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Foraging for Wild Food in Towns and Cities

Updated on September 15, 2015

Foraging may seem like a countryside only activity to many people. In fact there are many plants and trees than can provide a variety of foods growing in very environment, including towns and cities. Some of these maybe familiar but others may appear to be only annoying weeds.

Foraging for wild food has been increasing in popularity in recent years. I n these days of supermarkets and pre-packaged foods it can be easy to forget where our food really comes from. Many of these plants were once growing and many more still do and are available to be collected and eaten for free by anyone who has the knowledge to take part in this enjoyable pastime.

Foraging Guidelines

Some plants are very easy to identify and so can be safely picked and eaten. In other cases there may be other harmful and even poisonous plants that look similar to safe ones. In these cases it is important to identify a plant using several features such as appearance, smell and size and be certain of what you are collecting. This is especially true of wild mushroom as some types can be highly toxic and even cause death. If you are at all unsure of the identification of a plant it is best not to pick it. You can take photographs and check the plants ID once home and even return to the spot if you then do wish to harvest from the plant.

When foraging it is important not to strip a plant of fruit, leaves, seeds etc. This can damage the plant and in the case of seeds may make it hard for the plant to reproduce. Wild foods should be shared by anyone who wishes and there still also be plenty to enable wild animals such as birds and squirrels to survive easily. Remember that that wild food may be an animal’s only food and mean the difference between survival and death. Pick only what you really need and can use at any one time. When foraging, whether it is in the countryside or in an urban environment take small amounts from many plants rather than a lot from one.

One matter that may be more of a concern when foraging in towns and cities is contamination of the plants. Be wary of plants that are growing near roadsides or that may have been sprayed with weed killer or other chemicals. Roadside plants may contain high levels of pollution and chemical sprays may mean that the plants are dangerous when eaten. As many wild foods are considered weeds this an important point to keep in mind as a lot of people may wish their gardens, pathways and other areas to be free of them and so use weed killers in order to do so. Also be careful of plants and flowers bought from garden centres and shops. Although this may be edible varieties, it is possible that they may have been sprayed or feed with fertilisers and other chemicals that are unsuitable for human consumption. The companies may not expect or even be aware of the fact that people could wish to eat the plant so it is best to err on the side of caution unless the plant is marked as being edible.

Dandelions are a common site in parks and gardens.
Dandelions are a common site in parks and gardens. | Source

Dandelion (Taraxacum agg.)

This is a plant that will be well known and easily recognisable by most people due to its bright yellow flowers and pretty seed heads. Dandelions are very hardy and able to grow almost anyway including lawns, wasteland, roadsides and grassy areas.

The leaves, flowers and roots can be harvested and used as food. Dandelion leaves are best eaten when they are young or just before the flowers appear when their bitter taste will be reduced. They can be used in salads or sandwiches and contain high levels if potassium, vitamins A, C and K, calcium and protein. They also have strong diuretic properties. Dandelion leaves can also be used in stir fries or added to green smoothies. Dandelion flowers can be dipped in batter and fried to create fritters, made into jam or jelly and be used to make dandelion wine. The roots of this plant are very bitter. They can be dried in a low oven and then roasted and ground. The grounds can then be used like coffee.

The leaves and flowers of dandelion are also a common favourite with animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs and tortoises.

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Sweet chestnut trees can be found in public parks, woodlands and even along residential streets. They are found all over Britain but are more common in the south. This is a large species of tree that has long, large pointed leaves. The small nuts are contained within a spiky husk that often breaks open when falling to the ground in October.

Chestnuts need to be boiled for around 10 minutes to make it possible to remove the skins. They can then be eaten whole or used as a puree. Traditionally chestnuts are roasted in fire. If you wish to try this it is important to cut a slit into the nuts to release steam and stop them from exploding as they cook. Chestnuts are high in carbohydrates and lower in fat than many nuts. They also contain vitamin C and several B vitamins.

Sweet Chestnut nut and husk.
Sweet Chestnut nut and husk. | Source
Blackthorn  in bloom.
Blackthorn in bloom. | Source

Sloe (Blackthorn) (Prunus spinosa)

Sloes can generally be found between September and November and grow on shrubs and small trees. This is a common plant found in woodland and hedgerows throughout Britain. The plant is covered in tough, short spines and has white five- petalled flowers that can be seen around March. Sloes are the small fruits that can be dark purple, blue or black.

The most famous use for sloes is slow gin which can be easily made at home. Sloes can also be used to make jams and jellies or to make fruit leathers.

Rowan berries and leaves.
Rowan berries and leaves. | Source

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

This small tree is often planted in urban areas and produces an abundance of bright red berries between August and November. Rowan berries are tart and bitter and should not ever be eaten raw as they poisonous. The berries are also not that great once cooked but make a delicious jelly and also go well with other hedgerow fruits to make jam.

The Rowan tree has similar leaves to the ash with many opposite leaflets. It produces umbrella sprays of white flowers. Along with the Elder and Hawthorn trees, Rowan is considered by many to have magical associations. Red is the colour of protection and it is thought that this may be why Rowan is so often planted outside homes and other buildings.

Hairy bittercress leaves.
Hairy bittercress leaves. | Source

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Hairy bittercress is a small annual that can make a home in many urban environments including waste grounds, gardens, walls, fields and path edges. This plant grows all year round and can be recognised by its small rosette shape and sparsely hairy leaves. Hairy bittercress also has tiny white, four-petalled flowers and slender seed pods.

Hairy bittercress is a member of the cabbage family and other bittercress’ are also edible. These include wood bittercress and large bittercress. It is best collected by cutting off the leaves with scissors and these have a similar flavour to cress with a nutty fresh tone. Hairy bittercress is a nice addition to salads and sandwiches.

Foraging and the Law

Although foraging is generally legal there are some legal matters that you should be aware of before heading out.

The Theft Act (1968) states that it is legal to take mushrooms, foliage, fruits and any other part of a plant without committing any offense as long as you are not foraging for commercial purposes. If you intend to sell or profit from the items that you have collected, in all cases by law you must have the permission of the land owner to collect them.

Care should be taken to adhere to the laws regarding trespassing. Entering any land that is not common land, open access land or that has public right of way can be considered as trespassing if you do not have the land owners permissions. This is true regardless of what you intend to do with your foraged items. The land owner has the legal right to ask you to leave their land immediately and by the shortest route possible if they do not wish for you to be there.

The Wild Mushroom Picker's Code of Conduct gives lots of good guidance on good foraging practice including always following the Country Code and taking care to minimise any damage to plants and the environment. The Wild Mushroom Picker's Code of Conduct can be found at http://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk/mycology/conservation/code-of-picking/. The Countryside Code can also be downloaded from the GOV.UK website at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-countryside-code.

As well as considering country wide law it is advisable to check local by-laws before foraging in any area. These may contain further restrictions, for example restricting the collection of any forest growing items.

© 2014 Claire

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