Sweet, Sweet Cicely

Sweet Cicely and Rhubarb

In April and May the ditches, damp hedgerows and water meadows are full of sweet cicely. Myrrhis odorata is a gorgeous member of the Apiaceae family – definitely one of my favourites. It’s very easy to identify as the lower leaflets have bleached out markings on them – at first glance like a bird on them – plus being velvety soft, and smelling and tasting strongly of aniseed. 

Sweet Cicely

The young leaves are a very vivid lime green in colour (see below) and are the juiciest and most tender. As the plant grows it forms fibres, especially on the flower stem, which on older plants needs to be peeled away of using in a stewed fruit dish or crumble.

Sweet cicely
Traditionally sweet cicely is cooked with rhubarb. Choose the juiciest young stems, before the fibres have formed, and just chip both stem and leaf up and mix them with your chopped rhubarb. There’s no rule but I generally do 50/50. The aniseed flavour is very mild as it doesn’t survive the heat well but you won’t need to use any added sugar. This is because anethole, a natural compound found in sweet cicely, is actually sweeter than sucrose. 

Making sweet cicely and rhubarb crumble
Sweet Cicely and Rhubarb Crumble Recipe

For sweet cicely and rhubarb crumble I layer the chopped rhubarb and the chopped sweet cicely into a greased baking dish. I then put a handful of pinhead oatmeal in a mixing bowl with a teaspoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of ground hogweed seed and a knob of butter, and knead the butter in to make a very dry mix. I then add a couple of tablespoon of sunflower seeds and  pistachio nuts, and a dessertspoon of honey. When all is well blended together I sprinkle it over the fruit to cover it. Pop it into a preheated 180C oven for half an hour until brown on the top. Serve with cream. 

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I also love juicing the stems and adding a shot of sweet cicely juice to apple juice. This is an awesome flavour. In fact the two go so well together that, on my foraging walks, I always offer people a slice of apple to eat with a slice of sweet cicely stem when they’re meeting sweet cicely for the first time. 
Custard is another thing I made with sweet cicely. Green custard specifically! It’s very Dr Seuss and kids love it. The milk is infused with the sweet cicely and pressed over a sieve before making the custard. Simple but so tasty. 

You can also make sweeties. Either by just munching on the green seeds before they become fibrous or by making sweet cicely seed mukhwas. When they’re young they taste just like the inner seed of an old fashioned gobstopper! 

However, sweet cicely is not just a dessert plant. The leaves and stems were often boiled with cabbage or sprouts to reduce the gassy side effects and taking an after-dinner sweet cicely tea, tincture or lozenge will help with indigestion or wind. The young leaves are also lovely additions to a salad. 

Hogweed Pakora

Hogweed shoots are my favourite vegetable in the Spring. They can be steamed but they truly come into their own when fried. I often just fry them in butter until they start to crisp and brown. They’re big butter hogs though and can sometimes be slightly greasy. This is where deep frying them quickly in a light batter comes into its own. I often make delicious hogweed tempura but this year I’ve done a twist on them to make some wild curried hogweed pakora. 

Many people don’t realise that many of our native wildflowers produce spicy seeds. A full list can be found here in my Edible Seeds and Wild Spice Conversion Chart

Hogweed pakora with wild garlic raitaHogweed pakora

Traditionally gram flour (from chick peas) and semi skimmed milk would have been used to make pakora and you can use these to replace the ingredients below if you don’t have foraged supplies from last year. You can also use coriander instead of hogweed, cumin instead of Alexanders, curry powder instead of the milk caps and just plain salt. However, the version I made uses ingredients that could all be foraged – except for the sunflower oil to cook them in!


  • 225 grams of chestnut or acorn flour
  • 300 grams of hazelnut milk
  • 10 ml sea buckthorn juice (lime substitute)
  • 10 ml magnolia syrup (ginger substitute)
  • 1 tsp ground hogweed seed
  • 1 tsp ground alexanders seed
  • 1/2 tsp powdered curry milk cap mushrooms
  • 1 tsp Apiaceae salt (salt ground with mixed Umbillifer seeds)
  • 3 handfuls of hogweed shoots
  • 1 handful alexanders leaf (parsley substitute)
  • Sunflower oil for frying


Trim your hogweed shoots and remove any soil. Push them together on a chopping board and chop them roughly. Remove the stalks and finely chop the alexanders leaves.

In a mixing bowl, put the flour, spices and salt and mix together. Add the juice and syrup. Then slow add the milk, stirring to avoid lumps, until you have a batter the consistency of thick cream. Then add your chopped hogweed shoots and finely chopped alexanders, and mix them in, until the batter is evenly distributed. 

Fill your chip fryer with sunflower oil, insert the wire basket and set the temperature to 180C. The oil must reach the right temperature before you start. Alternatively, if using a stovetop pan, heat the oil until a small drop of the batter sizzles immediately as you drop it in.

