Late winter and early spring is a lean time. As soon as shoots start to appear, however, there are some tender, young spring greens to gather. They grow quickly too – the early spring plants race to grow before the trees produce leaves and cut out much of the light to the forest floor.
You must be careful though – early spring plants often have defence mechanisms by way of toxins. Many of the wild flowers we associate with late winter and early spring – snowdrops, daffodils, lesser celandine, bluebells – contain poisonous substances. There are also less familiar plants you need to be wary of.
You should always take care to positively identify any plant you intend to eat. But in spring, before heading out, you should make a mental note that it is easier to be fooled by plants when they are not fully formed, than later in the year when you have more to go on. That said, there are spring greens that are easily identified…
In the article, any statements relating to the frequency of occurrence of the plant relates to the UK and temperate Europe.
Some Edible Spring Greens
Common Chickweed, Stellaria media
Chickweed is a common plant, found along waysides, on the edges of fields and under hedges. It sprawls and creates a straggly mound. The leaves are generally lush, unless the weather has been dry for a period when the plant begins to wilt.
Chickweed makes a juicy addition to salads. Chickweed does contain saponins – natural soap – which in large enough quantities are toxic. Indeed chickweed has been known to cause saponin poisoning in cattle. But it is rare and this is when the animal has eaten many kilos of the plant.
The stems are round, not square. Chickweed has small star-shaped white flowers with five petals (Stellaria comes from the Latin stellar, meaning star).
It is important you don’t confuse other species, such as the poisonous Yellow Pimpernel, for Chickweed. This is easy when the plants are in flower as the Pimpernel has yellow flowers. The key identification feature to look for in Chickweed is the single line of hairs running down one side of the stem.
Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Chrysosplenium oppositifolium
Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage is a plant of shady, damp places. Hence you find it in woodland by the sides of streams and in boggy ground. As its name suggests, the plant’s leaves are arranged in opposite pairs of rounded leaves. As the leaf develops it grows a scattered ‘stubble’ of short whisker-like hairs that are much less stiff and wiry than they look.
The plant flowers March to April. The flowers are a golden yellow (again in the name) and have no petals. The plant grows along the ground putting down roots and potentially forming large, dense mats. Despite being small, the succulent leaves are easily collected and make a good addition to a wild salad.
Wild Garlic, or Ramsons, Allium ursinum
As you walk through the woods a little later in the year – typically mid-April – when the flowers of Wild Garlic, or Ramsons, are in bloom, you almost invariably smell the plants before you see them. Earlier in the year, before the flowers arrive, the plants are a little more discreet. The leaves aren’t hard to recognise though. The leaves are long, pointed and grow in dense clusters.
You find the plants in damp, open woodland growing amongst many others of the same species – the forest floor can be taken over completely by them. If you are in any doubt about identification, pull off a section of leaf and crush between finger and thumb. It should smell distinctly of onions/garlic.
There are many, many recipes containing Ramson leaves – anything from traditional soups to wild garlic pesto. While many wild leaves are bland or somewhat bitter to our modern palate, if you like onions and garlic, ramsons are a welcome injection of flavour to a wild salad, particularly when the leaves are young. You can add them to an outdoor stew or use them to accompany wild meats. The base of the stems are more like spring onions.
Garlic Mustard, or ‘Jack-by-the-Hedge’, Alliaria petiolata
Quite common, often found in hedgerows, by the side of tracks and roads, and on the edge of woodlands. The distinctive toothed, heart-shaped leaves of Garlic Mustard start to appear in late winter. They are hairless and quite glossy.
At first harder to spot than their unrelated namesake above, these leaves are much more mildly flavoured. Again, when bruised they smell of garlic (but much less strongly than Ramsons do). Eaten on their own they are pleasant but sometimes a little ‘gritty’, with a bitter aftertaste. They are good chopped and mixed with other salad leaves.
You can also use the leaves of garlic mustard as a stuffing herb – for a small trout or other fish for example. It is probably better to wait until later in the spring as the plant develops into a tall, easily recognisable specimen, when you can remove a few leaves without damaging it.
