Foraging plants and their uses; an easy guide by Mike Poulton

Nettle tops can be used as long as they look like this!

Foraging has been done for centuries but is hopefully getting a bit of a revival!

People like to have a connection with nature again, especially with their daily exercise in lockdown situation and what a better way to do this then to go out there and forage!

So today I would like to introduce you to a document received from fellow botanist Mike Poulton, who used to do training sessions on foraging for wild plants.  It is a good, quick reference to the more useful wild plants for food!

The edible parts of the native plants are listed with their common names and categorized in 5 sections: leaves and shoots (1), herbs (2), edible flowers (3), fruits and seeds (4) and roots (5).

However for the novice:

In many cases the plant needs to be really known before you harvest and eat it. It is easiest to identify when it flowers, which is often too late to harvest the leaves.. Start in that case with the really obvious ones and remember where the plant is after you’ve seen it flowering for harvesting in spring the following year!

A good flora to identify the plants below will be necessary such as the Wild Flower Key by F. Rose although ‘The Vegetative Key to the British Flora by J. Poland & E. Clement is more useful for the edible leaves below.

Wikipedia and other links on the common plant names are also for quick reference and pictures with descriptions. All plants are found in the British Isles as well as in many other temperate climates.

A most inspiring blog on edible weeds by my friend Robin Harford can be found here

1) LEAVES AND SHOOTS: These are mostly at their best when young and tender, which is late winter, early spring and at least before the plant shoots up to flower!

Goosegrass /cleaversyoung shoots in spring (before they go too sticky)– boil like spinach

Here you can find my blog post on the cleavers and other members of its family; the Rubiaceae

Dandelion leaves used in salads – use young leaves, trim off stalk and wash roughly chop add olive oil, garlic and lemon juice

See in my post here on dandelion.

Nipplewort leaves like dandelion

Cat’s-ear leaves like dandelion

Here you can find my blog post about more members of the Asteraceae.

Yarrow leaves as above but in small quantity as it is cool and bitter

Here you can find my blog post about yarrow and members of the Asteraceae and their uses.

Fat-hen – delicious when young and succulent, treat like spinach.

Ground-eldertreat like spinach (tangy flavour)

Here you can find my post on Ground-elder as an introduction to the Apiaceae family.

Comfreytreat like spinach – older leaves have more flavour than young leaves.

Here you can find my post on comfrey.

Redshank – as above, treat like spinach.

Here you can find my post about the Polygonaceae family or the knotgrasses and knotweeds part 2

Common Sorrelcook like spinach – taste of rhubarb – sorrel soup

Here you find part 1 of the Polygonaceae about docks and sorrels.

Chickweed one of the most deliciously tender wild vegetables – strip bunches with the stems, wash and put into saucepan without water – add butter, seasoning and chopped spring onion. Simmer gently for approximately 10 minutes stirring all the time – add dash of lemon juice or a sprinkling of grated nutmeg.

Here you can find my post including the Chickweed.

Shepherd’s-purseas chickweed but not as good

My post about some members of the Brassicaceae, which includes the Shepard’s-purse can be found here.

Bladder campion as above

My post about the Bladder campion as well as some more useful members of the Caryophyllaceae family can be found here.

Rosebay Willowherbas above and find in my post on willowherbs here

Hogweed as above – young shoots

See my post for some more useful members of the Apiaceae family.

Hopas above

Yellow Archangelas above and see my block-post below (as it is in the Deadnettle family)

Red, white and henbit Dead-nettle as above

See my post for some useful members of the Lamiaceae or Dead-nettle family.

Common Mallowsoup – chose young leaves and wash well

Stinging Nettle collect young leaves before June – boil gently, drain, add butter and seasoning. Fluffy in texture – insipid to taste.  Best used to make into soup

See my post about the Nettle Family or Urticaceae

Alexanders stems near base where blanched by surrounding vegetation – 6” of pinkish stem discarding greenish bits. Smell disappears on cooking – boiling water for 10 minutes – eat like asparagus with melted butter – wonderfully delicate texture and pleasant aromatic taste

Here is my post for some more members of its Apiaceae family.

Burdock young leaf stems in May – cut into 2” lengths – strip off hard outer peel leaving moist core about the thickness of a pipe cleaner – chopped and used raw in salads, boiled and served with butter like asparagus or added to meat soups – crisp, nutty flavour with hint of fennel and of the skin of cucumber.

