Wandering along the farm lane, as I do several times a day with Bill, I spend many a happy while examining the hedgerows. It’s fascinating to me that while we tend to think that at this time of the year the whole natural world is a few short weeks away from bedding down for a long winter snooze, many perennial and biennial plants are gearing up for spring, thrusting out lush green foliage and staking a claim to their spot for the new growing season. Here’s a selection of native plants, most of which are doing just that, and all of which, it occurs to me, might not make it that far in an unmolested state, owing to them being either rather tasty foragers’ fare, or rather useful in some way.
Nettles (Urtica dioica) and cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) making an attractive emerald tableux. The beautiful cheese Cornish Yarg (as sold by Lynher Diaries, amongst others) is wrapped in the leaves of stinging nettles. Recipes for nettles abound – soups, risottos, nettle and parmesan fritters – quite apart from which you can more or less use it as you would spinach. Cow parsley should absolutely not be consumed unless you can be entirely positive about its identification, as it can be mistaken for the dangerously poisonous distant cousins hemlock and fool’s parsley. Consult Richard Mabey’s excellent book Food for Free and find an experienced forager who can show you the key identification points to look for. If you’ve overcome the possibility of a horrible death, the leaves are quite nice in salads. But the fear of imminent expiration can play havoc with the digestion.
Burdoch (Arctium minus). Young leaf stems need to be peeled, and then can either be used raw in salads or boiled in a similar way to asparagus. You’ll want to avoid itchy balls, which cling like velcro to absolutely anything with a slight pile. But you’re unlikely to find young stems on a plant that’s gone to seed, so this shouldn’t be an issue when foraging.
Comfrey (Symphytum sp.) Good for making a foulesomely noxious but fantastically nutritious plant tonic. There’s some evidence that it may help broken bones to heal, hence one of its common names, knitbone. Use young leaves in salads, cook leaves of any age as you would spinach.
Garlic mustard, or Jack-in-the-hedge (Alliaria petiolata). For a piquant garlicky flavour, whose leaves make a splendid sauce for lamb when chopped with young hawthorn leaves in vinegar and sugar.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officiale) It does make you wonder why people spend such an awful lot on ghastly salad that’s steadily rotting inside a suffocating platic bag, when lovely fresh leaves that you can hoik out by the handful are liberally clothing just about any lawn that hasn't been chemically nuked to within an inch of its life. Go on, give it a go. Stick a handful in a sandwich at first, then maybe progress to including them on the side of a plate with a hearty oil and vinegar dressing.