This fourth blogpost in my Hejgro series on foraging seasonal wild foods is a wholesome celebration of early Spring greens. Whilst it may feel as though Spring is having a few false starts (will it rain or shine today?!), our Springtime wild greens are now showing themselves across the UK. For this series I, Claire Jefferies (a Frome-based food writer) join Pavla (owner of Hejgro) on her foraging walks across Somerset to see what is ripe for the picking. My blogposts share tips on how to safely identify and prepare the wild foods we find, and give suggestions on how they can be enjoyed in a range of dishes.
Please note: None of the information given in this article constitutes medical advice. Readers are advised to consult with a medical herbalist and/or their own GP before using any wild foods for medicinal purposes. This is particularly important if you have any underlying health conditions or are on any medication, are pregnant or breastfeeding. Never rely solely on one source for plant identification e.g a phone app. Use multiple sources and only eat something if you are sure what it is.
Where did we head for this forage?
After a deluge of early Spring rain, our walk relocated from the steeper Hapsford Hill in Great Elm (Frome) to the flatter Vallis Vale - following the Mells River a little further westwards.
Show and Tell: To help develop our plant identification skills, Pavla began by leading the group in picking a flower or foliage and asking us to describe our find to each other. Photo credit: Claire Jefferies
What did we find there?
Most of the year is abundant in wild foods if we can learn what to look for, but Spring is especially so. We found Bramble, Burdock, Dandelion, Cleavers, Comfrey, Common Hogweed, Common Ivy, Common Stinging Nettle, Cow Parsley, Dead Nettle, Ground Elder, Hawthorn, Lords and Ladies, Pilewort, Speedwell Ivyleaf, Scarlet Elf Cup and Wood Ear mushrooms, and - of course - Wild Garlic. Those highlighted in bold are written about in more detail below.
Now is the perfect time for early spring greens and we all know one that is sprouting in carpets across damp woodland - Wild Garlic.
Early Spring Wild Garlic in bud. Photo credit: Claire Jefferies
The leaves are well known for their use in pesto and carry their best flavour early in the season when smaller and bright green. Lesser known are some options for eating other parts of Wild Garlic. The flowers are wonderful in a stir-fry or salad. Seed pods can be pickled by adding them to a jar of vinegar and leaving them to sit for at least a month - preferably three - then treating them like capers. Buds can be fermented in live sauerkraut juice or brine: Remove the stem from the buds (and use the stems like chives in another dish!), then wash the buds several times in clean water. Once drained, add them to a sterilised jar. Use 100g water and 2g salt to make a brine, then add a couple of aromatics (black peppercorns and mustard seeds, star anise, cardamom or other spices of your choice). Ladle the brine on top of the buds and leave them to ferment at room temperature. After a week, pop them in the fridge. The buds should always be completely submerged in brine - any sign of mould and they need to be disposed of. Use something to press the buds down inside the brine, like a Kilner jar with its particular lid style. When ready to use, sprinkle on salads, fish or cheese on toast!
Hejgro’s hugely popular Wild Garlic Pesto is also now back in stock and can be bought either online or at the Frome Independent market on the first Sunday of the month (March to December).
Lords and Ladies, Beware!
Lords, ladies, common folk and their dogs should all be aware of this plant. The younger, smaller leaves of Lords and Ladies, along with Common Sorrel, can be confused for Wild Garlic. Common Sorrel is edible but Lords and Ladies is not. Whilst not strictly poisonous, the plant contains oxalate crystals which are very sharp and can penetrate and irritate skin for a long time. If consumed, the plant can cause the throat to close. Crucially, make sure to not use Lords and Ladies as your woodland toilet roll - ouch!
Wild Garlic leaves are convex, smooth and hairless, and bright green in early Spring. Lords and Ladies has a broader, arrow-shaped leaf with a wrinkled appearance in a darker shade of green. Photo credit: whisperingearth.co.uk
The distinctive smell of Wild Garlic is, of course, its most helpful identifying feature. But, following my own advice by not using just one method to identify a wild food, here is how to tell the difference between the leaves: Both Wild Garlic and Lords and Ladies first appear with leaves curled in on themselves. Lords and Ladies usually go on to have characteristic purple spots but these are not always present and not found on young leaves. The leaf veins are the main difference in appearance. Wild Garlic has one main central vein with parallel secondary veins. Lords and Ladies has secondary veins emerging out from the central one and those reach out to the edges of the leaf.
Lily of the Valley is another poisonous plant with similar leaves to Wild Garlic. The best way to tell the difference here is that Lily of the Valley usually has pairs of leaves on a single stem whilst Wild Garlic normally has just one.
The Carrot Clan: As with every family, there are good eggs and bad apples!
Whilst we’re on alert for some plants to avoid, let’s pay a visit to the carrot family. The culprit I want to highlight here is Poison Hemlock and, more specifically, its similarities to its edible relative, Cow Parsley (aka Wild Chervil). Poison Hemlock is acutely toxic to humans and animals so if you are not 100% sure what you are looking at, do not eat it.
