Forage and Feast: December

This month if you are in the garden or out and about during the holiday season, then here are three plants for you to look for. Alexander's, Greater Plantain and Sea beet.

 

It always feels strange writing about Spring plants in December, but actually many of our spring flowering plants are beginning to produce their new growth already. If we think that spring plants flower in late March-May, these species have to get going really early. The leaves need to come out first and can be out for 3-4 months before flowering. So in December we can start to find new growth of plants like Wild Garlic and Nettles.

Foraging of course is weather dependent, if we’re under a blanket of snow then plants can be pushed back a bit from emerging. If it’s wet and mild with no real frost, however, then some of the spring species can put on a real push.

When we harvest spring plants it is usually just leaves. Take wild garlic for example, we gather the leaves to make soups and pestos, but we don’t take the whole plant, leaving plenty for others. Many spring plants are super abundant so taking a few from one patch and a few from another means you can get what you need without making a dint on the patch.

Foraging not only connects people to nature (something which is vital to protecting it), foraging locally also helps to reduce food miles and reduce the use of plastics, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. This benefits wildlife not only on your doorstep, but all over the world.

When we do find what we’re looking for then we have to remember to pick sensibly. Foraging should not have any negative effect on our environment. Generally when it does this is due to over harvesting for commercial. If we destroy a plant not only do we take away our own personal ability to utilise it, we take it from others and more importantly wild species who use it too.

This month if you are in the garden or out and about during the holiday season, then here are three plants for you to look for.

 

Wherever you explore this month, only ever pick and eat something from the wild if YOU are 100% sure that YOU know what it is. Use this blog as a guide to what to look for and then use a good reference book to confirm your finds. If in doubt, leave it out.

 

Alexander’s (Smyrnium olusatrum)

 This is a species that is becoming more and more common across the UK. At first it was mainly a coastal species found in the South, but it has quickly spread across most of our coastline and can even be found inland now.

This is a plant whose leaves are often at their best between Dec and Feb, flowering between March-May. Native to the Mediterranean, Alexander’s gets its name from ‘Parsley of Alexander’ and was introduced to the UK by the Romans. They used to eat the plant both raw and cooked. The stems and leaves taste similar to a very fragrant celery and you can also eat the flower heads.

Try peeling the stems the same way you would asparagus, or wait until the plant has finished flowering and gather the black seeds and use them to replace black pepper.

Alexander’s belongs to a family of plants of which some are seriously poisonous, like Hemlock and Hemlock Water-dropwort. So take care when identifying this plant. If you are unsure wait until it flowers as the yellow flowers differ from other members of this family which have white flowers.

The yellow flowers and bright green glossy leaves (which have a distinctive celery smell) and the fact this plant can grow up to 1.5m, make this plant very recognisable. It is most commonly found along the coast, on cliff tops and roadsides down south. It is becoming more and more common, however across the UK and can even be found inland along some road networks. North Wales and parts of the North-west along the coasts are great places to spot it, but it is also starting to turn up near the city of Manchester.

 

Greater Plantain (Plantago major)

Before you say it, yes this is a species you get growing in your lawn or on your drive. Greater Plantain can be abundant and lots of gardeners try to get rid of it.

The leaves of this plant are quite distinctive, almost spade shaped, with ‘ribs’ coming down the leaf. In short mown grass or ground lacking in nutrients, it can be quite a small plant, but in richer soil the leaves can grow to the size of your hand. The flowering spike is quite simple and not that obvious.

There are a number of plantains but this and the ribwort plantain, which has much narrower leaves, are the most common and both are edible. You need to harvest the leaves early with this species as when they develop the ribs down the leaves become very stringy and unpleasant to eat. Young plants can be used like pak choi, they are fabulous in a stir fry and have a really distinctive mushroom-like flavour.

This is a species more likely to be encountered close to habitation, path edges, roadsides, disturbed ground and even in the garden. You can find Greater plantain year-round, but in the winter months the new growth are nice and soft, making it a great time to seek it out.

 

Sea Beet (Beta Vulgaris)

Sea beet will be a plant that is familiar to those of you who grow chard, beetroot or spinach in the garden.  Other plants were bred from this one to produce the likes of purple beetroot as the young leaves of sea beet are sometimes purple-coloured.

It is common in coastal areas, though it can be found a way inland as well, especially alongside roads where salt has been used on the roads in the winter months. Sea beet is a large plant, with some specimens growing to be over a 1m across and around 1.3m high.

Finding this plant shouldn’t pose an issue, especially in coastal locations, and its chard like shiny leaves make it easy to identify. Restraint should be used in collecting too much from a single plant, ideally take a few leaves from one plant and then move on to another. You can still pick a lot of Sea Beet but don’t strip a single plant bare.

You can use Sea Beet in the same way you use spinach or chard, personally, I find just adding a knob of butter in a pan with a little garlic and frying some off is not only the simplest way to enjoy it but one of the tastiest too.

 

Wherever you explore this month, only ever pick and eat something from the wild if YOU are 100% sure that YOU know what it is. Remember to be respectful to the plants we pick, look after them and they will look after us.

Have a great festive season however you celebrate it we have lots to look for and discuss in the new year.