Conopodium majus: Pignuts and How to Forage for them

by Paul Kirtley

Share it!
Pignut, Conopodium majus, growing in dappled sunlight

Pignut, Conopodium majus, growing in dappled sunlight. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

To the uninitiated, the pignut, Conopodium majus, can be hard to spot, particularly in the spring. But once you’ve been shown and know in which places to look, they are surprisingly common. Leaves appear in the spring, then the flowering heads in late spring and into summer. The plant flowers in late spring/early summer and once the flowering head dies back, the pignut leaves no above-ground sign of its presence. It is the underground part of the plant we are most interested in – the root or tuber – so the first opportunity you’ll have to gather them is in the early spring when you see the leaves appearing.

Pignuts are one of the more palatable wild foods. The tuber can be eaten raw and is very tasty. In flavour and consistency pignuts are something like celery heart crossed with raw hazelnut or sweet chestnut and sometimes have a spicy aftertaste of the sort you get from radishes or watercress. Pignuts can also be added to soups and stews to increase carbohydrate content. There are records of pignuts – along with silverweed roots – being relied upon as caloric staples at times in the past. Therefore these diminutive roots could provide an important survival food even now. But even if you are not interested in survival skills, they are a great wild food for which to forage.

The pignut is in the carrot family, or apiaceae, and the leaves do bear some resemblance to carrot, at least in structure. As a general rule people should be wary of this family of plants as it contains some very poisonous plants such as Hemlock, Conium maculatum, and Hemlock Water Dropwort, Oenanthe crocata. The pignut is relatively easy to recognise from its above-ground or aerial parts, partly due to their small size compared to other members of the carrot family. The leaves are finely divided and delicate.

The leaves of Pignut, Conopodium majus, finely divided and delicate.

The leaves of Pignut, Conopodium majus, finely divided and delicate. Photo: Paul Kirtley

The pignut is common in many parts of Europe and its range extends to North Africa. Pignuts grow in open woods and in well-established (and ungrazed) grassland. In the woods they like to grow in areas that receive a reasonable amount of sunlight. On bright spring days you’ll spot pignut leaves in areas of dappled sunlight, often right beside the trail you are walking along. The plant likes well-drained soil. You won’t find it growing in damp ground.

Pignut, Conopodium majus, growing prolifically next to a woodland trail.

Pignut, Conopodium majus, growing prolifically next to a woodland trail. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The most important edible part – the nutritious underground starchy tuber or ‘nut’ – is unlike other members of the family. They are generally roughly spherical in shape and typically the size of a hazelnut but some specimens have been found as large as golf balls. The outer surface of the tuber is a similar maroon colour to a sweet chestnut although will be covered in soil when first removed from the ground. They can be smooth or sometimes a bit bumpy or warty-looking.

Pignut, Conopodium majus, tuber with shoot. Straight from the ground.

Pignut, Conopodium majus, tuber with shoot. Straight from the ground. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Apart from mistaking the aerial parts of the plant for other apiaceae in their early stage of growth, you should also avoid mistaking the underground part of the plant for other roots and tubers. Pignut leaves are often found shoulder-to-shoulder with bluebells, Hyancinthoides non-scripta, and so underground the pignut tuber is found near to the poisonous bluebell’s onion-like bulb. A badger expert once told me that many people observe badgers “eating bluebell bulbs” whereas in fact they are digging up and munching the pignuts which grow alongside. Studies have shown that pignuts constitute up to 5% of the diet of some badger populations. You can also find lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, in the same areas as pignuts and while the roots of these are edible at certain times of the year (but ONLY COOKED), you don’t want to be making this mistake either.

If you keep the leafy shoot of the pignut connected with the tuber then you have a positive identification. Achieving this, however, is quite fiddly. The tuber is typically 10-20cm under ground and the shoot gets thinner and thinner as you get closer to the tuber. It is very easy to break it and detach one from the other. Pulling the nut out of the ground by the shoot is out of the question. Also, the shoot tends to come out of the side of the tuber then bend at right angles to continue its journey upwards and out of the ground. So as you follow the shoot down to the tuber, this makes it harder to identify the tuber itself as it is rarely where you think it might be.

Students on courses I have taught where we have collected pignuts have sometimes commented they were under the impression that collecting pignuts is illegal in the UK. I think this impression is given by some wild food books singling out the harvesting of pignuts as illegal whereas this is only part of the story. The relevant part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 applies to all plants, not just pignuts. Unlike picking leaves from a plant, uprooting the plant itself is illegal without landowners permission, even if you are collecting for personal consumption. I would recommend anyone involved or interested in collecting wild foods in the UK to read and understand the BSBI’s Code of Conduct for the Conservation and Enjoyment of Wild Plants which gives a good overview not only of the relvant legislation but also ethical considerations.


