How to identify Common Sorrel:
Common or Garden Sorrel is the same you can buy in the supermarket with large floppy leaves.
Sorrel has delicate long arrow shaped leaves that grow from a central point, the pointed lobes of the arrow head extending clearly past where the leaf attaches to the stalk. Depending on the age of the plant the leaves can be anywhere from a few centimetres to nearly a foot in length and tend to have a slightly glossy wrinkled appearance. Reddish flowers appear in Summer on an upright stalk.
Most lookalikes like Dandelion, or relatives Dock and Buckwheat, are also edible in small amounts though they don't share quite the same flavour.
Take care to not confuse it with the similar large arrow shaped leaves of poisonous Cuckoo Pint (Arum maculatum) growing in shade - usually darker or with white mottling and spread across a wider area!
How to identify Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
How to identify Sheep Sorrel aka Sourgrass:
Sheep Sorrel has dainty lobed leaves growing in a dense rosette. Not quite arrow shaped, the pointed lobes by the stalks face slightly outward creating the shape of a sheep's rounded face and ears when turned upside down (on the younger short leaves anyway) which is useful for remembering the common name. While a handy tool for identification the name more than likely refers to the pastures where it is found growing, though I'm sure that sheep would enjoy a nibble as do we!
It's worth noting that Sheep Sorrel dislikes the presence of lime in the soil, so will apparently not be found near chalk - preferring instead acidic sandy soils.
The leaves are fleshy compared to the short grass around it with quite a succulent texture, though can become a little tough in late Summer and after the plant sends up its red flower spikes.
Young Common Sorrel or other species of Dock (also edible).
How to identify Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) aka Sourgrass
How to identify Wood Sorrel:
Wood Sorrel likes the light shade and rich soil of a deciduous woodland floor.
It's leaves are arranged in three heart shapes, creased down their centres like a child's paper-craft (similar to the familiar Clover leaf) blooming a striking pale flower with deep pink/purple veins along each of its five petals.
Beware of the highly poisonous Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) which could be confused with Wood Sorrel to the untrained eye due to it’s similar flower and habitat, albeit with very different leaves!
How to identify Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)
How to identify Watercress:
The clue to its favoured habitat is in the name, its roots need to be constantly wet so you’ll find it in pretty much any brook, stream or even ditches. Never pick from unclean water or sources with possible farm / sewage runoff!
Its stems are quite thick and succulent, the leaves being somewhat shiny and the thickness of spinach. The leaf size ranges quite widely from 1cm to 4cm and are circular to heart shaped with softly rounded, slightly-lobed edges.
Flowers are small and white.
Beware of the poisonous Marshwort (Apium nodiflorum) also known as 'Fools Cress' which can grow nearby - it shares white flowers but has a much sharper leaf shape with a sharper toothed edge so is quite easy to differentiate from the good guy.
How to identify Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
How to identify Water Mint:
As the name suggests, you’ll find this variety next to water. It seems to like fresh moving water like rivers and streams but will creep into ponds too. Much like watercress it is wise to investigate the cleanliness of the water you are foraging from.
Leaves are tear shaped with slight serrations along the edge and with prominent veins often tinged purple. Flowers are purple, small, and grouped into rounded tufts.
Members of the mint family can easily be distinguished by their square-shaped stem and familiar scent. They often have a covering of light hairs giving them a distinctive texture.
As with many wild plants there may be sinister lookalikes to the untrained eye, but they won’t give off the classic strong mint aroma - simply rub the leaves between your fingers and give them a sniff for fool proof identification!
The poisonous Dogs Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) or Annual Mercury (Mercurialis annua) has similar leaves at first glance and forms dense carpets in and around woodland but do not smell like mint.
How to identify Water Mint (Mentha aquatica)
How to identify Wild / Wood / Bear Garlic aka Ramsons:
Wild Garlic likes rich damp soils so is usually found alongside bluebells in a well established woodland or near the shelter of stone walls in an old garden - it does really well in a cemetery, but don't let that put you off. It’s often a discovery made with your nose before your eyes with the unmistakeably pungent aroma of garlic!
There’ll likely be a whole sea of it, it’s prolific once it gets growing, of ribbed lance-shaped leaves followed later by pretty white flowers. The size of the leaves varies depending on the plant and where they are in the season, but are generally between a few inches to nearly a foot long.
The highly poisonous Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis). Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) is also doing it’s thing in spring and young leaves might look similar.
The garlic odour is the key in safe identification, if a bruised leaf doesn’t smell like garlic leave it be.
How to identify Wild Garlic aka Bear Garlic / Ramsons (Allium ursinum)
How to identify Rosebay Willowherb aka Fireweed / Bombweed:
Rosebay Willowherb has long lance shaped leaves and form a spike of pink flowers on top of a reddened stem. It's famous for being one of the first plants to recolonise an area after fire and destruction and is widespread throughout Britain and Europe, growing on mass in thick stands usually near water, though sometimes forming dense thickets in drier woodland clearings and waste ground. It’s apparently not all that fussy and will make itself at home anywhere with good sunlight.
Willowherb grows fast appearing as seedlings in April and May and going on to produce tall spikes of bright pink flowers - sometimes as tall as a person if well watered. The flowers open in stages between Jun and September and are very popular with bees and other insects. The seeds develop quickly in long pods after each flower fades and progress into an equally impressive fluffy display.
There are many smaller species of willowherb that look very much alike. The varieties seem to readily hybridise so in some cases it can become tricky to tell which you are looking at though most, if not all, are edible. The only exception could be Greater Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) which although widely consumed in Russia may have been linked to an instance of poisoning including seizures.
Another prolific and impressive pink flowered plant you may encounter by the riverside is the invasive Himalayan Balsam - it's also edible so no harm can be had in gathering it too, in fact it’s encouraged!
How to identify Rosebay Willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) aka Fireweed / Bombweed