As spring moves towards summer, there are plenty of wild edibles to choose from. Some of the easiest to collect are the green aerial parts of readily recognised plants as well as some of their flowers. Many of these provide great additional flavours to seasonal salads and some can be used as stuffing herbs or the basis of a soup. All of these uses provide additional micronutrients to your diet. Flavoursome teas can be made with several of these plants and some have medicinal uses. In this article I present a dozen easy-to-recognise and easy-to-collect seasonal plants for this time of year.
Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata
Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, is a member of the cabbage family that contains some chemicals in common with members the onion family. Hence it has a garlic-like flavour combined with a mustard flavour (mustards are also in the cabbage family).
This species is really 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 wild garlic, Allium ursinum, or ramsons (see below), these leaves are much more mildly flavoured. When bruised they smell of garlic (but much less strongly than ramsons do). Eaten on their own they are pleasant but sometimes 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. While you will see the leaves of this plant emerging from early spring, it is probably better to wait until late spring as the plant develops into a tall, easily-recognisable specimen, when you can remove a good few leaves.
Wild Garlic, Allium ursinum
As you walk through the woods in spring – typically mid-April onwards – 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 these 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 and can be roasted for a short while, which makes them sweeter. You can even lay them on some embers to do this. A favourite of mine is to take some of the flowers and add them to a green salad. The flavour of the flowers is much less pungent than the leaves but very pleasant.
Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria
Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, is an upright plant of damp ground, besides streams, ditches, ponds and lakes. It has crinkly, toothed side leaves with a three-lobed terminal leaf, any of which when crushed smell medicinal – some say “like Ralgex”.
The smell-a-like comparison is likely no coincidence as the product contains salicylates, as does meadowsweet.
Some people also smell a similarity between meadowsweet and Germolene, which was originally formulated with the inclusion of oil of wintergreen.
The presence of these compounds has long seen meadowsweet used as a medicinal herb, particularly good for cold, flu, indigestion and stomach upsets. It’s soothing and calming and the simplest way to use the fresh leaves is to make a tea with them.
Whether you agree with the smell comparisons or not, the leaves of this plant of damp ground are very distinctive and easy to recognise by sight as well as smell.
Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea
Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea, is a member of the family Lamiaceae, more commonly known as the dead-nettle or mint family. Like many members of the mint family, this is an aromatic herb, with a distinctive aroma to the crushed leaves. The leaves themselves are also quite distinctive, being a blunt-tipped heart-shaped leaf with very visible regular, rounded serrations around the edge of the leaf.
The plant gets its name ground ivy from its typical habit of growing along the ground in a manner similar to which ivy grows upwards. You will see the leaves first, all turned upwards from the horizontal stem underneath. Looking more closely, you will see the family characteristics of leaves in opposite pairs, arranged alternately along the stem. The leaves being turned upwards to face the light often mask this familial similarity, though.
Ground ivy is best used as a tea, to which it will add a distinctive flavour. Some find this more acceptable mixed with nettle or even a three-way mix of nettle, mint and ground ivy. Ground ivy has medicinal properties that help alleviate bronchial complaints and which make it useful when you have a cold or cough. Steep the leaves in hot water and breath the vapours. Later, when the liquid has cooled a little, drink the tea.
White Dead-Nettle, Lamium album
White Dead-nettle, Lamium album has toothed, heart-shaped leaves that look very similar to the leaves of stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, a plant that is familiar to many. White dead-nettles and stinging nettles also share other characteristics such as having leaves arranged in alternate, opposite pairs on a stem with a square-shaped cross-section. Both plants are also hairy but, as suggested by its name, white dead-nettle does not sting.
Despite the similarities maybe leading you to think otherwise, dead-nettles and stinging nettles are not in the same family of plants. Like ground ivy, dead-nettles are in the family Lamiaceae, which also contains familiar herbs such as mint, basil, thyme and marjoram. White dead-nettles grow to a height of 20-60cm and have distinctive white flowers clustered around the plant’s stem. They are generally found growing on waysides and on hedge banks.
Even though white dead-nettle is not an aromatic herb like some of its other family members, it is edible. Before the plant flowers, the young leaves and shoots are tender enough to eat raw. Later, when the leaves become tougher and possibly bitter, you can steam or lightly cook the leaves and eat as a green. Or you can add the leaves to soups as you would the leaves of stinging nettle.
Red Dead-Nettle, Lamium purpureum
Red Dead-nettle, Lamium purpureum, is a common plant of country tracks and hedgerows. It is often found on or near farmland and sometimes described as an arable weed. Similar to other dead-nettles it has toothed, heart-shaped leaves. Red dead-nettle, however, bears much less resemblance to its namesake stinging nettle, Urtica diocia, than white dead-nettle, Lamium album does.
The leaves of red dead-nettle often have a purple-grey tinge to them. The stem has a square cross-section and the plant grows to a height of around 20-25cm. The upper-most leaves can become a deep purple-red when the plant grows in areas where it is more exposed to strong sunlight. The plant flowers from March to October and the flowers are a pink-purple colour. The flowers and leaves of the red dead-nettle are concentrated towards the top of the stem.
Red dead-nettle is edible. You can use red dead-nettle as per white dead-nettle. The leaves and flowering tops are great in salads. Unlike white dead-nettle, there doesn’t seem to be the tendency for the leaves of red dead-nettle to become bitter with age. So you can use red dead-nettle as a salad ingredient as long as the leaves are available.
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 three heart-shaped leaves. Wood sorrel, however, lacks 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 (possibly contributing to kidney stones in some people) but a few wood sorrel leaves as a wayside taste sensation or to top off a salad or dish is fine.
Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea
Greater stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, is a very common plant of wayside verges, hedgerows and open woodlands. Until it flowers, however, it is easily missed. Greater stitchwort is a relative of common chickweed, Stellaria media, and like chickweed, greater stitchwort is an easily-collected source of edible wild greens.
Narrow and lance-shaped, with the character of fresh, green grass, the leaves of greater stitchwort are arranged in opposite pairs, with each pair at 90 degrees to the pair below. The stems and leaves have rough edges.
Greater stitchwort flowers April to June and the flowers are white and about 20-30mm across. At first glance they appear to have 10 petals. In fact they have 5 petals, each of which is deeply divided.
The green shoots can be chopped into salads, steamed or quickly boiled. You can eat the flower buds and flowers and these can make an attractive addition to a wild salad.
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-like substances, which in large enough quantities are toxic. But in terms of chickweed consumption, we are talking large quantities. Indeed, chickweed has been reported to cause saponin poisoning in cattle after an animal had eaten many kilos of the plant. Numerous edible plants contain saponins in small quantities and eating a few handfuls of chickweed in your salad is not an issue.
The stems of chickweed are round, not square. Chickweed has small star-shaped white flowers with five petals (Stellaria comes from the Latin stellar, meaning star).
When seeking out chickweed, it is important you don’t confuse other species, such as the poisonous yellow pimpernel, Lysimachia nemorum, for chickweed. This is easy when the plants are in flower as the pimpernel has yellow flowers, very different to the chickweeds tiny white stars. The key identification feature to look for in chickweed is the single line of hairs running down one side of the stem.
Read my article on How To Tell The Difference Between Chickweed And Yellow Pimpernel
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.
Older dandelion leaves typically taste bitter, with the younger leaves being more palatable raw. If you put them into the context of enjoying salads such as rocket, dandelion leaves fits right in to your range of wild salad options. Dandelion leaves can be added to salads with other less bitter leaves or blanched to remove some of the bitterness. These are common and widespread species, often considered a weed. Don’t overlook them in terms of being a food resource, though.
Stinging 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 for a green plant.
Nettles 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 blanch the leaves to soften the hypodermic, histamine-injecting hairs.
The top-most leaves are the tenderest. These can be blanched to create a spinach-like green side-serving or added to soups. If you are adventurous, you might also like to make nettle beer, which personally I find very good. For a simple use in the field, the leaves, steeped in hot water, also make a pleasant tea.
Not only is nettle tea pleasant, it also has a good number of recorded health benefits as well as having been used medicinally over the years.
Violets, Viola spp.
The flowers and leaves of all violets are edible. The flowers add attractive colour to spring salads, while the leaves contain mucilage, which relieves soreness and irritation of mucous membranes, including your stomach. A couple of common species you may well encounter are common dog-violet, Viola riviniana, and sweet violet, Viola odorata.
Common dog-violet, Viola riviniana, is often shortened to just dog violet. The alternative name of wood violet gives a good indication as to where you might encounter this small plant but you can also come across it in grasslands as well as in the mountains.
The leaves of the common dog-violet are heart-shaped, smooth, almost without hairs and with regularly-spaced indentations around the edges. The flowers are an attractive blue-violet with five petals. The lower petal or lip has prominent veins. The flower’s sepals are pointed.
All violets in the British Isles have a spur which sticks out behind the flower; one of the key identification features of V. riviniana is that its spur is lighter in colour than the petals and is notched at the tip.
If you are identifying violet leaves in the early spring by the leaves alone, be mindful of the common and widespread lesser celandine, Ficaria verna, a member of the buttercup family that also has a heart-shaped leaf, albeit more rounded, hairless and glossy. Like many members of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, lesser celendines contain ranunculin, making the leaves of this species poisonous if ingested.
Sweet violet, V. odorata, is often 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, so the flowers may well have passed by May or June.
Unlike the scentless dog violets, the flowers of sweet violet are fragrant, quite sweet and a bit pungent. Some people don’t like their perfume but the leaves and flowers are still edible. The leaves are a very mild salad leaf, while the flowers can add a dash of colour just like other violets. When collecting sweet violet leaves in areas where the non-native winter heliotrope, Petasites fragrans, grows, be careful not to collect the young leaves of the latter plant by mistake. Heliotrope has a similar shaped leaf, which is a similar size to V. odorata when young, but it is believed to contain harmful pyrrolizidine alkaloids.
Foraging Plants For Wild Foods – Be Responsible
Be respectful towards nature and take responsibility for your own safety.
While the plants mentioned above are common and widespread species, please still be respectful of nature. Don’t decimate areas of wild foods. Take only what you need. Understand what is legal and what is not.
For anyone considering collecting wild food plants, it is worth first reading the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland’s (BSBI) Code of Conduct, which can be found as a PDF document via the following URL…
This article is meant as a guide to some of the plants available in late spring and early summer in northern temperate Europe. Even though the species above are common and easy to identify, it is not a complete treatment of all edible plants. Nor does the article describe other, similar plants you may find alongside those highlighted above.
The safest way to learn about wild edibles is from an instructor or mentor who already has the knowledge. This being stated, it is indeed possible to learn a good deal under the guidance of good quality articles, videos, online training and books. Ultimately, though, the choice to put a plant in your mouth is yours. Any foraging you do on your own is at your own risk.
The most important thing to remember when learning to identify wild food plants is IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT!
An earlier version of the above article appeared in Bushcraft & Survival Skills Magazine.
Find out if a foraging teacher is a member of the Association of Foragers.
Obtain more information about my Tree and Plant Identification Masterclass online course.
Check out my short list of recommended wild food and foraging books applicable to the UK and Western Europe.