Basic Foraging Rules

–  Never pick a plant to eat unless you are certain you have identified it ad know it is safe.

–  Take care where you are foraging: avoid places that may be polluted from heavy traffic, industry, chemical fertilisers or pesticides, and dog pee.

–  Always respect the plants: don’t pick something if it is endangered, or the only one of it’s kind in the area. As a general rule pick 10% of what’s there.

For the legalities of picking plants from the wild, see this page from Fergus Drennan’s website.

A great website for information on plants and their properties is ‘Plants for a Future’:  www.pfaf.org


Mabey, Richard, Food for Free, Collins 2001 (Pocket version available)

Micheal, Pamela, Edible Wild Plants & Herbs, Grub Street 2007

Hamilton, Dave & Andy, The Self-Sufficientish Bible, Hodder & Stoughton 2008


These are notes on some plants commonly found on my foraging trips.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert! The following notes are based on my own experiences & research. For further information please refer to the books above and websites on the links page.

I am including information on the medicinal value of plants because I find it fascinating that we literally walk past medicines everyday. The information is gathered from Plants for a Future. Please see the website – www.pfaf.org – for references and further information. The website includes explanations for all the medicinal language used.

To use plants medicinally, I recommend seeing a herbalist, or doing further research yourself. Herbal medicine is a holistic practice, and is not about taking a tablet to cure a particular ailment. Rather, plants are seen as a way of helping the body to heal itself.

HAWTHORN  Crateagus monogyna (Rose Family)

A deciduous, thorny shrub or small tree, widespread in hedgerows, scrub and wood edges.  Bears white or pink-tinged flowers, often in profusion, typically in early May (hence traditional name “May Tree”).  Fruits in autumn (Haws) are a red berry containing one stone.

Edible uses: You can eat young hawthorn leaves in the spring. They have a nutty flavour, but aren’t the most delicious wild food. They used to be known as ‘bread and cheese’. As Richard Mabey says, this has little to do with the way they taste and ‘is probably a metaphor for their character as a very basic foodstuff.’  The berries, which are ready in September, can be used to make wine or jelly.  The dried leaves & blossom, collected in May and the dried make a delicious tea. You can pick and dry the berries in the Autumn and add them to the mix.

Medicinal uses: ‘Hawthorn is an extremely valuable medicinal herb. It is used mainly for treating disorders of the heart and circulation system, especially angina. Western herbalists consider it a ‘food for the heart’, it increases the blood flow to the heart muscles and restores normal heart beat. This effect is brought about by the presence of bioflavonoids in the fruit, these bioflavonoids are also strongly antioxidant, helping to prevent or reduce degeneration of the blood vessels. The fruit is antispasmodic, cardiac, diuretic, sedative, tonic and vasodilator. Both the fruits and flowers of hawthorns are well-known in herbal folk medicine as a heart tonic and modern research has borne out this use.’ Plants for a future

ELDER  Sambucus nigra (Honeysuckle Family)

A deciduous shrub or small tree with fissured, pale bark, found in scrub, woods, hedges and on wasteland.  Its white flowers are small and fragrant, and are borne in prominent clusters in midsummer.  The equally prominent autumn berry clusters are deep purple.

Edible uses: Elderflowers come out in June, and the berries follow in August-September. Both have a multitude of uses as food and drink. Elderflowers can be ued to make cordial, soft drinks, wine, and syrup. They can be used fresh off the tree to make elderflower fritters. Elderberries can be turned into jelly or jam, and mixed with crab apples and blackberries to make puddings and crumbles. They can also be used for wine-making.

June Recipe: Elderflower Fritters

Make a batter of plain flour, sugar and water. Mix to a smooth paste. The batter should be sticky enough to coat the flowers. Heat oil in a pan. Take elderflower heads, and holding the stalk, dip the flowers into the batter, then immediately put them into the hot oil. When they have browned, pull the fritters out using the stalks and eat immediately.

NB do not eat the stalks as they will give you a stomach upset!

Medicinal uses: ‘The fresh flowers are used in the distillation of ‘Elder Flower Water’. The flowers can be preserved with salt to make them available for distillation later in the season. The water is mildly astringent and a gentle stimulant. It is mainly used as a vehicle for eye and skin lotions. The dried flowers are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, galactogogue and pectoral. An infusion is very effective in the treatment of chest complaints and is also used to bathe inflamed eyes. The infusion is also a very good spring tonic and blood cleanser. Externally, the flowers are used in poultices to ease pain and abate inflammation Used as an ointment, it treats chilblains, burns, wounds, scalds etc. The fruit is depurative, weakly diaphoretic and gently laxative. A tea made from the dried berries is said to be a good remedy for colic and diarrhoea. The fruit is widely used for making wines, preserves etc., and these are said to retain the medicinal properties of the fruit.’

Dried elderflowers make a good tea, and mixed with Yarrow can help to sweat out a cold or fever.

MUGWORT  Artemisia vulgaris (Daisy Family)

A tall, herbaceous aromatic perennial. Leaves are much-divided, with a dark green  upper and a silvery underside.  Flowers are small and brownish, appearing in late summer. Grows on wastelands, waysides and similar rough places.

