Last updated on 14 October 2010
It is autumn, and many of our hedgerows are prime sites for the traditional pursuits of gathering wild berries and hunting for mushrooms. This harvest can contribute to our daily diet, but care needs to be taken to make sure it is safe to eat.
If you are out foraging, you can gather a range of different foods at different times of the year, such as blackberries, elderberries, types of mushroom and fresh herbs for salads and flavouring. And different parts of the same plant can be used in different seasons, such as flowers in spring and berries later in autumn.
For example, elderberries are available from late summer and are popular for making jam and wine while elderberry flowers can be used for making cordial in spring. Nettle soup, dandelion and burdock, and sloe gin are all examples of traditional recipes that make the most of what the hedgerows have to offer in different seasons.
Just because one part of a plant is edible, however, doesn't mean that all parts are. Some plants also need cooking to destroy toxins. For example, cooking elderberries destroys toxins present in the raw berries, but leaves, barks or roots of elder should never be eaten.
Always make sure you know exactly what it is that you are picking. If you have any doubt, don't. Guide books to identify plants and mushrooms may be helpful or, even better, take someone with you who is experienced in identifying edible plants.
Blackberries and other berries
Most people can identify blackberries and these are a useful source of vitamin C. They also contain potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. One cup of blackberries is equivalent to a portion for the recommended minimum of five-a-day of a variety of fruit and vegetables we should all be having. Other berries available earlier in the year include wild strawberries and cherries.
Wild mushrooms are most plentiful in autumn. Three heaped tablespoons count as a portion and, like most fruit and vegetables, mushrooms are low in fat and calories. But they do absorb a lot of fat when fried, so try to use just a small amount of oil. You could add mushrooms to casseroles, curries and pasta sauces, or try grilling them with a very small amount of olive oil and garlic.
However, mushrooms are notoriously easy to get wrong. If you're picking mushrooms from the wild it is important to make sure you know exactly what type you are gathering. Never eat wild mushrooms if you are not sure of their identification.
Herbs and leafy green veg
Herbs and leafy green vegetables that have traditionally been part of people's diets, such as common mallow and garlic mustard, are around in autumn although many are at their best earlier in the year. Like all vegetables, leafy green vegetables are really good sources of vitamins and minerals that help to protect us from disease and keep us healthy.
Green vegetables are rich in vitamin C, folates, carotenoids, vitamin K, and calcium, and may also provide small amounts of iron. And, because of these nutrients, leafy green vegetables are especially important in helping to protect us against heart disease and some cancers as well as keeping our bodies in good working order.
Some dos and don’ts
Here are some dos and don'ts if you decide to go foraging:
- Do make sure you can identify the fruit, leaves or mushrooms that you've found. Use several features to be sure (check leaf, flower, berry colour and shape, season, and so on). Most of us can spot a blackberry but mushrooms are much more tricky. If you're unsure, don't eat it.
- Do wash your harvest well, wherever you have collected it.
- Don’t allow children to pick or eat wild food unsupervised.
- Don't eat an unhealthy looking plant or fruit – if it appears burnt, bruised or has any sign of mould, for example.
- Don't eat plants and berries growing on old industrial sites, busy roadside verges or where the ground is visibly contaminated with oil or ash.
- Do keep a sliver of mushroom, berry or leaf aside so it can later be identified if you do have a stomach upset.
Remember, if you go foraging, only take what you need so that there is enough of the plant left to reproduce. Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without the permission of the owner or occupier of the land. It is also illegal to pick, uproot, collect the seed from, or sell, any of particularly rare or vulnerable species.