3 April 2020
City of Trees have teamed up with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild to bring you some foraging tips and tricks, as well as recipes, each month, starting from April.
Some of the easiest and, in my humble opinion, best plants to forage for are ‘weeds’, a term used by many but one I don’t like as what we really mean is wildflowers that do not have permission to be in the garden.
In April’s blog I am going to look at two plants that instead of going in the green bin – should go straight to your kitchen to provide a tasty treat!
Whenever foraging, in the wild or in the garden, then the first rule is only ever eat something that you know 100% what it is.
In most cases that is identifying the correct species, but with dandelions (from the French dent-de-lion - tooth of the lion) they are very complicated, there are more than 250+ species and subspecies that occur in the UK.
Yet you would always look at a dandelion and know it was one, but look closely and some have very rounded leaves, some have very toothed leaves, some are big, some small, some flower heads are massive and others small, the chances are very close to your home are a handful of different varieties of dandelion.
The dandelions that can often be found anywhere are those with large yellow flowers, leaves which are usually serrated or if you hold the sideways look like a row of lions teeth. I have seen them in flower 12 months of the year, but spring is the best time.
The main Dandelion group, Taraxacum officinale agg. pretty much means the official remedy of disorders and it has been highly prized as a healing plant throughout recorded history. It has been used to encourage appetite, for treating sore muscles, eczema and bruises. It has also been used a laxative (sometimes known as wet the bed - from the French pissenlit - due to its diuretic properties) and it has also been used as a blood tonic.
Which bits to use
The whole part of the dandelion is edible; the flowers can be added to salads (just use the yellow bits no green bits) or even infused in simple syrup to make vegan honey (see recipe to download below).
The leaves when young (early winter) are great in salads but do get bitter as they mature.
The roots can be eaten like you would parsnip and dried can be used for making Dandelion & Burdock, or even a coffee substitute.
Many major gin companies are using Dandelion, whether it is the leaves, flowers or root.
Most of us will know what Dandelions look like and when using them from the garden they are pretty obvious. However be aware of the hawkweeds and hawkbits which do look similar but can be easily told apart as dandelions have a hollow stem, produce a white sap when broken, have solitary flower heads and have leafless hairless stems.
The other look-a-like which grows around the same time is Colt’s-foot (Tussilago farfara), but this does not have a smooth stem and the flowers appear before the leaves, so if there is a flower but no leaf then it may be this plant.
Think of the wildlife though
I would suggest leaving a few of these sunny plants in the garden as they are essential for early insects to feed on, especially at a time when many other plants are still not in flower. So save yourself time weeding and think of the insects!
When I was younger my Grandma referred to it as Three-cornered Leek and I sometimes slip between the two names.
This is one of my favourite plants, and if you like the flavour of spring onion this is the plant for you!
An invasive garden escape which smells of spring onion when crushed (the commonest spring white allium in gardens in the area) and to the un-trained eye looks very similar to a white bluebell, indeed the long triangular-shaped leaves could easily be mistaken for bluebell.
Native to the Western Mediterranean this is a plant that likes dry sites like hedges, roadsides, rough ground and gardens. It is very common in the south and becoming increasingly common across Greater Manchester and the North-west.
The white flowers, which in shape are again reminiscent to those of the bluebell have a green stripe down them, something which other spring alliums or white bluebell do not have (note: the rare Spring Snowflake, Leucojum vernum, which again is similar does have green blotches on the white flowers, but not a green stripe and does not smell of onion).
How to use
The leaves of the Three-cornered Garlic are milder than its more famous cousin Ramsons (Wild Garlic) and make a delicious addition to a salad, being much sweeter too.
The flowers are edible and are softer and I personally find more ‘palatable’ than other garlic flowers. I also use the stem just like spring onions too. The leaves, stem and flowers have an oniony scent so this alone should eliminate any potential imposters. If you run your finger over the stem you can clearly feel that is a triangle, which is where the name comes from.
Of the three species of spring flowering white alliums in the area, this is the commonest in gardens and often goes un-noticed.
The other two species are: Ramsons (often referred to as Wild Garlic, Allium ursinum, and common in many woodlands) and Few-flowered Garlic (Allium paradoxum), which remains relatively rare (but often abundant where it is found).
Mushroom identification can always be tricky; they can change their appearance if they are dry, wet, old, young, growing under stress and they vary just naturally with in the species.
However, there are some that are at the easier end of the spectrum and this is one of them. An all white mushroom, the gills are even white which helps separate it with other similar species, but unusually it grows in the spring not the autumn which is when its look-a-likes are usually out.
In fact more often than not it is found around St Georges Day (23rd April - hence the name) and grows commonly, often in rings in pastures, hedgerows, parkland and in some gardens in Greater Manchester, though usually in gardens with grassy areas or hedgerows.
This species is under-recorded in the area and so with many of us spending more time at home we would be interested to hear how many people have it growing in their garden.
It has a distinctive mealy smell (once you have smelled it you don’t forget it, some think it smells of cucumber), it does not change colour when damaged and is quite a chunky to handle mushroom.
It has a wonderful taste – personally one of my favourites and I love nothing more than just fried with some herbs and have them nicely cut up on toast, though you could use them in any mushroom dish.
There are other poisonous white mushrooms, including species like Fool’s Funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa), which has no smell; Deadly Fibrecap (Inocybe erubescens), but this turns red when damaged and would be very rare locally and The Miller (Clitopilus prunulus), which is not poisonous, has the same smell, but pale pink gills that come down the stem and unlike St George’s Mushroom, it is also an autumn species.
As long as you follow all the identification features, cross-reference with a good book or trusted internet resource then this species is pretty straight forward to identify.
It has usually disappeared by mid-May or early June at the very latest. It can take many years to really get to grip with eating wild mushrooms and feeling confident to correctly identify something you find.