Comparing Cow Parsley and Poison Hemlock
Leaves of Cow Parsley (left) and Poison Hemlock (right). Photo credit: jackravenbushcraft.co.uk
Poison Hemlock has finer, feather-like leaves which have a glossy sheen and are darker than Cow Parsley. Cow Parsley leaves have a matt finish. Visual comparison of just the leaves is not likely sufficient, especially between younger plants. The stems of both plants are green when young but once the plants grow larger, the stem of Poison Hemlock is smooth with red blotches. The stem of mature Cow Parsley is a little hairy, grooved and has just a purple hue. Smell, again, is a good indicator here - if you break a Hemlock stem in two, it gives off a nasty smell which Cow Parsley does not. The leaves on Hemlock also smell unpleasant, especially in comparison to the fresher scent of Cow Parsley. The flowers look very similar but grow in differently shaped umbels - see below for a comparison.
In flower: Cow Parsley (left) and Poison Hemlock (right). Photo credit: both falmouthpacket.co.uk
If you are certain you have Cow Parsley in your hand, there are many ways to enjoy its grassy-parsley-mild aniseed flavour: The flowers and leaves are lovely as a salad garnish in soups, omelettes, casseroles, and potato and bean dishes. The leaves can be made into a pesto and the stems can be sweet-pickled. The roots can be cooked like carrots (of course) and the seeds are great ground and added to rice and curries. Cow Parsley is also a natural mosquito repellent which will see you through the summer and into November.
Keeping it in the [carrot] family, let’s take a brief look now at some other edible relatives - Ground Elder and Common Hogweed:
A Ground Elder leaf. Photo credit: Claire Jefferies
Ground Elder leaves are best as a salad, pesto and soup ingredient in March and April, before the leaves get larger than your palm. The plant becomes a mild laxative, diuretic and soporific once in flower so should not be eaten at this stage. Its flavour profile includes lemon, tarragon and oregano so is ideal eaten with fish.
Common Hogweed leaves. Photo credit: Claire Jefferies
I have written in depth about Common Hogweed in another Hejgro blogpost (including Spring and Summer recipes for buds, shoots and stems) (https://www.hejgro.co.uk/post/what-s-to-be-found-on-a-late-summer-forage) so I won’t repeat myself here. Please do read that article as I highlight the differences between Common and Giant Hogweed. The latter is phototoxic and can cause severe blistering when in contact with human skin, whereas Common Hogweed is safe to eat. I include Common Hogweed as a Spring green here to highlight the contrast with the dried seed umbels found on the same plant in late summer (which can be used to make a delicious Parkin cake).
A Spring Green for a Spring Detox: Cleavers (or Goosegrass)
Freshly-picked Cleavers. Photo credit: Claire Jefferies
Springtime is both nature and humans’ season for cleansing and releasing after a Winter focused on storing energy. Leaving the carrot family behind, we join the Rubiaceae (or coffee) family to meet Cleavers, an amazing Spring detox plant. Its most common use has been as a diuretic for treating ailments like kidney and urinary disorders and also infections and itching. It is excellent for skin conditions like eczema. Put a handful of these sticky leaves (see photo above) in a jam jar, cover with water and soak overnight before drinking. Cleavers’ chopped leaves and stems can be added to soups and stews. The tender shoots can be boiled and buttered as a vegetable. Belonging to the coffee family, its seeds contain caffeine and the dry seeds can be roasted and ground to make cleavers coffee.
A few honorary mentions
It would be remiss of me not to mention Dandelion and Burdock in a blogpost on Spring greens. These have, however, been featured along with Common Stinging Nettle in another blogpost in my Hejgro series: https://www.hejgro.co.uk/post/a-trio-of-autumnal-wild-roots-leaves-to-support-your-health-and-immune-system-by-claire-jefferies . This post includes a guide on how to pick nettles without stinging yourself, so it’s a must-read if you want to face your fear and really enjoy this nutrient powerhouse!
To finish, I’m going to allow myself a little diversion from Spring greens… to Spring fungi, because these beautiful examples really must be shared!
Scarlet elf cup mushroom
Scarlet Elf Cup mushroom Photo credit: Claire Jefferies
While most common in early Winter to early Spring, the edible Scarlet Elf Cup mushroom deserves an honourable mention here for its striking appearance alone. Keep an eye out for a pop of scarlet red on decaying sticks, branches in damp spots and beneath leaf litter on the woodland floor. Pickling these mushrooms adds a real depth of flavour to them, otherwise they can be a little unremarkable in taste. They are a vibrant feature of the UK’s hungry gap.
Wood ear (or Jelly ear) mushroom
Wood ear/Jelly ear mushroom Photo credit: Claire Jefferies
Once you have handled a Wood ear mushroom, you will know why it is also referred to as a Jelly ear - slimy to some! Whilst its high season is January-February it is around throughout the year and can be found on dead elder branches. This is the mushroom found in Spring Rolls and is usually available in Chinese, rather than standard UK, supermarkets. Wood ear must be cooked before consuming and is used in a lot of Chinese dishes. Once rehydrated, always add them last to a Stir Fry, to maintain the fungi’s crunch.