It’s a funny time of year many foragers completely focus on the autumn winter offerings of the fungi kingdom we can become obsessive in our search for our favourite edible mushroom or enthralled by the chase of a elusive mushroom that one we don’t seem to be able to add to our list of edible finds that we completely ignore some of the offerings that flora still holds throughout the winter months .
I miss the social media posts of other foragers edible flora it is reduced dramatically with replacements of mushroom loveliness I will admit to being as guilty as the next forager and wanted to post a celebration to winter greens .
Some of our best tasting plants that are top of the list for spring greens are readily available throughout winter In actual fact some of them become thicker and more substantial in a natural way to hunker down and be hardy enough for the bleak winter weather , I think that at least twice in the last few weeks I’ve listened to foragers expressing a wish for spring so that they can again enjoy foraging for greens , ok in reality you may have to work a but harder or walk a bit further to fill your basket but there are more than enough offerings to make your effort into a reward and I’m going to share some of my favourite inland plants I regularly use for winters salads .
I’ve got to start with more of a herb than a salad leaf but in my opinion one of the nicest wild flavours available at any time of year and shredded offers a unique taste to any salad Glechoma hederacea commonly known as ground ivy or alehoof my favourite common name “creeping Charlie ” you can read references to this being used in home brew and some great rubs used for stronger tasting game meats and a quick bruising between your fingers will release some of it’s potent aroma my preferred use is to salt the leaves for a short period drawing the liquid from the leaf then I shred them and flash fry them much like crispy seaweed and it makes a great crispy addition to a salad ,
( alehoof , ground ivy , Glechoma hederacea )
There are two other winter leaves I use in a similar crispy way to add depth to a salad yarrow , Achillea millefolium
Has a quaver like texture when dipped in very hot oil for a few seconds the leaf almost melts in the mouth and can be found in every county in the U.K. Growing in medeows and grassy verges .
( yarrow , Achillea millefolium , milfoil )
the next is more of a crisp the winter leaves of mallow are thick and not really palatable raw in winter months but tossed in oil and baked in a very hot oven then seasoned with sea salt or a powdered seaweed are a great finger food to accompany a salad .
( common mallow , Malva neglecta)
the next big part is the bulk ingredient to a salad this is something relatively easy to collect has to be crisp and succulent but more neutral / subtle in flavour much like lettuce is used in conventional dishes I have several plants that fit this need I find it more appetising to mix them but singularly they work . The first is no big secret it is favoured by chefs and quite rightly so penny pies is my favourite common name but it has numerous others including navel wort and wall penny wort (Umbilicus rupestris ) it can be slightly bitter but always very refreshing and as crispy as an iceberg lettuce and has good winter growth returning after summer seeding it is primarily a wall growing plant yet I have several woodland patches where it grows from stone outcrops .
my next plant has an equally crisp texture yet can be somewhat tougher if not picked with discretion it does have small hairs but not so that it is unpleasant golden saxifrage comes in a few types having opposite or alternate leaves both are identical in taste (Chrysosplenium) grows in damp moist conditions and favours stream embankments or water soaked woodland floors
the next plant quite frankly is a hugely underused wild green and although it has no strong flavour it is crisp fresh and I can’t believe it is not used as a salad green in every supermarket common chickweed (Stellaria media) grows in abundance all over the U.K. and with a matt like growth it spreads over large areas and is collected in quantity with ease if I could only eat one salad green this would not disappoint me
the next is a very succulent leaf yet can have a slight bitter to peppery taste but defiantly not strong enough to be a primary flavour the common name of Brooklime gives a clue to habitat and this common plant can be found in water run offs and streams alike favouring any damp waterlogged areas (Veronica beccabunga)
now you have a base the next step is to add flavour and we have some fantastic tasting greens from citrus to pepper to mustard and garlic and all of these groups have winter yielding plants .
Firstly one family that is abundant is the sorrels and they create a taste sensation not expected from a green both Sheep Sorrel (Rumex Acetosella) and – Common sorrel or garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) produce winter rosettes of thick flavour packed leaves they contain oxalic acid that produces an apple peel Citrus taste that is sharp and extremely pleasant ( oxalic acid in large quantities can cause issues with arthritis and gout but small amounts are safe ) .
The next flavour has to be the peppery taste of our wild cresses and with the onset of autumn hairy bittercress begins to grow (Cardamine hirsuta) the unmistakable rosettes are found anywhere that has disturbed ground In fact I wager you have some in your garden now .
The leaves are tasty and for me reminiscent of growing cress from egg shells as a child a true wild treasure , I often try to explain that there are two types of edible wild foods those that are edible and those that are palatable and by that I mean that some plants and fungi are edible yet just don’t taste of anything at all or are indeed unpleasant bittercress is at the top of any palatable list
There are two types of edible wild foods those that are edible and those that are palatable
The next flavour is one of garlic or onion a salad would simply be lacking you may be lucky enough to find a winters growth of three cornered leek but without doubt you will find crow garlic (Allium vineale) it grows in grass verges and open grassland , reminiscent of chives the tall tufts of tubular leaf can be seen growing proud against lower growing grass and when disturbed the strong garlic odour is key to positive identification .
Finely chopped and added to a salad it helps to cut against some of the more bitter tasting greens .
( crow garlic , Allium vineale )
If you like your salads with a Kick then the next plant is for you , a member of the mustard family charlock or field mustard (Sinapis arvensis) gives a real warming heat it returns to a low growing rosette for the winter I always think it’s an angry looking plant with it’s serrated leaves and purple toned stems .
The leaves are tough and generally used in stews and broths but harvested with so attention can offer a great flavour to your salad
if you look at the photo it shows a typical winter rosette of charlock the leaves grow alternately in pairs and the growth in the centre is the newest growth in my experience the first two pairs are tender enough to be harvested as a salad green taking into account that they are extremely strong in flavour a small quantity is enough sliced thin and mixed within your salad it will add heat and flavour equivalent to rocket .
I’ve listed a small handful of the plants available once out and exploring you will find many plants that are still growing in winter , playing with what’s available is key to a fulfilling foraged meal try adding grated crab apple or some rosehipp skins and a splash of vinegar to the mix to add balance to your finds I like to use a splash of my cider vinegar with a spoon of my wild dijon mustard I not only have the satisfaction of the process I enjoy tastes and textures not available in any store and so I celibate winter greens .
And there’s nothing wrong with sneaking in some amethyst deceivers or velvet shanks in the pot to satisfy your fungi needs two of my favourite raw salad mushrooms .