Five Tips on How to Forage Safely
After an especially long and dark winter, it was such a joy to see life ‘spring’ (pardon the pun!) from the ground again. Baby stinging nettles and cleavers, also known as goosegrass or stickyweed, have started to pop up this past week. They are such a great tonic for the spring. They help to cleanse the lymphatic and urinary systems, ultimately acting as mild diuretics. We can also look forward to wild garlic and dandelions springing up by the end of March/early April.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, there can be sluggishness (excess Kapha) in the body that may have accumulated over the winter months. This is because we have been seeking higher calorific foods to sustain us. However, as we come into spring, this kapha begins to stir and present itself. Therefore, all these green delicacies help to support a gentle processing of accumulated kapha.
If you plan on foraging these plants safely, make sure to follow these five top tips.
#1 | Triple check before you pick!
If you are a first-time forager, start with safe plants you can definitely recognise. A great maxim to remember is: “If in doubt, leave it out!” Growing out in the wild, plants don’t always look as they do in the guidebooks. Indeed, many plants have look-alikes that could be poisonous, so if you are at all unsure, don’t eat it!
Wild garlic has vibrant green, pointed leaves and white flowers, but its fresh, garlicky smell is unmistakable. However, if you are at all unsure when foraging, crush a leaf in your hand; the resulting aroma should smell strongly of garlic if you are correct! Wild Garlic is pungent and heating but not quite as pungent as bulb garlic. The flowers can be enjoyed too and later on the seeds can be collected to make a kind of wild garlic seed capers, preserved in apple cider vinegar.
Dandelions have a bright yellow flowerhead and hairless leaves, often with toothed edges. There is only one flower per stem, which itself is pinkish and hollow, and the root, leaves and stalk all exude a milky white sap when damaged. Young dandelion leaves are bitter and are delicious added to spring salads or to dress cooked dishes with.
Stinging nettles can be identified by the hairs on its stem, as well as its drooping, catkin flowers and oval, toothed leaves. They often grow in dense clusters, while their stalks can reach up to 8 feet, the young tender stems are the best to pick. Nettles are bitter, astringent and salty and are considered a great tonic in Ayurveda to be good for Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
Cleavers, meanwhile, have leaves that grow out from the stem in a star-like way known as ‘whorls’. Each ‘whirl’ is made from 6-8 leaves covered in small, fibrous hairs, which actually end in tiny hooks. These help the plant ‘stick’ to fabric, fur, and other plants, hence the nickname stickyweed. Cleavers help calm excess Pitta in the urinary system.
#2 | Only take what you need
Forage in areas where your desired plant grows in abundance, but only ever take a small amount for personal use. You do not want to cause any detrimental impact to the natural environment. For example, never completely strip an area as this could damage the plant species, as well as deny other foragers the chance to collect. Many animals rely on plants for survival, so stripping an area could also deny wildlife from a valuable food source. You should also be mindful about wildlife habitats during your forage, so try to avoid disturbing or damaging the surrounding area.
#3 | Check for permission
Always seek permission from the landowner before foraging. Britain’s wild plants are protected by the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it illegal to dig up or remove a plant from the land on which it is growing without permission from the occupier. What’s more, plant species are protected in certain areas, so always do your research beforehand to avoid picking a protected species!
#4 | Forage from an unpolluted spot
Make sure the area you are foraging away from polluted areas. These include roadsides (due to vehicle exhausts), railway lines (where herbicides are often sprayed to clear tracks), pavements (due to dog excrement) and industrial sites. Instead, try foraging in your own garden, hedgerows or verges, public byways through farms or agricultural land, woodlands or forests, or along the coastline.
#5 | Bring gloves when picking nettles!
The stinging hairs on nettles grow angling down the stem. Therefore, when foraging, grab from the top and push the hairs down the stem with your fingers. By doing this, you should most likely avoid getting stung. Of course, you can also wear rubber gloves, which will make things much easier!
Once picked, either use immediately to cook or make a herbal tea with or lay the nettles out on a tray to wilt. The sting relies on erect hairs to pierce the skin and inject the stinging formic acid. Therefore, once the leaves have wilted, handled carefully they can no longer sting you.