This month I want to discuss two edible species and one species you should definitely avoid; Sweet Cecily, Few-flowered Garlic and Fool's Parsley. So if you can get out when it’s dry this month, then keep an eye out for these species. Remember if you do not know yourself 100% what it is, do not forage it.
Well, I certainly know how to make sure you don’t find the plants I suggest, simply write about them and the weather gods will ensure they do not appear!
If you didn’t spot any of the Morels from April’s blog then don’t be surprised…April was very dry and cold at night, completely the wrong conditions! However, with May’s wetter weather the Morels and St George’s Mushrooms may put on a late show, so keep looking for them this month as well as for the three plants below.
Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
This month we delve into the world of the Umbellifers, which contain numerous, similar looking species. Some of these are very poisonous, but I have included how to identify these species as they are distinctive enough not to incorrectly identify, even as a beginner.
Sweet Cicely really smells of aniseed, the leaves, the stem, the seeds all have that wonderful anise aroma, which make it stand out from other members of its family. It is a plant that likes open woodlands and hedgerows and can adapt to full sun or shade, so it thrives in a variety of habitats.
This plant flowers in May and early June, with white frothy flowers on top of a wonderful rich lime green foliage. Sweet Cicely can grow to over a metre, with fern-like leaves which have distinctive pale blotches. The seeds are green, usually an inch or so in size, again with a strong anise scent and flavour.
When it comes to using this plant, I love nothing more than chewing on a few leaf stems like liquorice sticks. The hollow stems can also be cut up and used as a natural aniseed straw for summer drinks, while fresh seeds can be eaten raw and taste like ‘torpedo’ sweets you might remember buying as a kid. You can even infuse the seeds in vodka to make your own foraged ‘pernod/ ouzo’!
Sweet Cecily is available in garden centres, perfect for filling awkward shady bits of your garden. This plant is actually a great choice for wildlife as well as your taste buds.
The aniseed scent of this plant should rule out any of its look-a-likes straight away, the only other similar (ish) plant with the same scent is fennel (also edible), which has yellow flowers and very thin leaves. As there are some very poisonous members of this plant family, only ever forage if you feel confident that you have found Sweet Cecily.
Fool’s Parsley (Aethusa cynapium)
Fool’s Parsley is one to keep an eye out for to get to grips with the ‘what not to picks’ whilst you are foraging for Umbellifers.
As the name suggests, this plant is sometimes confused with parsley but it is very poisonous, so take care. It is quite rampant in the North-west particularly in hedgerows, edges of paths, car parks and in urban areas.
It is a typical looking Umbellifer with a white lacy flower head on top of rich green foliage which, unsurprisingly, looks like parsley. It isn’t as bulky as other species, with a more delicate stem and leaves and smaller flower head. It still grows to around a metre in most cases, but it doesn’t smell of aniseed.
One of the key features of this plant is the ‘downward facing bracts’ , little green parts under the flower head that point downwards, something which is rather distinctive in this family.
No part of this plant should be consumed, and this whole family of plants needs to be treated with respect and generally for beginners I would urge you to avoid this family until you are more familiar with them, with the exception of Sweet Cicely. It is always good practice to learn what to avoid, and although Fool’s Parsley is poisonous, it is a delightful looking species to keep an eye out for.
Few-flowered Garlic (Allium Paradoxum)
Sometimes known as the Few-flowered Leek, this plant is a native of the Caucasus region. This species is becoming more and more naturalised across the UK, most common across the South and East as well as in parts of Scotland. Pockets of this plant can occur anywhere, however, and there are now numerous large patches close to my home.
When I have accidently trodden on it (easily done as it dominates some woodlands) it has made my eyes water, just like when you peel an onion. It differs from other Alliums, such as Ramsons (Allium ursinum) as it has a rather strange flower structure. Few-flowered Garlic has white flowers, attached to small green bulbils, makeing it quite a distinctive and pretty flower.
This plant only has a single flat leaf, which looks very similar to a bluebell leaf. The leaves when crushed have a very strong oniony smell which makes it easier to identify.
You can start collecting Few-flowered Garlic as early as December in some years, but it is in full flow in Spring, and it is easy to find by May as all of the plants will be out in flower. You can use the stem and leaves just like Spring Onions (Allium paradoxum has a superior flavour in my opinion) and they can be eaten cooked or raw.
If you are in doubt when looking at just the leaves of this species, then just wait for it to flower to confirm it is Garlic, as you do not want to confuse it with Bluebells.
As always enjoy looking for plants wherever you go on your walks (or even in your garden), but remember to always use a good field guide to identify your finds and only ever pick and eat something if you know 100% what it is.