Foraging for food in the Sid Valley - nettle soup anyone?

Stinging Nettle in the Lower Knapp Pond

Stinging Nettle in the Lower Knapp Pond - Credit: Dr Emma Pilgrim

I find it magical to walk in a sunlit dappled wood, carpeted with flowers. These are a symbol of nature’s resilience and, for me, hope and adventure as another season begins. My plan for the year includes foraging. I have dabbled with this pursuit over the years: beginning with roasting sweet chestnuts collected from the Byes after the first autumnal frosts; braving bramble thorns in my back garden to gather blackberries for a crumble sensation; harvesting sloes from the coast path in October for a winter warming sloe gin and picking elderflower blossoms from the Knapp, in spring for elderflower cordial.

My foraging journey was rekindled when I began researching forest gardens. Robert Hart who founded these food systems in the 1980’s, based his method on tropical multi-layered tree systems dating back over 12,000 years. Forest gardens are small, less than an acre in size, and designed to mimic a young woodland whilst providing food for both us and wildlife. On average they contain 64 plant species that have either edible, medicinal or practical uses or any combination of the three. The plants are predominantly perennial species, grown in layers to squeeze a wider variety of crops into a small space. Forest gardeners are more experimental than most with what they eat, supplementing their diet with foraging for ‘wild plants’ within their garden. This includes eating what most of us consider weeds, providing an edible alternative to ‘weed control’ particularly of vigorously growing species such as three-cornered leeks, Allium triquetrum (a member of the onion family and a useful garlic substitute) and ground-elder, Aegopodium podagraria a scourge of gardeners, which ironically was introduced by the Romans as a delicacy.

Foraging is a fun way to learn more about your patch, whether that be your garden, local wood or common. Seeking out plants has also taught me to become more aware of what is around me; whilst both broadening and challenging my views on food and wildlife. The most interesting part though has been learning about our historical relationship with nature.

The stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is a common edible plant to hunt in February. Though it has many uses: medicinal, practical and edible; it is a much-maligned species, due to the pain it inflicts when we accidentally brush against it. Interestingly the Romans introduced it to Britain for precisely this property. They used it as a rheumatic remedy, rubbing its bruised leaves onto the skin to increase blood flow.

Cloth can be made using the coarse fibres in the nettle’s stalks; indeed it made the uniforms of World War One German soldiers. In World War Two, the British used it to dye camouflage nets green.

As an edible plant, the stinging nettle is high in iron, protein and vitamins A and C. Its young leaves can be used to make soups and a vibrant red nettle cordial. Only pick leaves until June though, before they become both bitter and a laxative.

So go forth and gather, but remember these basic rules to ensure your safety when using wild plants:

  1.  Make sure you correctly identify the plant. As a plant ecologist, I feel confident in doing this, armed with good field guides such as Richard Mabey’s Food for Free, Roger Phillips Wild Foods and The Wild Flower Key (Revised edition) by Clare O’Reilly and Francis Rose. Better still, treat yourself to a foraging course with local experts such as Robin Harford (https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/foraging-courses) or Chris Holland (wholeland.org.uk).
  2.  Avoid gathering food from roadsides or anywhere else that could be contaminated by car exhausts, insecticides or weedkillers.
  3. Make sure you are gathering food from a healthy plant and that you only take small amounts from it.
  4. Wash your crop well before eating. Try small amounts of new foods to ensure you aren’t sensitive to them.