Wood Avens – Edibility, Identification, Distribution, Ecology, Recipes
AKA Herb bennet or Cloveroot
- Identification 3/5 – Fairly distinctive rosettes of trifoliate rounded, lobed leaves with smaller paired leaves further down the stem. When the flower stems grow (up to 70cm), higher leaves are more pointed and angular, though with the same format. Yellow flowers have 5 petals and 5 sepals and often look small in relation to the plant. When flowers aren’t present, it is easy to mix up with closely related water avens (geum rivale) and the two plants can hybridise. This is not a dangerous mistake, but water avens root are even finer and lack the clove flavour (though some say they have a chocolaty taste, I have never managed to discern it). See the different flowers in the photos below.
- Edibility – Leaves 1/5, Roots 4/5 – The flavour is in the small, fine, string-like roots, no more than 2mm diameter. See notes on considerate/legal foraging of the roots below.
- Habitat – Woods and hedgerows, especially path edges, and often colonising busy gardens, where gardeners often call it a “weed”.
- Distribution – 5/5 – Very common throughout the UK
- Season – all year. Roots are best harvested December – April
- Ecology – The hermaphrodite flowers are a source of nectar and are chiefly pollinated by bees. The leaves are grazed by the caterpillars of the grizzled skipper butterfly. Its seed-filled sticky burrs break up easily and are distributed by hairy animals. Due to their proliferation along path edges, I would very much include dogs and humans in that category!
Wood avens is a super-common plant of wood edges (and often deeper in the forest where light penetrates) and hedgerows, with a long history of medicinal use and as a pre-hops medieval brewing ingredient, as described in this interesting recipe from a letter of 1430:
“Pur faire holsom drynk of ale, Recipe sauge [sage], auence [wood avens], rose maryn, tyme, chopped right smal, and put this and a newe leyd hennes ey [egg] in a bage and hange it in the barell… the ey [egg] of the henne shal kepe the ale fro sour.” – The Paston Letters.
Hmmm…think i’ll keep my newe leyd hennes eys for breakfast…but there are certainly plenty of drinks uses for wood avens. As well as in beers, the roots work as a mulling spice in wine, cider, whisky or (hot buttered) rum; as a sweet note in bittersweet preparations such as vermouth or amaro; and its also great with apples, plums and other stone fruit – I use the syrup to sweeten my sloe gin. They also makes a great liqueur in their own right – see below.
The leaves can be used as a pot-herb in spring and summer but their flavour is unremarkable. The part that commands my attention is the root, which has a distinct flavour of cloves. It is just one of many native spices which we have chosen to neglect in favour of imports – read more about our native wild spice rack here. It can be used as a spice in the same way as you may use cloves – as a warm “mulling” flavour (try infusing into sloe gin or eldeberry ice cream), or in spicy dishes and masalas that call for cloves (finely chop the cleaned roots and blend in with the other spices). While wood avens roots aren’t quite as pungent as whole cloves, they are more than just a “taste-alike”, sharing the same chemical component (eugenol) that gives cloves their aromatic pungency.
Uprooting plants is technically illegal without the landowners permission. Nobody is likely to object to you harvesting domestic quantities of this “weed” (and there is a fair chance it will have invited itself into your garden anyway), but don’t clear out whole areas of it. The roots are shallow and fine, so I often uproot, remove about 1/3rd, then replant. This takes very little time and you can feel good in the knowledge that the plant can continue its business with minimal inconvenience.
Like most perennial plants, the flavour in the roots is best over winter, before the plant redirects all its energies into growth and reproduction. I usually harvest mine in February, at which point the rosettes look quite sparse and mean and may be partially obscured by leaves. Rummage to find the centre of the rosette, then gripping it firmly, shake it free of the earth. The size of the root ball often bears little relation to what you see above the ground, with mean little rosettes often revealing large root balls, and vice-versa. Its a bit of a lottery, and I try to treat it as a game, replacing meagre root balls unmolested and focussing on the the big ones. Try to harvest the roots before the big growth surge in April, though you can still find ample flavour through spring, summer and autumn.
