Edible Plants

Purple apple
Purple apple

If I suddenly had to survive by foraging alone, though I have some knowledge of plants, I’m not sure I’d last long, especially if the whole of the country was foraging too. While one man’s meat is another man’s poison, anyone with an apple tree would surely be thinking themselves lucky.

Foraging wild wimberries
Foraging wild wimberries

In these days when most people do not forage, our wild moorland berries are an exception. When they ripen, you have to be fast to get much of a look-in. The difference between a fat, sweet berry and a mouth-dryingly sour one is a just week or so, and if you wait too long, semi-professional gleaners will have swept through and stripped the best patches of bushes clean.

Purple pansies
Pansy flowers are edible

While I will happily help myself to a few berries while out walking, I’ve never been overly keen on eating petals. There’s something unappealing in their texture when chewed. Mind you, if that’s all there was, I’d be heading for the pansies and the roses while giving poisonous delphiniums and foxgloves a wide berth.

Purple rose
Rose petals and hips are edible; delphiniums are toxic

Fifteen years or more ago, I met a man who claimed to have tasted almost every rose in the David Austin Roses gardens: that’s a goodly number of roses. He told me that roses all have different flavours. I imagine their scent is somehow wrapped up with that.

Gooseberries of different colours

One taste I have yet to acquire is gooseberries, although I was fed them often enough at school. I’d like to like them, but I really don’t. Served in a crumble with plenty of custard they’re not too bad but I’d rather have plums, blackberries or wimberries (given half a chance).

Flower arrangement with cabbages, birds of paradise and branches
Textured arrangement by Carol Baker

On the other hand, I’m a big fan of pickled red cabbage, which isn’t to all tastes: a potato pie isn’t the same without some.

I’ve often seen seen edibles used in floral designs because of their decorative properties, but it always gives me an initial frisson as if it breaks some taboo. We have fixed ideas of what plants are for.

Purple daylily
All parts of daylilies are edible; lilies are not

Daylily flowers can be stuffed and eaten in the same way as courgette flowers, but few us have tried it, even though many gardeners grow them in abundance. We have lost confidence in our ability to forage, perhaps rightly so. I can’t imagine a TV cook suggesting we go out into our gardens and gather daylilies when toxic lilies look so similar, particularly to non-gardeners.

Our love of decorative plants has muddied the water. Some of the plants we cultivate could kill us in a few bites.

Collection of decorative alliums
Alliums are edible for humans but poisonous for cats and dogs

And while all alliums are in theory edible for humans, they don’t all taste good and they are toxic for cats and dogs. It would not occur to most of us to eat fancy alliums, but I wonder how many of us have fed our dogs ‘ordinary’ onions mixed in with scraps of left-over meat?

Angelica gigas
Angelica gigas

While one species of a plant might be widely eaten, others are only used for herbal properties. Angelica gigas is not the one that has edible stalks, but it does have medicinal uses. I’m classifying it as edible for pollinators as these were foraging so gleefully in a garden filled with flowers competing for their attention.

In ‘Weeds’, Richard Mabey writes that an Iron Age man preserved in a bog near Tollund was found to have 63 varieties of seed in his stomach from his last meal, a form of winter gruel. Today expensive government campaigns try to persuade us to eat a more varied diet containing five different types of fruits and vegetables per day. Our hunter-gatherer forebears would wonder how edible plants have become such a tricky proposition.

Prompted by HeyJude’s request for purple edibles.

41 Replies to “Edible Plants”

  1. Fun post, Susan. Like you, I’d probably starve if I depended on foraging. 😉
    The man that tasted all the David Austin roses is rather brave… aren’t roses often sprayed with fungicides and pesticides? Not too many organically grown roses these days!

  2. I’d probably starve if I had to forage for my food, but in theory, I’ve done sufficient plant identification in my Herbal Medicine course in the early 1990s. I never knew so many plants could be used for medicines until that course.

    I’ve also done a plant (aka weed?) identification course many many years ago in conjunction with that herbal medicine course.

    I’ve forgotten most of what I learned though. My knowledge is pretty much restricted to common culinary herbs these days. It’s so easy to mix up plant identification with similar berries being poisonous. I buy my herbal teas in a box, although have used my mint and lemon balm plants for hot drinks.

    I think you’ve got to be very experienced to cut wild Funghi for cooking, let alone gather berries in hedgerows.

    1. I have a big herbal book but I have never felt able to use anything in it. It’s not just getting the plant identification right, but also the dosage and knowing exactly how it will affect the human body. I buy herbal teas but I try not to overdo it and to mix them up a bit rather than drink a lot of one thing. For example, camomile is supposed to be soothing but if I drink it more than every few days, it makes me feel woozy.

      1. Having studied herbal medicine back in the ‘1990s, I think I’ve learned the basics and that……is not to get cocky because I’ve done the basics.

        Your should never have more than 4 cups of the same herbal tea per day.

        In Aromatherapy for example, you use small does for mental complaints and more for physical problems (like a sprained ankle).

        My first bath using Marjoram essential oil was fantastic for a good night’s sleep, so I used twice as much in my bath the next night and had terrible nightmares LOL 😀

        I drank Chamomile for some 30 years and wasn’t actually sure that it was helping to keep me calm when working, but once I stopped drinking that particular herb, I was surprised how irritable I felt. Other than sticking to the ‘no more than 4 cups a day’ of a particular herb rule, it’s always good to remember that what is one man’s cure is another man’s poison. I had about 20 herbals of various kinds and the same number on Aromatherapy, but I’ve re-homed most books now that my eyesight and concentration is poor.

        You’re doing the right thing by using a mixture of herbal teas.

  3. I enjoyed this look at edible plants and foraging. I would not trust myself to forage for food because my knowledge of what I can and can’t eat in the wild is pretty slim. Apparently my knowledge of the flower garden is also slim. I had no idea daylilies are edible. I have some type of sage in my flower garden that smells like the herb I cook with, but since I didn’t save the tag that explains how to grow it and whether or not it’s edible, I’ve not taken a chance on it. Oh well, I do enjoy the scent of it when I’m out in the garden. 🙂

    1. A blogger wrote about eating a particular kind of fern the other day, and said they were tasty, but you had to be careful not to get the wrong type. Plant identification is not always straightforward and there’s a lot of inaccurate information online, so you’re wise to be wary.

    1. I sometimes wonder why we typically only eat particular colours of fruit and vegetables even when several exist. Is it because yellow and purple carrots or tomatoes don’t taste as good or are more tricky to grow or do they not look as appetising? I once had some purple peas and they were delicious.

      1. I did try growing yellow beans once and felt they look anemic so never grew them again. I do grow purple ones though, though on cooking they do turn dark green

  4. Have you ever tried Juneberries, also called Serviceberries or Saskatoons. They are quite sweet and tasty, though we leave ours for the birds. We also have 2 kinds of wild currant, they are quite sour. As teenagers Judy and her brother tried to follow Euell Gibbons by roasting acorns. It was not a success. I definitely lack confidence in my own foraging ability, though might be willing to trust someone with the appropriate experience.

  5. I used to be thought unusual for the amount of foraging I did – though really it wasn’t much at all. Now of course I’ve long been left behind by the New Vanguard. Still, if you find any wild gooseberries (and I do sometimes – garden escapes I suppose?) send them along please,

  6. We have a cafe that specialises in non-alcoholic drinks that have been created from foraging. he does brilliant videos

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