Mallow, Mugwort and Wild Cherries: a day of urban foraging

10th July 2012 by

Cycling through the pounding rain to work, on a Saturday morning, did not instill much enthusiasm in our day of foraging ahead. Luckily, rays of sunshine started peeking their way around the stormy clouds as our intrepid band of wild-food-foraging-bicycle-lovers gathered at the Otesha office in East London.

Our adventure was to be led by a fount of knowledge of all things wild, Rich Wright, a forest gardener and mushroom experimenter at Welsh rural arts space Coed Hills. A carefully planned route would take us along quiet roads to Weavers Field, Ion Square and Haggerston Park in East London, where Rich would impart his wisdom and we could collect some wild goodies for our culinary volunteers Gavin and Tamsin to cook up into a tasty lunch.

Now normally, when I walk through a green space I tend to notice only grass, nettles and brambles- you know, the obvious plants. How little I knew! Walking around a small wooded area with Rich suddenly opened my eyes to a fascinating array of edible or medicinal plants growing in London green spaces.

Every 2 minutes we would stop and look at a plant, nibble leaves, pluck vibrant flowers and pull faces at some incredibly sour wild cherries. Not only did we learn about the incredible host of edible plants but about the health and medicinal properties of wild herbs, like mugwort, which is said to enhance your dreams when ingested. Suddenly, what looks like quite a homogenous green space comes alive with the possibility of a tasty meal or a healing tincture. Your standard walk in the park becomes more like a trip to a wild and free supermarket!

After a couple of hours of cycling and foraging we returned to Otesha HQ tummies a-rumbling, where Gavin and Tamsin had cooked up a veritable feast. The next couple of hours was spent gorging on chickweed pakoras, mallow soup, lime leaf dolmades and wild London salad- see links to some of the recipes we used below.

Chickweed pakoras

Here’s a run down of our favourite plants we found on our travels and some links to some of the recipes we used:

1. Common Mallow (Malva Sylvestris)

A great all rounder that grows abundantly in urban parks. The leaves are rich in protein, calcium, iron and vitamin C, and are delicious in salad and the Middle Eastern dish Molokhia. The flowers are also great additions to salads. The leaves are pretty glutenous so can be use to thicken stews and are a great tonic for the body’s mucus system.

Check out a video of Rich telling us about mallow:


2. Elder tree (Sambucus nigra)

Elder is a large shrub that grows in many hedgerows. The white sprays of flowers can be used to make elderflower cordial and champagne, or can be dipped in batter and made into elderflower fritters. You can even make elderflower-flavoured Turkish Delight. The dark purple berries found in autumn can be great for wines but can cause stomach upsets in some people if eaten raw. Steer clear of eating the leaves, they are pretty inedible but make a great natural insecticide for vegetables if left to steep in water for a couple of weeks. In the past farmers used to tie pungent elder leaves to horses’ harnesses when ploughing to discourage flies.

3. Common Lime (Tilia vulgaris)

The Common Lime, or linden, is a large ornamental tree found in many parks in urban areas. Its bright green, heart-shaped leaves can be used in salad if young, or used to make dolmades (substitute vine for lime leaves). Pick the leaves from new growth at the base of the tree, but pick above dog height. The small white flowers, otherwise known as Linden blossom, can be made into a lovely tea with mild sedative and decongestant properties.

4. Nettle (Urtica diocia)

Although out of season at the moment, the humble nettle definitely deserves a mention as a key staple in any forager’s arsenal. Although the nettle has a bit of a reputation as being a weed, it is in fact a natural superfood- its leaves are packed with protein, vitamin C, calcium and beta-carotene. Because of this it is a great spring tonic in tea or tincture form, and is a great fertiliser for plants. And it tastes great! Try using it like spinach in recipes or making nettle soup. I’ve even heard tell that deep fried crispy nettle is a treat as well. Try not to eat it after it flowers and goes to seed because at that stage it can contain some substances that are a bit irritant. Watch out for the sting when picking, but don’t worry, it quickly disappears when cooked.

Top tips for foraging wild food

  • Only pick plants that you are 100% sure of, there are some nasties out there! If in doubt consult a book with a picture in it. Beware of using Google Images to identify plants.
  • Avoid picking from places where dogs are walked, otherwise pick food above dog height.
  • If in urban areas avoid consuming wild roots, as there is likely to be a build up of heavy metals and toxins in the soils which may contaminate the plant roots. Also, uprooting a plant is generally against the law unless you get the owner’s okay.
  • Similarly, avoid eating plants from the edge of busy roads or other polluted areas as you will find yourself eating some pretty nasty chemicals.
  • Only take as much as you need, and only pick in places where there is an abundance of that specific plants. As a general rule, never take more than a third of one plant so it has a chance to recover.

The Otesha Wild Food Cycle was an event free for members of Otesha. If you’d like to hear more about members’ events Otesha puts on during the year, sign up here.


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