Using a dessert spoon, scoop up a flat spoonful of the mixed batter and using a second spoon to release it, roll a dollop off the spoon into the hot oil. Fry for 2-3 minutes until golden brown. Then lift the wire basket and allow to drain before lifting them out into a serving dish.

Serve while still warm with a wild garlic raita. 

Tapping Birch, Walnut and Maple Trees

There are at least 20 species of tree that can be tapped for their edible sap. And in many cases, once the sap has been reduced, a syrup can be produced. Trees in the maple (Acer spp.) family can be tapped from January to March – as long as the nights are cold and the days crisp and sunny. Birch trees (Betula spp.) however only run for a very short period of 2 to 3 weeks in mid- to end of March once the coming of Spring starts the sap flowing. Walnut trees (Juglans spp.) like a freezing cold winter and spring. Some walnut species can be tapped from autumn right through until spring.

Climate change is affecting sap production. Although some of this is hearsay, there is certainly recorded evidence that maple sap yields in southern states are dropping and that the season is starting earlier, often in December, and not lasting as long. It also affects the quality of the syrup. Higher temperatures are linked to maple syrup with higher levels of phenolics which makes the syrup darker. Phenolics are secondary metabolite defense compounds that influence the flavour of the sap.

Birch sap syrup

The Trees

Silver maple produces a good syrup but in only about half the quantity of sugar maple. So around 32 litres of sap is required to fill a large (454g) honey jar of syrup.

According to Sturtevant 1919, “In England, children suck the wings of the growing keys for the sake of obtaining the sweet exudation that is upon them. In the western Highlands and some parts of the Continent, the sap is fermented into wine, the trees being first tapped when just coming into leaf. From the sap, sugar may be made but not in remunerative quantities.”

Acer saccharinum SUGAR MAPLE
The most productive of the maples, around 18 litres of sap will produce a large (454g) honey jar of syrup (1919). For ease of comparison, 20 litres yields about 500 grams. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Native American’s were recorded as making a candy from the sap which was poured onto the snow to cool. That must have been some ice cream topping! A single tree can yield around 2 kilos with occasionally yields reporting around 15 kilos (33 pounds) from a single tree.

Red maple produces a syrup but not more than half the quantity of sugar maple. So around 20 litres of sap will make about 250 grams of syrup.

“From the sap, a wine is made in Derbyshire, England, and, in 1814, the Russian soldiers near Hamburg intoxicated themselves with this fermented sap. The leaves are used in northern Europe as a substitute for tea, and the Indians of Maine make from the leaves of the American variety a tea which is relished. At certain seasons, the sap contains sugar. In Maine, the sap is sometimes collected in the spring and made into vinegar” (1919).

As with white birch, the sap was occasionally made into vinegar (1919).

Betula papyrifera PAPER BIRCH
The carbohydrate concentration (glucose, fructose and sucrose to sap) has been analysed in paper birch at 0.9% compared to sugar maple which is 2-3%. So, theoretically 20 litres would make 350 grams at best.

Betula pendula SILVER BIRCH
The sap also contains sugar in the spring and can be tapped. This is the one most commonly found in the UK. In my experience, 20 litres yields around 100-150ml (80 to 120g) of syrupwhich is much lower than the reported yield of the paper birch.

The sap also contains sugar in the spring.

Potted Winkles

Here are some recipes for your steamed winkles including my favourite, Potted Winkles.  As a guide to quantities, one large mug will contain about 95 winkles, which will weigh about 450g. Once these are cooked and de-shelled you’ll be left with about 80g of winkle meat.

Potted Winkles (Serves 4)

250g pack of unsalted butter
4 mugs of winkles (1.8kg in their shells or 320g of winkle meat)
1 bay leaf or a sprig of bog myrtle
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg/mace or powdered hogweed seed
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or chopped water pepper if you can find it
juice ½ lemon (2 tablespoons) or crab apple verjus.

Purge and steam your winkles. Click here for how to cook them. Take them out of their shells and set them aside in a cool place.

Next, clarify the butter. Cut the whole bar of butter into small cubes, put them in a pan and melt them over a really gentle heat along with the bay leaf or bog myrtle. As the butter heats, the white butterfat collects as if scum on the top. Use a strainer spoon to gently lift off the butterfat putting it to one side, don’t chuck it as it’s really nice on toast.

Once the butterfat is off, add rest of spices and the lemon juice to the now clarified butter and switch off the heat but keep the pan over the hob to keep the butter liquid.

Working quite quickly, divide your winkles into four small ramekin dishes.  Take out the bay leaf/bog myrtle and pour the spiced liquid butter mixture over the winkles. Make sure the winkles are pushed below the surface. Leave them to set and once they are cool, cover them and chill in the fridge at least 2 hours before you plan to serve them.  They can be stored in the fridge but eat them with in three days.

Serve on a plate with seaweed oatcakes (link to recipe) or hot brown toast.

