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ElderberriesWhat to grow

Wild food

for free

Foraging is an age-old skill that is in danger of being forgotten. Here are five free foods that are easy to find in autumn hedgerows

September is one of the best months for foraging. Although many wild foods can be harvested at other times of the year, it's during late summer and autumn that the more familiar hedgerow fruits become available.


Foraging for hedgerow berries is great way to get out and enjoy the countryside – and is something that humans have done throughout history.


During difficult times, foraging has played an important role to supplement diets – during WW2, for example, it was common to collect rosehips as a vital source of vitamin C. In many parts of Europe, foraging is still important. But here in the UK, our knowledge of edible wild plants is in danger of being forgotten.

Wild food rules

It's important to remember a few rules whenever you're out foraging for food. Always make sure you know exactly what you're picking – although there are relatively few poisonous plants commonly found in the UK, it's best to be on the safe side. So take along a good reference book, with clear photos, or go gathering with someone who has foraging experience. And if you are in any doubt at all, don't risk it.


Don't collect berries from the roadside, where they may have been contaminated by traffic pollution, or from any other areas where pesticides or herbicides may have been used.


Be sure not to strip plants of leaves or berries. Many species of wildlife rely on wild food sources to survive – so share the harvest!

5 foods to forage

Blackberries

Blackberries are instantly recognisable, and usually the first fruit that springs to mind when planning a foraging expedition.


Blackberries are high in vitamin C, and rich in bioflavonoids and antioxidants. They're also low in calories, so are a healthy choice for dessert – mix with other berries such a strawberries, raspberries and blueberries for a vitamin boost.


Blackberry puree is easy to make and can be added to ice cream, yoghurt, or meringues – or use as a topping on a vanilla cheesecake.


Make a simple blackberry fool by combining equal parts whipped double cream and thick Greek yoghurt with blackberry purée. Eton mess can be made in the same way – just leave out the yoghurt and add some crushed meringue. You can also stir blackberry purée into rice pudding – or even add it to your morning porridge!


You may not think to add blackberries to savoury dishes, but they can be tasty paired with pork, duck or pheasant. Or add a handful of berries to braised red cabbage for extra sweetness.


If you find you've gathered more berries than you can eat, try making blackberry liqueur. Rinse and dry 500g blackberries and put them in a large sterilised preserving jar. Add 250g sugar and 700ml cheap vodka or gin. Store in a cool dark place for three months, giving it a shake every now and then – if you make it in September it should be ready to drink by Christmas!


Bilberries

Bilberries can often be found growing in the UK's moors and woodlands in August and September. They thrive in acidic soil, so areas where you spot other acid-loving plants – heather or rhododendrons for example – are good places to search for bilberries.

Look out for small, shrubby bushes and dark blue-black berries. They look, and taste, similar to blueberries – although bilberries are usually smaller. Use bilberries as you would blueberries – they can be eaten fresh, added to smoothies, or turned into preserves, pies or puddings.


Just like blackberries, bilberries can be made into a fruity liqueur using the same fruit to sugar to alcohol ratio as above.


Elderberries

Elderberries are ripe and ready to pick in September and October. The clusters of dark berries are easy to spot in the hedgerow, and should be harvested when they've turned black. They're not to everyone's taste when eaten raw, but they can be used to make wine, jellies, jams and syrups. Or add them to pies and crumbles.

Bilberries

Elderberries have used medicinally for centuries – and when you look at their health benefits, it's easy to see why. They're high in vitamin C, and are said to be high in antioxidants and to strengthen the immune system. Elderberry syrup is believed to be good for soothing coughs and colds, and is also delicious poured over pancakes or ice cream.


To make elderberry syrup, remove the berries from the stalks and rinse them. Put 500g berries into a large pan, add water until the berries are just covered, and simmer for about 20 minutes until the berries are very soft. Then strain off the juice and return it to the pan, discarding the pulp. Add 250g sugar and boil rapidly for about 15 minutes, until the liquid has thickened. Pour into sterilised glass bottles and store in a cool dark place for up to four months.


Hawthorn berries

Hawthorn berries are believed to be good for heart health, as well as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. They're also a good source of vitamins B and C.

Hawthorn

The berries can be made into a savoury, ketchup-like sauce. They're also good in fruit leathers or jams and jellies, especially when combined with apples. Hawthorn berries contain high levels of pectin, so they will help jam to set.


Harvest hawthorn berries after the first frosts – this makes the berries sweeter – or freeze for a couple of days before using. Dried hawthorn berries can be chopped up and used to sprinkle over breakfast cereals.


Crab apples

The crab apple is an ancestor of the cultivated apple, and can often be spotted growing wild in mature hedgerows.

Crab apples

Crab apples are small apples with a tart flavour that can be a bit unpalatable when eaten raw. But cooked crab apples can add an intense appley flavour to desserts such as crumbles or pies.

Crab apple vodka and crab apple jelly are two other common culinary uses for the fruits.

Crab apple trees are excellent for wildlife, with their leaves, blossoms and fruits providing food for all kinds of creatures. Bees, butterflies and birds – as well as mammals such as voles, foxes and badgers – all benefit from crab apple trees.

Other foraging ideas     

Hazelnuts are a fantastic source of protein – if you can get to them before the squirrels do!


Dandelion roots, roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee (remember to leave plenty of plants for the bees!)


Wild garlic leaves have a mild garlic flavour and are delicious in all sorts of dishes. Gather in May.


Sloes taste pretty awful eaten raw, but can be made into sloe gin – possibly the most delicious of the foraged fruit liqueurs.


If you want to try foraging this autumn, investing in a book or two is a good idea.


Food for Free by Richard Maby is an excellent guide to foraging, with what to look for and when. It includes clear illustrations to help you identify what you're picking.


And once you've gathered your free food, Preserves: River Cottage Handbook No.2 by Pam Corbin has lots of easy-to-follow recipes for jams, chutneys, sauces, liqueurs and more.

Little Green Space September 2020

Elder tree with berries