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How to Forage for Wild Food in Towns and Cities

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Claire enjoys growing fruit, herbs and vegetables and studying and creating natural remedies. She strives to live a low-impact lifestyle.

This guide will break down how to safely and respectfully forage for wild food, even if you live in a town or city.

This guide will break down how to safely and respectfully forage for wild food, even if you live in a town or city.

At first glance, foraging may seem like a countryside-only activity and therefore out of reach of anyone living in more built-up areas such as towns and cities. In fact, many plants and trees are growing in every environment that provide opportunities to forage some delicious and beneficial foods. Some of these may be familiar, such as dandelions and chickweed, and are often known for their reputation as annoying weeds, since people are no longer as aware of the healing and edible natures of many of these wild and uninvited plants.

Foraging for Wild Food Has Never Been Easier or Safer

Foraging for wild food has been steadily increasing in popularity over recent years, however. In these days of supermarkets and pre-packaged foods, it can be easy to forget where our food really comes from and lose touch with the natural environment in which they grow.

Many people were taught as children that is was dangerous to eat wild-growing plants due to lack of knowledge, misunderstanding and the fear of mistakenly picking harmful plants. Fortunately, today there are many books, websites and knowledgeable foragers to learn from as this activity grows in popularity and understanding. Although you may not find every plant you wish in your local environment, there is likely a wide variety of beneficial and edible plants waiting to be discovered. By exploring and educating yourself on your local area and what does grow you can then decide what you feel will be useful for you and worth collecting.

If you have access to your own garden or other outdoor space you could also consider growing some wild plants of your own. This is especially useful for plants that you use often or that are hard to find in your area. You could also have a go at growing plants that do not grow locally, but results can vary depending on several factors including differences in climate and soil.

Growing a small patch of wild plants can also be a good option for people who find it difficult to get out of the house or who are unable to travel far, due to the illness or disability for example. Wild plant seeds can be bought online and sometimes in gardening centres and other places that sell seeds.

Important Guidelines to Keep in Mind When Foraging

Some plants are well known and easily identified for collecting and use. It is important to be aware, however, that there may be other harmful and even poisonous plants that look similar to safe ones. In these cases, it is important to identify a plant using several features—such as leaf space and spacing, smell, flower type and size—to be certain of what you are collecting.

This is especially true of wild mushrooms, as some types can be highly toxic and even cause death. If you are at all unsure of the identification of a plant, it is best not to pick it. If you wish, you can take photographs and check the plant's identification once home, and then return to the spot once you are sure the plant is safe to pick.

Be Considerate and Avoid Taking Too Much From Plants

When foraging, it is important not to take too much from a plant or area of plants. This is true whether you are collecting fruits, seeds, leaves or roots. Taking too much can cause damage to the plant; and in the case of fruit and seeds, it may make it hard for the plant to reproduce.

It is also important to remember that wild foods and foraging are for everyone to share, and so plenty to should be left not only for other humans but for the local wildlife as well. These wild plants may be an animal’s only food source and mean the difference between survival and death. Pick only what you need and can use at any one time. When foraging, whether it is in the countryside or in an urban environment, it is good practice to take small amounts from many plants rather than a lot from a single plant.

Beware of Contamination

One matter that may be more of a concern when foraging in towns and cities is the potential for contamination of the plants. Be wary of plants that are growing near roadsides or that may have been sprayed with weed killer or other chemicals. Roadside plants may contain high levels of pollution and chemical sprays may make them unsuitable and even dangerous to consume.

This is important to consider as many wild edible plants are thought of as weeds, and therefore people wish to keep their gardens, pathways and other areas to be free of them and so use weed killers to do so.

Also, be careful of plants and flowers bought from garden centres and shops. Although these may be edible varieties, it is possible that they may have been sprayed or feed with fertilisers and other chemicals that are unsuitable for human consumption. The companies may not expect or even be aware of the fact that people could wish to eat the plant. So it is best to err on the side of caution unless the plant is marked as being edible.

Dandelions are a common site in parks and gardens.

Dandelions are a common site in parks and gardens.

Dandelion (Taraxacum Agg.)

This bright yellow plant is well known, easily recognisable by many people and can grow almost anywhere, including in lawns, wasteland, roadsides and grassy areas. The pretty seed heads are often a favourite with children for blowing and making wishes.

Uses in Food Preparation

The leaves, flowers and roots can all be harvested and used as food. Dandelion leaves are best eaten when they are young or just before the flowers appear, as this is when their bitterness is less pronounced.

Dandelion leaves can also be used in stir-fries or added to green smoothies. The sunny yellow flowers can be dipped in batter and fried to create fritters or eaten fresh. The petals can be removed and added to salads, sandwiches, stir-fries and other meals or the flowers can be eaten whole. If eating whole, you may wish to remove the green parts as these can be bitter.

Dandelion flowers can also be made into an herbal tea, jams, jellies and a delicious substitute for honey. Traditionally they are also used to make dandelion wine. The roots of this plant are very bitter but can be dried in a low oven and then roasted and ground. The resulting grounds can be used like coffee. The leaves and flowers of dandelion are also often a favourite with animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs and tortoises.