Garlic Winkles (Serves 4)

100g of unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, finely minced.
320g steamed and de-shelled winkles

Make a garlic butter by lightly frying the garlic in the butter.  Pour over steamed winkles. Serve with crusty bread.

Pepper Dulse and Winkle Goats Cheese (Serves 4)

1 handful of freshly picked pepper dulse or royal fernweed
2 small goats cheeses (100g each)
320g steamed and de-shelled winkles

This is best made on the same day that you pick the pepper dulse or the very next morning. Wash the pepper dulse well in cold fresh water, making sure there is no grit or sand left. Pat dry with a clean tea towel. Hold together in a clump on a chopping board and chop very finely.

Chop and crumble the goats cheese. Then add the finely chopped pepper dulse. Mix well then stir in the steamed winkles. Press into ramekins, chill for an hour or two and decorate with a sprig of pepper dulse.

Pepper dulse and winkle goats cheese

Remember winkles are shellfish so be cautious if you have an allergy.

How to Cook Winkles


You can identify winkles by their colour – they’re dark grey (black when wet) with a white edged opening, and their shape and size – small and rounded. You might confuse them with whelks and dog whelks which are more pointed and much lighter in colour. Both whelks are edible and won’t do you any harm but the texture is very mushy and flavour not as good.

If you head to the seashore with your bucket at low tide, you’ll find them aplenty. I’d advise collecting from rocks, those from sandy areas will just give you more work later to get rid of the sand. Because winkles detach easily from rocks, unlike the hardy, clinging limpets, they like to collect together and hide in damp clefts and under the edges of rocks. Traditionally they are not collected during a month with no R in it. These hotter summer months of May, June, July and August is when they are likely to be reproducing and the cooler months will give winkles with the best and freshest flavour.

This is a typical winkle hiding place!

Step 1: Purge your winkles

Purge your winkles by putting them all into a bucket of seawater. Make sure all the winkles are covered in water, you can do this by using a pan lid that’s small enough to fit into the bucket and pushing it down. If you don’t push this lid down the winkles will make a bid for freedom and those up out the water will end up being sandy and gritty. Leave them soaking for 3 or 4 hours but never for longer that 12 hours.

If you don’t have access to fresh seawater, you can make your own by dissolving 35 grams of salt in 1 litre of water.

Step 2: Steam your winkles

Steam your winkles by putting a small amount of fresh water in a big pan and bring to the boil. You might like to add a splash of white wine, brandy or calvados.

Once the liquid is boiling add the winkles into the pan.  The winkles are small and will pack quite tightly together so it is best to do this in smallish batches.  This will ensure they steam evenly. Steam for 4 minutes, then drain in a colander.

Step 3: Deshell your winkles

Remove the winkles from their shells. You can do this with a specialist winkle pin although a fine skewer or an unfolded paper clip will work just as well.

Take a winkle in one hand and your pin in the other. At the entrance to the shell you’ll see a small, brown, hard flake of shell. This acts as a little door and is attached to the winkle’s muscle, it can’t be eaten. If the ‘door’ is a little open, insert your pin, catch the winkle and pull gently. The coiled body will come out and the door is discarded. If the door is still closed just gently prise it open with your pin.

This is fun for all the family and not as arduous a task as it sounds, I did 100 winkles in about 10 minutes.

Once all the winkles are de-shelled, put them to one side. They can be stored in the fridge like this for a day at most.
This little video shows you how to deshell winkles. Thanks to Rory from EatDrinkRunFun for the video. 

Serve them warmed through in garlic butter or make my favourite, Potted Winkles.


How to Make Laverbread

Laver seaweed

Laverbread is not a bread. It is a thick paste made from laver seaweed that was traditionally spread on bread or toast. It has a very savoury, umami taste and, in its heyday, was exported – mainly from Wales – all across Britain. It’s a vital source of iodine, hence the pre-war expression “Eat up your laverbread or you’ll get Derbyshire neck” referring to the swelling on the neck (goitre) associated with hypothyroidism caused by extreme iodine deficiency. You can harvest your own on the British shoreline from the first few months of the year on.

One of the things that puts a lot of people off making laverbread today, is that old recipes call for boiling the laver for up to 8 hours to tenderise it. However, I have an incredibly simple way to make it, that also reduces the smell of it cooking, but you do require one vital piece of equipment – a slow cooker!

6 litres of laver seaweed
150ml applecider vinegar or lemon juice
Optional seasonings: Salt, pepper, chilli powder or soy sauce

Wash the laverbread very well in cold running water through a colander. Ensure there is no sand or grit left behind. The squeeze out the excess water in your hands. Fill the crock pot of your slow cooker and add 150ml of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. This helps to break down and tenderise the laver. Put the lid on, switch it onto the high setting, and leave for 8 hours.

I just fill mine in the evening and go to bed! In the morning – instant laverbread! All you will need to do now is make sure that any on the top or sides has become a paste. If in doubt, a quick whizz in the blender or with a stick blender will make sure the consistency is right. 

