This past Saturday, I went on a guided foraging walk with Daisy in east London. Got way too much sun!
It was so helpful to have a guide. I’ve considered just trying it with a book, but it’s hard to beat being able to ask questions and watch the way someone else watches. It reminds me of learning how to draw or paint, part of learning how it works is learning how to change your perspective. So it’s useful to observe the way someone else sees things. I’d still like to get a good book about it, but now I feel like I have a better idea of what I’d like to get out of that book.
The walk was from 10:30am to 2:30pm with one bathroom break but pretty much no other stops. Didn’t really need to stop for lunch since we were grazing anyway, but we did pause at the floating bakery. I had one of the best muffins I’ve ever had, felt like I needed to lie down afterward. He’s open Friday to Sunday, worth checking where he’s at online since he moves around a little.
Clockwise from top-left, spiraling inward: Sage, salad burdock, Horseradish root, Sweet Bay leaves, rocket, fresh Fennel seed, Pineapple weed, thyme, Hawthorne berries, Elderberries (unripe, not edible), rosehips, Mirabelle plums, Poplar mushrooms.
The plants are listed in the order that we encountered them. Notes are mostly what I learned on the walk, though there are some additional points related to things I’ve learned from a little further research online. These notes are made for my personal reference purposes and are a work in progress. Always do your own research when deciding whether put something on or in your body, foraged or otherwise.
xxxxx If it’s highlighted, it was collected
🍎 Produces edible fruit
🍄 Edible fungi
🌼 Produces edible flowers
🌰 Produces edible seeds / nuts
🍃 Produces edible leaves
🥔 Produces edible root
⚠️ May require labour-intensive preparation or require caution
- Cork Oak
- Normally found in Portugal. Didn’t collect anything from this, I don’t cork my own bottles! Neat to see though.
- False Acacia
- Good for finding Chicken of the Woods 🍄, though Willow is better for CotW. Can also be good for Hen of the Woods 🍄.
- Dog Rose / Wild Rose ⚠️🍎
- Has quite small leaves. When rose hips ripen, can look like a waterfall of red berries. Use the flowers to make rose water, the rose hips to make rose hip syrup (very high in vitamin C). Can use other rose hips as well, but smaller is best, and the reddest hips will be the nicest looking syrup. The softer they are the better, then you don’t have to cook them as long and will lose fewer nutrients. Supposedly after the first frost is best; this is likely because they are quite soft after a frost. Can get a similar effect by freezing ripe rose hips, then thawing and cooking. Be careful when cooking, the seeds inside have little hairs and can be irritating. A muslin cloth works well for straining the pulp, and to ensure none of the hairs get through.
- Elder ⚠️🌼🍎
- Flowers can be made in to elderflower syrup or can be battered and deep fried. Green (unripe) elderberries can be brined like capers, ripe berries can be juiced. *Use caution though*. A lot of the Elder is poisonous, so woodier parts need to be carefully avoided and unripe berries have to be prepared properly. See this elderberry caper recipe for an explanation and good prep tips.
- Paper birch
- Australian native, great as a firelighter.
- Magnolia 🌼
- Flowers can be sweet pickled when still a bud. Certain cultivars taste like a cross between ginger and cardamom. This blog has some good tips about safety and the taste of different magnolias.
- Fig 🍎🍃
- The fruit is great of course, but the leaves are also edible! Apparently they have a coconutty flavour. Can steep the leaves, good in things like rice pudding or custard. See this blog post for ideas.
- Strawberry tree 🍎
- So called because the ripe fruit kind of looks like strawberries. Can just eat them, or can pickle them. Taste is citrussy orange / strawberry.
- Bleeding bracket
- Funghi that’s often a sign of a dying tree (timber!).
- Ginko biloba ⚠️🌰
- Nut is good for higher brain function, but not necessarily worth the work (fruit smells like vomit when ripe).
- Turkish Hazel 🌰
- Can be eaten like a normal hazelnut. Looks like an alien, inside is sticky. Kinda wish I’d grabbed some of these, apparently you can pick them while green and allow them to ripen at home (more info). Here’s a good description of foraging Turkish Hazelnuts.