Beneficial Properties

Dandelions possess a range of health benefits, including detoxifying and cleaning effects, particularly to the liver and digestive system. They have diuretic and mild laxative properties—which may have contributed to the common childhood story of dandelions making you wet the bed if you pick them—and are believed to promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the gut.

The leaves, in particular, are a good source of potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, magnesium and vitamins A, C and K. The plant also has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Sweet chestnuts can be used for a variety of applications in the kitchen, including making your own delicious flour.

Sweet chestnuts can be used for a variety of applications in the kitchen, including making your own delicious flour.

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea Sativa)

Sweet chestnut trees may be found in public parks, woodlands and sometimes along residential streets. They are found all over Britain but are more common in the south. This is a large species of tree that has long, large pointed leaves. Its small nuts are contained within a spiky husk that often breaks open when falling to the ground in October.

It is important not to confuse sweet chestnuts with horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) as these are not edible. They are, however, great for a game of conkers or making a natural laundry detergent.

Uses in Food Preparation

Before eating, chestnuts need to be boiled for around 10 minutes to make it possible to remove the skins. They can be eaten whole or are often used as a puree.

Traditionally, chestnuts are roasted in fire. If you wish to try this, it is important to cut a slit into the nuts to release steam and stop them from exploding as they cook.

If you can collect enough, sweet chestnuts can be dried and then ground to create flour. Although it is not a great riser when used on its own, this flour is delicious when used half and half with wheat flour in breads and cakes.

Depending on where you live, it may be possible to buy chestnuts when they are in season. In the UK, this is generally between October and December.

Beneficial Properties

Sweet chestnuts are high in carbohydrates and lower in fat and protein than many other nuts. They are a good source of fibre and also contain calcium, vitamin C, iron, zinc, vitamin E and B vitamins. Chestnuts are also reputed to lower blood pressure and improve brain health.

Their high levels of carbohydrate and fibre make them a great food for stable energy release and avoiding spikes in blood sugar, which can lead to energy dips.

Sloe berries can be used to make gin, jams and jellies or even fruit leather.

Sloe berries can be used to make gin, jams and jellies or even fruit leather.

Sloe (Blackthorn) (Prunus Spinosa)

Sloes can generally be found between September and November and are a common plant found in woodlands and hedgerows throughout Britain. The plant is covered in tough, short spines and has white five-petaled flowers that can be seen around March time.

Uses in Food Preparation

Sloes are the small fruits and can be dark purple, blue or black. It is thought to be the ancestor of cultivated plums but, unlike its relatives, is an incredibly tart and acidic berry. It may be far too acidic for most people to eat raw but is still a useful fruit.

It’s most well-known use is in sloe gin, which can be easily made at home. Sloes can also be used to make jams and jellies or fruit leathers.

Beneficial Properties

Sloes are known to be beneficial in aiding digestion as well as avoiding constipation and diarrhea. These small fruits contain vitamins C and E, as well as being rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium. They are also high in antioxidants, phenols and flavonoids.

Rowan berries can be used to make jellies and jams or wines and liqueurs.

Rowan berries can be used to make jellies and jams or wines and liqueurs.

Rowan (Sorbus Aucuparia)

This small tree is often planted in urban areas and produces an abundance of bright red berries between August and November.

Uses in Food Preparation

The bark, leaves and fruit can be used, but care should be taken as some cultivars are toxic when eaten raw. When picked wild, rowan berries contain high levels of parasorbic acid which can lead to stomach upsets and kidney issues. To ensure safety, the berries should be heated or frozen before use.

The berries are commonly used to make a jelly that is good served with cheese, lamb or game. They can also be used in making jams, wine and liqueurs.

Beneficial Properties

Rowan berries contain high levels of vitamin C and fibre and boast excellent antioxidant content. They contain anthocyanins, tannins, polyphenolic compounds, and flavonols including quercetin and rutin. The tiny berries are believed to have anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties, as well as facilitating digestion by bulking up the stool.

In traditional medicine, rowan berry juice was used to reduce inflammation of the respiratory tract, improve sore throats and relieve congestion.

Foraging and the Law (UK)

Although foraging is generally legal, there are some legal matters in the United Kingdom that you should be aware of before heading out.

Personal vs. Commercial Use

The Theft Act (1968) states that it is legal to take mushrooms, foliage, fruits and any other part of a plant without committing any offense as long as you are not foraging for commercial purposes. If you intend to sell or profit from the items that you have collected, in all cases by law you must have the permission of the land owner to collect them.

Beware of Trespassing Laws

Care should be taken to adhere to the laws regarding trespassing. Entering any land that is not common land, open access land or that has public right of way can be considered as trespassing if you do not have the land owners' permissions. This is true regardless of what you intend to do with your foraged items. The land owner has the legal right to ask you to leave their land immediately and by the shortest route possible if they do not wish for you to be there.

The Wild Mushroom Picker's Code of Conduct

The Wild Mushroom Picker's Code of Conduct gives lots of good guidance on good foraging practice including always following the Country Code and taking care to minimise any damage to plants and the environment. The Countryside Code can also be downloaded from the gov.uk website.

Research Local By-Laws

As well as considering countrywide law, it is advisable to check local by-laws before foraging in any area. These may contain further restrictions, for example, restricting the collection of any forest-growing items.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2014 Claire