Woodlands and hedgerows are great places to find wild food, but make sure you forage sustainably without harming woods or wildlife and also that you stay safe and within the law. For many people, collecting and eating wild plants and fungi have been part of life since childhood. For others, foraging is a more recent activity, so if this is the case maybe you should go on a course or out with an expert who can show you the ropes. Hedgerows especially can be great places for beginners to forage for free food, which you can transform into jams, soups, cordials, beers, wines and much more.
Picking blackberries, the fruit of bramble, is a pastime that’s deeply embedded in our history and folklore and it goes back thousands of years, so it’s a good place to start. This unmistakable, prickly shrub grows in woods, hedges, heathland, and wasteland almost everywhere in the UK.
Pick the berries when they have turned a deep purple-black, which is from late July and throughout autumn. These tasty berries have a high vitamin C content and can be eaten raw or cooked in pies, crumbles, wines, jams, jellies, and vinegar
Crab apple trees or Malus sylvestris, can be found growing wild in hedgerows and become laden with fruits from late August to October. The small apple-like fruits usually turn red when they’re ripe but they can be a yellowish-green or orange too.
There are around 40 garden-worthy crab apple varieties. Most have pink/white blossom and fruit, which can be yellow, orange/red and crimson/red. Nearly all crab apples make great pollinators for mainstream apple varieties too, so they’ll work hard in your garden at improving your crop.
Grow the variety Red Sentinel, which produces a cloud of white blossom and then a profusion of tiny scarlet fruits
Best for cooking is Jelly King, which has large orange/red fruit. Where space is limited grow the variety Laura, which has bronze leaves and crimson fruits on a tree that stays small and columnar.
Malus John Downie produces large fruits that are perfect for crab apple jelly and jam that is delicious on bread or as an accompaniment to meat, particularly chicken. You can add crab apples to other jams and jellies too as their high pectin content will ensure a good set.
Elder trees, Sambucus nigra, also known as Black Elder are widespread and easily found in woodland and hedgerows.
The small, dark red-black berries follow sweetly scented umbrellas of tiny white flowers, which hang in neat clusters. The dark, juicy fruits are normally ready to harvest in August and September.
The flowers are picked late May to early July and are commonly used to make cordial or sparkling wine
The berries, which ripen over a period of five to 15 days during mid-August to mid-September are packed with vitamins and are most commonly used to make a refreshing fruity wine, and can also be added to pies, crumbles or hedgerow jam
Elderflowers have both antiseptic and anti-inflammatory effects too, so they have been used them in home-remedies for centuries. A mix of elderflower and water can be used to alleviate symptoms of anything from the common cold to some forms of arthritis.
Most garden-worthy is the variety Black Lace, which bears sprays of tiny pink-flushed blooms in early summer followed by small black fruit. The foliage is finely cut and almost black and turn brilliant red in autumn. To produce the best-coloured leaves prune plants back to the ground in early spring.
On a country walk, you might find hazelnuts or cobnuts, which are ready for picking from late summer. It’s best to collect hazelnuts when they’re still young and green in late August to mid-September before squirrels take them all
Hazelnuts are often found in country hedgerows. Once you’ve gathered the nuts store them in a cool, dry place for up to six weeks and they will become edible. To crack the tough, hard shell you may need a hammer!
The shelled nuts make a tasty nibble to munch on while you’re out walking. If you collect enough, the shelled nuts can be roasted in the oven then made into a spread by blitzing in a food processor with a sprinkling of cinnamon until creamy. This hazelnut butter, along with chocolate are the main ingredients of Nutella spread.
Beyond just being high in protein and healthy fats, hazelnuts is the nut with the highest amount of folate, which helps the body to create normal red blood cells. They’re also high in fibre and rich in manganese, which is needed for bone formation and copper that help the absorption of iron. And high in biotin, which is a B Vitamin that helps grow strong healthy hair.
