Forage and Feast: January

January 18 2022

In January we are foraging for three flowering species. One species which many people throw out of their garden, one which determines whether you’ll be kissing or not (Covid rules apply!) and something non-edible which is still a delightful find at this time of year.

This month it’s all about flowers, which is surprising considering we don’t really associate January with blooming. Whilst all of the spring greens are coming up, some plants are already in flower so keep an eye out in the garden or green spaces.

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.

 

Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

This species is a delight and a menace in equal parts. Whilst not a native species, it has colonised our urban spaces rapidly and is very common in parts of the UK. Many gardeners in urban areas will know this species as a ‘weed’, indeed in my own garden it gets into places in the brickwork and path edges that other plants dare not venture. Which I love.

The pretty little flower should actually be gracing the Mediterranean not my mid-terraced garden. Ivy-leaved Toadflax adds colour as it flowers all year round but it does need keeping in check otherwise it runs rampant. This plant creeps like the more typical ivy, but it is much smaller with very small yellow and purple flowers.

When you do prune it you have an edible plant whose leaves have a watercress-like flavour. The leaves are also rich in vitamin C which I like to use in salads and you can also eat the flowers.

This species really highlights that foraging begins at home. It is a great way of learning about plants and how to identify them. Often we do not need to go very far to source ‘wild’ plants and many of the ‘weeds’ in peoples garden are edible. I think it’s much better to do your gardening and come away with a nice snack or salad!

 

Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

‘When Gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’ – are the words spoken to me by my Grandma which I have always remembered. It’s nonsense of course as gorse is in flower for nearly 12 months of the year. There are spells where it flowers in abundance, like late spring, but I have seen gorse in flower pretty much year round.

Gorse is a common plant, found from the most urban of areas to the upland moors and in January it’s easy to spot, their bright yellow flowers grace us with their presence during some of these wintery days.

Gorse is straight forward to identify, a spiny bush with yellow flowers, which smell like coconut on sunny days. This smell is very distinctive as other bushy species with yellow flowers do not have this scent, e.g. the very similar Western Gorse (Ulex gallii). The aroma is always stronger on warmer days, it can be quite powerful when you walk past a large stand of gorse - a slight tropical smell on a wintery walk, what’s not to love!

Some foragers enjoy using the flowers to make wine, beer and cordial, but in my opinion sprinkling some of the flowers over a salad is far superior.

Please wear gloves when picking the flowers as the spines on gorse are sharp. There aren’t many plants I react to but if I get prickled by gorse, my hands can itch for days – most people don’t have this problem, but wear gloves as a precaution.

I always enjoy a walk around my former stomping ground in Rochdale, on the moorland edge, where there was a vast stand of gorse in flower at this time of year.As the sun sets behind it, it’s a sight to behold.

 

Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)

This species also has a scent, my favourite smell, vanilla. Winter Heliotrope isn’t an edible species, despite the smell, but it is in flower now and well worth seeking out. This plant is important for some of our pollinators which are around in January, as it has a lot of flowers.

Winter Heliotrope is an odd plant, flowering from mid-winter to early spring. Its flowers are a delicate pink and its leaves are large and round. The leaves commonly get infected with a fungus and so they often appear to have spots.

This is a species commonly found in lowland areas rather than right up in the hills, although it does appear to be spreading. Roadsides, path edges and near gardens seem to be great places to encounter it.

This species is in the same family as Butterbur (Petasites hybridus), which has similar flowers. Winter Heliotrope is much smaller and flowers early (Dec-Jan). Its flowers come out before its leaves, while Butterbur flowers in spring and doesn’t smell of vanilla. When you do find Winter Heliotrope, give it a whiff and see if you can smell this delightful plant.

 

So there you have it, a trio of flowering plants to find right now. Remember though forage safely and only ever pick something if YOU are 100% sure what it is.