Foraging is really popular these days, isn’t it? And no wonder; it’s free food! It’s lots of fun and a great way of learning where your food comes from, not to mention getting a better understanding of the natural world. I was taught how to forage as a child by my mum – it’s something I’ve grown up with as part of everyday life. The ‘gloop’ of fermenting elderberry wine, the blackberry stained fingers (and accompanying nettle stings!) and the secret places to find sloe berries are all part of my childhood. I’m sure that many of you grew up in similar households. But for those of you interested in learning how to forage who didn’t learn from someone like my mum, here are a few tips to get you started…
1: Follow the Countryside Code.
A basic starting point. If you’re collecting out on public footpaths, or using open access land, then please follow the Countryside Code: Leave gates and property as you find them and follow paths unless wider open access is available.
Leave no trace of your visit and take your litter home. Keep dogs under effective control. Plan ahead and be prepared – look at the weather report, take appropriate clothing, tell someone where you’re going if you’re heading out alone. Follow advice and local signs.
It’s just common sense and good manners.
2: Leave more than you take.
Remember this – your foraged berries might make a great dessert for you, but they’re a vital source of food for many other animals and birds. Be fair, and just take your share. Leaving plenty behind ensures that our furred and feathered friends get to enjoy them too. Also, remember this – if you take all the elderflowers now, there will be no elderberries later in the year…
3: Pick away from paths, or higher up.
This especially applies on popular dog-walking footpaths. I don’t need to spell out what dogs do on walks, do I? I know you’ll wash all your foraged bounty but there’s something quite grim about the idea of collecting it covered in dog urine to start with…
4: Never take bulbs or dig up whole plants.
Doing so will mean there will be no plants left for next year! Along with only taking a fair share, this ensures that your foraging is sustainable. It’s really important for our long term habitats and many plants (though hopefully not the ones you’re foraging!) are protected by law anyway.
5: Err on the side of caution.
If you’re not sure what it is, leave it alone! There are so many plants that look like other plants, or berries that look like other berries. As an example, cow parsley (currently really popular for flower-arranging) can look like its close relative, hemlock – which is incredibly poisonous, or like the invasive, non-native giant hogweed which will irritate your skin and cause blindness if the sap gets in your eyes. So, do a bit of research beforehand and be cautious if you’re not sure.
6: Learn your fungi.
The most innocent looking of mushrooms can be really poisonous. Despite my years of foraging, if I’m honest, I leave fungus well alone; I don’t know it well enough to distinguish between delicious and deadly. To me, a Deathcap looks completely innocent, but it’s as deadly as it sounds… If you’re really keen on mushrooms, it is worth finding a guided mushroom foraging walk which will teach you lots and be fun too. Close to me in Leeds are Craig from Edible Leeds and Mina, both of whom have great reputations and teach lots of different foraging events and workshops.
7: Do your research.
To increase your enjoyment of foraging, not to mention your safety, do a little learning beforehand and take a field guide with you. ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Maybe is the classic guide to foraging but there are other great books too, including Alys Fowler’s ‘The Thrifty Forager’, which I really like.
8: Think about time of year.
The year turns around quickly. If you’re not out at the right time, you will miss the season. Keep an eye on your local haunts, see how the flowers are opening, the berries are ripening. Return to your favourite locations often so you know when the right time for harvesting will be.
9: Don’t pick rare flowers.
Now, I was always taught not to pick wild flowers – partly because there are so many rural superstitions about which ones not to bring in the house! Seriously, my mum has a long list. But also partly because I was taught that it wasn’t responsible behaviour – I suppose we had rather a ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’ way of thinking about flowers. These days, it seems that wild flower foraging has become both fashionable and acceptable. Following my other tips will ensure that taking flowers from the wild won’t lead to them becoming vulnerable. But, please, keep to those that are bountiful. Even the beautiful English bluebell is becoming increasingly rare. It would be horrible to see their loss in the wild, just to fill vases at home. In the same vein, please don’t plant anything out in the wild either – native species often cannot compete with invasive species – Spanish bluebells from garden centres are another reason our English bluebell is in decline.
10: Preserve your finds.
Finally, you’ve got your bounty at home. Now you need to make great use of it! Learning how to make jams, jellies and chutneys will enable you to enjoy your finds for much longer and ensure nothing goes to waste. Nuts will keep in storage well if they’re in dry, sealed containers. Another Alys Folwer book, ‘Abundance’ has got some interesting recipes for preserving. And let’s not forget the possibilities of wine-making, sloe gin and Elizabeth from Rosalilium’s blackberry-infused vodka! Definitely one I’m planning to try this year.
Now, pull your boots on, grab a basket, a pair of secateurs and some gloves, and go for your first foraging adventure. Have fun!
What tips would you share with new foragers? Tell me in the comments!