- Sweet chestnut 🌰
- These are the ones you roast at Christmas, not the Horse chestnut. Should be ready around the end of September. Can also microwave them. More info.
- When green pinecones are macerated in alcohol and then re-distilled, you can get a taste like kiwi.
- Cherry 🌼🍎
- Steep cherry blossom in water and sugar syrup and you get an almondy, marzipan-like flavour. Here’s one recipe to try.
- Black Walnut ⚠️🌰
- Can eat the nuts raw or pickle them. For pickling, need to harvest them when young before the nut has dried out. Iodine comes from the flesh that surrounds the nut, so wear gloves! More info about gathering black walnuts, and a recipe for pickled walnuts.
- Mulberry 🍎
- Black and White mulberry are nice, heat can scorch the fruit though. Silkworms feed on white mulberry leaves.
- Japonica Quince 🍎
- A shrub that flowers in the winter (white, pink, bright red), pretty common on housing estates. Can use the fruit like quince. Definitely need to cook it, maybe try this recipe.
- Barberries 🍎
- Look like tiny bunches of grapes when ready. It’s a spiky bush, so be careful. I’m not very familiar with what barberries look like, this seems like a good indicator.
- Loquots 🍎
- Turkish shops sometimes sell these, they’re small-ish orange fruits. Can be a little astringent if underripe, great when ripe.
- Sweet bay 🍃
- Try the leaves in custard or rice pudding. Possible to propagate?
- Pineapple weed 🍃
- A trendy plant right now. It’s truly a weed, can find it all over near trodden paths. Often one of the few plants that remains green during a very hot spell. Crush the “berries” between your fingers, smells pineapple-y. Can steep it to create a sugar syrup, try it in cocktails.
- Medlars 🍎
- Has a few alternative names including “cul de chien” (with good reason). Medieval fruit. Lay them out to let them blet first. That’s a term I’d never heard before. “Bletting” is allowing the fruit to almost half rot, go brown and soft. Taste is almost like a cross between an apple and a date. Wish I’d collected some of these, I guess you’re supposed to collect them when green.
- Crabapples 🍎
- Crabapples are everywhere. The ones we saw looked almost like little cherries. Need to get more familiar with the varieties that exist.
- Poplar mushrooms 🍄
- Poplar mushrooms are called as such since they grow on fallen Poplar trees. It’s not their official name though, they don’t really have a common name in the UK. They’re good eating, very nutty. Some of the ones we collected had maggots that had crawled up through the stem, but it was very easy to cut that away.
- Oyster mushrooms 🍄
- Found on fallen logs. White in the summer, greyish in late summer, brown in the autumn. Get “meatier” later in the year.
- Dryad’s saddle 🍄
- Good eating. Outer edges are most tender. Goes very stiff when past its best.
- Yellow stainer ☠️
- Looks like a frilled mushroom, but stains yellow if you press it. Causes upset stomach, is one of the most commonly mistaken mushrooms. Won’t kill you, but you’re not going to have a good time. More info
- Woody nightshade ☠️
- Low shrub related to potatoes, has very beautiful, inviting red glossy berries. This could kill. More info
- Meadowsweet 🍃🌼
- Baby leaves are good in salad, the flowers can be made in to a syrup. More info
- Hops 🌼
- Great for brewing beer, of course. Could also use it to infuse other things, keep in mind the bitter herbiness.
- Sloes 🍎
- Often used for infusing alcohol of course (gin, brandy, etc.), but could also use in cordial or jam. Would go well with crabapples.
- One of the few trees that will always burn, even when freshly chopped.
- Blackberries 🍎
- The variety that bears smaller fruit is better for pie. They hold their shape a bit better so everything doesn’t go so liquidy.
- Hawthorn berries 🍃🍎
- Can make a zingy ketchup. The darker the berries the better, these varieties tend to be sweeter. Allow to ripen fully first, and try to target the trees that look “heavy” (easier work collecting the berries). In the spring, the leaves are edible. Be careful if you have a heart condition; can be helpful for this, but need to be wary if already taking heart-related medications.
- Mugwort 🍃
- Good for lucid dreaming.
