Foraging for edible plants that grow by the sea
Sea Beet growing on a Welsh beach
Foraging at the seaside
Many people enjoy foraging for free foods from the wild and many people enjoy coastal walks as well as visiting beaches. Both activities can be easily combined because there are many edible plants that grow by the sea.
Hiking for Sea Beet - Angela Hartnett & BrynWilliams - Great British Menu
One of the best wild plants you can expect to find at the top of beaches is the Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. maritma). It grows in rocks, on cliffs, on waste ground and amongst pebbles and sand at the top of beaches.
Sea beet forms rosettes of glossy green leaves that can get quite large. It is very variable in appearance and can have a purplish colour in its stalks and leaf stems which are a sign of its relationship to the cultivated beetroots which it is an ancestor of.
Sea beet can be found all year around and the leaves can be cooked like spinach or eaten raw. The taste is as good as cultivated spinach, if not better.
Another edible wild plant that grows in similar locations is the rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum). Rock samphire has fleshy divided foliage with a sulphurous smell if bruised. It is in the parsley family and has umbels of yellowish flowers.
Rock samphire stems and leaves can be pickled in vinegar, eaten raw or cooked.
This wild food was once so popular that it was collected from cliffs despite the danger. Shakespeare mentioned it in King Lear when he wrote, "Half-way down, Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!"
Marsh samphire or glasswort (Salicornia europaea) should not be confused with rock samphire, although it too has a fleshy appearance and can be eaten raw, pickled or cooked.
Marsh samphire, however, is very different in appearance and forms either single stalked or branched plants that grow in the mud and sand at river mouths and in salt-marshes.
Richard Mabey, in his foraging classic Food For Free, recommends the older plants collected in August and September, to be cooked whole by simmering in water and eaten by holding them by the roots and biting the flesh off the stems.
Sea Kale on a beach
Sea kale (Crambe maritima) is a sea vegetable that is found growing in sand and shingle on beaches. It has large leaves that are grey-green in colour and that very big clumps. In late summer it has bunches of small white flowers.
Sea kale is found on beaches in Europe and the UK but is no longer as common as it once was. The young shoots and leaves can be cooked and the flowers can be boiled and served like broccoli.
Scurvy Grass illustration
Scurvy Grass is a source of Vitamin C
Scurvy grass (Cochlearia officinalis) is a herb that grows at the tops of beaches and on cliffs, It is a small plant and has white flowers. The leaves are edible in small quantities but they have a strong taste and a pungent smell.
Scurvy grass contains a lot of vitamin C and as its name suggests it was used long ago to prevent the deficiency disease known as scurvy.
Fennel is a culinary and medicinal herb
Another plant that is classified as an herb is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and it is often found growing in land bordering the sea. It forms large clumps of feathery foliage and has tall flowering stalks that bear umbels of yellow flowers.
The whole fennel plant smells strongly of anise. The seeds can be used in curries and other spicy dishes and to make herbal tea. The leaves of fennel can be eaten raw in salad or used to prepare sauce that is good with oily fish.
As a medicinal herb fennel is used as a treatment for indigestion and wind. It is also said to be good for the eyesight.
The seeds of Tree Mallow are edible
Tree mallow (Lavatera arborea) is a very attractive plant that is often found on cliffs and rocky areas by the sea and growing on islands. It grows to over 6ft in height and has a thick trunk-like stem and branched stems carrying soft palmate leaves and pretty purplish-pink flowers in summer.
Tree mallow flowers and leaves are edible as are the seeds that are like tiny nuts and known as “little breads” in Jersey in the Channel Islands.
The Sea Holly roots can be candied
One more plant you might find by the sea is the rather aptly named sea holly (Eryngium maritimum). This unusual wild flower is in the Apiaceae or parsley family, although you probably wouldn’t guess this. It has spiky leaves and small blue flowers in rounded flower-heads with spiny bracts.
Sea holly likes to grow in sand dunes and shingle beaches. It is nowhere near as common as it once was so it is a shame to harvest it.
The roots were candied and known as “Eryngo roots,” and were very popular in Elizabethan times. They can also be roasted.
Illustration of Alexanders
Alexanders (Smyrnium olustratum) is also in the parsley family. It grows along roadsides and on waste ground near the sea and its first shoots can be seen in spring, in fact it sometimes pokes through the snow as early as January. It has umbels of greenish-yellow flowers and the plant smells of angelica.
The young stems of alexanders can be cooked like asparagus in boiling water. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads and the flower-buds can be pickled.
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A word of warning
Before I finish this article I would just like to give a brief word of warning. Always gather wild plants that are not polluted by the fumes of cars, sprayed with herbicides or urinated on by dogs. Wash the plants you have collected before eating or cooking.
Make sure too that you have a good book with you so that you identify the plants you find correctly. Never eat anything unless you are certain you have identified it correctly.
And finally on a lighter note, you will see from this selection of edible plants found by the sea that it isn't just seafood, fish and seaweed that can be collected along the coast but that there are wild flowers and herbs that can be gathered too to make a tasty meal.
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