Edible & non-edible plants

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Edible plants

Foraging for food can be an interesting and rewarding experience, but it can also be fraught with dangers if you don’t follow the advice of experienced professionals. Plant-ark asked Marlow Renton to give us some advice.

As with all foraging, the most important thing is that you learn how to identify at least a few edible species and pick only those you know. Remember the number one rule: Do not eat it unless you know what it is

While mushrooms can be notoriously difficult to identify there are plenty of safe wild plants that can be picked and eaten and below are some examples.

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Ramsons/Wild garlic Allium ursinum © Wildfood UK

Ramsons/Wild garlic Allium ursinum

This is one of the easiest plants to identify due to its pungent garlic smell.

Everything from above the ground of this plant can be eaten. The young leaves are mild with the more mature leaves being stronger and more pungent. The flowers can also be eaten and tend to taste more garlic-like than the leaves.

The little green triple seed pods can be eaten when green and soft, before they harden when the three seeds in the pod become like stones and can easily break a tooth!

This plant likes moist shady places, particularly alongside rivers and streams, so if you collect the seeds to try to grow it yourself don’t sow them in the middle of a sunny vegetable patch; plant them under the hedge.

Warning: The tasty and versatile Ramsons does have some poisonous lookalikes. Lords and ladies Arum maculatum is one and Lily of the valley Convallaria majalis (which is is highly toxic) is the other, so mistaking this for wild garlic can be fatal! Neither of these plants smells like garlic, so make sure you use the smell test when you collect Ramsons.

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Wood sorrel Oxalis vulgaris © Ita McCobb

Wood sorrel Oxalis

Identifying Wood sorrel could not be easier. They look similar to Clover Trifolium but a closer look will reveal that each of the lovely little leaves is heart-shaped.

There are a large number of different types of Wood sorrel in the UK. Common wood sorrel Oxalis vulgaris grows in woodland with three green leaves. Creeping wood sorrel Oxalis corniculata is more often found in gardens or plant pots and it is a smaller version with slightly purple-tinged leaves.

There are also larger versions grown in gardens as a flowering plant with leaves over an inch across. All of them taste the same and all have three heart-shaped leaves on one stem – the only UK plants with this leaf pattern.

Warning: Wood sorrel contains small amounts of potassium and oxalic acid, so should not be eaten by people with any form of liver or kidney disease. Also, eaten regularly over long periods of time it can inhibit calcium uptake.

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Chickweed Stellaria media © Wildfood UK

Chickweed Stellaria media

This all year round salad plant grows all over the UK and can easily be found and identified. It is a creeping plant with white star-shaped flowers and pointed-tipped oval-shaped leaves.

The stem of Chickweed has a line of hairs down one side, a bit like a Mohican. This is unique among plants that look like this so it can be used as a definitive identification characteristic.

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Hairy bittercress Cardamine hirsuta © Wildfood UK

Hairy bittercress Cardamine hirsuta

This is another all year round salad plant that can be used as a wild alternative to Cress Lepidium sativum or Rocket Eruca sativa.

Hairy bittercress has a 12-week life cycle, so when you find some it takes no time at all to cultivate your own patch. It survives perfectly well on a windowsill in a bowl of water.

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Ground elder Aegopodium podagraria © Wildfood UK

Ground elder Aegopodium podagraria

This again is a very common plant, found in almost every park or bit of waste ground anywhere in the country. Unfortunately for gardeners it is also found in most gardens too!

Individual bees have preferences for specific flower families; this means it is more likely that the bee will transfer the pollen from one flower to another flower of the same species.

When young it has a sweet parsley taste so is perfect for salads. As the leaves mature they become a little papery so it is better to use them like spinach. There really isn’t much you could mistake this for if you know the leaf pattern.

Warning: After this plant has flowered it should not be consumed, as it becomes a laxative, a diuretic and a soporific! The young Elder tree Sambucus nigra has a similar effect. The more woody stems of the tree should give it away.

Perhaps the plants to be most wary of are Dog’s mercury Mercurialis perennis or Annual mercury Mercurialis annua, which are poisonous. Both of these plants grow in the same places as Ground elder and could inadvertently end up in your bag if you are careless when harvesting.

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Hemlock/Water dropwort Oenanthe © Wildfood UK

DEADLY plants

Deadly hemlock Conium and Fool’s parsley Aethusa cynapium are so similar to Chervil Anthriscus cerefolium or Wild parsley Anthriscus sylvestris that mistakes can easily be made when collecting. There are many other deadly poisonous members of the same family – such as the Wild carrot Daucus carota.

The most deadly member of this family growing in the UK is Hemlock water dropwort Oenanthe. This plant is so deadly that a handful of it could kill you within a couple of hours of consuming it.

Plant-ark advises that it is up to each individual to be 100% sure that what they are picking is safe to eat and not to take risks!

The number one rule – Do not eat it unless you know what it is – applies to plants just as much as it does to mushrooms!

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References: Marlow Renton; plant-ark.com