BLOG: Forage & Feast January

6th January 2021

This month’s blog, in partnership with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild, discusses what to look for this new year, including Sweet Violet, Common Chickweed and Field Blewit. 

Spring is right around the corner, it may not feel like it right now but it is. We need to plan ahead so we know what to look out for on our walks and rambles in our green spaces, wherever you choose to go.

I often use Wild Garlic (Ramsons!) as an example of being prepared. In mid-April, I will lead events that will have this plant flowering at that time. That means for it to be flowering then it must have been growing for a few months before, and it will have. In some years, I pick wild garlic leaves in late January and February, as the leaves are small, sweet, full of flavour and truly delicious at this time.

When the plant is flowering, the leaves could be a few months old, so still OK, but not as good. People don’t think to pick the leaves early in the year, they wait until the woodlands smell of wild garlic (which is actually when the leaves have turned and gone way past their best - the flowers and stem are good though). So if you think about when plants are in flower, if you want to harvest the leaves then you need to work back a couple months before they flower.

With a bit of planning you can make sure you target the species you want to see, as well as making sure you find them at their best time. So, let’s make your 2021 plant and fungi encounters the best yet. We will look for interesting species and when they are coming into their best, so that is exactly what I have for you this month.

 

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)

I often get asked what is my favourite bird, fungi, plant etc., and it varies a lot, but I must admit, Sweet Violets really are very high on my list time and time again. What is not to love, they are out in January through to March when many other flowers are not, they are a lovely deep purple and the fragrance….ah the fragrance….divine. They also remind me of the Parma Violet sweets I had as a kid so good times there too!

In many parts of the region, this species is more often an escapee from nearby gardens, but is still fair game to use. Some patches can be quite extensive, so taking a few flowers to crystallise or even make a tea with is fine, but make sure you leave some for the pollinators. Though if you keep taking flowers the plant will keep producing more flowers.

Being out so early makes it rather straightforward to identify from the viola family. The Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana) and Early Dog-violet (Viola reichenbachiana) start appearing in March, but do not smell of violet, these latter two really have no scent at all. Although still edible, they lack any flavour, so you want the real deal. The spur of the Sweet Violet flower (the back of the flower) is purple, whilst the Common Dog-violet has a cream-coloured spur. We use some fresh in salads, we crystallise some to use as decorations on cakes and desserts and we use some fresh for a herbal tea.

There is also a white form of this plant too which is common in and near gardens and, although the colour does not have the same impact in my opinion, the scent is still amazing. They say you can only smell a Sweet Violet once, which is not true, but it does contain ionine, which causes the smell receptors to become a little numb, making it harder to smell the second time.

 

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)

This is a plant that people seem to be constantly digging up from their gardens and allotments as they just see this plant as a ‘weed’. Well, this little weed is a fabulous little plant which is quite tasty, useful and even in flower through the winter months.

Chickweed has small, white star-like shaped flowers - 5 petals but split deeply so looks like 10 petals and a rather nondescript foliage, small, oval but importantly smooth leaves. There are other species which look a bit similar, like the Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum), but that is quite furry. Chickweed does have a line of small hairs down one side of the stem, and this is a good feature to look for when identifying it. Other, similar species would not have this, they would have hairs all around the stem.

This plant grows abundantly near arable fields, in gardens, allotments and can grow right through the year, but I find at this time of year it is at its best. Treat it like lettuce, it can be used as a leafy green or even dried and used for herbal teas. In the dried form, it is often sold in health food shops as it is thought it may help with rheumatic and arthritic pain. It is best to trim the tops of the plant as the younger leaves and stem are best, plus this will allow the plant to grow even more. So do not throw this plant away if you are weeding it from your garden, enjoy it!

Because this plant grows all year, if you are unsure about your identification, then just wait until it flowers to be sure. Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), which is poisonous, has similar leaves but the flowers are scarlet, so just waiting for the flowers could help you determine if it is Common Chickweed.

 

Field Blewit (Lepista saeva)

I used to do a New Year’s Day bird list, seeing as many bird species on the day as possible, though this has become so popular for birdwatchers to do I now do mine on the 2nd January as it is quieter. However, it does not matter if I do this on the 1st or 2nd of Jan, for the past 8 years on either date I find the Field Blewit whilst birdwatching.

The Field Blewit is a relatively straightforward species to identify. It likes to grow in fields and field edges, it has a cream-coloured cap and gills and rather striking purple/blue stem, which is why in some parts of the country this species is known as ‘Blueleg’ or ‘Bluefoot’. It is quite a large species and quite chunky too. It is a tasty edible mushroom, but like its brother the Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda - another tasty edible) they need to be cooked thoroughly. If you have never tried a Blewit before then try a little and make sure it agrees with you as occasionally they do not agree with everyone (though usually that is people not cooking them thoroughly).

It has become a bit of a tradition to do my ‘New Year’s Day’ birdwatching and bring back a handful of these for garlic mushrooms on toast for my supper. It is a late autumn/winter specialist, so as long as there have not been any really heavy frosts and we are not under a foot of snow there is a good chance of finding this species.

 

As with all foraging, only ever pick something YOU know 100% exactly what is it, use good field guides to confirm your thoughts and if in doubt, leave it out. Most importantly, just enjoy looking for these species and being out with nature.