If you thought there was no such thing as a free lunch, think again! UK woodlands have plenty to offer with delicious plants, berries and nuts that are safe to eat and offer a number of health benefits.
We’ve rounded up 5 of the best wild foods – chosen for their abundance, nutrition and safety.
Berries are one of the easiest foods to forage. Look for them in woodlands, hedgerows and parks from late summer. There’s a large variety of berries available; including blackberries, raspberries, mulberries and hawthorn berries. All are tasty and packed with Vitamin C and can be eaten as a snack or used in juices, jams, pies, cakes, wine and more!
Be warned, some berries are highly poisonous, if you’re not sure what they are do not risk eating them.
2. Wild Garlic
Ramsons, known as wild garlic is easily identifiable, forming lush green carpets in woodlands close to bluebells and emitting a distinctive garlicky smell. It tastes much like regular garlic but has a milder flavour.
Its bright green, lily-of-the-valley-like leaves are delicious chopped into salads and stir-fries or can be used to add flavour to soups and stews. Also, its white flowers with six narrow petals have an al dente texture and subtle taste when eaten raw. Wild garlic has many health benefits, including helping to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It’s also good for gardens to ward off pests and diseases, and the juice can be used a household disinfectant.
Please be aware that ramson leaves look very similar to those of the bluebells, except bluebell leaves are poisonous. Always smell the leaves to check they are garlicky.
Many people avoid nettles as they can leave painful welts on the hands of the picker. However, if you have a decent pair of gloves, the pros of foraging for nettles outweigh the cons. You can find nettles in gardens, woodlands, pastures and orchards. They are packed with vitamins and minerals, and contain more Vitamin C than oranges! Boiling nettles will remove the sting and they can be used be make tea, soup, beer and even haggis. Be careful to pick the youngest leaves in early spring as mature leaves can damage the kidneys.
Nuts are a great source of protein and energy for hungry foragers. Forage for nuts in the autumn and eat them either raw or roasted. A woodland favourite is hazelnuts. Hazelnut leaves are roundish, downy and toothed while the nuts are encased in a green, leafy cup. These nuts are ripe for picking when the leaves are just beginning to turn yellow. Other widely available nuts include chestnuts, beechnuts, and walnuts. Nuts can be used in nut roasts and nut breads, or mixed into salads and stir-fries for extra crunch. Ground nuts can be pressed through a fine muslin bag to extract the oil, to use for frying and salad dressings.
Horse Chestnuts, more commonly know as conkers, are poisonous – do not eat these under any circumstances!
Elder is widespread and abundant in hedgerows, woods and roadsides. Elder bushes are usually covered in sweet-smelling flowers by the end of June, followed by berries between August and October. Elderflower has enormous uses; the aromatic blooms can be eaten raw, cooked, dried or powdered, and added to cordials, salads, ice cream, cakes, biscuits, jellies, jams, sweets, tea and used to make elderflower champagne! It is also fantastic in beauty products such as skin lotion and eye cream. Elderberries can be put to many of the same uses as the flowers but the leaves and stems are poisonous.
Before you head out foraging always check whether the land is protected and if it is public – if it isn’t, ask permission from the landowner. Also remember that nature’s larder should never be stripped bare as many birds and animals rely on it for survival.
On a final note, take great care when selecting and eating wild foods, it’s easy to mistake a deadly fungus for an innocent field mushroom! If you can’t be sure of a foods identity do not eat it.