Edlible uses: When I first got to know this plant, I met a Japanese lady who told me that in Japan they use young Mugwort leaves to flavour rice cakes. This gave me the idea of using Mugwort as an aromatic herb, and I have used in to make pancakes. More traditionally, Mugwort was used to flavour beer, and is still used as a herbal tea. It makes a flavoursome brew which has several medicinal properties, and is said to promote lucid dreams.

August Recipe: Mugwort pancakes with elderberry, blackberry and crab apple stew

For the pancakes: One cup of self-raising flour, one cup of soya milk (you could experiment with home-made hazel nut milk), two tablespoons sugar, and a handful of Mugwort flowers. (The flowers are tiny and grow in tall stems that look like seeds). Mix the dry ingredients, add the milk and mix into a smooth batter. Add the Mugwort flowers and mix in.  Get oil hot in a frying pan, and ladle the pancake mix in. You will need a spatula to flip them.

For the Stew: Put the elderberries, blackberries, and chopped apples into a pan with a little water and sugar. Cover and simmer until the fruit is soft. Spoon the fruit onto the pancakes and enjoy.

Medicinal uses: DO NOT USE MUGWORT IF PREGNANT.  ‘Mugwort has a long history of use in herbal medicine especially in matters connected to the digestive system, menstrual complaints and the treatment of worms. It is slightly toxic, however, and should never be used by pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, since it can cause a miscarriage. Large, prolonged dosage can damage the nervous system. All parts of the plant are anthelmintic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, cholagogue, diaphoretic, digestive, emmenagogue, expectorant, nervine, purgative, stimulant, slightly tonic and used in the treatment of women’s complaints. The leaves are also said to be appetizer, diuretic, haemostatic and stomachic. They can be used internally or externally. An infusion of the leaves and flowering tops is used in the treatment of nervous and spasmodic affections, sterility, functional bleeding of the uterus, dysmenorrhoea, asthma and diseases of the brain. The leaves have an antibacterial action.’ Plants for a future

Culpepper says : ‘an excellent tea for female disorders. The flowers and bids should be put into a teapot and boiling water poured over them. Drink this twice a day or oftener. Sitting over the infusion helps bring down the courses, hastens delivery of the baby and helps expel the afterbirth’.

HIMALAYAN BALSAM  Impatiens glandulifera (Balsam Family)

A fleshy non-native perennial, often growing as tall as a person; a rapid coloniser of river and canal banks, where it can form dense stands.  Leaves are spear-shaped, and flowers are large and pink with petals differentiated into a lip, a hood and a spur, and are borne throughout summer and autumn.  The fruit are shaped like pointed cylinders, and explode to scatter the seeds when ripe.

Edible uses: I recently read that the seeds of this invasive plant can be used as a food. I tasted some raw, and wasn’t hugely impressed. But it is an abundant – and invasive – plant around the river. So I looked into it further.

Robin Hartford uses the seeds in a curry – his recipe is on his website http://www.eatweeds.co.uk/himalayan-balsam-seed-curry-recipe

Pfaf says: ‘Regular ingestion of large quantities of these plants can be dangerous due to their high mineral content. This report, which seems nonsensical, might refer to calcium oxalate. This mineral is found in I. capensis and so is probably also in other members of the genus. It can be harmful raw but is destroyed by thoroughly cooking or drying the plant. People with a tendency to rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones and hyperacidity should take especial caution if including this plant in their diet.’ This website also claims the seeds have a delicious nutty flavour and that an oil can be extracted from the seeds – so further experimentation is needed!

BRAMBLE  Rubus fructicosus (Rose Family)

Probably our most commonly foraged plant, this prickly scrambling semi-evergreen shrub can vary in form.  It bears rose-like flowers in summer, followed by the familiar blackberries in late summer and autumn, and is found very widely.

Edible uses: blackberries, as almost everybody knows, are one of the most delicisous and satisfying wild treats, and abundant I urban and rural areas. If you don’t eat all the blackberries whilst out picking, there’s a variety of ways to use the fruit when you return home with a purple mouth and fingers:  Blackberry & apple crumble, Blackberry jam or jelly, Blackberry wine, blackberry sauce.. Bramble leaves can also be used as a tea – pick them young and fresh I the spring and dry them. They’re good on their own, or mixed with lemon balm or other dried herbs for a refreshing tea.  I also just read the following, which I will have to try in the spring: the Young shoots can be eaten raw. They are harvested as they emerge through the ground in the spring, peeled and then eaten in salads.

Young bramble stems can be used in basketry or rope-making – use a thick glove to stip the thorns off and twist the stem until it’s fexible.

Medicinal uses: The root-bark and the leaves are strongly astringent, depurative, diuretic, tonic and vulnerary.They make an excellent remedy for dysentery, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, cystitis etc, the root is the more astringent. Externally, they are used as a gargle to treat sore throats, mouth ulcers and gum inflammations. A decoction of the leaves is useful as a gargle in treating thrush and also makes a good general mouthwash.

