How to identify Sweet Chestnuts:
The best way to find a sweet chestnut tree is to look at the ground, which if one is near will likely be covered in remnants of the spiky protective nut capsules in varying shades of green (freshly fallen) and brown (older husks). It’s not a woodland to venture into barefoot or in sandals!
The leaves are large and long, a pointy oval as long as your hand (or more, I have small hands!) and quite deeply serrated along its edges. Sweet Chestnut trees grow large, up to 35m (115 ft), but even smallish saplings seem to be productive. The bark of an old tree is deeply textured into fissures often forming an obvious twist around the trunk.
Horse Chestnuts, otherwise known as Conkers. The protective nut capsules of the Horse Chestnut are not as viciously spiny as the Sweet Chestnuts’, they do have spines but are better described as pointy nubs on an otherwise bald green shell. Although the inedible nuts might look similar, the leaves of the Horse Chestnut are very different being ‘palmate’ or shaped like a hand instead of the single pointy leaves of the Sweet.
How to identify Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa)
How to identify Hazel / Cobnuts:
A Hazel tree sends up very straight long branches and due to their strength and flexibility have been valuable for weaving and other crafts for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For this reason you might encounter 'coppiced' Hazel trees (trees that are regularly cut down to the ground to encourage more young straight growth) which keeps them as more of a sprawling shape as opposed to the thick trunk the tree will develop if left alone.
Hazel leaves are circular with a slight point at the tip, slight and somewhat erratic serrations to their edge, and obvious straight leaf veins radiating from the centre.
The pale green nuts with their shaggy husks are visible quite early in the year, developing before the nut inside. Resist the urge to gather them too early as there'll be nothing but a disappointing fluff inside! They ripen between July and August and can be found up until around October, eventually turning brown - if the squirrels haven't cleaned up by then...
There are many varieties of Hazelnut, also called Filberts, of varying size and even some striking red-purple species. All are edible.
Do not confuse with Acorns from the Oak tree which contain toxic levels of tannin in their natural state, instead of a tattered husk acorns have a cup like base.
How to identify Cobnuts aka Hazel nuts (Corylus avellana)
How to identify a Beech Tree:
Large deciduous tree with smooth grey bark and lightly toothed oval leaves. Red varieties exist. Root system is shallow but often with an impressive spread across the woodland floor.
Look for fallen 'masts', oval capsules covered in tiny hooks and split into four (Alien(s) fans - think eggs!) that once contained the triangular nuts.
Nuts are produced on mass by a tree every few years so a tree that was extremely productive last year may not have much to offer this time around - meaning you should gather while you set eyes on them!
The Hazel has similar leaves and also ragged looking nut capsules but rarely attains the same size and produces round nuts instead of triangular.
How to identify a Beech Tree - foraging UK edible nuts
How to identify Bittercress aka Lambs Cress:
Check your gravel path or driveway, or around your potted plants and sandy flowerbeds since it loves to appear on freshly disturbed soil. New seedlings tend to appear in summer and winter and as an annual has a short life cycle, dying within the year.
Bittercress can grow up to 30cm in height, but generally the flowers and subsequent elongated seed pods are the only things to stretch that far, the rest of the plant keeping low to the ground. Each circular leaf varies from 5mm to 2cm in their elongated older shape, growing in opposite pairs from a single base ending in a single larger leaf. The hairs to which it owes its common name 'Hairy Bittercress' are small and hardy noticeable but do help to distinguish it from other species of wild cress.
Shepherds Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and other cress species (all edible).
How to identify Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) aka Lambs Cress
How to identify a Dandelion:
Identifying a dandelion is not as easy as you may initially think, since there are technically 250 species of the plant! Don't worry if you can't successfully tell all 250 from another though, I certainly can't and there are many botanists that can't even be completely sure due to hybridisation. There are no poisonous Dandelions.
Many Dandelions have obvious differences when compared side by side but still clearly follow the same 'rules' as the other dandelion species; a yellow feathery flower between 3-5cm in diameter (only one per stem but more than one per plant) which turns into the familiar white pom pom called a seed 'clock' when gone to seed.
The leaves form as a rosette and remain close to the ground (never on the flower stem) and are long and often deeply-lobed though can be as little as slight indentations along the edge on younger specimens. Depending on the age of the plant leaves can be just a couple of inches or up to a foot in length.
The root is a single strong taproot (much like a parsnip) and the plant is well adapted to leaving it, or pieces at least, in the ground in that the leaves will usually break away before the root can be pulled from the ground.
The entire plant exudes a bitter milky sap when broken containing latex.
Catsear is a fuzzier lookalike from the same family and can be used in much the same way.
Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has similar leaves along with a bitter milky sap but they grow up the stem.
How to identify a Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
How to identify Fat Hen aka Goosefoot:
Goosefoot is a good name to remember as it accurately describes the shape of the wide main leaves with deep lobes. The younger leaves higher on the stalk appear longer with less shape, becoming increasingly lance shaped the higher you look. The surface of the leaves develops a kind of curious mealy-white ‘bloom’ which can be rubbed away with your fingers.
The flowers develop in clusters much like those on nettles (inflorescence), hardly looking like a flower in the traditional sense but clearly get the job done, developing further into clusters of tiny edible seeds.
The overall plant grows to form a spire shape and, depending on the quality of the soil, ranges from 10 inches to several feet in height.