Season to your taste. I sometimes make a chili version or a soy version. It freezes extremely well in freezerbags. 

Use to add flavour to cooking as you would use tomato paste or garlic paste. Add to sauces and gravies, or use with oatmeal to make laverballs or lavercakes.

Laver Cakes Recipe

Laver seaweed balls

This is a delicious breakfast snack. A twist on an old Scottish breakfast classic and a great way of making sure that you get your daily dose of the vital mineral iodine.

100g laverbread
100g oatmeal
1 bag of sesame seeds
Coconut oil (or bacon fat)

Mix your laverbread and oatmeal together in a bowl and season with salt and pepper, and a few chilli flakes if you like it hot!

When well mixed through, shape into small balls the size of a table tennis ball.

Sprinkle sesame seeds on to a plate, and roll each ball in the sesame seeds.

Heat some coconut oil in a frying pan. When hot, over a medium heat, add the balls into the frying pan and slowly toast until cooked through and golden all over. Serve while still warm.

How to Harvest Seaweed

I’m often asked when the best time to harvest seaweed is. It certainly isn’t in the summer. Sadly many people’s view of seaweed has been coloured by their childhood trips to the seaside at the end of July or in August when temperatures are high, and the beach strewn with washed up, smelly, slowly-rotting seaweed.

Higher water temperatures tend to slow down the growth of seaweeds. By high summer they’ve released their eggs and antherozoids and are settling into old age.  Most seaweed species grow fastest from January to May and are at their tastiest and most productive during the Spring – from February, through March, April, May and early June. Their growth rate slows down as the water temperatures rise from June to September, the slowest growth rate being in August. Once the sea temperature start to cool in the autumn, the growth rate starts to pick up again, particularly after November. I personally start picking in February and they taste amazing.

There are three colours that divide the seaweed families.
Brown Phaeophyta x 1800 species
Red Rhodophyta x 6500 species
Green Cholorophyta x 1500 species
The red seaweeds are the tricky ones as they can look brown, red, pink or green!

Some of my favourites are:
Pepper dulse • Royal fernweed • Tubular weed • Dulse • Oarweed • Sugar kelp • Laver • Dabberlocks • Bootlaces • Thongweed • Carragheen •  Velvethorn •  Sea potato • Polysiphonia • Eggwrack • Gutweed • Sea lettuce… and many more!

Luckily for us here in the British Isles there aren’t any poisonous species… well… the only one to watch out for is featherweed – 4 species of Desmarestia that grow mainly in deep water. They have mastered the knack of producing a little sulphuric acid to put off predators. So its far less complicated than trying to identify edible fungi! Learn what a featherweed looks like, and then you can gaily wander the shore nibbling and tasting. 

A couple of caveats. Do make sure that you’re collecting from an unpolluted source. Avoid beaches near towns, sewage pipes, run-off and industry. Check with the Clean Beach websites as bathing water quality is monitored and the results published every year. 

Just because it isn’t poisonous doesn’t make it a choice edible. Some taste like fish food or have the texture of hair. But there are many that have exquisite tastes and you’ll be surprised at the variety of flavours.

Also, don’t pick dead seaweed from the splash zone. It’s like picking your salad off the floor of a supermarket when everyone else has driven their trolley over it. Check the tides and go out when the tide is out so you can harvest from the living plants.

How to harvest
Take a pair of scissors. Don’t yank the stipe off the rocks. You’ll not only kill the seaweed and prevent it from growing again next year, but you’re also going to end up with sand and flakes of rock in your harvesting basket. Cut the blades off above the stipe, leaving a little of the blade so that it can grow again. Picking clean is good for you and good for the seaweed.

Always spread your harvesting around, taking a little here and a little there. One of the most basic rules of foraging is “don’t be selfish”. 

Safety first
Don’t be blasé about the tide and the tidal zone. Always look up the tide either online or buy some tide tables. Set an alarm on your phone for when the tide turns so you allow enough time to get back. 

Always go out with a friend. If you slip on a wet, seaweed covered rock, you could bang your head and knock yourself out. Tell people where you are going and when you will call them to let them know you’re back. A simple precaution could be the difference between life and death. Make sure your phone is fully charged and that you have a signal.

Some people like to wear lifejackets and carry flares. Personally I find a lifejacket gets in the way too much when I’m harvesting so I don’t. I also don’t carry flares but I do always have a first aid kit in my car and some basics in my pocket, and some first aid training! I also recommend a loud whistle. My harvesting knife has a whistle in the handle as I can’t whistle for toffee anyway!

You’ll need a pair of scissors or a knife. Personally I find the spring-loaded shears used in dressmaking – that look like a small version of sheep shears – to be the quickest to use, especially when my hands get cold.

For collecting the seaweed you’ll need buckets or bags. My favourite is an old wire shopping basket as it drains, so I don’t have to carry lots of water around as well. I usually take a few small plastic boxes with lids for the more delicate finds to stop me losing them when everything gets mixed up together.

