No, we haven't taken leave of our senses – you can go foraging in February and you'll be amply rewarded, too.
You'd be wrong in thinking you should leave your foraging basket under the stairs until spring. Despite still being in the grips of winter, there are a few sprinkles of edible greenery out there among the chilly undergrowth, some of them year-long growers, others fresh, tender and tasty shoots. You've just got to pay close attention. Get the foraging basket out and serve up a wild banquet of nettle soup, local garlic bread and gorse ice-cream. Words: Abigail Whyte
Gorse, Ulex europaeus
Common on cliff-tops, wasteland, commons and heathland, this fast-growing shrub was traditionally used as fuel for fires and kilns before the Industrial Revolution. These days its vivid yellow flowers are sought after for their coconut and almond flavour, delicious eaten raw in salads or blended in fruit tea. You can be a bit more adventurous and infuse its sweet flavour in gorse ice-cream or gorse wine. Careful picking the flowers, though – you might get prickled by the spiky leaves.
Wild garlic, Allium ursinum
Aah, the forager's dream – abundant, delicious and easy to identify – just crush it in your hand and that garlic smell is unmistakable. This long, narrow-leafed plant grows in dense clusters on damp woodland floor and shaded hedgerows. Leaves appear as early as February and its white, star-like flowers make their enchanting appearance in April. The flavour is mellower than that of cultivated garlic and can by used in a myriad of ways: whizz it into a pesto, infuse it in olive oil or simply tuck a few leaves into a cheese roll. Heavenly.
Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica
This unmistakable plant can be the curse of bare legs on summer walks but at this time of year, when made into a tea or a hearty nettle soup, you can forgive a few stings here and there, right? Stinging nettles are rich in iron and Vitamins A and D and have a spinach-y, cabbage-y flavour. It grows absolutely everywhere – just remember to avoid roadside and pesticide-ridden areas, wear thick gloves when picking and only forage young leaves near the top of the plant from late February to early June.
Cleavers, Galium aparine
Yes, it's 'sticky willy', the stuff we used to hurl at our chums in the playground so it would stick to their woolly jumpers. There isn't actually any sticky sap on it – rather tiny hooks on its leaves that attaches to clothing like velcro. Who knew it tasted good too? Pick younger plants, nothing higher than 3-4 inches tall (anything older tends to be stringy and chewy), and try mixing with lemon juice, water and sugar to make a delicately-flavoured lemonade.
Common chickweed, Stellaria media
This tasty plant's name derives from when it was traditionally used to feed poultry. Well, it's about time the chickens shared it out. This sprawling, straggly plant is common throughout Britain and is found on disturbed ground, such as footpaths, gardens, parks and allotments. It has oval leaves and white petalled flowers and is easily identified by the single line of fine hairs along its stem. Harvest young stems and leaves (using scissors) and sprinkle it raw in salads or use it to jazz up soups or stir-frys.
Please note: Use scissors/sharp knife when harvesting so you don't uproot the plant. Always take a good foraging guidebook with you out on your walks and if you're not sure, don't pick it.
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