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. I remember picking billberries for pies as a child. I’ve often wondered how closely related dandelion and burdock is to North American root beer.

    1. It takes a lot of picking to get a good pie’s worth. I am not sure about what is in root beer. My sweetheart likes it as a treat with ice cream but I don’t fancy that at all.

      1. We used to try to pick enough billberries for two pies. Root beer with ice cream is called a root beer float if I recall correctly. I’ve never had one and don’t remember the last time I had root beer.

  2. My grandmother had a gooseberry bush in her yard and I remember she did something with the berries, but I don’t know what. Jam maybe? They sure are beautiful.

  3. Excellent post! I, too, am reluctant to eat edible flowers. Heck, I don’t even like to pick them and put them in vases, although there is certainly nothing wrong with this. Nothing like cut flowers to brighten a house. I think my reluctance to eat or pick stems from my extreme love of flowers. I just want them to be where they are, in all their loveliness, for their duration of their bloom.

    1. Dad never liked picking flowers either. I always think twice. If they last well in the vase, that’s one thing, but if they are fleeting it does seem a shame.

  4. Foraging for food? Oh, I’d be so up a creek! But a feast for my eyes? Oh, yes, I could do that, especially with these photos. Pansies really know how to do purple. I’d never heard of or seen a purple apple — it looks as though it really wants to be a plum. But all the purple edibles here are enticing. And now I must google potato pie with pickled red cabbage.

    1. The apple looked a bit pear-like to me, although pears are only rarely purple. I wonder if we miss out by having such firm colour associations with fruit and vegetables, or whether we have good reasons for it.

  5. I haven’t heard of wimberries. And the goosegogs are fabulous. I love gooseberry ice cream/sorbet whenever I can find it. A true feast for the eyes this post Susan. Thank you 😊

    1. Wimberries is what I’ve always known our local wild moorland berries by. You might think of them as bilberries or whortleberries. There are hundreds of species of Vaccinium and they hybridise freely, so putting a finger on exactly what they are would be a challenge.

  6. It’s a minefield, it seems. Those purple apples are pretty, though I’ve never seen one before. Ordinary ones gripe my stomach, unless they’re cooked 🙂 🙂 Rhubarb?

    1. Do they? I thought apples were supposed to be a cure for everything! I only like Jazz apples, or at least of the ones I can get, I like those best.

  7. I love this post Susan. Your photos are beautiful, and the subject of foraging one I’m increasingly interested in. I recently met a chap whose main living now comes from foraging; he has council licenses, etc and sells to restaurants as well as at the sunday market. Apparently artisan gin makers are huge buyers of foraged plants!

    1. I can imagine. It’s something I feel I ought to know more about. I tend to remember where I have seen a particular plant and often imagine that taps into instincts from long ago.

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