Wild Food Wombling


A few of our allotmenteers took a gentle walk on the wild side last week. On Tuesday 17th April we joined Chris and Rose Bax from Taste the Wild at their woodland in Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire. We had the great pleasure of spending the day taking part in one of their wild food foraging courses. We were excited to see what we could find.

It was a miserable-looking day when we set off from Huddersfield. We arrived in North Yorkshire slightly soggy to find Chris standing tall at the entrance to the woodland, being his own landmark. And the sun came out. So we found ourselves suddenly in a sunny, peaceful woodland full of Rose’s wonderful wood carvings and the sound of birds in the trees. Every Tuesday should be like that.

Throughout the day, Chris and Rose showed us lots of plants that are easy to find and easy to use, from thistle stems to delicate wood sorrel (both to be handled with care, although only one of them fights back). We also found out what the law says about foraging. Along public rights of way, you can forage without a problem, so long as it’s for your own use.

Theft Act 1968 Section 4(3) states that:
A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose. For purposes of this subsection “mushroom” includes any fungus, and “plant” includes any shrub or tree.

What you shouldn’t do is dig up roots without the permission of the landowner, or deprive the owner of the whole plant by taking all the foliage. You should also pick from several different trees or shrubs if possible – and remember to leave some for the birds.

Foraging is getting quite popular (you might have noticed more funny ingredients popping up on the Great British Menu this year) and Chris thinks that there might be a backlash at some point from people who are worried about the countryside being plundered. But foraging is very much about getting to know, understand and respect the natural environment.

Chris Bax showing us wood sorrel Many plants have only a very short time of bounty. You need to be watchful, to know the right time for harvesting, so that you can use and preserve as much of this bounty as you can. Chris told us about the first smell of the elder blossom each year and his expectation of it. For him, this is what’s magical about foraging.

Chris said that there seems to be a trend towards enjoying the countryside at breakneck speed – people want to ride through it, or run through it, or drive through it. He told us about the importance of just stopping to look at what’s there. Foraging is all about observation.

You need to know the land, to experience it, using all your senses.

We learnt about the sad affliction of ‘forager’s anxiety’, caused by people wanting to find something so much that they take leave of their senses (or rather, they forget them). Chris told us not to rely only on our eyes, because when you really want to see something, your mind can start to see what isn’t there. This causes people to identify plants incorrectly, sometimes with painful consequences.

However, forager’s anxiety is soon avoided by just stopping and thinking about it. We learnt about the importance of smell – fir smells like a citrus fruit, and if a plant doesn’t smell of garlic then it won’t be wild garlic (even if it looks like it). Places are also important. A plant that looks right but which is in completely the wrong habitat is very unlikely to be the thing that your eyes might think it is, because habitat influences what type of plants will grow.

Timing is important too. Wherever a plant is directing its energy at any given time of the year is also where the goodness is. Burdock has a two year life cycle. When it is sending up flowers to create new seeds, the plant will be using all its energy to do that, so the parsnip-like roots will no longer be good to eat.

At the end of the afternoon, we gathered a basket-full of greens to make a snack with.

Platter of foraged greensOur feast included nettles, thistles, jelly ears (a type of mushroom), goosegrass (also known as stickywilly or cleavers), reed  mace and rose bay willow herb. Perhaps that might not sound too appetising, but we made some delicious Tibetan momos together and Chris fried the willow herb in butter and oil, which was another tasty revelation.

When I told Andy that I was going on this course, he described it as ‘nutritious wombling’. I’ve since discovered that the term wombling is used in statistics (thanks to statistician William H. Womble). It describes techniques for ‘identifying zones of rapid change, typically in some quantity as it varies across some geographical or Euclidean space.’ This made me think about the pace of change that some of our edible wild plants have, and how people will miss out on this fleeting bounty if they’re busy hurtling through the countryside at a rate of knots.

But the ‘real’ wombling is of course done by those little pointy-nosed creatures who potter about in green spaces and make good use of the things that they find. The Womble motto is: “Make Good Use of Bad Rubbish.” I think that cooking rose bay willow herb, scourge of our allotment boundaries, fits that description very well.

Photos of our wild food foraging day
Wild plant identification sheets (pdf)
Tibetan momos recipe

6 Responses

  1. A lovely post Diane, thanks for sharing it.

    One of my regrets from childhood is not having paid more attention when I went foraging for toadstools and mushrooms with my dad (who sadly passed away some years ago). I have really fond memories, both of gathering ingredients and cooking and eating the results, but don’t remember what’s safe to eat.

    • I often feel that I should be better at recognising native plants. I know that previous generations of my family were much more aware of things like that – particularly my Great Uncle Ernest. I get the sense that knowing about wild flowers and trees used to be an everyday skill, which somehow most of us have lost. I wonder if foraging could be a way of helping people to be more connected to our landscape again.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, Diane. I read things about foraging every now and then – and even have a book of recipes and advice on foraging – but remain nervous of doing it, apart from blackberries – and I have made elderberry jam but then I read somewhere that the seeds are a bit poisonous. I’ve also eaten berries of hardy fuschias (they sort of look quite wild in some gardens in Scotland!).
    I was fascinated to read that goosegrass is edible. I would never have guessed that, even though I have seen animals eat it. And rose bay willowherb? Is it only the young shoots?

    • I think confidence is a big part of foraging – much in the same way that growing veg is about having the confidence to get started. I guess you only get that confidence from being really familiar with the plants. The willowherb is good for confidence-building, because most of us can spot that. We learnt that the willowherb isn’t so good once it starts producing flowers, so ideally you would always eat young shoots from the top of the plant. We also picked just the top four leaves of the nettles.

  3. Thanks for this post Diane. We’ve got a small repertoire of wild foods we collect (such as wild garlic, elderflower, brambles etc) but I’d really like to expand on that. Some useful ideas here.

    • Glad you found it useful. I have friends who regularly use wild garlic, but I didn’t realise that you can eat the flowers as well as the leaves. Chris said he doesn’t think he’ll ever get bored of foraging, because he learns new things all the time.

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