To uncover a pignut.

Find a small stick around pencil thickness, cut it to pencil-length and create a point at one end.

Digging stick for a pignut, Conopodium majus

Digging stick for a pignut, Conopodium majus. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Clear the ground of leaves, etc around the pignut stem (don’t damage other plants though). Carefully follow the stem down into the ground by digging beside it with your stick. Don’t be ham-fisted; think lock-picking rather than digging.

Digging for a Pignut, Conopodium majus

Digging for a pignut, Conopodium majus. Photo: Paul Kirtley

As you get deeper, the stem becomes thinner and more easily broken; at this stage, imagine you are defusing a bomb and can’t disturb the wires or, pehaps, a less stressful yet suitably fiddly job. Either the stem will appear to stop (if it bends away from the little hole you’ve dug) or you’ll dig down on top of the nut. Either way you should be able to see where the nut is. Now carefully dig out the nut and recover the whole tuber plus shoot in one piece.

Pignut, Conopodium majus, tuber with leafy shoot intact

Keeping everything attached, with the tuber connected to the leafy shoot, allows for positive identification of the pignut, Conopodium majus. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

To prepare the pignut for eating, remove the outer skin; just squeeze/scrape it off…

Squeeze or scrape off the skin of the pignut, Conopodium majus.

Squeeze or scrape off the skin of the pignut, Conopodium majus. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Pignut, Conopodium majus, ready to eat.

This small tuber of the pignut, Conopodium majus, is now ready to eat. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

To eat, remove the outer skin; just squeeze/scrape it off. If you do this properly, you don’t need to wash the pignut or employ any other cleaning. You can then just eat it straight away. Or save it for later of course! Happy foraging…

 

My Recommended Field Guides:

  

 

Related Articles:

Foraging for Early Spring Greens: Some to Eat, Some to Avoid…

Brooklime, Veronica beccabunga

Primrose, Primula vulgaris: Wild food?

 

Disclaimer

This article is meant only as a guide and is largely a record of my recent forages. It is not a complete treatment of all edible plants that might be available. Nor does it provide a complete treatment of all poisonous plants that may also be present in the habitat where you find the above-mentioned plants. If you want to learn more about plant identification you should invest in some good field guides. The safest way to learn about edible wild plants is for someone who already has the knowledge to show you in person. Any foraging you do on your own is at your own risk.

The most important thing to remember when identifying wild foods is:

IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT!

 

 

The following two tabs change content below.
Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

Latest posts by Paul Kirtley (see all)

 

Here's the permalink for this article: Conopodium majus: Pignuts and How to Forage for them

Print/Email This Article:

Print it! Print it!

Email to a Friend Email to a Friend

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Nick Weston

Great post- looking to get stuck in to a few when I return from France to go with my frozen frogslegs!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Bonjour Nick! That’s an interesting food combination – let me know how it works….

Reply

Stasia

Great article – superb images make for easy identification of this plant from a family where danger lurks – as in hemlock etc. Thank you
Stasia

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Stasia and welcome!

Reply

Joep

Hi Paul,

Like your article. Unfortunately the pignut is (very) rare here in The Netherlands. But I like to post, great pictures!

Joep

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Joep, thanks. Glad you like the pictures!

Reply

Alison Delaney

Great article, Paul. Foraging, as you might remember with my sorrel obsession, is my favourite subject :D I have to say though, that I actually prefer looking for pignuts in the early Spring. For me, there seems to be less variety of foliage competing with it at that time of year and it’s easier to “get your eye in” and they become increasingly wispy which makes them harder to spot as the season progresses. I’ve eaten a fair few already this year but I’d like to preserve some too – any ideas how or how long they might keep? (Nick, you got any ideas on this too?)
Alison

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Alison, oh yes I do remember your sorrel obsession :) But in a good way. It’s always great to have people like yourself that take a special interest in something you are teaching.

Some people say they find the flowering heads of pignut easier to spot later in the spring and into summer than the early leaves but you’re right, once you get your eye in you spot them everywhere. One thing that confuses people too is that the cauline leaves (growing from the stem) are different to the basal leaves (at the bottom). The latter also wither early.

