This information is designed simply to introduce you to the plants that grow around us. It is by no means a conclusive list of all edible or poisonous species. Any foraging you undertake is done entirely at YOUR OWN RISK. Do not rely on this alone to fully identify the plants you find before consuming.
How to identify Sea Aster:
Sea Aster grows in the drier mud in tidal marshes and harbour areas just out of the waters reach but they really don’t mind being covered on a regular basis.
The plants grow in clusters of lance shaped leaves, with that thicker fleshy nature that seems to come with any salt tolerant coastal plant so are at least 2mm thick. Depending on the age they have an obvious central rib with others lightly visible along the length of the leaf and can have a red tinge to the stem. Another identifying feature is that they tend to develop a slight curve at their tip, likened to a show horn.
The flowers are quite beautiful, sending up a sprig of spectacular purple ‘daisies’ with prominent yellow centres, appearing July and continuing late into September.
Lax flowered & Common Sea Lavender (which apparently won’t do you any harm but hasn’t got such as nice a flavour as Sea Aster) grows in the same locations and, especially the Lax variety looks remarkably close! The flowers are very different though, smaller and clearly not daisy shaped, and its leaves are generally wider with a wavier edge and more rounded tips. There could be a mixture of both species so take your time to identify each leaf picked.
Sea Plantain is a fleshier combination of its inland cousins, with long lance shaped leaves like Ribwort Plantain (albeit more tendril-like) and sporting the recognisable ‘rat tails’ of Common Plantain when flowering and going to seed. Again it’s edible so no real worries if you do mistake it – though it’s nice to know you’re foraging the right thing!
Always take care foraging in marsh environments, deep mud can be dangerous.
How to identify Sea Aster (Aster tripolium)
How to identify Sea Beet:
As its name suggests you’ll find this species in view of the sea, it grows almost everywhere around the UK coast though absent from the far North of Scotland. It can grow up to an impressive 1.2m in height and is found usually amongst shingle or sandy soil, though in windier locations it will adopt a more sprawling nature.
The leaves are a dark green, somewhat triangular, and have a shiny, almost waxy feel - varying in size depending on the location and age of the plant from between a couple of inches to nearly a foot in length. Adaptation to its environment means the leaves are thick and fleshy compared to any similar inland lookalikes.
The clustered flowers form on spikes (June to September) technically lack petals and so are also green with almost the same waxy texture as the leaves.
The plant looks quite similar to Dock (another edible plant most people can safely recognise) due to its distinctive flower spikes, curled leaf edges and is sometimes similarly tinged with red.
Sea Beet is also known as Wild Spinach as it looks and tastes so similar.
How to identify Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris maritima) aka Wild Spinach
How to identify Sea Purslane:
Sea Purslane grows in bushes up to 1m tall boasting plump green-silver leaves approximately 1-2cm long with reddened stalks the lower half of which often disappear underwater at high tide.
The upward facing leaves are covered in delicate scales which lend the plant its silvery finish. It grows well in salt marshes near estuaries, channels and coastal pools, producing flowering stalks from June to September which are also edible.
Nothing we can think of, it's a striking plant!
Always take care when walking in a marsh environment – it’s easy to get lost and deep mud can be dangerous.
How to identify Sea Purslane (Atriplex portulacoides)
How to identify Marsh Samphire:
Perhaps you've already wondered what on earth this strange seaweed-eske lumpy plant is, growing in the mud of tidal marshes and harbours from July onwards. Marsh Samphire is certainly weird looking but one of the easiest coastal plants to identify.
It has no leaves as such, rather forming upright 'twigs' of green salty flesh you can pierce with a finger nail. Depending on the concentration of salt in its environment Samphire can be tinged with red or purple. Older and larger plants are tougher and woody towards the base.
Gather wild plants from locations with low risk of pollution and never from private or restricted areas without permission!
Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is of another botanical family altogether and grows high amidst the shingle and rocks. It has a more recognisably plant like growing style in comparison and flatter leaves. It's name may cause some confusion when searching identification books, though is also edible.
How to identify Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea) aka Glasswort
How to identify Wild Strawberries:
In late Spring the familiar rounded white flowers with yellow centres draw attention to the plants, usually growing in a sunny spot near woodland. The flower quickly fades after pollination from which the fruit will grow, starting out yellow and turning red throughout June.
They have the same distinctive serrated leaves as the cultivated variety, arranged in threes and forming a dense carpet.
Wild Strawberries are much smaller than what we’re used to finding from the supermarket, maxing out at a dainty 1cm. The seeds are on the outside of the berry and because of their tiny size the surface appears lumpy.