Wood Sorrel, Oxalis acetosella
Wood Sorrel is a small plant of shady deciduous woods and sometimes coniferous plantations. Thought by some to be the original Shamrock, it is very similar to clover in having 3 heart-shaped leaves but without clover’s white leaf markings. Clover is also a plant of grassland whereas Wood Sorrel grows in the woods.
As a wild food, Wood Sorrel makes up for its diminutive size with its surprising tangy citrus/apple-peel flavour. This mouth-watering taste is down to the oxalic acid contained in the plant. Oxalic acid in large quantities is not good for the body (it can contribute to kidney stones) but a few Wood Sorrel leaves as a wayside taste sensation or to top off a salad or dish is fine.
Dandelions, Taraxacum agg.
The dandelions are a very common but also a very complicated group of plants. Most people don’t realise that about 220 micro-species of dandelions have been differentiated in Britain alone. They display similar characteristics with strongly toothed leaves, giving rise to the name ‘Dent de Lyon’, literally tooth of the lion.
Leaves are typically bitter, with the younger leaves sometimes being less so. They can be added to salads with other less bitter leaves or blanched to remove some of the bitterness.
Common Nettle, Urtica dioica
The Common Nettle, also known as the Stinging Nettle, is unlikely to be a stranger to anyone who has ever set foot in the countryside in Europe. It is also one of the more important leafy wild foods, particularly for someone living off the land. It is nutritious and sustaining, also containing a surprising amount of protein.
Nettles also taste pretty good and retain an agreeable texture when cooked. There are masochists who revel in eating nettles raw but it’s much better for most of us to at least blanche the leaves to soften the hypodermic, histamine-injecting hairs. The top-most leaves are the most tender. The leaves also make a pleasant tea.
Cleavers, or Goosegrass, Galium aparine
Cleavers, also known as Goosegrass and, in some parts of the county “Sticky-Willies”, is in the bedstraw family of plants. The plant is a very common constituent of the greenery under hedges, on wayside verges, on the banks of ditches and streams, and waste ground.
The plant has many backward facing hooks that help it cling on to other vegetation as it grows up amongst it. Similar hooks on the fruits later in the year mean when brushed past they stick to clothing or fur.
In the spring you can eat the shoot tips (the first couple of inches) but due to the hooks you should soften the plant by steaming them or adding them to a soup or stew.
Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta and Wavy (or Wood-) Bittercress, Cardamine flexuosa
Wavy Bittercress is also known as Wood Bittercress. This plant and Hairy Bittercress are very similar. Hairy Bittercress is more hairy and the flowering stem of Wood Bittercress – also known as Wavy Bittercress – is, well, wavy (rather than straight).
In plant identification books the key identification difference between these two bittercresses that is often given is that the flowers of C. flexuosa have six stamens, whereas C. hirsuta have four.
Growing in woods, alongside streams and rivers and on rocky ground and tracks, these plants are quite common. In terms of foraging, we can treat them the same.
The bittercresses are in the cabbage family and one of the best winter greens. They have a mild peppery flavour and taste a little like cabbage but also a bit like rocket.
Lady’s Smock, Cardamine pratensis
Lady’s Smock is also known as Cuckooflower due to the first calls of cuckoos generally coinciding with the appearance of the flowers. I’ve heard locals in some parts of England also call this plant ‘Milkmaids’, presumably due to a resemblance to the light-coloured headwear they used to cover their hair. Interestingly, Cardamine californica, found growing in the western United States and a relative of Lady’s Smock, is also known as Milkmaids.
Lady’s Smock is a common plant of river banks, open grassland and waysides that becomes very obvious when it flowers in early Spring. As a roadside plant, it seems like there’s a crowd of them standing on the verge. The flowers are typically a pale lilac or pink but can be almost completely white.
Lady’s Smock is closely related to the bittercresses above (they are all genus Cardamine) and can be similarly used as a salad plant. Beware though! Lady’s smock is much more spicy, having a flavour something like horseradish or mustard. If you eat a few leaves, the effect on your nose is similar to having eaten a bit too much English mustard. It’s fun to encourage your friends to try a little too much…
Sweet Violet, Viola Odorata
Sweet violet is found by the side of paths and under hedges. Its leaves are typically bigger than other violets and quite rounded with little or no point or tip. All the leaves shoot from the main rootstock of the plant, with no side-leaves on any shoots. The plants can form quite dense colonies. Sweet violets flower in the spring, from as early as February.
