Growing up, I was never really someone who enjoyed warm weather. This was partly down to being a winter baby, partly down to preferring to wrap up warm than be too hot, partly because colder weather had fewer people out of doors so it was easier to go outside for peace, and partly because London in warm weather is horrible. When asked I would usually say that autumn was my favourite season, followed by winter.
Going away to uni however resulted in a big chance of scene. Small Scottish city where you can get to the middle of nowhere in about half an hour? Housing overlooking green and wooded areas? The beach with 4am twilight and absolutely no one else present? Suddenly the warmer parts of the year weren’t so bad.
It was during this period that I got into foraging for food. I had a fairly robust basic plant knowledge (which I topped up with a couple of semi-relevant uni modules), with a range of habitats on my doorstep. I was also walking a lot, and personally I prefer walks with some sort of purpose, however vague that may be. Plus foraged plant material was a really cheap and easy way to provide diet variation and enrichment for my rodents (I had rats and mice at this point), so positives all round.
The thing is though, that while plants are of course out there all year round, on the whole they’re much more nutritious and easier to find and identify during warmer times of year. Relatively warm of course, given we’re talking about an area of the UK where the first sunny day of spring sees basically everyone turning out in shorts and t-shirts even though it’s barely breaking 10°.
I’m no longer living quite that far north, and my easy access plant habitat options are now more limited. However I still have the rural location and options on my doorstep. Not that you can’t forage in urban areas, it’s just more limited and thus a bit more of a challenge. While the coming of spring here does not result in me donning t-shirt and shorts, it does still include impatient hopping about waiting for new growth.
Yesterday I went on a walk with a friend and her dog. She was armed with treats, ball and launcher, while I was armed with a bag and beady eyes. We have quite a lot of good dog-walking spots relatively nearby, but this one in particular is great for early spring foraging as it’s fields, but with a couple of accessible copses too. This is notable because often trees start to produce active buds and new leaves ever so slightly before ground-based plants. Being bigger and taller they’re also easier to spot, so better seasonal markers than any plants which require crawling around on the floor trying to see whether or not there’s any new leaves which aren’t nettle.
Not that nettle (Urtica dioica) isn’t good, I might add. So long as you have gloves with you for picking new growth leaves are fresh and tender. They need to be blanched rather than fed fresh of course, to kill the stings, so it is more effort. I didn’t have any gloves or with me however, so today I left them be.
In fact I didn’t really get very many ground plants at all, as it was just a bit too early in the year to be looking for them. I got some goosegrass (Galium aparine), some bramble (Rubus fruticous), and some field sorrel (Rumex acetosella). Actually the bramble is an interesting one in terms of being aware of the passing of the seasons too as it very pointedly tells you which parts of the ground have warmed up first. In that bramble on south-facing field margins sprouts new growth first, then those plants in other open areas, and lastly the brambles in shady wooded areas. Yes, the bramble – and indeed the sorrel too – I collected was from the first area.
What I did get a lot of however, was tree. Not branches I should add; you absolutely shouldn’t go around pruning branches in spring. This is an autumn and winter activity. What I collect at this time of year are twigs. The very tips of new growth. Only a very small amount from each overall tree so as not affect it too much, and only those which I can snap off with a fine break rather than tearing to create a large wound that needs to be healed.
I started off by collecting hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Firstly because this copse I was in has a lot of hawthorn, but also because of being spiky I was putting the twigs in a bag, and that’s far easier to do when you’re not carrying a large amount of other stuff! Then I included alder (Alnus glutinosa), elder (Sambucus nigra), birch and more birch (Betula pendula). Mostly birch in fact, as it turned out. They hadn’t any leaves yet, but the young twigs grow quickly are very easily cleaning snapped off. Also there’s not all that many birch trees around where I live, so when I get the chance I do like to make good use of it since the twigs are small and supple enough to go in the dry mix tub. Plus as a species they grow pretty quickly, so there’s minimal longterm effect to the tree.
Okay so half a tree isn’t really indicative of spring. But an armful of twigs and branches from multiple trees most certainly does. I only stopped collecting when I physically couldn’t hold any more in the one hand/ arm.
N.B. It wouldn’t be ethical of me to mention foraging for food without also stating that you need to check the laws and landowners of your local area. Although the UK has some foraging rights, you can still get into trouble if you don’t stick to the law. In addition to this, it is also really important to remember that your ‘little bit extra’ is vitally important to wildlife, especially in the early spring and late autumn when there’s less to go around. Plus depending on what it is and how much you’re taking you could really alter the plantscape. I usually stick to the folk advice of picking ‘1 in 3’ as the absolute most I will ever harvest, but in reality what I take is far below this.