As for preservation – I’ve never tried to preserve them other than keeping them in a pocket for a few days when I was out in the woods – they dry out quite quickly. But I suppose (and this is just a supposition) that they might be quite good pickled, particularly if they maintained some of their crunch. Might be worth an experiement….

All the best

Paul

Reply

Dark Horse Dave

That’s the clearest guide I’ve read on this subject Paul. I’ll be keeping a good lookout in the woods now!

Many thanks

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave, those are very kind words indeed! Good luck with your foraging.

All the best

Paul

Reply

Alison Delaney

“One thing that confuses people too is that the cauline leaves (growing from the stem) are different to the basal leaves (at the bottom). The latter also wither early.”

Well, that explains a lot. I wondered about that only the other day thinking that there must be some sort of natural degredation in the stem leaves. Didn’t realise they were just different. Great bit of info there, thanks :0)

I may well try pickling them and maybe putting some in oil too. I wonder if they can be frozen. Could be interesting.

As for the sorrel, guess who made sorrel tart just the other day with icing sugar and soured cream? :0) It was flippin’ delicious too.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Sounds delicious! Shame – I’ve laid off sorrel and anything with concentrations of oxalic acid since I had a kidney stone last year. That was flippin’ painful :)

Let me know how you get on with the pignut preservation experiments. I might try pickling some myself if I get the chance.

Reply

Darren Roberts

Hello Paul, thanks for a great article with some good clear pictures too. I have seen quite a few Pignut plants this year near me but as yet i have not dug for any,maybe this weekend i think ,thats if the local Badgers have not beaten me to it already.
Regards
Darren

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Darren, glad you liked the article and pics. I’m told it slows down the website page loading times a little but I think clear pics are really important. Let us know how you get on. And if you see any badgers, or sign of them…

All the best

Paul

Reply

Darren Roberts

Hello again Paul, yes i managed to find a few Pignuts last weekend and quite tasty too,the badgers missed these. Incidentally i have found some new badger setts too of which i intend to do some observing some early evenings.
Regards
Darren

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi there Darren, good to hear that the badgers left you some pignuts and you managed to find them :) Have fun watching the badgers – it’s a nice time of year for it.

All the best

Paul

Reply

Mus

Great article Paul, thanks. I have heard about these little critters several times over the years but have never found a clear enough description or illustration to make a satisfactory i.d. Your photos of the plant in situ and your explanation of the process of harvesting is very, very helpful. Cheers.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Mus, let us know if you find any…

All the best, Paul

Reply

jack.hendry

some great information there paul thanks,ive never come across pignuts before reading your blog.ive recently been out and since ive spotted my first one i was coming across them everywhere.I found most of them near blue bells.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Jack, thanks for letting me know. That’s great to hear – you’ve made my day. I’m glad I was able to help you discover something new :)

All the best

Paul

Reply

Ivo Brugman

As Joep already mentioned, very rare, also it is protected in The Netherlands, it is on the “red list”.
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nederlandse_Rode_lijst_(planten)

Very clear report on how to get this plant and where to get it.

Reply

David Southey

Found a bumper crop of Pig-nuts on my last foray to the woods! dug two to try, and they are lovely, very worth the little bit of effort it takes to find and dig out just for the taste alone.Many thanks Paul.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave

Great to hear you managed to find some and munch on them. I think they are delicious too!

All the best

Paul

Reply

Mark Hotson

Took a group of School children out to some local meadows two weeks ago, to ‘forage’ for Pignuts.The name itself fills the children with joyful anticipation.The process of hunting for them and then retrieving them is a skill in itself.The hour or so we spent doing this was very rewarding for one and all. Great pictures….. I am not sure whether I have enough patience to collect enough for a ‘Pignut broth’ ???
thanks.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Mark

What a fantastic experience to give to a group of school children. Wonderful work you are doing….

All the best

Paul

Reply

Sandra Warnock

Hi there Paul

I saw Pig Nuts on ” River Cottage” on TV and googled and found your info. Do you know if pig nuts are in NZ? We have many plants (weeds) brought here by the settlers. I would love to find pig nuts here, in NZ. Thanks for your info.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi there Sandra,

I don’t know if Pignuts are found in NZ. I’ll see if I can find out for you.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Jack

Can i chew on your pig nuts paul?

Reply

Paul Kirtley
richard booth

hi paul,i can my grandad telling me about pig nuts when i was around 8,i showed all my mates how to dig for them on our school playing field,i still dig the odd one up now when walking our dogs,reading this bought back all my childhood memories,great photos and wording loved it…..

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: