I went on a three hour foraging foray this week at Hanningfield Reservoir, a beautiful nature reserve in Essex, in the company of bushcraft expert and conservationist Kris Miners, who runs Green Man Bushcraft Ltd, and I’m feeling pretty shattered. It must be all that fresh air. I used to joke when I worked in London that it was only the pollutants keeping me awake, but it must have been true!
I explained to Kris that I’d been having difficulties identifying some plants and was afraid of poisoning myself, so I wanted a crash course on easy ones to identify. In fact, I got so much information from him that it’s impossible to distil everything here, so part two will follow tomorrow with a guide to 15 wild edible plants and how to identify them.
According to Kris, I’m not alone. “Unless you’re doing it all the time it’s difficult,” he explains. “I’ve heard so many stories from people who’ve been on my courses. One guy told me that he’d eat any mushroom that was white. He was very lucky he didn’t get ill. Another asked me to identify a root he’d eaten once and found bitter. It’s surprising how many people eat things [without identifying them]. We do point out on our courses which plants are poisonous, as well as the edible ones. The umbelleferae family of plants, which includes cow parsley, Alexanders and hemlock, for example are difficult to distinguish.”
And grasses are another problematic species. “In basic wild food courses I leave out the grasses too,” he tells me. “You can get a fungus growing on them and there are some bad stories about people making bread flour from infected grasses – a woman lost her leg after doing so. If people forget to check grasses for the fungus then it’s easy to come a cropper. Stick with what you know.”
However, Kris also claims that after years of identifying plants you can taste when something is amiss. “I also believe we’ve all got something built-in to us to tell us if something is poisonous [once you’ve been identifying plants for a while],” he says. “I can taste that something’s not right. It’s that extra sense you’ve got.”
I told him I’d eaten nettles which were a bit past their best and he warned me they weren’t as safe as I’d thought. “Old nettles can irritate your kidneys,” he warns. “But it’s a useful plant. You can also use the stalks to make string and rope. There’s a theory that nettle rope was used to move the stones into place at Stonehenge.”
Kris emphasises the importance of touching, smelling and tasting a plant to identify it. “Books get you looking at what the plant looks like all the time, but it’s about more than that,” he says.
However, as a conservationist he is concerned that the growing interest in wild food thanks to programmes on TV may prove detrimental to the environment. “It’s really nice that people are getting back to nature, but they can do harm,” he points out. “People strip bark from birch trees and don’t know what they’re doing so they harm the trees. The TV channels don’t always show you what to do properly. I’m trying to educate people. You have to be careful [harvesting wild food] because we don’t have much woodland. It can do a lot of harm to the environment. We haven’t got a lot of greenery to support it. People have almost made certain plants extinct by taking them.”
But, if carried out responsibly, will foraging help you save on your shopping bill? “It depends how much time you’ve got and if you’re willing to hunt,” says Kris. “You can easily get your salad for free. But many people are used to what things taste like in the supermarket. However, if you’ve got a year to build up to it and preserve things by making jellies, jams and soups and a good location, then it’s possible to save money by eating wild food.”
Tomorrow – fifteen wild plants and their uses, courtesy of Kris Miners
Do you think eating wild food would help you save on your grocery bill? Or is it too difficult and time consuming? Leave a comment and let me know.