23 November 2016

Garden foraging - a guide to edible weeds

Foraging used to be the preserve of dedicated enthusiasts and hippies seeking an alternative lifestyle. These days it is very much in vogue. Sunday paper supplements feature articles on wild ingredients. Any restaurant worth its salt will have at least a few foraged ingredients on its menu. So much so that professional foragers, usually wild-eyed men in disturbingly dirty boots, can be found lurking in restaurant kitchens as often as the more traditional meat, veg and other delivery guys. Foraged ingredients seem exotic and unusual, and it is easy to think that any foraging trip requires an expedition to the local woods or seashore. However, much like charity, foraging can begin at home. Or to be more accurate in the garden. There are many common weeds that are in fact edible. Weeding isn't my favourite job, but the prospect of free ingredients does make it more enjoyable a task. What follows are all edible weeds that I find growing in my modest urban garden.


Bittercress

Bittercress is a common garden weed with lobe like leaves and small white flowers. It is quick-growing, and I find it is most common in spring and autumn. It has a penchant for compost-filled containers, but also grows well in the veg patch. It has a hot flavour, not unlike watercress, and makes a good addition to the salad bowl. It is fairly cold-tolerant and can usually be picked up to late December, at a time when salad leaves can be in short supply.

Bittercress

Wood sorrel

Wood sorrel is, as its name suggests, a woodland plant, but I find it grows in abundance in our garden. It has trifoliate leaves, similar to clover, and pretty white flowers. (The flowers are quite different to clover flowers and are a good distinguishing feature.) It can be picked from late spring to late autumn. Like cultivated varieties of sorrel it has a sour lemony flavour. This flavour is caused by oxalates which are mildly toxic, so sorrel should be eaten in moderation.


Wood sorrel


Ground elder

Ground elder is a pretty invasive species, and if well established can be the the bane of many gardeners' lives. It is a member of the parsley family and was in fact introduced to Britain by the Romans as a food crop. It is best eaten in spring, when it has a pleasant mild flavour somewhere between celery and parsley, and when it can be eaten raw or cooked. It is good blanched or stir fried, and makes a nice frittata. As spring moves into summer ground elder leaves become tougher and stronger in flavour. If you do have some in your garden, I suggest eating your fill in spring then digging out the plant's roots before it spreads too far.

Ground elder


Dandelions

Most people know what a dandelion looks like, but fewer eat them. The young leaves have a pleasant bitter flavour, a bit like leaf chicory. Soaking in iced water will reduce the bitterness. The flowers can also be eaten, and torn apart provide a good bit of colour on the plate. Apparently the roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.

Poppies

Poppies self-seed and grow in abundance in our garden. I generally don't mind as I like their flowers. After the flowers die back, the poppy sets seed. Once the urn-shaped seed pod goes brown, the seeds can be collected for culinary use. Seeds from both the red field poppy and purple opium poppy are edible. For those who are worried/hopeful, the seeds from the opium poppy don't contain opiates and are safe to consume. It is easy to collect large amounts of seeds if you have several poppies. The young leaves of field poppies are also edible, but have a slightly hairy texture. Sources seem divided as to whether the leaves of opium poppies are edible. I haven't tried them.

Poppies

Mallow

Mallow has attractive pink flowers and grows on any bit of waste ground where I live in Brighton. Its leaves look very similar to that of its close relative hollyhock (which is also edible). Mallow leaves, flowers and roots are all edible. The leaves are mild tasting, but a little furry, so I think best cooked. They contain significant amounts of mucilage, a gluey substance which can be used as a natural thickener. Mallow gives its name to marshmallows. Originally these sweets used the root of the marsh mallow, which was particularly rich in mucilage, and which gave the sweets their trademark gooey texture.

Mallow

Ivy-leaved toadflax

Our garden is surrounded on two sides by a Victorian brick wall. Ivy-leaved toadflax is a tenacious plant that clings to mortar in the wall. It can grow rapidly, and has pretty purple flowers. It has a pleasant texture and fresh green flavour, a bit like claytonia, with a slightly bitter backnote. It is available for much of the year, and makes a useful salad green in the winter months.

Ivy-leaved trefoil

There are plenty of other edible weeds that can be found in gardens: stinging nettles, fat hen and chickweed are all common and worth eating. As with all wild food make sure you identify anything with certainty before you eat it. If you pick any of these plants away from your own garden, make sure it hasn't been sprayed with pesticide: one person's wild food is another person's pernicious weed.

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