Learn how to identify, harvest and use four common edible wild plants: chickweed, ground elder, meadowsweet and perennial stinging nettle.
Foraging for wild food has become more popular as people have become interested in eating fresh, local food—for free! You'd be surprised at the bounty of wild food you can find practically just outside your door: roots, edible weeds, wild fruits and nuts, mushrooms and even flowers and leaves. In this excerpt from Foraging: Self-Sufficiency, (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) author David Squire offers information on finding, identifying, harvesting and using four common edible wild plants—chickweed, ground elder, meadowsweet and stinging nettle—helping you to preserve the art of wild food foraging in your kitchen. This excerpt is taken from the Chapter "Edible Wild Plants."
Also known as: Chicken’s Meat, Chickenweed, Stitchwort
Birds and chickens love to peck at the flowers and seeds of this widespread and abundant sprawling annual, which persists throughout winter in mild climates. It spreads and forms masses of leaves on weak stems that creep over the soil, forming clumps up to 35 cm (14 in) but usually less.
The plant produces white, star-like flowers about 9 mm (3/8 in) across throughout the year, but mainly in summer. With a cosmopolitan nature, it is found throughout the world; indeed, claims have been made that it is the most widespread and abundant of all wild plants.
You’ll find it: on bare ground, especially in light, cultivated soil where seeds quickly germinate and create carpets of leaves, stems and flowers.
Leaves: the abundant soft, bright green oval leaves clasp stems; as they age, they become darker and tougher (see an image of chickweed).
Harvesting the leaves: if tugged sharply, whole stems complete with soil-covered roots are pulled up, so use sharp scissors to cut off only the young, leaf-clad stems. If they appear dirty, wash and allow to dry.
Using the leaves: young leaves have a mild flavour and can be eaten raw in salads, when they are at their best. Young stems are just as tender as the leaves and can also be eaten, although some people remove them. Add the leaves to scrambled eggs, use in soups or gently soften in butter which makes their flavour resemble spring spinach.
In times of scarcity, Chickweed seeds have been ground to a fine powder and used to make bread or to thicken soups; the leaves were picked, dried and infused in boiling water to make a tea.
Also known as: Ash-weed, Bishop’s Gout-weed, Bishop’s Weed, Farmer’s Plague, Goat’s Foot, Goutweed, Ground Ash, Herb Gerard, Parson’s Weed, Snow-in-the-Mountain
To many people this is one of the most pernicious garden weeds. It has an herbaceous perennial nature, with creeping roots that enable it to spread and colonize land, therefore eating it can be considered an act of common justice! Growing to 1 m (3 1/2 ft) or less, it has hollow stems that bear the leaves, and from early to late summer, white flowers in umbrella-like heads.
Native to Europe, southern Turkey, the Caucasus and Siberia, it was introduced to other countries as a food and medicinal plant (invariably against gout). It is established in North America and many other countries, where initially it was cultivated as a pot herb.
You’ll find it: on waste areas, especially near old buildings and gardens. Also look at the base of hedges and alongside roads.
Leaves: are 10-20 cm (4-8 in) long, medium to dark green and usually formed of three finely tooth-edged leaflets (see an image of ground elder).
Harvesting the leaves: young leaves are the best and tastiest, picked in spring and early summer. However, pinching out flower shoots helps to protract the season when young leaves appear.
Collect leaves before the plants flower, as after that time they have a strongly laxative nature.
Using the leaves: wash the leaves thoroughly under running water, then allow to dry in the air. Ground elder leaves can be used in a wide range of dishes and preparations, including soups, quiches, fritters and omelettes. These can also be steamed and used much like spinach. Add young leaves to salads, where they impart an aromatic and rather tangy flavour.
Also known as: Maids of the Meadow, Meadow-sweet, Meadows Queen, Meadwort, Queen of the Meadow
An herbaceous perennial up to 1.2 m (4 ft) high with long-stemmed leaves, it has large, dense, umbrella-like heads of creamy-white flowers that emit a sweet but sickly fragrance from early summer to early autumn.
Native throughout Europe, from Iceland to Arctic Russia, Asia and southern Turkey to Mongolia, it is seen as an escapee and naturalized in eastern parts of North America.
You’ll find it: in wet, damp woods and meadows; also in marshes and fens and alongside streams and ditches.
Leaves: pleasantly aromatic, dark green leaves, each formed of two to five pairs of tooth-edged leaflets. Leaves have greyish-white undersides (see an image of meadowsweet).
Harvesting the leaves: cut while young and fresh and before eaten by insects.
Using the leaves and flowers: chop up young leaves and use to flavour soups. Dried leaves have been used to introduce aromatic aromas to wines, as well as to mead. Flowers when added to beer and wine are claimed to make a stronger and more heady brew, and introduces sweetness when used in cold drinks and fruit salads during summer.
Young leaves and flowers are occasionally infused together to make a tea that is claimed to ease the common cold, soothe inflammatory problems and calm stomach complaints. The plant contains the chemicals that are used to produce aspirin.
Also known as: Devil’s Leaf, Devil’s Plaything, European Nettle, Slender Nettle, Stinging Nettle,Tall Nettle
A well-known herbaceous perennial, 1.2 m (4 ft) or more high, with tough yellow branching and spreading roots, it develops green flowers with yellow stamens in catkin-like arrangements from early to late summer. It appears throughout temperate regions of the world.
You’ll find it: in hedgerows, on grassy banks and wasteland, in woods and especially close to rubbish heaps and old abandoned buildings, where it forms near-impenetrable colonies.
Leaves: upright stems, seldom branching, are covered with stinging hairs and bear green, somewhat heart-shaped, tooth-edged leaves that also impart a sting when touched (see an image of perennial stinging nettle).
Harvesting the leaves: wear gloves and cut off the top 15 cm (6 in) of young stems only to the end of early summer; after that the leaves become tough, have a bitter taste and laxative properties.
Using the leaves: always wash the leaves under running water before preparing them for boiling or, preferably, steaming for about four minutes. These leaves, which are high in vitamins A and C, iron and protein, can be used as a green vegetable as well as made into a purèe — this is particularly good served on toast with the addition of a poached egg. Nettle soup is a delicious summertime forager’s treat and nettles can be included in any recipe for which you would use spinach.
Collect enough nettle tops and leaves to half-fill a carrier bag, then wash carefully. Soften 2 chopped onions, 2 chopped celery sticks and a crushed garlic clove in a small knob of butter in a large saucepan. Then add 1 litre (34 fl oz) vegetable or chicken stock and all the nettles you can cram into your pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes or so until the nettles are tender. Purée the soup in a blender or food processor, return to the pan briefly and add 3-4 tablepoons crème fraiche or cream. Heat through, correct the seasonings and serve.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Foraging: Self-Sufficiency by David Squire, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.