There’s a lot to be said for rinsing the seaweed in the sea, as you go along, if you can find a deep rock pool that’s free of sand. However the seaweed will be saltier than if you dry it in fresh water.  If you take seaweed home, whatever you do, don’t put it into a bucket of fresh water and leave it overnight. By the morning you will have a slimy mess and, if you’ve had dulse in there, a slimy, purple mess. This is caused by the alginates in the seaweed. They’re extracted for commercial use in anything from toothpaste to puddings. The best thing to do is to rinse the seaweed in a big tub of water and hang it straight up to dry, even if it is just on a clothes rack over the bath.

There are no rules. Small species like pepper dulse can go into a dehydrator or a low oven. Larger ones on clothes racks, pegged out on the washing line or even hanging from the stairwell. I’ve seen it all! When I’m camping at the coast I string a line between two trees. When I’m at home I tend to use the folding wire clothes airer. Make sure seaweed is properly dry before you store it away. With some seaweeds, like laver and dulse, I will often lightly toast them in a hot, dry frying pan for a few minutes to take any last moisture out. This also changes the flavour but be careful not to burn it as it can happen very quickly!

With oarweed I roll it up and store it in glass jars. Over time they become covered in white powder. This isn’t mould, it is all the salts and sugars, like mannitol, coming to the surface and all part of the taste. Some of the oarweed I cut into lengths about 12 cm long and let them dry like that. I tend to use these in the same way that other people use bay leaves. Just one or two added to a dish. They keep for several years as long as they’re kept in a dry place.

Sea lettuce and laver (that isn’t turned into laverbread paste) gets lightly toasted and crumbled. Then also stored in jars. This gets sprinkled into lots of dishes.

Dulse I dry whole – for reconstituting into quiches, tarts and ‘fish’cakes – and I also powder a lot of it and make microflakes. It is often best after about a year or two as the flavour of aged dulse just keeps on improving!

Dried dulse seaweed

Dried seaweed

Our Plant Relatives

“Transformed seawater runs through the veins of my hand as well as the leaf’s veins – one carrying chlorophyll, the other carrying blood. The change of a single ion, from magnesium to iron, transforms chlorophyll to blood; we are so close.” K Lauren de Boer. 

The Sweet Smell of Danger

All scents, perfumes and fragrances contain aroma chemicals. This is what makes them smell nice. Some are natural, some are manufactured as nature-identical and some are created in the lab. However, for many people, the concentrations in which they are used cause fragrance allergies which range in effect from mildly blocked sinuses to a full on anaphylactic reaction. 

By law, all cosmetics have to declare them on the label so that people who are allergic to fragrance chemicals can choose to avoid them. There is one huge exception though – there is, shockingly, no law requiring a declaration of ingredients on air fresheners, especially air fresheners in public toilets where people often have no choice about exposing themselves to these allergens. 

Look on the bottom of any perfumed cosmetic and right at the end you’ll see their names: limonene, linalool, citral, geraniol, eugenol and more. These are often naturally occurring in volatile, essential oils found in the scent of flowers like geranium or in the peel of citrus fruits like lemons. They are not in themselves intrinsically harmful and even often used as food flavourings. However, when they are extracted as single compounds and then used a concentrations higher than found in nature, in enclosed spaces, then the problems start. Limonene, for example, like many other chemicals isn’t passively inert. When it’s in the air it reacts with the ozone. Two molecules of limonene reacting in ozone will produce one molecule of formaldehyde. This is where it starts to get worrying. Put an air freshener into a small unventilated space like a public loo, or a house with no windows open, and the levels of formaldehyde start to build up. 
Formaldehyde is a chemical that was originally used as a preservative to preserve a range of things from jar specimens of dead animal parts in museums to preventing the growth of bacteria in baby bubble bath and other cosmetics. It’s also a by-product of cigarette smoking, gas stoves and often found in furniture and soft furnishing treatments. However, it’s been linked with cancer since the 1980s and joined the list of known human carcinogens in 2011.  

So why are the levels in a home that uses air fresheners? The team on Trust Me, I’m a Doctor tested some homes with Professor Alastair Lewis from York University’s Centre for Atmospheric Science. They monitored six houses and found high levels of fragrance chemicals with limonene consistently being the highest one recorded. And in the homes where limonene was the highest, so were the levels of formaldehyde too. 
There is published research to show there are other issues with air fresheners. They are linked with harm to unborn babies, the onset of asthma in children, respiratory distress in the elderly and even heart attacks in vulnerable individuals. 