Sweet Chestnuts are smaller than the conkers on Horse Chestnuts, which are semi-poisonous to humans
Open the outer shell of the sweet chestnut to check that you’ve got the right tree. The outer husk of Sweet chestnuts, Castania sativa is covered with needle-sharp spines and will reveal three nuts when opened, whereas the smoother, warty seedcase on horse chestnuts, Aesculus hippocastanum contains just one, which is usually used to play conkers. Sweet chestnuts are great for pesto and stuffing or simply score them and roast on an open fire.
The Rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) is also known as mountain ash or in old Celtic fid na ndruad, which means wizards’ tree reflecting its long association with magic and witches. Rowans were once planted to protect farm cottages from roaming witches and can still be seen around many rural farmyards.
Birds love Rowan berries, and especially waxwings that come to Britain in winter from Scandinavia.
Rowan berries us are very tart and contain parasorbic acid, which is toxic, but when cooked it becomes sorbic acid, which is safe. They can be used to make Rowan wine and when cooked to make delicious, slightly bitter jams and jellies or can be preserved in syrup. Jelly and the preserved fruit are traditionally eaten with game in the UK
The round red berries of hawthorn or Crataegus monogyna, grow in small bunches and have a gentle, apple-like taste and are usually used to make wine. Known as the May tree, it’s the plant that’s referred to in the old saying “Ne’er cats a clout till May be out”, which simply means don’t take off your big jumper until the tree flowers!
Be careful whilst foraging hawthorn, as the tree has sharp thorns up to 2.5cm long, so make sure that you’re up to date with your tetanus injections. The common hawthorn has fruit that some people describe the texture as similar to that of sweet potato
The fruits are well known to help blood vessels dilate and circulation so is recommended for people with high blood pressure. As it can interact with beta-blockers and other hypotensive drugs, it’s best to check with your GP before eating rowanberries. The young, succulent leaves can be eaten in a salad.
Rosehips can be made into syrup for flavouring foods. Hips are very attractive to birds too, so you’ll need to be quick to harvest them. Rosa rugosa are said to be the best tasting hips. The best time to harvest them is after the first frost. To get a sense of the taste of rose hips, start out brewing yourself a cup of tea. For fresh rose hip tea, steep 4 to 8 rose hips in a cup of boiling water for about 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t use aluminium pans, as it destroys their vitamin C and discolours the hips.
Bilberries go by a variety of names, depending on where you live. In Lancashire, I knew it as whinberry and would find it growing in the acid soil on moorlands and heaths. They make delicious pies, crumbles and compote to serve with cream or homemade ice cream. In Lancashire market towns you can buy punnets of whinberries in local shops
Autumn is a great time for sloes too. They are ripening to their dusty dark blue colour and are ready to be picked. Be careful picking sloes as the branches they grow on are very sharp and prickly. The raw fruit is bitter and acidic too and has very little flesh but they are great for making sloe gin
To make sloe gin, let the sloes sit in a freezer overnight to simulate the first frost and they should split open, allowing their juices to seep into the liquid. Then simply steep the fruit for two months in gin in an airtight container. You can sweeten it with sugar to taste. Makes great Christmas presents!
Look to the ground, especially waste ground and roadsides, and you’ll find weeds that are also edible but as always never eat any plant without first knowing that it is edible and whether it is toxic or not and check that they have not been sprayed with chemicals.
The leaves of greater plantain are thought to be a great delicacy, although I find that even young leaves are quite tough. They make better eating when blanched and sautéed with butter
The young shoots and tender tips of Chickweed, which have a delicate spinach-like taste, make a great salad ingredient, as do Dandelion leaves, Bittercress and Sheep’s Sorrel leaves. The flowers of both red and white clover can be eaten raw or cooked, or dried as tea.
If you want to pick mushrooms and fungi, I recommend going on a course or out with and an expert who knows exactly whether the ones that are growing are edible
A couple of fungi that I know, which are easily recognisable is the Giant Puffball, which grows up to 30cm wide
The Hedgehog Fungus is also easy to identify as it has spines under the white cap that resemble those of a hedgehog. I’ve been told that these should be scraped off in the woods where you find them growing before you take them home, as by doing this you are potentially seeding more mushrooms.