WILD ROSE  Rosa sp. (Rose Family)

There are several species of wild rose in the British Isles, of which the Dog Rose (Rosa canina) is the most common in southern and central England.  Roses are thorny summer-flowering shrubs (Dog Rose has pink flowers, whilst Field Rose has white), occurring in hedges, scrub and woods.  The autumn fruit are oval, bright red hips.

Edible uses: Rose flowers can be used to make a syrup, or dried for tea. They can also be used decoratively on case or in salads. Rosehips, which ripen in autumn are very high in vitamin C – they are used to make rosehip syrup, which was widely used during the 2nd world war to ensure people got enough vitamins to prevent illness. They contain prickly seeds, which are an irritant, so in order to use rosehips, you need to boil them whole and then strain through muslin to remove all the fine hairs. The fruit can also be dried and used in teas.

Medicinal uses: ‘The petals, hips and galls are astringent, carminative, diuretic, laxative, ophthalmic and tonic. The hips are taken internally in the treatment of colds, influenza, minor infectious diseases, scurvy, diarrhoea and gastritis. A syrup made from the hips is used as a pleasant flavouring in medicines and is added to cough mixtures. A distilled water made from the plant is slightly astringent and is used as a lotion for delicate skins.

BURDOCK   Arctium sp. (Daisy Family)

These robust, branched herbs, the most widespread species of which is Lesser Burdock (Arctium minus), are found in woods, waysides, meadows and wastelands.  They bear ball-shaped, furry flower-heads with purple florets in late summer; these develop into fruit with many short hooked bristles, which attach themselves to fur or clothing to aid dispersal.

Edible uses: To use Burdock as a food, you need to dig up the plant’s deep root – which means you should only harvest the plant in places where you have permission and where it is growing in abundance.  Use burdock in its first year, not second year of growth. In the second year the plant develops its Velcro-like burs.  The root can be boiled or used in stir-fries, roast or pickled. Use the roots of young plants. It can also be roast and used as a coffee substitute. And the root is used to make dandelion and burdock drink.


Medicinal uses: ‘Burdock is one of the foremost detoxifying herbs in both Chinese and Western herbal medicine. Arctium lappa (Greater Burdock) is the main species used, though this species has similar properties. The dried root of one year old plants is the official herb, but the leaves and fruits can also be used. It is used to treat conditions caused by an ‘overload’ of toxins, such as throat and other infections, boils, rashes and other skin problems. The root is thought to be particularly good at helping to eliminate heavy metals from the body. The plant is antibacterial, antifungal and carminative. It has soothing, mucilaginous properties and is said to be one of the most certain cures for many types of skin diseases, burns, bruises etc. It is used in the treatment of herpes, eczema, acne, impetigo, ringworm, boils, bites etc.’ Plants for a future

NETTLE  Urtica dioica (Nettle Family)

This fibrous rough perennial, with its toothed leaves and their coarse stinging hairs, has surely made itself known to everyone!  It is found in woods, wastelands, hedgerows, river banks and similar, thriving especially on nutrient-rich soil.  It bears clusters of tiny green flowers in summer.

Comfrey & Nettle Soup: Collect and finely chop young nettle tips (do not use nettles that have stared to flower), and young comfrey leaves. You can season the soup with yarrow for a peppery flavour, or hedge mustard. Heat a small amount of oil in a pan, and gently fry the leaves until they wilt. Add water and stock. Cook until tender. This is a very simple soup. For extra flavour I added seaweed that I had foraged and dried from the South Coast. If you are making it at home you can turn this into a more substantial meal by adding potatoes, and blending the soup.

YARROW  Achillea millefolium (Daisy Family)

An aromatic perennial with creeping runners, commonly found in fields, waysides and other grassy places.  Leaves are dark green and delicately subdivided to give a feathery appearance.  Creamy-white flowers are borne in clusters in summer and autumn.

FAT HEN  Chenopodium album (Goosefoot Family)

A leafy annual plant, encountered (often as a “weed”) in cultivated, disturbed or waste land, and on waysides.  Leaves are diamond-shaped and toothed with a pale underside, and flowers are very small, inconspicuous, and borne in spikes.

COMMON MALLOW Malva sylvestris (Mallow Family)

This upright or sprawling herbaceous perennial has crinkly, ivy-shaped leaves, and is covered throughout by downy hairs.  Its attractive pinkish five-petalled summer flowers yield to disc-shaped fruit in autumn.  Grows on waysides and bare ground.

HEDGE MUSTARD  Sisymbrium officinale (Cabbage Family)

A common annual or biennial plant of wayside and wasteland, with leaves deeply divided into lobes.  The small yellow flowers have four petals arranged in a cross shape; the fruit are short, elongated pods.

Wild Summer Salad

Pick and rinse the leaves of chickweed, fat hen, hedge mustard, dandelion, mallow and a small amount of yarrow and ribwort plantain. Chop and mix the leaves in a large bowl. Add colour and flavour to your salad with the flowers of red clover, yellow mustard, white deadnettle, purple mallow, and the seed heads of fat hen, ribwort plantain and Himalayan balsam. To add a tart lemoniness, add sorrel leaves or finely chop some crab apples and mix in. Garnish with pickled wild garlic seeds.

Thanks to Tim Allman for plant descriptions.