Many easy to identify wild foods are ripe for the picking from August to October. That makes autumn the best time for beginners to start foraging.
It’s mid-September and there’s a wild abundance in the hedgerows, parks, and municipal plantings. Just yesterday I noticed a tree covered in crab apples outside a local post office. Many of these trees will eventually drop their fruit uneaten and annoy pedestrians and street cleaners alike. If you know what you’re looking for and abide by your region’s laws then you can enjoy all this fresh, local food for free.
This piece focuses on wild foods that are not only easily identifiable but also readily available. They’re temperate climate wild edibles that can be found across Britain, Europe, and North America.
Basic Rules of Wild Food Foraging
The first rule of foraging is to never pick or eat anything that you’re unsure of. If you can’t ID it in a book or on your phone, take a photo and try to figure out what it is when you get home. Make sure to touch, smell, and fully inspect the plant before confidently making a ID. Also keep in mind that some berries are an important source of nutrition for wildlife but are toxic to people. Leave it where it is until you’re certain you can pick it.
When you do find something delicious to pick, don’t take it all. Just enough for a batch of jam or that night’s dessert. Leave some to re-grow, to set seed, and to feed wildlife. You and I can go to the supermarket if we’re hungry. Birds and wild animals don’t have that luxury.
Also, make sure to pick from clean places — above dog pee height, away from busy roads and their exhaust and toxic dust, and in places where the soil is healthy. Soil contaminated by unknown chemicals from nearby factories or industrial estates can make their way into plants.
Laws are different from country to country and from region to region. There will be wild plants that are protected from picking in some places and are free for the taking in others. Make sure that you research the legality of foraging for wild food before you set off with your basket. These are the rules I follow and are taken from the acts mentioned further below:
- Never pick a protected, endangered, or rare plant.
- Don’t forage in protected places, be it a nature reserve or marine reserve or other site of special interest
- Never uproot a plant. Digging up a plant’s roots on land that’s not your own is not only illegal but it kills the plant.
- Don’t be greedy — taking too much can rob animals of food and decimate the plant’s population. There are plenty of plants endangered or even extinct from over-foraging.
- Stick to public lands, paths, and areas when foraging
- It’s not illegal to pick wild mushrooms, berries, and plants from private land as long as it’s not going to be sold. However, ask permission to forage if entering private land. It’s not necessarily against the law but it is very rude.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act and 1968 Theft Act applies to the United Kingdom but these laws are pretty much the same on the Isle of Man. Here the laws that govern foraging can be found in section 12 of the 1990 Wildlife Act and in section 5 of the Theft Act 1981. Public access to the mountains and moorlands and protection of forestry plants is found in the Forestry Act 1984.
When rose petals fall, the flower’s base swells into what’s called a rose hip. Rich in vitamins A, C, D and E, these berries were an important part of war time nutrition. They were gathered from hedgerows and cooked with sugar to make syrups, jams, and jellies. My favourite way to prepare them is to pick and dry them for tea — it’s a great way to get the nutrients and flavour from the hips without all the sugar. Plus it’s delicious! Rose hips have a fruity taste that’s great on its own or with other sweet herbs and spices.
- Ripe from mid summer to early winter
- Pick them when they’re plump and red
- Find them in parks, hedgerows, municipal plantings, and your own garden
All roses produce hips but the best ones to pick and use in food are from wild roses. There are many different types but this piece gives advice on the two main varieties you might come across.
In spring the Elder tree blooms with sweet white elderflowers that are delicious in homemade champagne, jellies, and cordial. Later in the year those flower petals fall and what’s left swells into umbels of juicy black berries. Although they can be mildly toxic when eaten raw, cooked elderberries are rich in nutrients and earthy, fruity flavour.
- Ripe from late summer to early autumn
- Umbels of black berries on red-tinged stems
- Unripe berries are green or red
- They grow on shrub-like trees that can grow up to 50 feet tall
- Pinnate leaves are clustered in groups of 5-7 on the branch. They’re toothed around the edges and have an unpleasant smell when touched or rubbed.
- Find them at the edges of woodland, along hedgerows, and sometimes in your garden.
There are quite a few different varieties of elder around the world but the most common in Britain is Sambucus nigra. Use elderberries to make a delicious syrup, a thick and rich jelly, or even stir them into muffins. You can also freeze the berries whole and store them in the freezer for up to a year.
The easiest wild food to forage is in my book blackberries. Most people have eaten them, whether picked wild or purchased at the shop, so you know what to look for. You might even have ‘Brambles’ growing as a weed on your own property.
- Ripe from late August to early October
- Unripe berries are red, ripe ones are plump and black
- Find them along hedgerows, abandoned lots, scrub land, woodland, and along property boundaries
Take care when picking blackberries since the thorns can hurt. The juicy berries can also stain clothing so wear some old jeans and a long sleeved shirt when picking them. Choose the darkest and plumpest berries and make them into jam, desserts, infused gin, or even blackberry wine.
