Sweet Cicely

Myrrhis Odora

A plant that is often found near rivers and burns as it likes running water. When it does grow, as it only grows in certain areas of the UK, it grows very well indeed and is often seen in large patches.

It smells and tastes strongly of aniseed. The leaves, stems, seeds and roots are all edible. It is sweet and was used instead of sugar before sugar arrived in Britain. It goes very well with rhubarb. It was used medicinal as a carminative and as an expectorant. A carminative helps calm the digestive tract and therefore help improve digestion and eventually absorption of nutrients. An expectorant helps the lungs to expel mucous and can help with some coughs.

I like making it into rhubarb and sweet cicely chutney, adding it to pickles, a simple syrup to add to cocktails and pudding. It makes an surprisingly excellent ice cream and can be added to anything that uses sugar to reduce the amount of refined sugar in a recipe although it will give an aniseed to flavour to the dish.

It’s always a joy when the first shoots start coming through in the Spring and waiting for a time to positively identify it again and then to start harvesting the leaves and young stems. Sweet cicely has a tendency when it’s older to go a bit fibrous but then I start using it for pickles. The seeds start tender and green and then go almost black and are much tougher but still retain the aniseed flavour. The flavour then goes into the root. Even the flowers taste of aniseed so for the duration of the plant there is always one part that is delicious. So long as you like aniseed that is!

Sweet cicely looks like hemlock and therefore identification is of the upmost importance. It is in the same family, Apiaceae, of which there are some of the most delicious wild plants but also some of the most poisonous. As with all foraging identification is paramount. NEVER eat anything your not 150% sure what it is. When you discover a new plant. Use your new plant find as a learning experience and take note of the location of the plant, look at it’s botanical features, take pictures, collect a specimen (unless it monkshood in which do NOT pick or even touch without gloves as it poisonous through the skin) and go home and look up your wild flower key book and find out what it is. Ask other knowledgeable plant people and get a positive identification. Please do not just eat something as plants can give you a whole host of symptoms and reactions and some can kill you. Do not take this lightly, there have been a fatal mistakes.

Nettles

Urtica dioica

Nettles appear in early spring and continue through into summer. We are often wary of this plant due to it being able to sting us. There are tiny hairs on the entire plant that when touched give us a irritable somewhat painful sting leaving us with a sensitive area of skin afterwards. These hairs contain acetylcholine, histamine, formic acid and serotonin. Acetylcholine opens up the cell wall, histamine gives us the reaction and formic acid the irritation, ants also contain formic acid. It’s interesting that the hairs contain serotonin which we receive when affected. Is it such a negative to be stung by nettles? The stinging hairs are neutralised but hot water and by cooking. You can eat nettles raw without getting stung by folding and rolling a leaf into a very tight bundle and squeezing firmly on the bundle, this breaks the hairs and then they cannot sting anymore.

Nettles make great food and medicine. They contain so many vitamins and minerals that nettles could be considered a plant equivalent to a multi vitamin pill. They contain vitamin A, B, C, D and K. Significant amounts of iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and zinc. If that wasn’t enough they also contain up to 42% protein. This does depend on where the nettles grow, they are a pioneer species and will be one of the first plants to grow on newly turned soil and depending on the composition of the soil will utilise the newly released nutrients within the area. One advantage nettles have over a multi vitamin pill is the bioavailability of the nutrients for the body. A plant is more easily broken down into the available nutrients and the body has to work slightly less for these nutrients.

The high levels of protein can be precipitated out and made into ‘leafu’ using the same methods employed in making tofu. This can then be dehydrated and stored for future use but then so can the leaves as they are.

They make an excellent spring vegetable for their nutritional content and taste. Traditional and culturally we were much more sedentary in the winter. Winter foods, which were usually stored from earlier harvests in the year, are often lower in nutritional content. Spring plants are important. In fact a few plants that appear in the spring are useful for after Winter along with the nutritional benefits of nettles, cleavers are a gentle lymphatic and ground elder is high in vitamin C and helps remove uric acid build up in the joints.

When harvesting nettles it is important to be aware that the plant should not be harvested after it has gone to flower and it is only the top two to eight leaves are generally considered the best for harvesting. The reason nettles are not used after they flower is the plant starts to produce microscopic calcium carbonate and these can damage the kidneys. Interestingly though the seeds are used to help with kidney function and there are not many plants or orthodox drugs that can help improve kidney function. The seeds as you might expect also contain high levels of nutrients to the point some people feel energised after eating them.

Although the hairs contain histamine the plant exhibits anti histamine effects on the body and is one of the plants used to treat hayfever and other allergic conditions.

