3rd November 2020
This month’s blog in partnership with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild looks at November's harvest including Hawthorn, Burdock and Oyster mushrooms.
As we move into the darker months, you would think that the foraging season is coming to an end. Well, you would be surprised! The late autumn period, and even through winter, nature can provide for us and this month I have three species for you to keep an eye out for when you go for a walk.
As always, consult a good field guide to confirm what species you have, and only ever eat something YOU have picked if YOU know 100% what it is. If in doubt, leave it out.
In the foraging world, there are lots of glamorous berries and fruits that are high on the agenda for most people. Damsons, pears, blackberries, sloes and elderberries are all highly sought after. But there is one species that is always there, overlooked and perhaps under appreciated. It is, of course, the humble Hawthorn. Hawthorns are one of our most common hedgerow plants. In fact, most of our hedgerows are made up of this one species and at this time of year they are decorated with their small red berries that only the winter thrushes seem to bother with.
Well I want you to think differently about this countryside stalwart as the fruits of this tree are far more interesting than you think. To start with, they are similar to very small apples than real berries and, once cooked, do take on a stewed apple flavour. Raw they have not much flavour at all, and a large seed in the middle makes them hard work, but once cooked and strained they can be used for making jellies, fruit leathers and even ketchup!
Hawthorn does come with a caveat though. The fruits are thought to lower blood pressure, so a simple tea can be quite good for you, but if you have low blood pressure you should be wary about using it (some research suggests it regulates blood pressure but more information is needed). When harvesting the fruits, take care as the tree itself is covered in thorns. When collecting from trees you will generally be picking the berries within arm’s reach, which is great as it means there will be lots left for the Redwings and Fieldfares that arrive from Scandinavia for the winter to gorge themselves on. So long as it stays relatively frost free, the fruits of the hawthorn can remain on the tree right the way through winter, though generally after the new year they are a little past their best.
I have included this plant because a) I do love the flavour of it and b) it allows us to discuss the law and foraging. Burdock is a biennial plant, so it produces leaf growth in the first year and then a flowering spike in the second year. The flowers are like thistle flowers, but they are very sticky. In fact, many people throw these at people and the flowers often stick to clothes (it is thought this is what inspired velcro).
In terms of foraging, it is the root of the burdock that we would be interested in. It has a delicious flavour and is grown in parts of Asia because of the demand for it. We use it for homemade Dandelion and Burdock as well as a flavouring for other drinks.
Now the law on foraging states we can take the 4 f’s, flowers, fruit, foliage and fungi, for our own personal consumption. Some plants are protected by law (all orchids for example) and some areas have by-laws prohibiting picking. But in most green spaces in the UK you would be fine picking blackberries, wild garlic leaves and elderflowers for example. Taking the root of a plant, however, would be a crime, unless you had the landowner’s permission. You simply cannot go around uprooting wild plants, as obviously this would destroy the plant, as well as being illegal. However, in part of Greater Manchester this plant can grow as a bit of a weed in some gardens and even some allotments, so taking the root from these situations would be fine, although you would landowner’s permission (presumably or you really should not be in gardens and allotments you do not own ;)).
The roots can go very deep so digging them out can take time and if bits of the root come off whilst you are uprooting it and stay in the soil, they will form new plants since Burdock is quite a hardy species. The taste is unique, with hints of anise, a fragrant scent and bitter undertones - it is a real treat. We dry our burdock root and then we use it throughout the year, and it is the main ingredient for my Grandma’s recipe for Dandelion and Burdock.
I always think November is a fine month for going out to look for Oyster Mushrooms. They seem to really like this time of year, although it is a species that you could find throughout the year if it has been wet. This is a delicious mushroom and it is now widely cultivated and sometimes even available in the supermarket. They have a mild mushroom flavour and one of my recent favourite meals was hoisin sauce, pancakes and deep-fried oyster mushrooms - it was amazing. Because they sometimes grow in large clusters you can get enough for meal without having to take too many. You can cook them just like normal mushrooms, and however you like your mushrooms.
Oyster Mushrooms like to grow on rotting deciduous wood so any habitat that has this is a contender for hosting this delicious mushroom. As always, when we forage for fungi (or indeed anything) we need to be careful not to confuse it with other species. The Oyster Mushroom is a variable species, with the cap coming in shades of grey, blue, brown or even cream (if white leave alone due to possible confusion with other species), the gills are white and decurrent (which means they come down the stem) and the stem is short with no ring. Usually they grow in clusters and the caps and generally ‘oyster shaped’, hence their name.
There are species of mushrooms called Oysterlings which are usually small species and should be avoided. As should a similar species, which is all white and growing in coniferous forests, called Angel’s Wings. This is mainly a Scottish species but we have seen it in North Wales and the Lake District.