A season by season guide to what food can be foraged in Westburn Woods. It was made after a group of us visited the woods to see what might be there with Amy from Hipsters and Hobos and locals who already know quite a lot about foraging. Based on the days findings Amy has created a list, which is here with photos taken by me in Westburn Woods throughout 2020.
Spring (March through to May)
Cleavers (sticky willy)
One of the earliest plants to come up in spring, look out for cleaver shoots amongst the grass. When very small these can be added to salads. As they grow, add a small handful of cleavers to smoothies for a fresh burst of flavour and nutrients. Like many wild plants they are high in vitamin C. In addition to this they can help enhance the lymphatic system, which in turn can improve your immune system.
The red/green shoots of rosebay willoherb appear in mid-spring and should be harvested before the leaves are fully open. To do this cut the willoherb rather than pull it out by the root as it will regrow, providing food for later in the year. It is often spoken about as the asparagus of the woods, and you can easily prepare it for cooking by washing and scraping off the very outside of the stalks. The very young leaves are a lovely spinach substitute, however, they become very fibrous as they age and so only edible in spring. Either steamed or cooked gently in some butter with salt, these make a lovely side vegetable for different meals. As well as vitamin C, rosebay willowherb is also a good source of protein and carotene.
One of the earliest flowers to bloom in the woods, primrose is a very good edible. It is not very abundant though so you should collect mindfully. The leaves taste somewhat like a green cabbage and are a superb addition to stir-frys, however can be a little bitter and therefore not very nice raw or in large amounts. The flowers are edible and sweet and can make a lovely syrup or wine. It is important to note that if all the flowers are harvested it is an early food source for pollinators and will have an ecological impact. Likewise, as common primrose is not an overly common plant it is important to let it seed. Collecting seeds and scattering (even in your garden!) can help this plant recover from past over harvesting.
The woods are full of hawthorn trees, easily identifiable by their distinctive leaves. The edible young leaves were once called ‘bread and cheese’ although they taste much more nutty than bready. These are a lovely addition to salads or cooked dishes and are plentiful in the woodland. Full of antioxidants the tree is also a good source of some of the B vitamins and vitamin C.
We can all identify the common stinging nettle, and the good news is that the woods are full of them. Nettles are a delicious wild food that taste very similar to spinach. The best time to harvest them for food is in the spring before they flower. You only want to use the nettle tops (first 4 leaves or so) as otherwise they can be bitter/fibrous. They make a lovely soup, or can work in other meals just as you might use spinach. If you want to remove the sting, simply pop into a bowl and pour boiling water over them and leave for one minute.
Common hogweed shoots are one of the best wild edibles in the woodland. Jam packed with nutrients it is high in vitamin C, potassium and protein. The shoots should be harvested before the leaves open out and cooked over a low heat in butter for 10 – 15 minutes. Caution is advised as the carrot family does contain poisonous/toxic members and you need to be sure not to confuse it with giant hogweed. Be careful when harvesting in the sun as the sap can cause blistering – gloves are recommended.
Few Flowered Leek
Few flowered leek is one of the earliest spring edibles, look out for it from early March. It is great for beginner foragers as the smell, of garlic and onion, is the give away. Unlike the broad leaves of wild garlic it is much more slender, resembling a miniature leek. It can resemble snowdrop leaves, however, crushing one between the fingers will release the garlic smell. These can be eaten raw or cooked. In late spring the small white flowers, which give the plant its name, bloom. These make a wonderful garnish, as do the green seeds that they produce. Notably few flowered leek is an invasive species that outcompetes the native wild garlic, and so harvesting for food can have a beneficial impact on the environment.
Often confused with few flowered leek, wild garlic has much broader leaves and tends to grow later on in spring. Although young shoots can be found as early as January, it is more widely available from late March to early April. Unlike bulb garlic, wild garlic should be added only for the last two minutes of cooking or it becomes grassy. As uprooting plants is illegal and can be damaging to the ecosystem you should not use the bulbs of wild garlic. When harvesting care should be taken to collect one leaf at a time, as the poisonous lords and ladies can grow in the same habitat.
Summer (June through to August)
In the woods and the surrounding area you will come across different species of rose. All species have edible petals, which make beautiful additions to summer salads or garnishes for cakes and puddings. They also dry really easily and store well for fragrant herbal teas. Roses provide nourishment for bees and other pollinators so it’s important to harvest carefully, which will also allow the fruit to develop. By only taking a few petals off each flower this means the bees will still be able to see them and feed.
