Richard is a wild food enthusiast and has used wild plants in his diet for the past seven years. He is also a foraging instructor.
My Top 5 Edible Plants
My criteria in choosing my top five wild edible superfoods revolved around a few factors. Firstly, how abundant and easily accessible was the plant. Secondly, how easy is it to identify the plant for a novice and thirdly, I considered the nutritional density of the plant and/or its benefit to our health.
For me, foraging is about reconnecting to nature through our stomachs. Wild food is everywhere from the most common 'weeds' that we battle with every day to fantastic flavours of various plant families that can create culinary wonders in the kitchen. It is about the magic and inspiration that brings our ancient connection to nature alive because it is what our ancestors did and that genetic data is still in our DNA lying dormant and waiting to be unlocked.
By suggesting these five simple and highly accessible wild plants, I hope to show that anyone can access and enjoy the benefits of wild edibles without having to be an 'expert' or worry about whether they might be poisoned.
I would still advise that you take precaution and to follow the basic guidelines to foraging and these are:
1. Be 110% certain of the identity of the plant you would like to harvest.
2. Pick away from polluted areas for example: Busy roadsides, cities, agriculture where the farmer has sprayed.
3. If you are harvesting from private property, seek the land owner's permission.
4. Never uproot a plant unless you have permission to do so.
5. Use your senses: Observation, smell, touch and taste to reconnect you to your surroundings and the plant you hope to pick. (Avoid taste unless you are 110% certain of edibility).
I use seaweed as a 'blanket' term to describe many species that you will find along the shoreline. Every seaweed above the low tide is not poisonous however whether something is 'edible' or 'palatable' is another question. Some seaweeds are simply far too tough to eat.
I personally love collecting seaweed because it is one of the most nutritious wild foods that I dry and use at home for my winter hibernation. Despite its name and our assumptions, seaweed is in fact not a plant. It is an organism under the classification of Algae.
For the purpose of this article we will focus on three simple and very common seaweeds that you can harvest from your nearest coast line that are rewarding and easy to identify.
Kelp is a highly nutritious species of seaweed with various types under this category. The Japanese cook this seaweed very slowly to make a kombu dashi (soup stock). The two that you are likely to find within reach of a low tide are oar weed (Laminaria digitata) and sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima). Kelp is known for its high source of iodine which is an essential mineral to assist proper thyroid function and a healthy metabolism. It is also rich in minerals and vitamins that include: calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium, phosphorus and vitamins K, A, C, E, folate, B12 and B6. (source)
2. The Wracks
Serratedwrack (Fucus serratus), bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus) and egg wrack (Ascophyllum nodosum) are three seaweeds you will encounter depending on the height of the tide. The wracks are just as impressive as Kelp with a similar mineral and vitamin content and I have collected both these species to dry and grind into a powder for sprinkling onto food.
3. Sea Lettuce (Ulva lactuca)
This is a highly versatile seaweed and as the name suggests it looks and feels a little like an aquatic lettuce. It is green, thin and has a mild salad-like flavour that can be used in many dishes. You could even try and make nori-sheets and roll your own sushi and it will come as no surprise to you that this seaweed almost covers the whole vitamin spectrum providing us with: 221 micrograms of vitamin A, 10 milligrams of vitamin C, 2.2 milligrams of vitamin E, 5 micrograms of vitamin K, and varying amounts of B-vitamins such as B1, B2, B12, and folate per 100g. It is also rich in minerals including: 490 milligrams of calcium, 3200 milligrams of magnesium, 22.1 grams of plant-based protein and 5.3 milligrams of iron per 100g. (source)
Kelp and Sea Lettuce Rolls
Nettles (Urtica dioica) need very little introduction. We have probably all been stung by them once in our life and we all know what they look like. This is why nettles are quite often the 'gateway' plant for many budding foragers and they are delicious to use in many recipes that include soups, teas and smoothies. If you are after a quick and simple way to introduce nettles to the family, then nettle tempura is my choice.
Nettles are a powerhouse of wild nutrition and trump many of our familiar green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach. Yes, you heard me correctly - nettles are 1.4 x mineral dense vs. spinach, go Popeye! They are notably rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, beta carotene, vitamin A, iron and protein. (source)
I personally love this plant because it is around throughout the year unless there is a hard winter and it is one of those wild foods that will always provide you with nourishing meals in times of scarcity.
Cleavers aka. Stickyweed (Galium aparine) - is a plant many of you should be familiar with. Who hasn't pranked their friends by throwing this very sticky plant on their backs without them noticing? - I know I have!
Did you know that Sticky willy (yes it has amusing common names too) has lymphatic-cleansing properties which means that it helps to flush all of the nasties out of your immune system, decrease congestion and reduce swelling. I love to pack my blender with young shoots, add some non-chlorinated water and blitz to create a refreshing and cleansing wild green juice. I quite often add nettles and dandelions too!
When I find this wild edible in prime growth during the spring it is my personal marker to start a detox from winter hibernation and a diet of sourdough bread and other dense food staples that keep me warm. It marks a time to shed toxins, get outside and exercise during the longer and warmer days of the year.
Cleavers are also great for kidney and liver health and have also been used traditionally to treat urinary tract infections. Want a clear complexion? Gallium aparine has also been used as a face wash to tighten skin, sooth eczema and other skin irritations. (source)
The prickly spines of thistles are probably right up there with the sting of a nettle and something we have likely encountered as a child but did you know that with the right preparation they are perfectly and deliciously edible?
There are many types of thistle out there and quite often hard to tell the difference between each variety but for the purpose of this article we are focusing on those without white sap. To a novice forager white sap should ring alarm bells but as thistles are part of the asteraceae family the white sap is similar to that of dandelions and wild lettuce. If you do find a thistle with white sap it will likely be a milk thistle (Silybum marianum) or a sow thistle (Sonchus).
Spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and the Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) are the two most common types you will find around agricultural, waste ground and pretty much everywhere. Getting around the thorns are the hardest task but with a little patience and a foraging knife you will make short work of them. You can stick the leaves in a powerful blender and sieve through a fine nut milk bag filter to attain a deep green mineral and vitamin rich juice or strip the stems back and enjoy them as you would celery with your favourite dip. The roots are great too and instead of spraying thistles with weed killer why not dig them up wash and cook them as an amazing source of wild carbohydrates?
I would advise harvesting the roots after the first year's growth so they have had a chance to develop but before the thistle bolts and flowers by which time the roots will be too woody. Stalks are best enjoyed before the thistle flowers and have not had a chance to get too fibrous and I enjoy the leaves when they are in their first year's growth as basal rosettes.
Thistles are a great source of calcium (70 mg), potassium (400 gr), phosphorus (23 gr), iron (0.7 gr), magnesium (42 mg), selenium (0.9 mg), vitamin C (2 mg), vitamin A (120 UI) and folic acid (28 mg) per 100g. (source)
5. Wild Garlic
There are two types of wild garlic I would like to talk about. Whilst other species of alliums can be found, the two I would like to talk about are the most common and easiest to identify.
1. Ramsons (Allium ursinum)
Otherwise known as wild garlic, this is the easiest to identify and the most widespread allium, at least in the United Kingdom. You can find it in many damp woodlands and often near a stream or river. It likes damp partially shady soil and once you find it the smell of wild garlic is very easy to notice. There are however a couple of warnings. Make sure that you can tell the difference between Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) as this plant often grows alongside wild garlic and it can cause 'pins and needles' in the mouth and consequently swelling and closing of the airway if you swallow. It is easy to tell apart the plant once you are familiar as the vein structure is different. Also make note of Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) which can be often mistaken due to it's similar appearance. Telling these plants apart is not difficult because ramsons will always smell and taste like garlic.
It comes with a similar benefit, if not a greater one in comparison to its cultivated counterpart. Allium ursinum is one of the best natural antibiotics on this earth. It can also fight off viruses, fungi and pathogens without harming the good microbes in our gut. It is a strong antioxidant, supports cardiovascular health, lowers cholesterol, regulates blood sugar levels, slows the development of dementia and aids in detoxifying our body from harmful toxins. It also provides a wealth of nutrients including vitamins B and C and minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium. Apart form the smell, is there anything not to love about wild garlic? (source)
2. Three-Cornered Leek (Allium triquetrum)
This plant is classed as an invasive because once it takes hold it spreads very quickly. I have often found it in abundance along the South coast of the United Kingdom but it does grow in other areas and in people's gardens too as it is often bought as an ornamental (Note: that it is illegal to purposefully plant Allium triquetrum in the wild and it is a criminal offence to do so). I personally love this plant because it is a milder garlic and can be used in a larger quantity to bulk up salads and other dishes. Three-Cornered leek is easy to identify by it's three cornered stem that is especially noticeable at the base and as with all Alliums, it smells - you guessed it, like wild garlic!
Like it's cousin Allium ursinum, it is also reported to help reduce cholesterol and protect the circulatory system. Allium triquetrum is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and it containins saponins, flavonoids, antioxidants and anti-cancer agents. (source)
Substitute wild garlic wherever you would use cultivated garlic bulbs and your culinary creativity is your only limit with this wild and abundant plant. You can discover valleys filled with ramsons and as three-cornered leek is so invasive, it makes perfect sense to eat it at every opportunity.
Unlike garlic bulbs, I would advise you to add this wild edible at the very end of your cooking so that the garlic flavour is not lost from over heating. Ramsons have a relatively short season and are usually gone by early summer whilst three-cornered leek enjoys a longer growing time. With both at your disposal you will have wild garlic at your finger tips throughout the year!
Wild Garlic Pesto
I hope you enjoyed the article and found a little inspiration to go outside and try some of these plants for yourself. Wild food is a free and abundant resource just waiting to be used and in a world of intensive agriculture these 'weeds' are pushed to the side and forgotten.
Please remember to take care of nature and treat it with respect as you embark on your journey into wild food and in return it will reward you with many years of exploration, discovery and amazing edible plants that will enrich and bring joy your home cuisine.
I would also encourage you to purchase a good book as a reference guide to assist you in identifying wild food. I personally recommend 'Foraging for Wild Foods' and 'Hedgerow Medicine'. Foraging for Wild Foods was my first foraging book that was gifted to me and aided me in my early days of learning. It is simple, straight forward and whilst it does not list all edible plants, it is a good start that explores wild foods over the whole spectrum of plant, mushroom, seaweed and crustacean. Hedgerow Medicine largely focuses on the medicinal applications however it is a well illustrated book that offers a wonderful insight into common hedgerow plants.
If you are still unsure about going the wild food journey alone and would rather seek the help from an experienced forager, you can find a reliable directory that hosts foraging instructors throughout the world by clicking the following link.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2020 Richard Mawby
Richard Mawby (author) from United Kingdom on February 28, 2020:
Thank you Raymond. I'd like to think that what this article encourages, is that foraging is accessible to anyone of every walk of life and that using the most common and abundant sources like nettles, dandelions and wild garlic we can simply pick them when we take the dog for a walk or take a stroll in our favourite park. It is very easy to gather a few plants and substitute into our diets, although I suppose there are other factors too. I was cautious at first and I would imagine many people will have this same approach. Regardless, I appreciate that wild food is not for everyone. Thank you for reading and commenting.
Raymond Philippe from The Netherlands on February 28, 2020:
I enjoyed reading your article and loved the accompanying photos. I must admit I don’t think it would be something I’d be able to fit into my life. But I can see where your enthusiasm comes from.