The beauty of foraging is that there’s something to be picked at any time of year, from wild garlic and elderflowers in June, to the myriad fruits, nuts and other goodies that can be gathered in September and into the autumn. There are few things that make me happier than filling the freezer with wild foods that I’ve collected over the year that you often can’t find in supermarkets, and even if you can they’re not quite the same.
There are some things that are important to remember though, before venturing out into the woods or hedgerows. I’ve put together a list of what I believe to be the golden rules of foraging.
Before you start
First things first: don’t gather food if you’re on private land unless you have the permission of the landowner. It’s not just farmland either, some properties have long private driveways and it might not be immediately obvious that the land is private – don’t let yourself end up accidentally pinching food from a stranger’s lovingly tended garden!
Once you have permission or are certain that you’re not on private land, make sure you have the right plant. Sometimes it’s obvious, but other times you have to be careful. Make sure you know how to properly identify the plant and use an identification guide if necessary. If in any doubt at all, leave it alone.
Next you need to check that whichever part you’re going to pick is ready. Again, in some cases it’s obvious – a blackberry is ready when it’s black and not pink – but in others you need other ways to check. One example is crab apples where you need to cut one open to check that the seeds’ outer coat has darkened.
This might seem dramatic, but it’s worth checking to make sure you’re not going to have an allergic reaction. Test by touching a tiny bit to your tongue before you eat a lot to avoid irritation, particularly if it’s a plant you haven’t eaten much before. If you feel any lasting tingling or discomfort then don’t pick any more.
It’s illegal in the U.K. to uproot plants without permission so only take leaves and flowers. There are some plants, such as bluebells, that are protected species so you mustn’t pick any part from these plants.
Only gather what you need and try to only take a small amount from each plant. This isn’t such a problem for fruit picking, but something to keep in mind when taking flowers and leaves, for example when foraging for wild garlic. Try to gather from areas where there are plenty of the plant you’re interested in. You want to make sure that you have a good stock to come back to!
It’s best not to forage too close to the ground along paths where dogs could have been, or too close to busy roads where there might be a lot of grit or oil. It’s much more fun off the beaten track anyway!
Be mindful of wildlife that may be sheltering near to where you want to pick. Take care not to be too heavy-footed, find ways to make your presence known without startling animals, and move slowly so that they have time to move if they need to.
Be safe! Take care when climbing banks or reaching up to trees. Be prepared when picking from plants with spines or thorns like blackberries, or stinging nettles. It’s generally a good idea not to wear clothes you care too much about!
Wash everything thoroughly. I would hope that this goes without saying, but I’m saying it just in case! Make sure your wild food is free of dust, oils, grubs, spiders’ webs or anything else that could be lurking.
Most of all, enjoy it! Make the most of spending a bit of time outside whether you’re in the countryside, or in a park in the middle of the capital’s hustle and bustle.