by Tess Schulze
Now that spring is yawning awake and stretching her green tendrils after a long wintry sleep, it’s hard to miss the bright pops colour from the blossoms lining roads and paths. The sun is peeking out more frequently, the days are getting longer and, I don’t know about you, but I am desperate to get outside as much as I can! So I do my best to get out and explore when and where I can. I have seized the opportunity with all of this green life to learn more about plants and how to forage. Learning and exploring the world with fresh and curious eyes can make your walks a little less dull. More than that, you’ll find that there is food to be found around every corner here in Dundee and often in the most surprising places. The usual paths we take are ever-changing with the seasons, the leafy green foliage that bursts through the earth near your hedge might actually be a tasty treasure and you’ve never noticed before!
Foraging is a fun way to get out and explore with friends or the kids; it’s an opportunity to get outside, get some free food, and change the way you see the world around you on your walks. Within a one mile radius of my own flat here in Dundee I have found: blackberries, elderberries, sloe berries, St John’s Wort, gorse, salal berries, huckleberries, rose hips, currants, hawthorn, chamomile, and wild thyme. I only found these things because I was looking and I am certain there are far more useful plants that I have walked past and still haven’t noticed because I’m simply not looking for them!
Before continuing, there are a few things you should keep in mind when you’re out foraging:
- Always make sure that you leave the space you are entering as untouched as possible – take what you want/need, but also don’t be afraid to collect a little bit of rubbish while you’re at it and don’t leave anything but footprints behind.
- Determine if you are on someone’s property and make sure you have the owner’s permission before removing anything. Be polite and respectful; if their answer is no, that’s okay!
- Make sure you are certain that what you have foraged is edible! There are many useful resources available to check that what you’re collecting is safe to eat. *I will include a list of sources at the end of this article that are useful when out foraging.*
- Legislation under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) makes it illegal “to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier” in Britain. The term ‘uproot’ is defined as “to dig up or otherwise remove the plant from the land on which it is growing”
This early on in spring there isn’t much in the way of delicious fruit weighing down the branches of bushes and trees just yet. Right now, the most plentiful and delicious foraging find out there is wild garlic. Many people rue this strongly scented plant and consider it a weed – and understandably so since it can take over an area and the bulbs are buried deep in the earth, making them difficult to dig up. Because of this, though, if you come across a cache of garlic on someone’s property they are usually happy for you to take some of it off their hands when you ask.
Wild Garlic (or Ramson, as it is also known) is a gift that continues to give throughout the year (though the young leaves are the best for eating) and every part of this plant is edible from the bulb, to the flowers, leaves, and seeds – you can eat every part of it! Identifying garlic is quite easy, fortunately, and it can be found growing in large swathes under trees. They don’t like direct sunlight so you won’t find it thriving in areas with direct sunlight. They shoot up through dead leaves, sometimes growing directly through them, so when you get home you’ll need to be sure to clean them thoroughly and sort through the bushels to remove any dead foliage mixed in.
The leaves are long, green and oblong and end in a gentle point. The tender stems are white the closer they get to the earth and they have a shiny and slightly striated texture. The backs of the leaves aren’t shiny, are a slightly lighter green, with an even lighter green stem showing through the middle. The flowers are small, delicate, and white; they have six thin petals with a yellow centre. They burst from their conical pods in clusters of 5 or more. The biggest tell for when you have wild garlic on your hands is the smell, which is unmistakable.
Early in the season, you won’t come across very many flowering garlic plants so the smell isn’t as strong, but still noticeable if the wind catches it just right and blows in your direction. Once picked, though, there is no mistaking whether or not you have garlic. The most used parts of the plant are the leaves, flowers, and seed pods; the bulbs aren’t substantial like the ones you get from the shop and more closely resembles the tender fleshiness of leeks. From March through April, you’re best to collect just the leaves. The best way to do this is with a pair of scissors: simply snip what you want as close to the earth as you can. I will gather whole bunches in a gentle grip then snip all the stems free. The young leaves have a gentle flavour that make a fantastic addition to pasta, soup, or roasts. Really, any recipe that calls for garlic you can simply replace with any part of the wild garlic plant you have foraged.