Nettle tea is a great way to enjoy nettles but there are many other ways to include them in your diet. Treat them like spinach. They can be made into a delicious soup, added to lasagne, they give a great green colour to gnocchi, can be made into savoury oatcakes and even a delicious and vibrant green cake. I like making a simple nettle syrup and then adding it to cocktails, it gives a depth of flavour and the level of minerals comes through with a hint of green apple.

Nettle & sesame oatcakes with ground elder butter

How to learn foraging plus books and websites

Recently a few folk have asked for book and website recommendations about foraging and herbal medicine.

This brings up the subject of the best way to learn the art of foraging and herbal medicine. Foraging cannot be done purely through books and reading on the internet. You need to be guided and shown by someone that knows what they are doing. Find your local forager and attend walks and workshops when you can, at different times of the year so you can see the same plants through the seasons. Herbal medicine can be learnt through books and never seeing a living plant but it defeats the whole purpose of connecting to the plants. The Association of Foragers website gives you members in your area.

www.foragers-association.org.uk

The next thing, as well as your local friendly and knowledgable forager, one of the first books you will need is a botany book called a key. It helps you identify at a botanical level the plants you want to learn. It takes a while to get your head into the new thinking but it is vital you learn this skill so you know exactly what plants you can eat.

NEVER EVER eat anything you don’t know what it is. Always be 125% of the identity.

The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose is the best botanical key for the UK.

Next find a patch of land near to you, your own garden, a local woodland, a coastal area. A patch you can enjoyably visit on a regular basis and do just that visit and slow down and look at the plants. Take your time and enjoy learning to identify the plants. Watch and observe the plants through the seasons, it can take years to learn the details of even one plant. Don’t be put off because if you take your time and try not to rush it you will learn so much more and you’ll gain confidence as well.

Now we can get to books to help you learn through your practical walks/workshops with your local forager and your observations and visits to your chosen area(s).

Any book by Roger Philips. A veteran of foraging his books are excellent for helping you learn clearly and correctly.

Any book by Stephen Harrod Buhner to learn to connect to the plants. Stephens writing is amazing! His ability to lightheartly and simply convey the complexity of plants and their interactions with humans is beautiful.

The New Wildcrafted Cuisine by Pascal Baudar is an interesting book and quite boundary pushing foraging recipe book.

A quick word on learning through the internet and social media, as with any subject on the internet there is there is good information and bad information so please be aware of that. Social media is a very useful tool for getting connected to like minded folk but please do not try and learn your plants through photos on social media, it will just confuse you and you may even give up on learning. Find your local forager and find your patch of nature to sit in and learn from. There’s no substitute for your local area and the plants that grow around you. It is the connection your seeking.

There are some useful websites, these are places and people I trust for their plant knowledge and ethics. There are other sites which maybe great but I have not encountered them yet. I’m spending time on getting my own knowledge and thoughts onto this website! That’s why I admire these people as they have already done that.

Mark Williams of Galloway wild Foods has put together an extensive website full of information. Atesting to his own extensive knowledge of foraging.gallowaywildfoods.com

Monica Wilde has an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and foraging her website has good solid information. Monica works for Neals Yard and always has a plant project on the go and herbal powerhouse.monicawilde.com

Robin Harfords site eat the weeds is excellent. Robin is another veteran of modern foraging. He has over many years put his excellent site together. eattheweeds.com

Vivenne Campbell is a wonderful herbalist and forager based in Ireland. Her site is also extensive and looks at the medicinal and cosmetic properties of plants as well as foraging. She runs an online course that is very well resourced. theherbalhub.com

Once you get to grips with the plants you’ll learn that it’s the phytochemicals that produce the flavour and medicinal actions of the plants. A very extensive website to learn the constituents of plants is Dr Dukes ethnobotanical and phytochemical database. https://phytochem.nal.usda.gov/phytochem/search/list

I hope this helps on your journey with plants and nature.

Birch Sap

One of the first ‘fruits’ of Spring is tree sap. In this part of the world it is mainly birch that can be tapped for it’s nutritious sap. It is slightly sweet due to the levels of natural zylitol in it. There is a noticeable amount of vitamins and mineral in the sap. So you can see why many cultures including, in the past, Scotland folk tapped trees for the sap at the start of Spring. A sweet and nutritious food source when there wasn’t much else around. This year I collected birch sap to put into a cocktail for Elsa’s bar at the Fife Arms, Braemar. You can easily ferment the sap to make a delicious wine or reduce it down for an amazing syrup. It takes a long time to reduce as and you need a 100 litres of sap to make 1 litre of syrup.

Birch sap collecting with bird song