Once you get the muddy root balls home, the real hard work of cleaning them starts… I put them in a basket and blast them with a hose outdoors, before rinsing again in the sink, then scrubbing each root ball with a nail brush, and rinsing some more. Its a bit of a faff, but worth the trouble.
I make a rich, clove scented syrup by very gently simmering generous amounts of the cleaned roots in 2:1 sugar:water solution for 30 minutes, cooling, then leaving to infuse for a few weeks in kilners before straining. The resulting strong syrup should keep well in the fridge, and even better if you add a wee glug of neutral spirit. I then use it to sweeten cocktails, aromatise and sweeten wild vermouth/amaro, desserts etc – its great on, or as a “ripple” in ice creams, or just poured over it. Or place crab apples in tin foil, drizzle with the cloveroot syrup and some ground hogweed seeds, wrap then roast in the oven for 15 minutes. Its also my absolute go-to sweetener for ground ivy vinegar – the finest pickling solution in the known universe!
Once removed from the syrup, the roots can be dehydrated and finely ground (you’ll need a good coffee grinder and/or a hefty pestle) to make a sweet clove powder for sprinkling on desserts or on the rim of cocktail glasses.
Or if you prefer (and best of all!), place the syrup-soaked roots back in the kilner and pour over a cheap(ish) bottle of vodka. Leave it for a couple of months to extract the last vestiges of flavour and you will end up, once strained and perhaps after a tweak to the sweetness (using your cloveroot syrup, so as to only add to the flavour), with a very fine liqueur, like boozy oddfellows – a traditional Scottish candy imparted with clove/cinnamon flavour.
Hi Mark, love the idea of putting the ground candied root on cocktail glasses, plan to pinch that idea! Once you’ve added some spirit to the syrup, do you keep the syrup in the fridge or not? I don’t add spirit to my syrups but then find I need to keep them in the fridge to keep them for any more than a few weeks, or freeze to keep for longer.
You have to grind the candied root quite fine, then sieve I find.
I don’t keep my syrups in the fridge and they last fine. I make a strong syrup 2 sugar: 1 water, plus some alcohol, really works well.
I was planning to have a go at making this syrup as I want to try your recipe for tonic water 🙂 Approximately how much root do I need?
I use enough to loosely fill the jar I am using. I’m afraid that is as precise as I get! Once you have drained off the syrup, refill the root-filled jar with vodka and leave for a month or so. Makes the most amazing cloveroot liquer. For now extra work! Highly, highly recommended!
This (or indeed any) syrup isn’t essential for dandelion tonic.
Can this be used the same way as say, water avens Geum rivale, who’s roots are said to taste like hot chocolate when cooked with milk and sugar? Does it make a descent fresh drink, or does it need to be turned into alcohol?
Hi Liz, My experience of water avens is that the flavour in the roots isn’t so pronounced – at least certainly not the clove flavour. I’m intrigued by the hot chocolate possibilities – i’ll be checking that out! Wood avens roots can be chewed, chopped or infused into anything you like – it doesn’t need to be alcohol. That’s just my Scottishness coming out… 😉
The rear of my garden is smothered in Wood avens. I am going to put my veg plot there, but it is great to know I have a useful weed. Will be leaving some to grow on, beside the nettle patch and I look forward to using it.
I live in quite a wild hedgerowed area and this appeared in my garden this year. I hate destroying useful plants, even if gardeners would usually dismiss as weeds.
I look forward to trying the roots in my mulled wine this Christmas. Can they be dried for keeping as a powder?
They can be dried, though they do lose some of their pungency.
This sounds amazing, I love cloves but want to avoid imported produce where possible.
This grows all over my shady garden and spreads into my cultivated bit. Now I know it has a real use I will feel happier about digging it up. I look forward to making the syrup.
We’ve just been using the cloveroot syrup I’ve made recently, it’s lovely. Thank you for this recipe Mark.
Hi All what can you do with the leaves or flowers or red spiked balls?
I’m not aware of any great flavour or uses for either – I leave them to photosynthesise/disperse.
I have tons of these growing in my garden. They are invasive. However didnt know they were edible. I like the idea of making a syrup from the roots. I will certainly make some as suggested.
I am planting some water avens near a pond and happy for them.to hybridise with the wood avens. .