The Barren Strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) produces a dry red berry that won’t harm you, just likely disappoint! The petals of the flowers are notched into heart shapes and seem to stand apart from the flowers centre to display a green star behind. The life cycle of the Barren Strawberry seems to occur much earlier, finishing in May as the Wild Strawberry is just beginning so really shouldn’t be confused.
How to identify Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
How to identify a Bramble / Blackberry bush:
Look for a tangle of strong prickly vines climbing other plants, fences, and shrubs - or lacking that climbing its own tough older growth. Blackberry leaves are serrated, roughly oval and arranged in threes. The clustered berries develop in place of white flowers with five petals.
While Raspberries could be mistaken for unripe berries they're not going to get you into trouble. As far as we know there is nothing poisonous with clustered berries like a Blackberry.
How to identify a Bramble / Blackberry bush
How to identify Elder:
The large pointed oval leaves and fast growth of the Elder often stand out from its usual neighbours of Blackthorn and Hawthorn, more obvious when in flower or dripping with clusters of small dark berries. The leaves themselves have a finely serrated edge and are arranged in opposite pairs along the branch stems ending in one single leaf.
Elder is fairly well identifiable with its downward drooping berry clusters yet there are some poisonous plants that could be confused to the untrained eye. Dwarf Elder holds its berry clusters upright, and Dogwood has similarly shaped leaves but the berries are not produced in the same kind of umbrella arrangement.
Another useful way to spot a Dogwood is the carefully split the leaf in half horizontally - when the halves are gently pulled apart they will be held together by strings from their prominent veins.
It is also similar in appearance to another white flowered tree, the Rowan but with a more chaotic growing style and wider leaves. Rowan berries are red & edible when cooked so worth gathering if you've found some.
How to identify Elder flowers & berries
How to identify a Pear Tree:
Depending on the age of the tree, a Pear tree can reach a considerable size, or bear fruit from a surprisingly small sapling. The bark is smooth in places.
The leaves of a pear tree are oblong/oval.
It has white to pink blossom in Spring, later developing the familiar fruit late Summer to early Autumn.
Pear trees look very similar to apple trees in terms of leaf shape, blossom, and bark so can be a little tricky to correctly identify before the fruit comes.
True wild pears (Pyrus pyraster) are very much smaller than the cultivated varieties available in supermarkets, borne amidst thorns, and nowhere near as sweet (and not found in Britain). The 'wild' pears we're likely to come across are a believed subspecies of cultivated Pyrus communis, which easily hybridise so can be difficult to categorize - the good news is, it really doesn't matter. Life's short enough so just enjoy the fruit!
How to identify a Pear tree (Pyrus communis) foraged wild fruit
How to identify a Plum tree:
The bark of a plum tree is relatively smooth, so far as bark goes, with horizontal banding patterns. The trunks and branches tend to be much more uniformly circular compared to other trees, this pleasing aesthetic perhaps one of the reasons they’re so often planted in parks and gardens.
The leaves are tear-shaped with slight serrations and vary from a couple of inches to a hands width in length. In spring they blossom with multi-layered flowers, around an inch in diameter and ranging from white to pink depending on the variety. Blossom is always a marker to me to keep an eye on that spot later in Summer since there’s going to be something worth having!
At the peak of the plum season you barely need to bother looking at the hedgerow since the smell of the fermenting fruit already on the ground will soon give their position away, so follow your nose to the scent of cider/wine!
Plums tend to have a recognisable cleft on one side of the fruit, creating the ‘butt’ shape the kiddies (and us adults with a childish sense of humour!) like to smirk at.
For more information on identifying the different wild varieties (Cherry Plums, Mirabelles, Damsons & Sloes)see our blog post.
The only real problem plant I worry could be misidentified is a Laurel which does have a similar shaped leaf to the plum species, though much thicker with a waxy surface, and also go on to develop fat red-black berries from a shared stalk and not individually from the branches like true Plums.
The Cherry Laurel is a relative of the Plum (Prunus laurocerasus) though bearing inedible bitter berries.
How to identify a wild Plum tree (Prunus)
How to identify a Dog Rose:
The wild or Dog rose has a much simpler flower compared to the cultivated varieties we're used to seeing in gardens and can be anywhere from white to pink. The petals have the same heart shape to them but are arranged in a single layer of five. Each flower lasts only a day or so before the petals fall and the 'hip' develops in their place.
Rose leaves are oval, ending in a point, with tiny serrations along the edge and the branches are woody and slender with the familiar sharp prickles.
Rose Hips are easily spotted in Autumn, the long red-orange berries brightening the landscape of thinning hedgerows.
Be sure that you are in fact gathering from a true rose and not a red berried namesake since some plants are named as such for their general resemblance yet are not related.
I can't think of any other prickly plant, poisonous or otherwise, that produces the same distinctive oval berries.
How to identify a wild Rose aka Dog Rose (Rosa canina)