IF there’s one month of the year that truly ignites a forager’s senses, it’s May.
This is the time when most plant species begin to break out of their young shoot phase, making it easier for us to fully identify what we’re looking for.
Couple this clear ability to identify everything with a sudden surge of growth, and you are faced with an abundant bounty.
It also signals a time of year when you can begin to get some decent flavours into your outdoor dishes – adding interesting tastes to foraged flora over the winter months can be little more than an exercise in exploring different shades of bland and grassy.
So, with that in mind, first up comes one of my bushcraft favourites and, if I’m spending any length of time outdoors that will require lots of time cooking over the campfire, one of the first things I look for…
One of the best things about wild garlic is that you’re likely to smell it before you see it, meaning that if you’re in the vicinity of a bed of this pungent relative of the onion family you can’t miss it.
The young leaves and flowers are what you need here, and both are packed with flavour. Use plenty of the leaves in soups or campfire stews, as it will render down and lose some of the taste you’re trying to get into dishes while you’re in the wild.
If you enjoy making bannock (I tend to keep a couple of dry mixes stowed in my pack or the dry sack of my canoe) the wild garlic flowers tend to hold their flavour a little more like their namesake, so you can knock up a decent garlic bread.
The best places to look are often-damp areas of ancient woodland or close to ditches, streams and rivers.
One note of caution when foraging for wild garlic, and it was something highlighted by a skilled member of our party while out on a course recently – be aware of the toxic ‘Lords and Ladies’ (Arum maculatum) which can often be found growing in the same place. The young leaves of both can appear quite similar to the untrained eye.
While A. Maculatum isn’t considered lethal, it could, in the right quantity, deliver some extremely painful stomach cramps. Luckily, the plant’s acrid taste and instant irritation provides enough alert to any mistake long before any quantity in ingested.
The root of Lords and Ladies, in many parts of the UK, was, in medieval times, considered beneficial for health – particularly for fertility – when prepared as a tea. However, this unfounded myth comes with a warning that the root must be prepared properly and carefully before considering anything like this. Best to avoid.
Often overlooked, many young tree leaves are perfectly edible. Although texture can sometimes be off-putting, there are many species to keep an eye out for.
At this time of year, the leaves of the lime tree are particularly sweet and offer another flavoursome snack when trekking through woodland.
The heart-shaped leaves (especially those of the small-leaf lime, or tilia cordata) can be eaten raw, or stashed for cooking later when you strike camp.
It’s always useful in bushcraft to store a bank of edible plants in your memory over each season. A good plant to add to that for spring is leucanthemum vulgare – the oxeye daisy or, as it is often referred to in several regions, the dog daisy.
The flowers, buds and young leaves (they taste bitter if picked too late in the season) are edible, and again offer up some taste variety. Chop the flowers up to pad out just about any dish you’re serving up at camp.
If you can catch the buds before they open, keep them in your pocket as a useful bit of on-the-go nutrition. Alternatively, steep them in some boiling wild garlic leaves and they can be eaten like capers.
Very different in appearance to other clover-like sorrels, common sorrel is always considered a good find for the hungry forager.
Much the same as dandelion, all parts of the plant from petal to root are edible, but it is largely the tender leaves which are in demand. Raw or cooked, they can be used in the same way as lettuce or spinach.
The roots, however, can offer some real variety around the campfire. Once stripped and sliced, they can be cooked and eaten like noodles.
The seeds, if harvested in a reasonable amount, can be dried and ground into a flour good enough to make bannock or campfire bread.
A note of caution, though. While welcome to any gatherer’s table, large quantities of sorrel leaves are not recommended. Sorrel contains a reasonable amount of oxalic acid which gives it, and many other plants in the genus, a slight lemon-esque bitterness. Large quantities of oxalic acid will prevent other nutrients being absorbed by the body and, therefore, prove fairly counter-productive if in a survival situation.
It also has potential to aggravate conditions such as arthritis, kidney stones, gout or rheumatism.
Often known as ‘sticky weed’ due to its ability to cling to clothing and skin, goose grass is a highly nutritious and reasonably tasty green to add into stews and soups.
The leaves are the most edible part. You can eat the stems too, but they need longer cooking time than the leaves.
Both require enough cooking to render down the tiny hooks which are how this common weed manages to cling with such devotion to your sleeves. They can cause mild irritation to the throat, hence why it is not recommended to eat raw.
Although edible, the seed pods are difficult to digest. However, roasted and grounded they can actually make a reasonable coffee alternative. In fact, goosegrass (Galium aparine) is actually a member of the coffee family.
An abundant bounty – particularly in spring before the hot days of summer cause it to retreat to the shadows – chickweed is an easy staple to identify and consume as a peppery salad leaf.
If you’re unsure of identification, it’s best to wait until the tiny white flowers are visible (they are also edible). The brittle green leaves may appear slightly hairy and grow no bigger than an inch in opposing pairs.
Once a favourite in salads from ancient times up to the Victorian era (when more exotic foods began to become available to our tables), chickweed is important to bushcraft and survival for its nutrition.
It is high in minerals like magnesium, copper and phosphorus while also packing a good hit of vitamins A, C, B6, B12 and D.
NOTE: Before consumption, please ensure you can identify the plant with 100% accuracy before consumption.