Good King Henry / Orache (an edible salt hardy relative of coastal areas)
A lookalike to beware of is Wormwood, also known as Mugwort which has a similar colour and growing habit but with very different fern like leaves.
Wormwood contains the toxic natural pesticide Thujone which can cause kidney failure, convulsions, and hallucinations in high enough doses!
How to identify Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) aka Goosefoot
How to identify Goosegrass aka Stickyweed / Cleavers:
Goosegrass grows pretty much anywhere though seems to really like bright sunny spots near hedgerows and other rich patches of ground. Flowers are white and seeds develop into small green balls that stick to animal fur and clothing.
Its leaves are narrow and slightly wider at the ends, arranged in a whorl at grouped intervals around the square stem. The ‘sticky’ nature is the real key in identification due to the coating of hooked hairs that grab a hold of clothing like velcro.
The plant is best harvested young at just a few inches and when each leaf is approx. 1cm, but goes on to reach tangled lengths of several feet with individual leaves up to 5cm.
Lady's Bedstraw and other members of the Galium family sporting the same striking leaf arrangement.
I’m not aware of anything dangerous that can be mistaken for Goosegrass.
How to identify Goosegrass (Galium aparine) aka Stickyweed
How to identify Gorse aka Furze / Prickly Broom:
You’ll find Gorse almost anywhere on high ground but most notably in places with sandy or poor quality soil; the coast, heath areas, scrub land and roadside embankments. It’s other name Furze refers to its preferred habitat of waste ground.
Gorse is an evergreen, reaching heights of up to 10 feet in some places, its colour coming from the tough modified-leaf spines rather than the trifoliate (in threes) leaves it starts life with which quickly die back as it arms itself with its signature spines. The seeds and seed pods are inedible.
The prolific yellow flowers are a similar shape to that of the pea and smell of coconut, sometimes likened to vanilla, appearing in early spring. They reach their peak of flowering around April and May, sometimes to the extent that hardly a spine can be seen through the mass of yellow, and continue in lesser quantities throughout most of the year.
The weather may play a part in the strength of the scent as there are times when I can hardly smell anything of a picked bloom, other times having been stopped in my tracks by the inviting perfume flowing from the bushes.
Do not confuse Gorse with Broom (Cytisus scoparius) which is poisonous and has no spines.
Care should be taken when foraging to ensure that you are still picking from the correct plant, and not a lookalike growing in the same location.
How to identify Gorse (Ulex europaeus) aka Furze
How to identify Saint Roberts Herb aka Cranesbill / Bloodwort / Stinky Bob:
Herb Robert is a pretty woodland herb with delicate pink star shaped flowers (up to 2cm across) that can be enjoyed from Spring through to October if conditions allow. The petals are streaked with darker pink-purple stripes towards their centre. Occasionally a white flowered variety can be found.
It prefers to grow in shaded undergrowth but is not limited to woodland, also popping up close to walls, stored junk, cars… any structure that casts a decent shadow!
Herb Robert grows in a sprawling fashion from a central point that seems to hover above the ground itself, attaining a height of around 30-40cm. The red roots connect with the soil weakly, almost on legs, and on loose ground can easily be dislodged yet this doesn’t seem to hinder it’s progress in taking over an area so long as it is well watered.
It’s leaves are deeply lobed and arranged in threes creating an almost fern like appearance with slightly hairy undersides and stem, and older leaves are often tinged red towards the edges along with the stem itself. The red seems to be a response to strong sunlight so exposed plants will usually display more red compared to shaded specimens.
The common name 'Stinky Bob' refers to the scent of its crushed leaves or stems, though not as strongly scented as other members of the geranium family some people find it unpleasant.
Introduced Pink Purslane (Claytonia sibirica) has similar flowers but very different leaves.
How to identify Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) aka Cranesbill
How to identify Dead Nettle aka White Archangel / Dumb Nettle:
There are subtle differences to identify the Dead Nettle over a Stinging Nettle, even before the flowers form; the serrations on the slightly heart shaped leaves are more rounded and so softer to look at, as are the hairs giving the whole plant a slightly fuzzy coating; the plant itself tends to keep to a lower height than the average stinging nettle at around a foot tall.
It’s usually found in the slightly longer growth by hedges, fence posts, and other sheltered locations
producing flamboyant creamy-white edible flowers seemingly throughout most of the year.
Stinging Nettle (differences explained above).
White variation of Hemp Nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit).
How to identify Dead Nettle aka White Archangel (Lamium album)
How to identify Sting Nettles:
Nettles are one of the first wild edibles to show up in early spring as soon as the ground thaws. They will also pop up anywhere they can from seeds dropped during the summer, and also spring back quickly from mowing so there will be new growth to be found even in Autumn.
I don’t think we need to go into too much detail about identifying a Stinging Nettle since most folks have encountered them in the past, and likely still harbour a healthy caution for them! Their abrasive nature means we have a foolproof (or perhaps foolhardy) way of identifying a nettle, which is by getting stung! If you don’t fancy trying that for the sake of identification you should look for the triangular serrated leaves arranged upon a long stem which can be anywhere from 1m to over 2m in height.
There are in fact quite a few species of stinging nettle throughout the globe, each with slight variations in appearance (and some apparently meaner than others).
Other lookalikes could be Dead and Hemp Nettles which will not sting.
How to identify Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)