Pineapple weed grows close to the ground on the entrance to the woodland. It is a type of chamomile and the flowers appear to have no petals (they are actually very small). When crushed between your fingers it gives a strong smell of pineapple. It is a lovely herb to cook with in sweet dishes, such as flapjack, or even try adding it to pizza. As well as making a deliciously fruity tea it provides the same herbal properties as chamomile – aiding sleep, anxiety and calming the stomach. An all round soother!
Cleavers (sticky willy)
Moving into Summer cleavers start to become too tough to eat. We can still use them to bring flavour to the kitchen however. Several strands popped into water and left in the fridge overnight will give a refreshing cucumber flavoured drink. Ideal on a warm day.
Westburn Woods are home to two species of plantain – narrow and broad leaf. These are healing herbs that work wonders for the skin, particularly for bites and stings. Not only do they soothe the skin but also the stomach, when made into a tea. As they are a powerful herb you should not ingest if you take the medication omeprazole, as they stop each other from working. Plantain is a very tough plant and so generally doesn’t make the best food. However, if you take broadleaf plantain & give it a light coating of salt and oil, it makes the best vegetable crisps. Pop in a very hot oven for no more than five minutes for a crunchy snack.
Autumn (September through November)
In Autumn the rose will fruit and produce rosehips. These are super high in vitamin C and great to prepare us for Winter. Also known as itchy-coos, rosehips contain seeds covered in tiny hairs. These are an irritant and not only can they cause skin rashes but also irritate the stomach. To use rosehips keep them whole. Dried out they will keep for a very long time and make really lovely winter teas. Otherwise you can stew them up and pass through a very fine jelly bag. This will catch all of the hairs. Once you have done this use the liquid to make jelly or syrups.
During early Autumn the rosebay willowherb will be in full flower. These bright purple flowers make a lovely tea or even a dye for clothing. This is also the point of the year that you can collect the leaves for tea. They are easy to strip by running your hand down the plant stem. Once this is done, give them a good wash, pop into a plastic bang and give them a good bash with a rolling pin. Leave overnight. The next day you want to cut them up and then dry – either laid out on the windowsill or in a very cool oven. Once dry all the way through you will have a wonderfully earthy and nutritious tea for the cold Autumnal evenings.
After nettles flower they are no longer good to eat. Wait until mid to late Autumn to see the fat, disk-like seeds hanging low on the branches. These are absolutely worth collecting as they are delicious! They pack an energy punch and are really good for fatigue or burn out. You do need to be a little careful though, as more than 30g a day can prevent you from sleeping. Try to add to cereals, protein balls or smoothies.
During mid-Autumn the hawthorn trees produce their fruit, haws. These are bright red and look a little like tiny apples. Haws, like the hawthorn leaves in Spring, are really nutritious and plentiful. As well as making lovely jelly or fruit leathers you can use them to make ketchup. Haws don’t drop from the tree and can often be found right through the winter.
A very useful plant it is not only the bramble berries that are edible. Look out for these from late Summer to early Autumn – the perfect fruit to collect with children. In spring the young leaves can be collected for tea, high in antioxidants and also an antiseptic, ideal defense for spring colds. Before the bramble leaves bud the flexible stems can be collected and de-thorned to use for weaving. Traditionally used for dying in Scotland the leaves can produce blacks and greys, the roots and orange and the berries greys, blues and purple.
Winter (December through February)
It is always a good idea to follow the woods through the seasons. Come Winter, our common hogweed has completed its growing season, leaving sun-dried seeds on old stalks. This is the perfect time to collect them, a warming wild spice, with flavours of orange, clove and coriander. Ground up it is a lovely addition to baking, aromatic rice pudding and even porridge. For a real treat try it in spiced hot chocolate with a little nutmeg.
Tried and tested delicious Hogweed Seed Cake recipe made and shared by Fabien:
Jelly Ear Fungus
Westburn Woods don’t have a huge range of fungi but, as the weather cools, you should begin to find jelly ears on Elder trees. Mushroom foraging can seem scary to beginners but these really distinctive fungi are a great starting point – there isn’t another that looks like a human ear! Known as black fungus in Asian cookery they are great dried out and added to ramen. Alternatively you can rehydrate them in any sauce or stock and they will take on that flavour. Try rehydrating in fruit juices for a low-sugar sweet treat.
Kevin’s blog post about Jelly Ear Fungus:
Beech trees or hedges don’t drop their leaves until late in the Winter or early Spring – unless there is a strong wind. Dried out by the sun, these are easy to find, ready made tea. Tasting like an earthy black tea this is a great way to forage extra nutrients even in the coldest Winter. Take a handful and crush into boiling water and allow to infuse for about ten minutes.
Sources for more information: