Forage and Feast February

10th February 2022 

This month Dave Winnard has Wood Sorrel, Yellow Archangel and Spring Beauty for you to forage for!

I often feel a few false starts for spring in February. The Snowdrops and Crocuses and Hazel catkins are all flowering near to my house, but sadly these are species that are at home in the cold winter months. In another month however, the first Wheatear will return to the UK after wintering in Africa, followed by Swallows, Sand Martins and Willow Warbler. Then the woods will burst in to life with Spring flowers.Until then though I still have some species for you to go out and look for, this month three plants to seek out.

Remember to be responsible when foraging, only taking a little for yourself, leaving plenty for other people and species to enjoy 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.

 

Spring Beauty (Claytonia perfoliata)

Spring Beauty is not a true native to the UK, having been introduced in 1794. It is unique, with the upper leaves forming a bowl for the flower to sit in. The basal leaves are long and stalked and the flowers are white with 5 petals. This really is a species that I look forward to encountering, there is something special about it, its strange form really makes it unique and the small flowers are so delicate.

This species usually flowers between April-July but I have seen Spring Beauty in flower in March. A foragers, however, we are interested in the leaves which are out well before that. If you are new to this species then you could wait until it flowers to confirm its ID.

The leaves are wonderfully succulent and make a wonderful addition to salads, I often eat them whilst on coastal walks and they really are something I look forward to in the early spring.

It is a relatively common plant, established in abundance along coasts and dunes. It can also be found on sandy soil, wastelands and in gardens - I have even found it growing in the centre of Manchester.Along with other species such as Danish Scurvygrass, this plant has increased noticeably along road networks, so if you are foraging, bear in mind where it has been growing.

 

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)  

Our second species is a charming little plant that occurs in most woodland habitats. You may take one look at Wood Sorrel and think it is a ‘Shamrock’ or a clover, but it is slightly bigger than most clovers with a totally different flower. The flower is white with little purpley pencil lines which can be seen up close.

Wood Sorrel can be found throughout the year but in early spring the leaves can be so vibrant you can’t help but spot them. It’s also a good time to look for them before lots of other Spring plants start to take over, making them harder to find.

This plant’s leaves have a wonderful flavour (better before they flower, as they become slightly bitter afterwards). It comes from the chemical oxalic acid,  giving it a real sharpness a bit like biting into a granny smith apple. It is because it has this chemical in it you should never eat too much of it, a few leaves here and there will do you no harm, but it can be harmful or even give you kidney stones in large quantities!

In reality you probably couldn’t eat the quantities needed to be considered harmful in one sitting. A few sprigs of Wood Sorrel on your plate will do no harm, and they are all the rage in trendy restaurants who use them as ‘micro herbs’.

 

Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdalon)

 

The final plant I wanted to include is the Yellow Archangel. This plant is found in old woodlands, but the garden variety often escapes into the wild and can be a bit of a thug. The garden form usually has variegated leaves (Lamiastrum galeobdolon subspecies argentatum) whilst the true wild one does not.

Yellow Archangel is a member of the ‘dead-nettles’  and mint family. When you have a closer look at the leaves you can see the resemblance to a stinging nettle. This plant, however, doesn’t sting and is modest in height, producing lovely yellow flowers.

It is common in the South and is becoming wider spread in the North. This plant can be found in woodlands, hedgerows and verges where it can become rather prolific. In places like Manchester nearly all the plants I find are not or ‘wild’ origin, they are escapees from gardens. In fact the variegated form is on the Schedule 9 list of the Wildlife and Countryside Act because it is ‘Introduced and increasing rapidly, often originating from where plants are dumped as garden rubbish, it causes damage via direct competition with native species.’

The young plants can be used like spring greens, and the leaves when soft can be added to salads, although I prefer them lightly steamed –this is the best way to eat them if the plant is slightly more mature anyway. 

One thing to be aware of is that there are a number of garden cultivars of this plant, usually with variegated leaves, that can appear in the wild. I would personally look for plants which have as little variegated leaves as possible as these in my mind taste better.

 

So there we have it, three plants to seek out, even if you are not interested in eating them, then looking for these delightful species on your next walk will be worthwhile.! As always only ever pick something from the wild and eat it if YOU are 100% sure that you know what it is.