2nd February 2021
This month’s blog, in partnership with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild, discusses what to look for this February, including Cleavers, Ground Elder and Lesser Celandine.
February is an exciting time for foraging, lots of new shoots emerging hints that it will not be long to wait until woodlands and hedgerows are lush once again. The new shoots and growth can provide wonderful flavour and delicious treats too, with some to be found in your own back-garden, although some gardeners spend many hours trying to eradicate the plants discussed in this blog!
So this month let us look at a few of these troublesome plants and how you can put them to good use…
As always only ever pick and eat plants when YOU are 100% sure what they are. Use reputable guides to help you identify what you have and if you are in any doubt, leave it out.
CLEAVERS (Galium aparine)
People are often surprised that this species is edible, although you need to pick it when it’s still young, as when it matures it becomes stringy and tough. Ideally, you will be looking for shoots up to around 6 inches in length. This plant goes by many names locally including: sticky weed, sticky willy and sticky me bob. This plant will stick to your clothing and if you have a dog then you will know it can stick to their fur too.
This is actually how the plant has become successful, the stickiness of the plant allows it grow up other plants so it can get more access to light. It is also a really useful identification feature, Cleavers is a member of the Galium family which contains many similar species, but none of them will stick to your jumper like Cleavers will.
Cleavers can be used as a spring green, we often use them in a stir fry, and you will be surprised at how much they wilt, so grab a good handful. Cleavers itself is packed full of vitamins and nutrients and some people juice it in a similar way to wheatgrass, but this is definitely more of an acquired taste!
So, if you are a gardener who is always trying to rid your garden of this plant, February is a great time to get on top of it, but don’t throw it in the bin, use it as a spring green!
GROUND ELDER (Aegopodium podagraria)
I am frequently asked to give tips on how to remove this plant from the garden as well. It is not truly a native plant, thought to have been introduced by the Romans, who used it for food. When it likes an area it can really take over, forming a lime green floor due to the density of its leaves.
Ground Elder is a member of the Umbellifer family, so care must be taken when identifying this plant as this family has some seriously poisonous plants in it! With enough care however, this plant is relatively simple to identify.
Growing in gardens, hedgerows and woodland, the leaves have toothed edges and are usually grouped in 5 (with the lower leaf splitting). The base of the stem is usually a pinky colour and the flowers, which occur from May into June, are typically white much like many members of this family.
Not to be confused with Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis), Ground Elder is a hairless plant, whilst Dog’s Mercury has hairs on the leaves and stem.
When it comes to using this plant you don’t want to wait until it’s in flower, as it will have become very tough and bitter by then. Instead, you want to get hold of the young growth which is a lovely lemony-lime green colour. Young leaves can be eaten raw and used in a similar way to spinach, although Ground Elder does have a slightly citrusy taste to it. As the leaves get older, then it is worth putting some heat through them in a pan just to soften them up a little.
As with Cleavers, so much of the plant is thrown out at this time of year as gardeners try to get on top of it, but it can make a delicious spring green so try and use it if you can!
Remember though, if you are in any doubt when identifying this plant then leave it well alone.
LESSER CELANDINE (Ficaria verna)
The last species for this month is another plant known for taking over in gardens, but is also very common in British woodlands. Lesser Celandine flowers very early, it has even been found in flower on Christmas Day in some years, but usually woodlands are carpeted in its yellow flowers from February to April.
The flowers are bright yellow, with ‘spade’ shaped leaves, and often have little creamy pale patches in amongst the green.
I have included this species as most people will recognise its pretty flowers, but there is also conflicting information about its edibility. The most common opinion is that Lesser Celandine is edible but not to be eaten in large quantities. If it is going to be eaten then it really should be cooked rather than eaten raw.
In the last few years, I have seen more and more people on social media using this plant as the main ingredient for salads, which is probably not the wisest thing to do as the chemicals in the plant may cause an issue.
I am not a huge fan of eating this plant, in fact it has been a number of years since I have bothered, its taste is a bit like watercress but less peppery. I do love walking through the woodland and seeing it in flower though.
The plant was used medicinally in years gone by. If you were to uproot the plant you would see tuberous growths around the roots and for that reason the old name for this plant is Pilewort. It was thought that because this plant looks like it has piles itself, it could be used to treat the symptom!
Next month we are all fungal, getting ready for some serious spring mushrooms and fungi that occur. In the meantime, enjoy your foraging whether further afield or in your own back- garden, and remember if in doubt leave it out!