Thursday, 30 April 2009

What's in the hedgerow and woodland?

Hedgerows are great sources of wild food so the wild food forager should be visiting them in spring to gather early greens and check out what is likely to be available later in the year in terms of soft fruit.

I've done some hedgerow foraging over the past couple of weeks and come back home with a few bags of leaves and some ideas for where to pick fruit in the summer and autumn.

Hawthorn is one of the most common shrubs growing in hedgerow. Most of the hedge around our allotment is hawthorn. The new leaves in the spring can be used in salads. I've already seen hawthorn flowering in London but not yet in the North East. However, expect hawthorn to burst into a blaze of white flowers soon if you haven't already got them. Hawthorn is pollinated by flies so don't expect the flowers to have an attractive smell! In the autumn hawthorn will be ablaze with small scarlet berries. These are idea for jellies and other recipes though no use for eating raw. Most of the fruit consists of the stone.

Sloes, or blackthorn, are another common hedgerow plant, most famous for producing timy plum like fruit used in sloe gin (and yes we have made sloe gin before). Sloes however can be used in jams and jellies though eating them raw would probably put you off them for life! They are intensely bitter. Now however is the time to find where they are growing. Last year, we found the entire crop failed. I went out one saturday afternoon in October to fill a few bags and came back empty handed. I guess a late spring frost had killed the flowers. This year I am hoping for a much needed improvement!

Hazel, pictured above, is a very important protein crop for the wild food forager. Hazel nuts, which people pay over the odds for at the supermarket during the rush to Christmas, are packed pull of protein. It's usually the case that in spring you can spot hazel before the leaves are out by the catkins hanging from the branches. The leaves however are edible in the spring and can be used in salads.

Hazel was one of the poor wild crops last year. It may have been hit by late frosts. This year we are hoping for as good a crop as we got in 2007. hazel tends to grow less in hedgerow (though you can still find some there) but tends to be more comfortable growing in woodland.

Cherry trees can sometimes be found in hedgerows though more likely they will be found in youngish woodlands. Councils love to plant them in grassed areas on housing estates as they look attractive in the spring when they are blanketed in flowers. They tend to look like they are covered with snow. In the summer and early autumn they will hopefully be weighed down with juicy fruit. So now is a good time to walk around estates and parks looking for trees. In the London area this week I have already seen the blossom giving way but it is still out in the North East where everything, growing wise, tends to be a couple of weeks later.

We picked a huge quantity of cherries last year to make jam and, ahem, cherry vodka!

Brambles are both a pain and a blessing. The fruit they produce in the autumn is likely to be one of the most familiar wild fruits in the UK. It always strikes we as bizarre that people would want to pay good money for blackberries in shops when, come September (and often earlier) there is a huge quantity of them growing wild.
On the negative side, brambles will strangle just about everything in sight and take over whole patches of ground. They can grow at an alarming rate. In 2007, when we first took over the derelict allotment, we got a fantastic crop of blackberries and then spent months chopping the damn creepers back!
However, brambles can be used for more than just blackberries. Their leaves in the early spring are edible. The thorns on the back of leaves at that point are quite soft. They are a great addition to a spring salad, of which we have been having a few recently.

We are doing more hedgerow and woodland foraging this weekend so watch this space next week for more on what's out there.

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