So last Sunday I went to a foraging class – my first foraging class! Blackberry picking has been a part of my life since I was tiny – initially going to Milford Common when I was a child with my grandparents, then my local park when my grandparents died. When I lived with my ex, I pestered him into going blackberrying with me. He really did not understand why blackberrying was such an important tradition for me. The current chap doesn’t understand the tradition, but is very happy to join in scrambling about in hedges. When I lived in London by myself, I had 3 years of not picking berries, and I’m not going to lie, I felt lost.
You see, it’s not just that Autumn brings us lots of yummy things to eat, and it’s not just that I really love blackberry everything. Being out and hands-on with nature really roots us in the present. It forces us to get out of our own heads and notice what is going on around us. Walking past the same clump of brambles and noticing them getting greener, flowering, being smothered with butterflies and other wee beasties, then producing hard green little bumps which slowly turn red and deepen into inky purple before being covered with a grey fuzz and shrinking into nothingness as the brambles go to sleep for the winter. It gives us a sense of time passing and life progressing which you just do not get in the city.
In London you have about 4 types of tree: Plane trees, which seem to make up the majority of the trees in public places and lining the roads, cherry trees which blossom in residential roads, a couple of varieties of chestnut and an oak or two in the parks and a couple of random species thrown in for decoration here and there. There don’t seem to be the nuances of the seasons because there are so few varieties of greenery, and everything seems to be so manicured that things don’t get a chance to die in case they become eyesores, so they get dug up and replaced by armies of gardeners.
The seasons outside London are:
Pale green quickenings of life, blossoms like delicate fireworks on branches, freshly minted lambs staggering to their feet, caterpillars, birds busily building nests as the world slowly wakes up.
Explosions of vivid colours, animals sunbathing, torrential downpours, earth cracking, the hum of a million tiny insects in the air, crops rustling in the breeze, picnics, the hum of lawnmowers, the chirping of an orchestra of crickets and grasshoppers, hoverflies curiously observing you.
A mellowing of colour into reds, yellows, oranges and browns, creatures busily gathering in stores for winter, ancient roars from stags rutting in mists, people bringing in the harvest, getting someone to get rid of daddy longlegs that have bumbled in, big fat spiders napping in giant dewdrop cobwebs and dinners spent tucking into rich earthy squashes, grains and berries.
A quietness and stillness decends. Reptiles and mice find shelter to sleep out the cold months while birds hunt for scraps in peoples gardens. Leaves are outlined with frost, the frozen earth crunches underfoot and you can see every breath. Bonfires fill the air and people huddle indoors for the long nights, and windows pulse with tv lights.
In London, the seasons are as follows:
It’s too cold.
It’s too humid.
No word of a lie, I walked past a tree that was just starting to yellow. I walked past the same tree the next day and not a single leaf was on it, and all the leaves had been swept away by the road sweeper and we were suddenly in winter. Autumn had been totally bypassed, and winter seemed dark, bleak and unbearably long. Obviously it wasn’t helped by being cooped up in an air conditioned office all day, leaving home and coming back in the dark. But thankfully that season of my life is over and I have no intention of living in the city again, and working there as little as possible.
I realise this was an insanely long precursor to the point, but I’m trying to emphasise why I think it’s important we get back in touch with the land. It is the one that gives us life and sustains us – not our salaries and cubicles and swivel chairs in glass covered air conditioned offices – regardless of what the financial sector tells us.
I realised I didn’t really know much about what I could eat outside a vegetable patch or the supermarket, besides rosehips, blackberries, hazelnuts (which I have never seen growing in the wild because the squirrels get them all), dandelions and plantain (which I wouldn’t eat because they would be covered with dog piss) crabapples (which are not good for much apart from preserves) and nettles (which I have never tried to eat). So the chap booked the pair of us on a foraging course at the Earth Trust in Oxfordshire to learn a bit more.
The lady who gave the talk, Romilly, was an absolute legend and a really interesting human being. She grew up fairly feral, from the age of 11 living independently in an old gypsy caravan she’d commandeered from her botanist father who had wanted to turn it into a log store, and fended largely for herself from food she foraged. She could not emphasise enough the importance of being connected to the land, understanding it, being able to read it, and live alongside it. Like me, she firmly believes there is a very strong link between disassociation with the land and mental health, physical health and behavioural problems, and thinks the fear around wild food is totally unfounded and needs to be remedied.
She has a very relaxed and philosophical approach to life and thinks that by wrapping our children up in so many layers of cotton wool we are preventing them from being curious, learning, and really experiencing the world. And she has a point – it is totally smothering. She said that when they say they’re going to teach children how to light a fire, teachers and parents get worried that the little darlings might hurt themselves – and her retort is that they’re not going to be able to seriously hurt themselves by lighting a fire – if they get a burn it will be a mild one, there is a bucket of water on standby for the hand to be dunked into, skin grows back and they will learn to light a fire correctly, they will learn to respect fire, and learn not make the same mistake again – there’s no reason why we should shelter our children from learning a skill our species has been using for 6 million years and which has rarely caused lasting damage when used carefully.
According to Romilly, 200 years ago, the average child could name and recognise over 250 species of edible and poisonous plants. Today, the average adult (forget child!) struggles to name even 20. Thousands of years of working with the land, and all that knowledge has been lost in only 200 years. It’s a scary thought isn’t it. I like to think I know a bit about nature, but even I could only think of 16 or 17 wild things that you can use or eat, which is terrible! Because of the rise in things like commercial farming and supermarkets, we eat what we find available in the shops because someone in authority has told us that it’s safe. If we see mushrooms or berries on trees, we tend to assume that most of it is poisonous to humans because we don’t recognise it because we haven’t seen it in a supermarket, and so give it a wide berth, when in fact that is totally untrue.
