If you want to develop your knowledge of edible wild plants then now is the time. Lots of interesting species are beginning this years growth and if you can spot them now and monitor their development you will gain a really good feel for how they grow. Things are also easier to spot at this time of year, before everything starts clambering, sprawling and entwining. Also, if you don’t catch some of these plants now, you will have to wait until next spring to have another go at them!
Ace forager Miles Irving, author of The Forager’s Handbook (if you don’t have it, you should buy it!), describes the forager’s year as like being on a merry-go-round with different things in reach at each moment: if you don’t reach out and grab them while they are there, you will have to go all the way around to get another chance! More poetically, he likens it to discovering the steps of a new kind of dance, with the plants and landscape as your partner. The forager must respond to the moment, but also anticipate the next move.
Spring in Galloway is like a very quick highland reel, so I will try here to call some of the steps! Most species I mention are covered in more detail in my seasonal notes and species sections. (Click on pictures to enlarge).
You should have no problem spotting growing carpets of ramsons in open woodlands – I can spot and even smell them as I speed along the A75 sometimes. Its not about precise identification at that speed – just knowing that such prolific growth at this time of year in that location can’t be anything else. This same attention to time, habitat, and general feel of growth works to some degree for all wild foods – though this should never be in place of accurate identification of exact features.
Not quite so prolific, but still easy to spot from the road, is lesser celandine. Like wild garlic, it is satisfying as it can be harvested in large quantities with little effort. Bulges of heart shaped (cordate) leaves with bright yellow flowers on the verge give it away – it often thrives in the splash-zone of puddles.
Its mild flavour makes it an excellent bulker for salads involving stronger tasting or rarer leaves. It is also good in stir-fries – use like pak-choi or spinach.
Probably the most common and underrated wild food of all is ground elder. It is as much loathed by gardeners as it is loved by gourmets – including Rene Redzepi, head chef at Noma (which is widely regarded as the best place to eat in the world ) – who uses it in many of his signature dishes. Its flavour is like lemony parsley and its leaves are light and silky at this time of year. Although it is a member of the tricky carrot family, it is quite easily identified and I challenge you to find any hedgerow in Galloway that doesn’t have some growing beneath it! Go out and try some now!
Another of the carrot family is now becoming noticable, with the bright green splashes of wild chervil (AKA cow parsley) appearing on most road verges. These are the basal leaves, from which will shoot the tall umbeliferous flower stalks that will decorate roadsides with lacy white blooms for much of the summer. It is at its most tasty just now and can be used in place of parsley and tossed through salads. I do not howevever, recommend you pick or eat it unless you are experienced and confident that you can distinguish it from other poisonous and often deadly members of the carrot family that share many of its characteristics, especially in early stages of growth. Hemlock, hemlock water-dropwort and fools parsley all share similar growth characteristics and can be found in similar locations.
The most poisonous of these is thankfully the easiest to identify, due largely to its water-loving tendencies. Hemlock water-dropwort is endemic around Gatehouse-of-Fleet where I live, its verdant bushy fronds growing in most ditches and slow-moving streams. It nearly always has its feet wet, but can be found on any damp ground, so don’t be complacent! It has most often been confused with wild celery, wild carrot or water-parsnip, with serious repercussions! My guidance is to avoid any carrot family member (bushy basal growth, 2-4 times pinnate serrated leaves, umbeliferous white flower heads) growing in and around water unlessyou are 100% confident of your identification skills. Here are some more pictures to help you get to know this wonderfully toxic plant.
Please don’t be scared off foraging by these plants. If everything was edible it would be really boring! I think that one of the reasons that wild mushrooms fascinate people (often more than plants) is the fine distinctions between delicious and deadly.
So happy spring foraging! To steal from Miles Irving again, don’t let the silent carnival of spring growth pass you by without at least trying to tune into its pageant of flavours, scents and textures.