Air pollution is often just considered an outdoor problem. But consider this – as you’re sitting in traffic with the windows closed to keep out harmful diesel fumes, the air freshener tree, smiley or dispenser in your car is silently pumping up the concentration of formaldehyde. 
When new schools are built, hermetically sealed to keep out the air pollution from traffic, the school board then contract with PHS or another cleaning company to create air pollution in the one place that no one can ever avoid going – the loo! 
The last time I was forced to use a public toilet was after I’d gone through security at Gatwick Airport. The flight was delayed, I couldn’t go back through security, there was literally no choice. The levels of fragrance from two PHS pumps spewing chemicals into a tiny toilet caused an instant reaction in me and also caused two other women (who didn’t have a fragrance allergy) to choke and cover their faces too. Two tiny little girls stood at the wash basins too. 

I am campaigning for an easy solution. Just make it compulsory that all disabled access loos are also made fragrance-free. 

When will our indoor air be regulated too?

For the BBC article “Is there a danger from scented products?” click here. 

For the UK Government’s air pollution strategy click here.

Do Plants Talk? It’s Called Biosemiosis

Can plants talk? This century we’re learning that bacteria can talk and count – it’s called quorum sensing – and they know when there are enough of them to mount a successful attack. Birds like the Clark’s nutcracker can harvest well over 100,000 seeds each, plant them in separate locations (3 to 5 seeds at a time) and, over the following 12-24 months remember where they buried them all. This memory also involves incredible navigation by triangulation – the sort of maths that would defeat most humans. So if the abilities of bacteria and birds are being reassessed, why not plants? Researchers like Trewavas proposed in 2003 that plants have memory. He believes that plants can retrieve information from their “experience” to guide future growth development. So if plants can ‘talk’, then what language are they speaking?

Phytosemiosis. Talking to the trees.

We know that humans have historically used over 7000 plants for food and medicine. I’ve often been asked how we knew which plants were beneficial to us? How did we learn all that? I’ve long believed it was more complex than just trial and error, then passing that knowledge down to our offspring. Surely it was more simple, after all, many animals already use plant medicine without, as far as we know it, consciousness in their actions. The use of plants as medicine by animals is called zoopharmacognosy. Examples include:

  • apes using plants to cure diarrhoea, eliminate parasites, modulate their fertility & apply them topically for pain relief
  • dogs that eat couch grass (Agropyron repens) possibly as anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory
  • pregnant elephants chewing Boraginaceae leaves to help induce labour – the same plant that Kikuyu women use for the same purpose
  • and grizzly bears using osha root as a natural insecticide.

Turning it on its head, I began to suspect that it’s not that we learnt so much, but rather that we’ve forgotten so much. I tell people that we have forgotten how to speak the language of the biosphere. It’s called biological chemistry ~ biochemistry.

But biochemistry isn’t a language in the usual sense of the word. It is defined as the study of chemical processes in living organisms. Biochemical processes give rise to the complexity of life by controlling information flow through biochemical signalling. It explains how living processes communicate with themselves and with others.

Recently I have come across a far better twentieth century definition of this ‘biosphere Esperanto’. Biosemiosis.

Biosemiotics (from the Greek bios meaning “life” and semeion meaning “sign”) combines biology and semiotics. Semiotics is closely related to the field of linguistics. Linguistics is the study of the structure and meaning of language. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols as a significant part of communications. Unlike linguistics, semiotics also studies non-linguistic sign systems. So semiosis is sign processes with meaning, that can be interpreted.

Biosemiotics is a field that studies the production, action and interpretation of [non-linguistic] signs and codes in the biological realm (Barbieri, 2008), and the attempt to integrate the research findings. Biosemiotics demands a big mindshift, changing much previous thinking, of the scientific view of life. It demonstrates that semiosis is one of life’s immanent and intrinsic features.

In practice, in the plant and fungi world, biosemiosis is when these living organisms use mechanisms other than words to communicate, i.e. chemical messages (signals). A pheromone (scent aroma chemical) is a good example. Three common plant uses would be:

  • flowers often emit a fragrance to attract insects when they are ready to be pollinated
  • some plants can analyse the saliva of an insect eating them, then release a specific aroma chemical to attract the precise predator for the annoying insect
  • birch trees give off wintergreen (methyl salicylate) when they are injured. Methyl salicylate is a painkiller and anaesthetic. This is sensed by other birch trees who start to manufacture higher levels of protective chemicals in their sap.

We also know that the mycelium of mycorrhizal fungi – those white threads of hyphae that run through the soil – connect plants and fungi together in a huge worldwide web of life. On one level there is a well-understood mutual nourishment benefit. Trees use air and sunlight to manufacture food. Their green leaves use the energy of sunlight to combine water with carbon dioxide. This process creates two products — oxygen and carbohydrates in the form of sugar that dissolves into the sap. The sap goes down into the roots of the trees where it is exchanged with the fungi for water and nutrients.

CO2 + H2O + photons → [CH2O] + O2
carbon dioxide + water + light energy → carbohydrate + oxygen

Perhaps as many as 90% of all plants depend on mycorrhizae to survive and these fungal relationships probably allowed plants to establish themselves on land around 450 million years ago.

However, the relationship is not just about food. It is far more complex than that.

