by Gemma Gee - The Cramlington Forager
The summer blooms have begun to fade and, with the arrival of Autumn, the hedgerows have begun to offer up the last of this year’s bounty before beginning the descent into Winter. Fruits and nuts are beginning to ripen, ready to disperse their seeds for the following Spring, and it is the time of year that every forager eagerly anticipates. As the weather cools, I try to spend as much time outdoors as I possibly can, gathering seeds, nuts, mushrooms and berries to bring home to squirrel away, and to take in as much of the lingering light as I can. With age-old traditions and recipes, many of these wild edibles can be easily preserved to last through the winter months, prolonging their sweetness and reminding us of Summer in a time when there is little else to be foraged.
As with all wild edibles, it’s important to know what it is you’re picking before consumption to keep yourself safe and avoid accidentally ingesting toxic plants and mushrooms. If they are available in your area, a guided foraging walk is a great way to build your skills and confidence, and a good photographic field guide from a reputable author will also set you down the right path. It’s a good idea to cross reference any books, websites and apps you're using to find your information to make sure it's as accurate as possible. If you have the smallest shred of doubt about the identification of a plant or mushroom, it’s best just to leave it well alone as it's certainly not worth risking your life over.
Here are just a few of the things we can be foraging for as we head through the golden Autumn months, all of which are common, easy to identify and many of which can be found in gardens and urban areas so are likely to be very familiar.
The Elder tree is one of nature's gifts that just keeps on giving. In Summer we delight in hedgerows overflowing with clusters of tiny white elderflowers, and we make use of their refreshing taste and smell to make cordials and summer teas. Those delicate flowers have now long faded away; they have left in their place dark and nutritious elderberries. Unripe, the green berries are toxic so only gather those which are completely red/black, and avoid eating them straight from the tree as raw berries, or more specifically their seeds, are also considered to be slightly toxic.
Elderberries are traditionally used as a cold and flu remedy and
preventative: as well as their anti-viral properties they are a good source of vitamins A and C, and fibre. To make use of their benefits, they are most commonly used to make syrup which can be bottled, stored and used for the winter months when colds and flus are most common. Spices can be added for additional benefits and flavour. A spoonful can be taken regularly as a preventative or you can pour it over porridge, pancakes or mixed with hot water for a warming Winter drink.
Haws are the red fruits from the Hawthorn tree, and are a common Autumn edible among foragers. They typically begin to ripen around the middle of September, and they are said to be best picked after the first frosts, but as these things very rarely seem to align; you can mimic this at home by popping them in the freezer for a day or two. They contain a single, large seed which must be removed before eating. One of the most popular recipes for the berries is to use them to make Hawthorn Ketchup which makes an excellent sweet and sour style sauce, and as they contain very high levels of pectin, the ingredient needed to help set jams and jellies. They also make a great addition to sweet and savoury preserves. Hawthorn trees are very easily found in most urban areas, as they are used to form hedgerows and usually planted in parks and gardens too. The leaves are quite uniquely shaped as they are deeply lobed and divided into three or seven pairs. Care should be taken to avoid the sharp thorns which grow along the branches.
Stinging nettles are one of nature’s most underrated wild foods. This seemingly hostile plant is understandably not most people's first thought when it comes to foraging, but it is rather surprisingly one of the most nutrient dense plants on the planet, and well worth getting to know a little better. Stinging nettles can usually be found at any point during the year, even during the depths of Winter. Their growth begins to gather speed during March, and it is from this point that they are considered prime for gathering. Once the plant begins to flower, the leaves should be avoided as they can become bitter and can cause internal irritation. We can however make good use of the seeds which, as a natural adaptogen, help the body regulate stress and combat fatigue. Once the plant has flowered and dropped their seeds, it's not uncommon for nettles to send out fresh new growth which can be (carefully) gathered and made use of once again. And don't worry, nettles lose their sting after they have been dried or cooked. You could try adding it to a stir-fry, or even frying it in butter as a side green, or cooking up a wonderful nettle soup.
All rosehips are considered edible, and we’re fortunate to have a few different varieties of wild roses in the UK from the plump and juicy Japanese Rose, to the hardy Dog Rose which holds onto its rosehips all Winter long. They are incredibly high in Vitamin C and are traditionally used to make medicinal syrups to ward off winter colds and flu. They are quite sweet tasting and make excellent additions to jams, jellies and teas, and as the hardier rosehips remain on the vines for some time, they last well after almost all of the other fruits have disappeared from the hedgerose. Wild roses are a common sight in most hedgerows and woodlands, their vines usually leaping out away from the hedge, harbouring some pretty intense thorns. Although cultivated roses come in many different colours, wild roses typically have white or pink petals and the rosehips are usually red or black depending on the variety. All rosehips contain seeds which must be removed before eating as they are covered in small, coarse hairs which can cause digestive irritation, but if you’re gathering rosehips to make syrups or jellies, this step can be skipped as the fruit pulp is removed later.
Common as an ornamental tree, you’ll often come across these planted along footpaths and roads, but as they are native to the UK, you will also find them out in the wilds quite easily.
Their leaflets grow in pairs along a single stem, sometimes with a single leaf at the end, and at this time of year, they are heavy with bright red, jewel-like berries which hang in great clusters away from the branches. They are one of those suspicious red berries you were probably warned away from as a child, and told they were poisonous - but they are in fact edible and are commonly used to make jellies to go alongside meats and cheese. They can be used to make jams and chutneys as well.
The general advice is that berries should be cooked before eating, as they can be slightly toxic raw when eaten in great quantities. Traditionally gathered after the first frost, the berries themselves are quite bitter but the cold snap is said to sweeten them slightly. As the first frosts have become later and later, you might find that the berries have long since disappeared when it finally comes around, but by gathering the berries earlier and placing them in the freezer for a day or two, this natural process can be recreated at home. Pairing them with apples also helps to disguise some of that bitter taste.
For more information about wild edibles and foraging, or to book onto a foraging walk, please visit www.cramlingtonforager.co.uk or search for ‘The Cramlington Forager’ on Facebook.