I have so much time for this lady – she is so zen, wise and humble. I wish I knew more people like her.
So we went around and had a little walk around their arboretum and she pointed out a bunch of berries we could eat. I really wanted to learn about mushrooms but unfortunately they’re on chalkland which isn’t really ideal for mushrooms, and the squirrels had had a lot of the berries and nuts.
Things I learned you can eat:
As a general rule of thumb, if a berry has a bum like an apple – that is – 5 segments, you can probably eat it. If the leaves are like roses and produce hips like rosehips, then you can eat it.
ELDERBERRIES – You need to be careful with these because there is another plant which has fruit that looks a lot like elderberries, so make sure you are picking the right ones by familiarising yourself with the leaves of the elder. (I already knew about these, but still misidentify them sometimes)
POTATOES are members of the nightshade family.. so generally just keep away from them, they’re not good news. Stick with the safe breeds you get in the supermarket.
ROSEHIPS – (I already knew about) little red tear drop shaped berries on spiky rose bushes. All rosehips are totally safe to eat. Romilly said that the seeds inside contain an irritant so they should be removed if you plan to eat them… I’ve never had a problem with them, but I suppose some are more sensitive than others. The chap’s mother would sometimes put them down the back of his neck for a laugh, as the hairs on the seeds make itching powder.
HAWTHORN- Little red berries on a bush that has leaves shaped a little like oak leaves. They’re quite bitter and meaty but don’t really taste of very much. They’re not something you’d particularly want to eat for pudding, but they’re good for your heart and can help with problems like angina, they’re packed with vitamins, and can help lower cholesterol.
WILD SERVICE BERRIES (which I kept mishearing as ‘World Service’). They’re in the picture above – they look like tiny russet apples. They’re not very nice when they’re hard, but they turn a darker, purplish colour when they get squidgy and taste like sour apricots. I want to grow a service tree and make jelly to go with cheese! it would be so perfect! They’re also high in b2, iron, biotin and manganese.
STINGING NETTLES are not so good in Autumn – you want them fairly fresh and before they seed. Boiled down they taste like spinach and are delicious mixed with oats and fried! Like healthy popcorn and packed with vitamin A, calcium, iron and protein – so good for veggies and vegans! You can eat the seeds, however – they hang down like little catkins. When I went for a walk with my friend the other day she was grazing on them as she walked past. You learn something new every day.
DEAD NETTLES are packed with vitamin A and are great for your blood, and can be used in salads and soups
CHICKWEED can be eaten in salad – I didn’t try it but I believe it’s part of the rocket family so a little peppery
SLOES are big round greyish purple berries on the blackthorn bush. Good for gin after the first frosts (or a spell in the freezer). Absolutely disgusting if just eaten off the branch.
MUSHROOMS can be iffy – some are really obviously ok to eat like shaggy ink cap mushrooms, others have lookalikes which are poisonous so unless you really know your stuff you’re best leaving them both alone.
There are very few foods in nature that can kill you
However, some do have some pretty unpleasant side effects. For example purging buckthorn used to be used by the Anglo Saxons as a (surprise surprise) purging remedy. God knows why anyone would need that, but that’s what it was used for anyway. Although the effects are pretty severe, so now they’re only really used by vets to induce purging in dogs and other animals. Cuckoo Pint aka Lords and Ladies causes severe irritation of the mouth and throat. In severe cases, Hemlock can kill you by paralysing your lungs. Mushrooms are a bit more lethal, but generally the names of them are a pretty good clue that they’re bad news – with names like ‘deathcap’ ‘fool’s conecap’ ‘Satan’s Bolete’ ‘deadly webcap’ ‘fool’s webcap’ and ‘destroying angel’ you wouldn’t particularly want to take your chances anyway. Generally, most poisonous plants are not as poisonous as we are scared into thinking they are and will generally either make you throw up or have the squits rather than put you in hospital or the coroners office.
Seriously though, stay away from those mushrooms I just mentioned.
JUNIPER BERRIES – It is quite rare to find juniper bushes – these berries have a very strong medicinal gin flavour. And the bush is really bloody spiky.
YEW BERRIES look like they should be totally poisonous Everything else about Yew trees is extremely toxic so literally the only part that won’t kill you or make you really ill is the pinky red donut shaped berry around the seed. The seed is also extremely poisonous so you’ll need to remove that before eating it. The berry generally dissolves into a disgusting slimy mess once you pull it apart to get the seed out. It’s like handling an exploding snail – it’s really nasty. Although it is very sweet and tastes good. For me the reward is not worth the effort, but it’s good to know I won’t starve in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
FIR TREE – Cut off a sprig and stick it in hot water and you have a surprisingly delicious tea. Remember to check for spiders first so you don’t accidentally boil the poor things alive.
LEMON BALM Makes a nice tea
YARROW is a herb with lots of tiny leaves and clumps of tiny little white or lavender coloured flowers and it is massively overlooked. There’s a good article by wellnessmama that goes into more detail, but in short, it’s excellent for shortening colds, breaking fevers and healing wounds. Can be used externally and internally and is generally a great medicinal plant to have in your arsenal.
PINEAPPLE WEED is a little plant often found beside paths and is chamomile’s little sister, and has a very pineapply scent and the flowers make a nice tea.
We went back to base with a basket full of foraged goodies and cooked up what we had gathered