have found, is what you think you have found, and could keep you very much alive. It's basics really, and the same principle applies to everything we put in our mouth.
Another handy benefit is that they are pretty good for our livers too so may well make up for the excess rose hip brandy consumption.
It is recognisable by it's arrow shaped leaves.
I'm going to post recipes for these plants, some I already know, and some to be the product of experimentation. It really is completely fascinating to think this is the world around us, and there's so much to learn. It is completely exciting.