Foraging at this time of year can be a very rewarding pastime

From nettles to garlic, there's never been a better time to see what wild edible plants are growing in your neighbourhood, writes Olive Ryan in her weekly column
Foraging at this time of year can be a very rewarding pastime

Wild garlic bursting forth in a woodland setting. Their leaves are emerging from the soil now, with flowers appearing later in June. B

APRIL is a time of the year that we begin to see lots of movement in the garden.

The soil is beginning to warm up and the roots of plants are beginning to take up water and nutrients and awake from their slumber, after hibernation over the winter months.

The growing year commences once more, always such an eagerly anticipated time of the year — and never more so than this year I think you will agree.

Seed sowing can begin in earnest now and it is the last chance for bare root planting of hedging trees over the next week or two as buds begin to burst into leaf.

It’s also the last chance to move plants in different locations in the garden, particularly perennials that may have gotten too crowded. A good time too for vegetative propagation of plants by cutting or division as the sap rises and new growth begins.

Foraging at this time of the year can be a very rewarding pastime. There is plenty of fresh new growth on many wild plants growing native in the hedgerows right now and with the new value that everyone has on food and its supply, there was never a better time to investigate what is available on our doorstep.

Learn about foraging - educate yourself but also go collecting with somebody experienced who will show you the characteristics to look out for to ensure you are collecting the right plants.
Learn about foraging - educate yourself but also go collecting with somebody experienced who will show you the characteristics to look out for to ensure you are collecting the right plants.

One of the most easily identifiable and nutritious plant right now is nettles (Urtica dioica). They are at their most nutritious when harvested during March, April and May, before they flower.

The plants are high in vitimans A and C as well as iron, phosphorus, calcium and potassium. They help to boost energy at this time of the year and are a wonderful addition to soups.

When harvesting the growing tips of the leaves, it is important to consider if there is a possibility that they may have been sprayed with herbicide. That is why it is better to collect from inaccessible locations, away from roadside verges or pathways.

Soup has always been a popular choice for using nettles. The young leaves of nettles can be used to make a pesto also, however the trick is to blanch the leaves in boiling water for 90 seconds before combining them with the other ingredients.

Wild garlic (allium ursinium) leaves are emerging from the soil now, with flowers appearing later in June. Pesto is a popular use of the young leaves, combining them with parmesan cheese, pine nuts and olive oil to create a paste that can be used on pasta, meats and breads and frozen to preserve it for longer.

The leaves are best harvested from March up until the flowers begin appearing, as the flavour is strongest the younger the leaves.

With the vibrant new growth of plants then, the leaves of many plants less palatable as the growing season progresses are edible and tasty right now.

Leaves of ground elder, goose grass, fat hen, dandelion, chickweed, sorrel, whitethorn and pennyworth are worth collecting and including in a salad about now. The young leaves of whitethorn have a surprisingly nutty flavour and those of sorrel have a lemony flavour and are good in salads.

A few of these more peppery/nutty/ lemony flavours mixed through some ordinary lettuce leaves can provide a welcome delight for the senses in a spring salad.

A handy guide by way of introduction to foraging is the aptly named Self Sufficiency, Foraging, by David Squire. The book divides plants into wild plants, herbs and garden escapes, wild fruits, wild nuts, mushrooms and edible fungi, seaweeds and shellfish.

Plant of the Week, gorse, provides a burst of colour all year round
Plant of the Week, gorse, provides a burst of colour all year round

Descriptions and illustrations of leaves and flowers are given for each plant, where they can usually be found growing and also suggestions of how to use them in the kitchen.

It gives some useful hints and tips and for such a broad ranging topic it provides a simple introduction, describing many plants that we are very familiar with as common garden weeds but framing them differently by providing practical uses for them in the kitchen.

A word of caution before undertaking foraging, ensure that you begin your collecting with somebody experienced who will show you the characteristics to look out for to ensure you are collecting the right plants.

Never eat anything that you are not sure of, or take a chance on anything looking ‘similar’, as not all plants are edible and consuming the wrong one can have serious and adverse effects on human health. Never dig up any wild plants.

This current crisis is perhaps giving us all a new appreciation of our vulnerability and an appreciation of all nature has to offer us on our doorstep.

We have a chance now to educate ourselves to help equip our kitchen with some naturally sourced flavour and nutrition for our diet. Happy Foraging!

Plant of the week

Not only looking good but also with edible flowers, this native shrub’s main claim to fame is that it is not blossoming when kissing is out of fashion! So it is never out of flower then...

The plant in question is gorse or Ulex europeaus. Love it or hate it, this woody layering shrub provides colour all year round and is opportunistic is colonising areas of ground much to many farmers annoyance.

Another benefit gorse brings is that it is nitrogen fixing, meaning it has nitrogen fixing nodules in its roots which enable the plant to convert nitrogen in the air to usable nitrogen for the plant in the soil.

It has modified leaves which are quite prickly and tough, adapted so that they can withstand harsh winters at higher altitudes.

It does require well drained soil to become established and once it does get going it can form quite dense thickets.

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