- Horseradish 🥔🍃
- Leaves look kind of like Comfrey, but leaves are waxy not fuzzy. Root is excellent, of course, but can eat the leaves too. They’re similar to a mustard green. Can eat baby leaves raw, larger leaves are good prepared similarly to kale. Possibilities for root: horseradish sauce, horseradish vodka for Bloody Marys, mix a little grated horseradish in to mash w/ a roast. Supposedly root can be antifungal as well, worth looking in to this.
- Pear 🍎
- Most pears do not ripen on the tree, must be picked while still very firm. Asian pears are an exception.
- Comfrey ⚠️🍃
- Leaves are a similar size to Horseradish but leaves are fuzzy. It’s a great fertiliser. Leave a bunch of leaves in a bucket with water and let putrify, then spray on soil. Must do this outside, it *stinks*. Found out afterward that you can potentially eat them. Some studies say that the leaves are bad for the liver, but this has mostly been found to be a problem with Russian Comfrey, supposedly English Comfrey should be fine. Need to look in to this more, Comfrey seems to be everywhere so would be cool if edible.
- Fairy ring mushroom 🍄
- Little guys! Good to eat, but the ones we found were a little crispy from the summer sun. More info
- Sage 🍃
- One of my favourites. Sage butter, fried sage, sage mushrooms, etc. Will dry some of what I collected, and apparently the stalks flavour oil really well.
- Thyme 🍃
- Another favourite, used in a similar way to sage.
- Mirabelle plum 🍎
- Yellow, delicious! Shake the branches to knock down the ripe ones. I think the ones we found were Mirabelle de Nancy, specifically.
- Apple 🍎
- There weren’t a ton of ripe apples yet, but there were a few to be had.
- Rocket 🍃🌰🌼
- SO MUCH wild rocket in east London! And so much of the plant is edible. Leaves of course, but the young seed pods can be pickled and the flowers are good garnish. From a distance it kind of looks like mustard since the plant can get spindly and the flowers are the same sort of yellow. Makes a really excellent pesto since the leaves are so peppery.
- Salad burnet 🍃
- Leaves either taste like cucumber or watermelon, depending on your taste buds. Apparently it’s related to meadowsweet.
- Fennel 🌰
- Seeds can be eaten fresh for a *very* bright fennel flavour, or dried.
- Artist bracket
- A type of fungi, you can draw on it. More info
- Redcurrants 🍎
- We were too late in the season for these, or maybe too late due to it being near a well-trodden path.
I made pesto from the wild rocket with olive oil, lemon juice, walnuts, and lactose-free cheese. That night, I made pasta with some sauteed mushrooms, sage, and thyme. Topped it with a little bit of the pesto and some rocket flowers. Also made rosehip syrup. I thought they would be quite sour because of their vitamin C reputation but it’s very floral, not sour at all!
I’d like to go out again, there were a bunch of things that I now understand we could have collected but didn’t. Might be worth looking for a telescopic pole with a basket. In London—and I imagine a lot of other urban green areas—a lot of the blackberries / apples / cherries that are reachable get picked really quickly, often even before they’re ripe. A pole would give a little more reach.
I’d also bring more canvas bags next time, it would have been useful to separate the leaves in to one and the firmer stuff in to another. Also, some sort of hard container or basket is probably a good idea for soft things like fruit. And definitely a sharp knife and / or scissors. Good opportunity to get one of these guys. If it’s soft fruit season, it would probably also be useful to bring an old sheet. Could lie that down and then shake the tree / bush to more easily collect the fallen fruit.
Before going out again, I’m going to get a little more familiar with a few good-to-knows related to ownership and cleanliness.
Foraging in an urban environment means considering things like dog pee, pollution, and pesticides. I’m not that worried about pee, can just wash things and try to pick higher on the plant. I feel like that probably helps with pollution too. I’m not sure about pesticides though… I feel like UK land management is pretty weed-friendly actually in the interest of bees and butterflies, but I imagine pesticides are used in some places. Worth keeping in mind, and I think I’d be a bit more wary in certain cities stateside. There seem to be a ton of decent guides online that share some of this general knowledge, I might start with this one.