Here is my post including Burdock and some more members of the Asteraceae.

2) HERBS: Many herbs below are not that easily found, identified and often need a certain habitat. Make sure you got the right plant especially the ones in the Umbel family!

Meadowsweet leaves used for flavouring – smell of new mown hay – dried leaves used to be used for giving aromatic bouquet to port, claret and mead (hence the name)

Cow Parsleyyoung leaves as soon as identifiable (beware hemlock and fool’s-parsley) – very versatile makes a lively addition to salads – good flavouring for herb omelettes. Goes well with jacket potatoes

Here my post including Cow Parsley and other useful members in the Apiaceae family.

Fennel all parts edible – thinner stalks, leaf sprays and seeds most useful – cut early in summer and hang to dry. Smells stronger as it dries – gather seeds in October

Here my post including Fennel & Angelica below and other useful members in the Apiaceae family.

Angelica cut thickest stems and leaves together – chopped leaves good with stewed fruit

Water Mintleaves various uses as for other mints

Here my post all about the mints in part 3 of the Lamiaceae family.

Marjoram or Oregano– pleasantly pungent additions to salads, stews and casseroles

Here my post all about the Marjoram and other members in part 2 of the Lamiaceae family.

Woodruff odourless but smell of new mown hay on drying (coumarin) – used in beds – readily transfers to liquids – ideal to add to summer wine cups – add a sprig to pure apple juice for a week

In this post you can find the Woodruff and more members of the Rubiaceae family.

Sweet Cicely feathery leaves ideal for flavouring stewed fruit – pleasantly aniseed flavour

Some more information about Sweet Cicely and other useful members of the Apiaceae.

Ground-ivymakes herbal tea

More about the Ground-ivy as well as other members of the Lamiaceae family can be found here.

Lady’s Bedstrawanti-coagulant – used in bedding for its pleasant hay-like smell

Here is my post all about the Rubiaceae family which also includes Lady’s Bedstraw.

Tansy  – off-putting smell and can be (dangerous) stomach irritant – served with fried eggs and used to flavour puddings – used as a vermifuge

Tansy is a member of the Asteraceae family and you can find some more about those here.

Wormwood bitter oil extracted from flower heads is key ingredient for absinthe – potent alcoholic drink in excess damaging to heart – contains an anthelmintic (worm dispeller) – hallucinogen if taken in overdose. All Artemisia contain small quantities of this substance

Also see my post about ‘more members of the Asteraceae.

Ramsons strong garlic smell but much of this pungency disappears on cooking – gives mild garlic flavour to a dish

3) FLOWERS: These are often much easier to identify correctly.

Lime Tea – lay flowers (young flowers and buds only!) on tray in well ventilated room – ready after 2-3 weeks

Broompickled or added to salads

See also my post on the Pea family.

Rose there are many species! the most common wild one is Rosa canina and Rosa rugosa. petals – neat in salads – rose petal jam Also see below for my blog-post with Hawthorn

Hawthorn makes fine liqueur

Hop look for recipes in books

Heatherdried flower heads make a good tea

Elderflowers eat straight from the tree – cool and frothy like ice-cream soda – collect with 2” of stem attached – never wash – pickled or added to salads – makes best sparkling wine next to champagne

See my post all about the Elder.

Sweet Violetfragrance and decorative quality in cooking

Cowslip and Primrosewines

Hardhead or Knapweed – flowers in salads

See also my post…..

4) FRUITS AND SEEDS: These are often easier to identify in the field although do still take care not to misidentify as some fruits will be poisenous!

Goosegrass /cleaversseeds ground and used like coffee

Blackberry, Raspberry, Blackthorn, Cherry Plum, Wild Cherry, Hawthorn (jelly), Rowan (jelly), Crab Apple, Gooseberry, Redcurrant, Bilberry, Elder (various uses), Oregon-grape eaten raw or made into jelly, Medlar, Snowberry ??, Guelder-rose – you may get sick if eaten raw but is edible if cooked!


Dandelionroots dried and ground to make coffee substitute- almost indistinguishable from real coffee but without the caffeine

Horseradish – It is a root vegetable, cultivated and used worldwide as a spice and as a condimentIntroduced into B.I. but can often be found along roads.

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