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What is wild anyway?

It’s a question I’ve found myself asking a lot recently, when I’ve stumbled across some edible in the middle of nowhere that was clearly once cultivated by human hand (or at least the parent plant must have been). Just because I found it growing without help can I claim it as a wild food worthy of writing about?

I turned to my old friend the dictionary for some clarity on the matter.

 

Wild [wahyld]

adjective

- living in a state of nature; not tamed or domesticated: a wild animal; wild geese.

- growing or produced without cultivation or the care of humans, as plants, flowers, fruit, or honey: wild cherries.

- uncultivated, uninhabited, or waste: wild country.

-to grow unchecked.

 

It seems then, if it’s happily growing without support or human intervention then it’s wild - enough to please me anyhow! Perhaps ‘feral’ would be a better word to use in many cases but it feels like splitting hairs (and I have enough of those...). 

When I get to thinking about it, almost every plant we class as native these days has it’s origin somewhere else if we get to tracing it far enough (just like us human inhabitants too!)... In that case I’ll just stick to some of the more unusual or exotic species you might stumble across on your wanderings and like me wonder if they’re useful to you. It’s rather exiting isn’t it?!

 Edible Lilac flowers

In late Spring or early Summer you may be lucky enough to discover an explosion of Lilac blossom Syringa vulgaris, most likely abuzz with bees and other insects. You may even have one in yours or a neighbours garden which is where you’d most expect them to be found. The blooms are perfectly edible and can be scattered to brighten deserts and salads, or made into a sweet tea. For something next level check out this Lilac-Infused Ice Cream recipe from The Daily Spud>

 

Edible Rape flowering stalksEdible Rape flowering stalksI’ve eaten Rape Brassica napus flowering tops (intro picture at top of page) which are delicious - akin to young sprouting Broccoli. A member of the same family and highly recognisable, it pops up everywhere at anytime and does rather well for itself! Don’t pick from the crop itself of course (that’s stealing not foraging!) and beware of any that may have been sprayed with pesticides or suffer heavy roadside pollution.

You’ll want to pick the flowering tops with a good portion of the stem just before the flowers fully open and briefly boil or steam just as you would broccoli. Rape contains a higher oil content so you won’t want to eat quite so much as you would other steamed veggies, and if you suffer extreme hay fever at the behest of this plant perhaps you shouldn’t attempt to eat it after all!

 

Fat Hen Chenopodium album is an old escaped-from-cultivation plant popular in India and found growing wild pretty much everywhere in Britain! See our detailed post on recognising this nutrition-dense plant> 

 

Edible Borage flowers - photo from Wikipedia by PaasikiviEdible Borage flowers - photo from Wikipedia by PaasikiviBorage Borago officinalis is a pretty and relatively unusual sighting from Southern to Central Europe, I’ve found it growing on the uppermost slopes of a farmed hill beside woodland overlooking a Bedfordshire village. It has edible flowers that can appear from June to September and taste a little like cucumber, perfect for adding to salads or browsing on the trail for an unexpected pick-me-up!

 

The strikingly exotic Monkey Puzzle tree common in fancy parks and gardens, produces giant versions of the more familiar pine nut. I’ll let the Urban Huntress tell you more> 

 

Bring a bag in late Summer to Autumn for a casual stroll along an isolated hedgerow may reward you with crisp Apples, give them a taste before you gather too many so you know whether you’re working with an eating or cooking variety. Varieties of Apple are slightly more expected though the Pears were a nice surprise! As I’ve mentioned in my previous recipe posts on the subjects, a chat with the farmer that owns the land revealed he didn’t plant them and figures they grew from the seeds of a core discarded by the workers of the brick industry that worked the land before him. To me it echoed what must have happened to every fruiting tree in Britain when our ancient ancestors trod the landscape, someone or something ate fruit and the seeds cast then had a chance to grow, and grow they did!

 

Need some Horseradish? It grows in more places than you might expect. Wear goggles if you’re going to grate it yourself as it’s potent defence puts the strongest of onions to shame! 

 

Whilst out on a run I even found an extensive patch of potatoes growing well in the bushes surrounding a farmers out of the way compost heap, though not exactly prepared I let them be! If you’ve ever grown potatoes yourself you’ll recognise them straight away, though take care not to confuse any other members of the Nightshade family which have similar flowers!

 

A word of warning; if you’re new to foraging and think you might have stumbled across some wild Parsley or Carrot perhaps give it a miss this time (at least until you get to know the whole family) – the most common confusion made by folks who have eaten the deadly Hemlock. To find out more about the unfriendly plants waiting in the wilds, check out our (slightly dark humoured) post on the poisonous plants you might encounter whilst foraging – and exactly what they do to you!

 

Urban Rowan berries in Autumn - image from everystreetinlondon.comUrban Rowan berries in Autumn - image from everystreetinlondon.comThe wild aspect can go the other way in that a native ‘wild’ species is tended to by man. In late Autumn and early Winter you can gather Rose hips and Rowan berries from a number of landscaped ‘ornamental’ plantings, popular around industrial estates, public parks and new housing though take care to avoid high traffic standings for the risk of pollution and don't get yourself in trouble with the law. All species of Rose are edible so it really doesn’t matter if you’ve discovered a truly wild Dog Rose or a garden escapee! Both Rose and Rowan can be made into unusual jellies and contain a more than decent hit of vitamin C to carry you through flu season.

 

Invasive Japanese Knotweed shoots can be eaten like asparagus!Invasive Japanese Knotweed shoots can be eaten like asparagus!Alien invaders

Though a great many garden escapees go on to live out their wild or feral days in peace, we have a number of new arrivals upsetting the natural balance of our native ecosystem such as Japanese Knotweed (eat the young shoots like asparagus) and the stunningly beautiful yet problematic Himalayan Balsam.

Exotic and edible Montbretia flowers - image from wildflowerfinder.orgExotic and edible Montbretia flowers - image from wildflowerfinder.orgThe sight of Montbretia Tritonia x crocosmiflora can transport you to a tropical paradise and is an edible flower and a particularly good food colouring like saffron. 

 

The fact that these invaders can be eaten is perhaps one way of helping us solve the problem so, contrary to our usual advice of only take what you need, you are encouraged to gather as much as you can if not all of what you find! Take care not to have the opposite effect and actively spread the seeds and growth of such plants.

 

So there you have it - a foraging walk in the English countryside may well reward you with far more than your bargained for! Another great reason to pay close attention to what is around us in the moment and take advantage of any opportunities that present...

 

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What do you think? What is wild to you? We’d love to hear what unexpected plants you’ve found whilst foraging or out for a stroll so come back and share your experiences in the comments below!

 

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Sarah is an artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more


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