Hedgerow

HEDGEROW: RIVER COTTAGE HANDBOOK NO. 7 John Wright I am frequently told that going on a walk with me can be rather disconcerting. Except from the occasions when I offer my companion the odd leaf to chew upon, I appear to be strangely distracted and barely listening to what is being said to me. Well, I am – usually – listening; it is just that I am doing something else as well – looking.

Once one learns the foraging way of life, it is difficult to stop. Every walk, every car or train journey is an opportunity to find a new patch of Watermint, a likely spot for Pignuts or a promising-looking wood. If my walking is absent-minded, my driving is lethal. Foraging at 50mph, with eyes darting left and right and the occasional abrupt punctuations of the forager’s emergency stop, has made me a danger to all road-users.

I hope you come to love foraging and learning about foraging as much as I do. I know for certain that you will enjoy the food you find on your travels – eating wild Raspberries on a summer evening, for example, is difficult to beat. While many of the foods here are wild versions of familiar plants, there are several which may be new to you. Pignuts, Brooklime, Bulrush shoots and Silverweed roots are not readily found at even the best of greengrocers and are delicacies available only to the forager. Of course, there was a time when life was quite different, a time when there were no shops, no farms to supply them and not even a garden.

Ten or eleven-thousand years ago in the Near East, not far from the the mythical Garden of Eden, human beings made their greatest ever innovation: agriculture. For all the aeons before this, there was only one way our ancestors could obtain food – from the wild. Agriculture has been the backbone of our civilisation, relieving us of the time-consuming and unreliable daily hunt for food, but it has also deprived us of life’s great pleasures.

While gathering wild food is still a matter of everyday life in many rural parts of the developed world (though much less so in Britain), nowadays the culture of hunting and foraging persists for most people largely as a pale remnant. Hunting has become formalised and often ritualised sport; the true purpose, acquiring food, frequently forgotten. And few people now will forage for much more than a basket of Blackberries or a bag of Elderflowers. But, of course, instincts do not disappear just because we do not need them as we once did. Most of us now sublimate our foraging urges in supermarket aisles, which have been cunningly designed by Machiavellian retail psychologists to mimic the ancient experience.

Given that finding one’s own food is such a fundamental drive, it is unsurprising that it is so much fun – nature has delightful tendency to reward us for doing things that are essential for life but which are hard work, complex or even absurd. I take people ever year on various forays and it is wonderful to see their primal delight; all other concerns and thoughts flee and the single-minded nature of the enterprise becomes meditative.

With the need to find food in the wild food in the wild no longer pressing, and most people living in an urban environment, the knowledge of what can be eaten, and where and when to find it, is no longer learned learned at mother’s side. Books can tell you the ‘what’ and to a large extent the ‘when’, but the ‘where’ cannot be described beyond generalities. The precise location of particular plants was knowledge passed down through the generations; Pignuts are always found here and there is a plum here, here, and here, with the second one producing the best fruit. Such things now have to be learned anew. I have a mental map of exactly where hundreds of different wild foods can be found and a sense of my chances on any particular day, but this is hard-earned knowledge acquired from years of searching – if my mother knew where to find Pignuts she has kept the information to herself.

This book won’t tell you exactly where to find Pignuts either, but I hope it will fill in some gaps and point you more or less in the right direction. As your life no longer depends on knowing where to find wild food, you have the leisure to enjoy the search, with every new discovery an exciting one. Coming across an unsuspected woodland clearing full of ripe Raspberries or a Chestnut tree producing good-sized nuts is a wonderful experience.

There is much to enjoy here and I hope you will become the hunter/gatherer you were designed to be.

Where to look
The title of this book is ‘Hedgerow’ but it actually covers plants found in many more places that this. Wood, mountainside, moor, bog, heath, stream, meadow, field edge, seashore, urban wasteland, garden and allotment can all produce an abundance of wild foods. Most people can make a good start by looking in their own flower-beds – Hairy Bittercress, Dandelion, Ground Elder, Silverweed and Corn Salad can all be found in the average flower garden and it is rather satisfying to be able to eat your weeds. The vegetable garden can supply even finer delicacies, such as Fat Hen and Spear-leaved Orache.

One of my favourite spots for foraging is other people’s veg patches and I am something of a familiar figure at the local allotments. There was some suspicion at first from the gardeners, but when my requests to pick some of their weeds proved not to be a cover for theft or sabotage, I was welcomed as a harmless idiot. In fact, few places are more packed with wild edible greens than the disturbed ground of an allotment garden – with Fat Hen, Spear-leaved Orach, Red Goosefoot and Chickweed available by the sackful. You may not be quite so lucky as I am – some allotments have fallen under the firm hand of an officious parish clerk or allotment association and will be scrupulously weed free. Also, the organic revolution has not touched the souls of all who practise horticulture, so the patch of Fat Hen you have been eyeing up for the last week may have recently been sprayed with 2,4-Dicholorophenoxyacetic acid or something equally unappetising. Always check with your friendly gardener first.

Even without the wildlife refuge of many gardens, the urban forager need not feel left out. Around twenty species mentioned in this book are commonly found in odd corners of our cities and suburbs. Fennel, Perennial Wall Rocket, Rowan, Blackberry, Stinging Nettle, Wild Strawberry and others are all as much, or even more, at home in town as out. Not that urban foraging is without its perils. Herbicidal sprays, pollution and, most of all, dogs, can make a forage around town a dicey business. There is good news though: pollution from motor vehicles is not what it was when lead was an ingredient in petrol. All that lead has now been washed away and is, mercifully, not being replenished. Other fuel and exhaust residues such as oil and carbon particles do not travel far from the road and will be no problem unless you pick your plants very close to the traffic. It is usually perfectly obvious whether a plant is growing in acceptably clean conditions so just use your common sense.

The countryside too has its pitfalls. Roadside pollution can still be a menace, through usually less so than in town. Problems from agricultural sprays are a rare concern but you should still be careful when picking from the edge of crop fields. Cars on the move can be a nuisance and I often find myself squeezing into a prickly hedge when two cars perversely choose that particular spot to pass one another. Probably the worst problem, though not dangerous unless you happen to be in the hedge at the time, is hedge-trimming. This operation is essential – left untrimmed, hedges would cease to be hedges and attempt to join the other side of the road to make a long wood. Despite efforts by councils and farmers to cut at the right time of year (usually to accommodate nesting birds), they often seem to do so at the wrong time for the forager. Promising Redcurrent bushes, Gooseberry bushes and Hazel trees are devastated in seconds by the voracious blades of these vertical lawn mowers. In any new world order, I will have the whole process placed under my personal control. Nevertheless, we can often be lucky and find a crop that has managed to escape. My favourite hedgerow harvest – the relatively tall Elderflower – normally evades hedge-trimmers.

Woodland hedges are seldom trimmed and will often contain many edible species. The modern version of the planted hedgerow is the swathes of trees and shrubs planted by imaginative council and highway authorities along dual carriageways and even on roundabouts. My best spot for Wild Cherries is on a bypass (I won’t tell you which) and the largest patch of Sea Buckthorn I have ever come across is alongside the A1 just south of Newcastle. Sometimes these places are accessible, but often they are a forage too far.

The heart of a wood is surprisingly poor foraging territory; it is generally too dark and fails to provide the ‘edge habitat’ required by so many plants. Wood Sorrel and Sweet Chestnut are the most likely woodland finds. Heath and bog bring Bilberry and Cranberry respectively, while streams will supply two of my favourite edible plants – Watercress and Watermint. Fields and meadows are also excellent hunting grounds with Pignut, Sorrel, Wintercress and Dandelion.