The flowers are fragrant; quite sweet and a bit pungent. Some people don’t like their perfume. The leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves are a very mild salad leaf. The flowers can add a dash of colour. When collecting Sweet Violet leaves in areas where Winter Heliotrope grows be careful not to collect the young leaves of the latter plant by mistake. If you are unsure, look for the violet’s flowers to be sure.
Some Poisonous Plants to Avoid
Lords and Ladies, Arum maculatum
Wild Arum, and Cuckoo-Pint are also names for this plant. The leaves are a common sight in most parts of the Britain in spring. Arum grows in shady places such as under hedges and in woods.
The leaves emerge in late winter from an underground tuber. The leaf stalk is long and the leaf itself is a distinctive arrow shape. All parts of the plant contain calcium oxalate crystals, which will cause severe irritation to soft tissue such as inside the mouth and in the throat.
Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea
Often found in glades, clearances and around the edges of woodland, the purple spire of a flowering Foxglove is instantly recognisable. Less obvious is a lone rosette of leaves. Foxglove plants grow over a two-year cycle. Only in the second year of growth does a plant put up a flowering shoot. Once you know the look and feel of the leaves, however, even the rosette is difficult to mistake for much else (with the possible exception of Comfrey).
Foxglove contains several cardiac glycosides with names such as digoxin and digitoxin that affect the action of the heart. These toxins are present in the whole plant. Drying or cooking do not diminish their effect. Contact with the plant may cause dermatitis in some people.
Common Ragwort, Senecio jacobea
This relative of the daisy is increasingly common in the UK. It likes to grow in grassland, disturbed areas and waste ground. The leaves show a good deal of variation but in general are tough, dark green, complicated-looking with deep indents. From a distance a non-flowering plant looks a bit like kale.
Ragwort is well known for its ability to poison horses and cattle. It is also toxic to humans, although no cases of direct poisoning from eating the plant have been recorded. There have, however, been cases of liver damage from tea made from the leaves. The whole plant contains several pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which act to destroy the liver.
Hemlock Water Dropwort, Oenanthe crocata
This plant grows in wet ground, in and around ditches and near to water. Personally I didn’t know the plant until I spent time in the south of England, where it appears in pockets. Where it does occur, it tends to be in dense populations. Growing up in the North East, I’d never seen it. It also occurs in the west and the photo in this section was taken in the Lake District. I’ve also seen a fair amount of it in mainland Europe.
In summer the plant grows up to 1.5m (5ft) tall but in spring, it starts off low to the ground, growing up and out from a tap root that looks deceptively like a parsnip. Hemlock Water Dropwort is part of the carrot family and is also related to celery, parsley and coriander amongst other familiar food plants. You should be able to spot the family resemblance in the photo.
The family also contains some seriously poisonous plants and amongst the most dangerous is Hemlock Water Dropwort. It is one of the most poisonous plants in Britain but is not the same species as Hemlock. It has been the cause of a significant number of fatal plant poisonings. Most poisonings result from misidentification, often when collecting wild plants for food.
The main toxin in the plant is oenanthotoxin, an unsaturated higher alcohol, found in all parts of the plant. The toxin is particularly concentrated in the root, where concentration is strongest in winter and spring. Death may occur within hours of eating the plant. There are also other toxins in the plant including one that can cause contact dermatitis which is exacerbated by exposure to sunlight.
Foraging Plants For Wild Foods – Disclaimer
This article is meant only as a guide to some of the plants available in late winter and early spring and is largely a record of my forages. It is not a complete treatment of all edible plants. Nor is it a complete treatment of all poisonous plants. The safest way to learn about wild edibles is for someone who already has the knowledge to show. 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!
Recommended Field Guides
I’ve eaten all of the above edible plants many times but obviously (well at least I hope it’s obvious), I haven’t eaten the poisonous ones. The fact that they are poisonous is based on the work of other people. Nor have I undertaken my own chemical analysis of these plants. Information about the toxic substances contained in these plants is taken from the following publication:
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