It’s been an eventful couple of years. Now I’m settled, for the time being at least, it felt like a good time to return to my roots – foraging. The cost-of-living crisis won’t have escaped anyone’s attention. Food prices in particular have risen astronomically and it’s no surprise that people are struggling to make ends meet, with some skipping meals and using food banks to get by.
I’m not suggesting that foraging can plug the gap left by rising costs and low wages, but it can add some much-needed vitamins and minerals to a basic diet. So let’s look at what you can find for free.
When it comes to foraging it pays to know your patch. I moved a few months ago to a completely new town and I’m still working out where I can source free food. Luckily, there’s a great park close by as well as a wild wooded area up the road, and I regularly walk around making a food map of any fruit trees or potential herb crops.
But, as this is my first foraging article in a long time and certainly my first in a new place, I thought I’d look even closer to home to see what I could find for free on my street.
It’s an elegant road built in the early 1930s. Like so many of the era, it was designed to sell the dream of a healthy, new urban way of living. The large windows and bright, airy rooms were designed to be the antidote to the densely populated, dark Victorian houses crammed together in smog-filled streets.
The brave new world offered an abundant lifestyle with lots of fresh air, spacious living and large sunny gardens. Luckily for me, this ethos also extended to the pavement. The original street planners planted all kinds of trees along the roadside helping to create the leafy suburban ideal. Consequently, I have two kinds of pear, an apple tree and several rowans almost outside my front door.
Out of these, I can have free fresh fruit in the autumn, but I can also make jam, chutney, wine and even perry or cider if I can collect enough. When we arrived here in late October last year, pears were littering the pavement and being kicked into the gutter by passers-by. So I don’t think I will have too much competition for my fruit harvest.
The neighbours already think I’m a bit ‘unusual’ after I skip-dipped all the old roof batting from several houses and a local church to use on our fires over winter. Once I get the step ladders out to collect the autumn fruit, they’re really going to have me pegged as the local eccentric. But, honestly, being a forager means caring less what folk think. Nine times out of ten, people are intrigued when they see me rustling in the hedgerows and want to know what I’m going to do with my basketful of herbs or fruit.
Further along my street there are majestic and extremely useful linden trees. You can eat the young leaves and flowers in salads. You can even eat the hard little green berries which appear after the flowers bloom, although to be fair they are a bit tasteless.
I prize these trees more for their blossom, which can be dried and made into a calming aromatic tea. During the Second World War when black tea was rationed, people collected linden blossom and bramble leaves to dry and create their home-grown version of tea. I can’t say I’ve tried it, but if prices go any higher, I may well give it a whirl.
After sizing up what the trees had to offer, I looked on the ground. Sadly, some of the pavement weeds have been sprayed by the council, but it seems as though they only did one side of the street so there’s still a useable crop. It goes without saying that you should entirely avoid anything that has been sprayed with weed killer.
The most common plant on the street is pineapple weed, which looks like mayweed but without the white petals. It’s easy to identify as just a gentle rub of the plant will leave you with a pineapple-scented hand. As a member of the chamomile family it has sedative qualities and can be used to treat anxiety and stress. It is also thought to ease nausea and heartburn. The leaves can be eaten in a salad and the flower tops can be collected to make cordial. Here’s a recipe for you.
300g pineapple weed tops
1.5 pints of water
After collecting, wash the pineapple weed tops well. Boil the water in a pan and add the herbs to it. Switch the heat off and leave for half an hour to allow the herb to infuse. Then drain the liquid through a cheesecloth into a bowl. Then return the herb infused water to the pan and begin to boil again. Add around 300g of sugar (according to preference) to the boiling infusion. Once the sugar has dissolved the liquid can be poured into a sterilised bottle. If you prefer a thicker syrup, boil for longer or add more sugar.
Another plant which seems very common in this area is barley. Yes, you read that right, barley. Presumably this comes from bird seed, which has taken its natural course and ended up seeding itself at the base of street trees. There isn’t enough to mill your own bread (seriously, who has the time or a quern stone!). However, there is enough to collect and dry to add to winter broths and stews, or to use in home-brewed beer. Unfortunately, I have gluten intolerance so its not much use to me, but it never ceases to amaze what you can find if you look around.
Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to at least look at ‘weeds’ in a different light and to maybe notice the trees in your locale. It’s important to remember that only plants on public land can be collected (excluding roots which should never be dug up). If you see something at the end of your neighbour’s driveway, ask first. If you notice fruit hanging over the fence from a garden, ask first too. Even if the fruit is escaping into a common walkway it is still the property of the person whose land the tree is planted on. Never take more than you need and remember that the wildlife needs its share too.
By Claire Fleetneedle
- Always take care when identifying plants and fruit.
- Pineapple weed should be strictly avoided is you have an allergy to chrysanthemums, daisies, ragweed, chamomile, or marigolds.
- As a member of the chamomile family, pineapple weed can cause drowsiness.
- Pineapple weed should be avoided if you are on blood-thinning medication, prescribed sedatives, or regular pain medication like aspirin or ibuprofen.
- Pineapple weed should be also avoided if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences using the above herbs combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate. In the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. Always check if any pharmaceutical medication you are taking is compatible before trying herbs. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the herbs mentioned above then please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.