Mycelial networks also carry chemicals. Some are toxins, helping to keep intruders away, but others are chemicals that are used as signals. Biosemiotic signals that allow the plants and fungi to communicate with each other. This short TED Ed video explains it very well.

I also recommend the following two free TED Talks.

Suzanne Simard: How trees talk to each other. June 2016.
Suzanne is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences in Vancouver. She studies the surprising and delicate complexity in nature. Her main focus is on the below-ground fungal networks that connect trees and facilitate underground inter-tree communication and interaction.

Stefano Mancuso: The roots of plant intelligence. July 2010.
Stefano Mancuso is plant neurobiologist. He is a founder of the study of plant neurobiology, which explores signalling and communication at all levels of biological organisation, from genetics to molecules, cells and ecological communities.

There is a current debate as to whether phytosemiosis (plant signalling) is worth separating from the catch-all of biosemiosis and indeed, whether either of these are a ‘real science’. The core of this argument is really about whether plants are just reacting – through feedback cycles with sensors and regulators – to their habitat, or whether their signalling is intentional and purposeful behaviour. This is uncomfortable for many people, as it means that the different life forms that we share the planet with may be far more interactive that we have previously thought.

I always think that this is why so many people are particularly uneasy in a forest after dark. I mean there are no wolves or bears here in Britain! It doesn’t literally ‘come alive’ as it is already very much alive. It’s just that deprived of our sight, in the darkness, as our other faculties kick in, we start to become far more aware that there is a lot of life going on around us ,that we’ve previously chosen to ignore. I wonder if this loss of semiotic ability is fairly recent? Explorers speaking to traditional peoples often report that elders would talk of the plants having “told them”, or “spoken to them”.  Certainly we can understand the use of a plant from biochemistry. Chew a bramble bud that drys up your mouth and you’ll recognise tannin. And if you know that tannin dries the mucosa in the body, it is logical then that bramble shoots and roots are used to treat dysentery. But did we once, in our relatively recent past, have a far greater ability to understand the signs and codes of other life forms?

The semantics of definitions can be frustrating when trying to understand the issues. Even if biosemiotics is broken down into five study parts for the five kingdoms (phytosemiosis (plant), zoosemiosis (animals, insects, etc.), mycosemiosis (fungi), bacterial semiosis and protist semiosis), at the end of the day, plants are communicating with each other, with fungi, and insects, and animals, and bacteria and vice versa.

However, at the end of the day, no matter how we want to define it or break it down, biosemiosis appears to be an excellent word to describe the communication of all living things.

Isn’t it time we learnt to speak it?


Wild Hen of the Woods

Monica with hen of the woods fungi

Passing an old oak tree today looking in the grass for pink purslane, the old giant whispered to me as I walked past. As she did the thought entered my head “I bet there are hen of the woods around here.” I looked over my shoulder and what did I see, nestling in autumn leaves at the foot of that tree? 

Wild hen of the woods. One of my favourite fungi and so much tastier than the cultivated ones. 

Official statistics for the monster hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) – also known as Maitake: Weighing in at 8.3 kilos (18.3 lbs) and 52 cm (20.5 in) diameter.

Despite the enormous size of this specimen it was in absolutely perfect, prime condition. Heavenly smell, firm but not fibrous white flesh and, thanks to the recent frost, hardly a beetle to be found – three to be precise!

There’ll be soups and pâté, roast, grilled and fried maitake. Maitake tikka masala, fragrant Thai hen broth, hen in a pot, and feasting for weeks. And when we’ve expired on sofas, dried hen of the woods for seasoning next year!

#fungi #foraging #wildfood

For the health benefits of Maitake mushroom see this info from Napiers the Herbalists. 

Lament for the Loss of Wild Foods

Wild Fact of the Day: Once humankind used 7000 species of plant and 1069 species of fungi as foods. 

A single community averaged 120 wild species in their daily diet providing a massive range of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc)  and phytochemicals, such as plant-made serotonin that keeps us all happy. Each country studied records a dietary range of 300 to 600 wild species once eaten. 

There were no simple divisions: we were hunter-gathers, cultivator-collectors, farmer-foragers, agro-pastoralists, fisher-foragers, and our strength was dietary diversity. It was never just farming until around 300 years ago (UK) and many other modern cultures still have over 20% wild food in their diets. In 12 remaining traditional hunter-gather communities studied, between 30% and 93% of calories are wild not farmed. 

Sadly today over 50% of the entire globe’s daily calorie intake (and, I would argue, nutrient intake) comes from just 3 species – carb laden corn, wheat, rice. And 80% of calories from just 12 species – you know the other 9, those sad, tasteless, watery supermarket vegetables. No wonder city dwellers only have a third of the beneficial gut bacteria species that foragers have. 

The result of the loss of our wild food diversity – and the exercise spent collecting and catching it – is that we have become sick, sad and obese! 

Edible wild leavesAs one researcher puts it the “gradual replacement by store-bought produce causes discernable and significantly negative impacts on nutritional security at household and community levels”. 