There are literally dozens of different types of apples that you can find growing wild. Many of them are cultivated varieties but some are wild crab apples planted into hedges. Others are apple relatives like the small and tart flowering quince. Everyone knows what an apple looks like though and even though many of the wild ones are much smaller you can still see the resemblance.
Coming in a range of colours and flavours, sweeter apples can be used in the usual ways — raw, or in apple pie, apple butter, apple sauce, etc. Tarter cooking apples are great in many of the same recipes as long as sugar is added. Cider apples are ideal for making cider. No matter the apple though, they’ll be rich in natural pectin — that’s the stuff that makes jams and jellies set. Instead of using shop-bought pectin sachets, you can always add apples to your preserves recipes to help them to firm up.
- Apples ripen from late summer to early autumn
- Look for them alongside country roads, in parks, or overhanging a pavement in your neighbourhood.
- If you spot that your neighbour has a tree, ask if they’d like to swap the apples for a homemade pie. Most of the time people will be willing to give them away especially if you pick them off the lawn too!
- Crab apples grow in clusters whereas eating and cooking apples grow singly or in groups of two to three.
- A range of colours including yellow, pink, red, green, and brown
Tiny and tart wild apples
Crab apples need cooking to make them palatable. They’re small, full of seeds, and extremely tart but also very rich in pectin. On their own they can make a nice crab apple jelly but they’re even better used to make a mixed berry jelly with whatever you find from the hedgerow.
Whatever you decide to do with your crab apples, just make sure to cook them first. If you try to eat them uncooked they’re not only very sour but they could give you stomach upset.
Though there are other nuts out there that are also easy to forage, sweet chestnuts are the most widely available. You’ll find trees planted in parks, private gardens, and along roads all across the temperate world. It was an especially popular tree to plant in the 18-19th centuries so you can find some pretty massive specimens now. You’ll find sweet chestnut trees from the Mediterranean to Britain and even in the United States Michigan has a sizeable sweet chestnut industry.
- Sweet chestnuts drop in late autumn
- Squirrels and other animals love them so move fast
- The brown nuts are encased in a green husk with fine spines
- Horse chestnuts, ‘Conkers’, have big spikes on their husk but these are unrelated and not edible. Don’t eat them.
- Find the trees in parks and roads running through older, established neighbourhoods
‘Chestnuts roasting over an open fire’ is from a holiday tune that most people will recognize. A lot of people haven’t really tasted them though. Sweet chestnuts are big, meaty, and have a subtly sweet flavour. On their own they’re a bit bland in my opinion. They come into their own when you cook them with other vegetables and spices and they’re especially good in a nut loaf.
To cook with chestnuts you need to roast them out of their shell first. Score an X across each nut and roast them at 200C/400F for 30 minutes. The score makes the nuts easier to pop out of the shell. Though I think they’re nice on a cold evening on their own, you can cool them and use them for all sorts of vegetarian dishes. Their meatiness really bulk out winter recipes.
Porcini and Boletes
This last one is for the more adventurous of beginner foraging foodies. Of all wild foods, mushrooms have the worst reputation for potential poisoning. For good reason too since there are types like the Death Cap that have a side-effect that I’m sure you can guess. Fortunately there are a lot of fairly easy to identify mushrooms out there though including the Boletes.
Boletes are mushrooms with undersides that look spongey, instead of having gills. Though there are some boletes that are inedible, it’s easy to avoid them. If the mushroom has spores that are red, orange, or yellow, then avoid them. When you cut an inedible bolete open, the flesh will change colour to have blue tinged throughout. Edible boletes don’t change colour. There’s a nice little video below that illustrates this.
Porcini, the king of mushrooms
Of all the boletes, Porcini is the most highly rated for flavour and ease of identification. They have a rich and distinctive mushroomy taste and are highly prized by cooks and restaurants the world over. If you find a patch where they like to grow, keep that place a guarded secret. The last two times I went to my little place they’d been cleaned out.
I have a piece on how to identify, dry, and cook with Porcinis over here. You’ll also know this mushroom by the name Cep, Steinpilz, or Penny Bun.
Grow your own Edibles
If you’re still feeling a little unsure about foraging wild food there’s another option — grow your own. There are wilder versions of garden veg that you can grow including wild strawberries, wild rocket, and even thornless blackberries. Autumn is a great time to lay down the foundations of a new garden too. If you’re interested in learning more about how to start a vegetable garden in the autumn, read this piece.
Featured image for this piece is courtesy of Nimish Gogri. I found it over on Flickr and loved the heart shape the berries made. It’s cropped and edited to focus on that feature.