One really plentiful spot here in Dundee that is open to the public is near the 7 Arches Viaduct within the ruins of the old Claverhouse Bleachworks. Take a walk along the Green Circular and find the Dighty Burn. If you follow the burn you will come across the Claverhouse ruins with a sea of wild garlic and wild leeks. I spent about 15 – 20 minutes gathering about 1.5 kilos of the beautiful stuff and I hardly made a dent in the massive growth there.
Wild Three-Cornered Leeks are also incredibly plentiful this time of year and can easily be found growing in similar areas to garlic. These can sometimes be confused with few-flowered garlic, young daffodils, snowbells, and lily of the valley. However, you will know for certain if what you have before you are leeks by the smell. Pull a leaf free and rub it between your fingers and if the smell produced is onion-y or garlicky, you will know that it is safe to eat.
Like garlic, leeks also grow in large patches in shadier areas. The long, thin leaves often lie the same way, resembling very long grass. The stem of the flowers is triangular and the leaves are long, thin and shiny. Unlike young daffodils or snowbells, they have a pointed tip at the end of the leaf. Daffodils and snowbells also have a more blue-green colour and lack the oily sheen that leeks have. If you uproot the leek plant, you will find a small white, fleshy bulb at the base.
Both leeks and garlic can be used in roasts, soups, salads, or pesto. I have also made a batch of my garlic and cheese scones and replaced the garlic bulbs and granules with finely chopped wild garlic and leeks. Pesto is also one of my absolute favourite things to make with these fresh and flavourful leaves. It is really simple to do and takes hardly any time at all! It also freezes really well, so if you make a large batch you can easily freeze it for another meal sometime down the road.
Now that spring is sprung and you have the knowledge to go explore for tasty forageable morsels, have fun! Once berries begin to ripen, it would be a great day out for the kids and a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. My mom would often take myself and my siblings wild berry picking and we always loved it. So much so that I still love doing it! Be safe and a have blast!
Wild Garlic and Leek Pesto
100g fresh garlic leaves, washed
50g wild leeks, washed
60g fresh basil
30g fresh parsley
100g finely grated parmesan
1-2 cloves garlic
1 lemon, zested and juiced
50g toasted nuts (I use almonds)
200ml rapeseed or olive oil
Salt, to taste
Blitz all of the ingredients together except the oil until a paste forms.
If it isn’t blending well enough, add a little bit of oil at a time until it starts blending nicely and a paste forms.
Add the rest of the oil and salt to taste and blend until smooth.
Scoop the pesto into jars and cover the top with a little bit of oil. It will last up to 2 weeks in the fridge, or you can freeze it and it will last for 3-6 months.
The Forager’s Calendar by John Wright
This is an incredibly useful book for beginners to foraging. It is humorous, detailed, and well-organised. It doesn’t have the best photos for reference, so I recommend using another source (another book or the internet) as a cross-reference if you ever aren’t sure of what you have.
Food For Free by Richard Mabey
This is a very handy wee pocket guide to foraging that I always keep on me along with my pocket trowel, a pair of scissors, and bags. This book has useful identification tips and useful photos – but I still recommend cross-referencing what you’ve found.
Mushrooms by Patrick Harding
Many of the Collins pocket guides are incredibly useful resources. Foraging mushrooms is the trickiest of all foraging and the rule of thumb with this is never to eat a mushroom unless you are 100% certain that you have the right one. It is also really important that you check for cooking instructions on any of the mushrooms you collect, as some of them need to be cooked quite thoroughly to avoid gastric upset.
Oftentimes, I find that I come across a plant that has caught my eye and I simply have no idea what it is. I don’t know where to look in my books and I certainly don’t want to test the waters by taking a bite out of it, so I use Google Lens. This handy app can identify plants relatively well (it is sometimes very hit or miss, so I still recommend trying to cross-reference). It will often give you multiple results or you may have to retake a photo at a better angle to get a more accurate result. It is a great way to start your search, but not great for definitive answers. I would not recommend using it for mushrooms.
This guide shows you what is safe and NOT safe to eat while foraging. Be sure to pay close attention to the symbols they use as they sometimes include photos of plants that are unsafe to eat and that could potentially be misleading or confusing.