Just saying…

Hairy bittercress

Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). It’s the essential seasonal ingredient for winter soups, pestos, salads & garnishes providing a fresh, and tasty source of vitamins and minerals right through the winter. 

Hairy bittercressIt can be eaten raw and tastes of cress – remember those terracotta cress pigs from your school days? So excellent in a mashed up boiled egg sandwich with a bit of mayonnaise.  
You’ll find it all year round. A weed of waste places, cultivated ground and pavement cracks. But it’s the winter when its valiance is most appreciated. 

Hairy bittercress

Making a wild fungi broth

The season of soups is starting as the first frosty mornings herald the transition of autumn to winter. Samhain is around the corner. Today I made a cauliflower fungus broth with nettle seed nokedli. 

Cauliflower fungus soup
Whether you celebrate Halloween or All Souls, around you the leaves are falling and the plant world dying down again – creating bare, wet, cold landscapes. The colour is draining away. 

Nourish yourself with potage, broths, consommés, bouillon, bortsch, chowder and gumbo. Steep winter roots and the last of the herbs and fungi with warming spices, and serve with love ❤️ 

Here’s how to make a delicious wild broth with the last of the fungi as it starts to yield to the frost. 

1 kg of mixed fresh fungi*
1 large onion
1 large leek
4 cloves of garlic
2 large carrots/parsnips**
1 handful herbs*
1 long length of dried oarweed kelp
1 tbsp dried porcini powder
20g unsalted butter
20g coconut oil
Salt, pepper, etcetera

*The last lot of fungi I used were chanterelles, false saffron milkcaps, winter chanterelles and deceivers. 
**You can add wild roots like dandelion or burdock
***Last time I used bay leaves, bog myrtle, mugwort, thyme and hogweed leaf.

For the nokedli
75g flour
25g nettle seed
2 eggs
2 tsp salt

Fry the onion, leek, garlic in half of the butter and coconut oil. When softened transfer to a large stock pan. Repeat and fry the roughly chopped fungi until slightly caramelised and add to the pan. 

Pour on 3 litres of water and add all the other ingredients except the salt and pepper. 

Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour or two if you have the time. 

Strain through a very fine sieve lined with a muslin cloth. Draw the edges of the cloth together to make a bag and keep in place with a rubber band. Suspend the bag until all the liquid has come out. 

Refrigerate until the fat sets on the top and then lift it out. 

To use this mushroom stock as a soup, heat it through and season it. While it is heating fry a few special finds like hen of the woods or cauliflower fungus (or any shop mushrooms) in large, interesting shapes and set to one side, keeping warm. 

Now make the nokedli. Mix the flour and nettle seeds in a bowl. Break the eggs into the bowl and mix all vigorously together until you have a smooth lump of pliable dough. 

As the stock starts to simmer, place a nokedli grater (or large holed colander) over the pan. Put the dough on top. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, push the dough through the holes and into the stock. Stir the pan to prevent any clumping together on the bottom. 

Simmer for 3 minutes. Now season the broth with salt and pepper. (This is done at the end so that salt from the kelp and nokedli don’t make you oversalt the soup.)

Ladle into warm bowls and add a spoonful of the dried mushrooms. Enjoy! 

List of Japanese mushroom names

I’ve always been intrigued by the poetry of Japanese names for mushrooms. beyond the top five edibles I couldn’t find a detailed list in English. Here is my list of Japanese names for mushrooms focusing mainly on edible mushrooms and those also found in Scotland. The order is alphabetical by the binomial (scientific) name.

Edible mushrooms – Japan and Scotland

Horse mushroom
Agaricus arvensis

Tsukuritake / Seiyou matsutake
Cultivated / garden mushroom
Agaricus bisporus (A. hortensis)

Field mushroom
Agaricus campestris

Scaly wood mushroom
Agaricus silvaticus

Moreharatake / Shiromorinokasa
Wood mushroom
Agaricus silvicola

Wood or jelly ear
Auricularia auricula

Penny bun, cep or porcini
Boletus edulis

Cantharellus cibarius

Velvet shanks /Winter mushroom
Flammulina velutipes

Hen of the woods
Grifola frondosa
Maitake translates as dancing mushroom (in Korean it is dancing butterflies)

Amethyst deceiver
Laccaria amethystina

Akahatsutake / Akamomitake
Saffron milk cap
Lactarius deliciosus (L. laeticolorus)

Tawny milk cap (fishy smell, mild taste)
Lactifluus volemus (Prev. Lactarius)

Chicken of the woods
Laetiporus sulphureus

Wood blewit
Lepista nuda

Morel mushroom
Morchella esculenta

Oyster mushroom
Pleurotus ostreatus

Late oyster / Olive oysterling
Sarcomyxa serotina

(previously Panellus serotina)

Mushrooms popular in Japanese cuisine that are not native to Scotland include:

Pine mushroom
Tricholoma matsutake (T. nauseosum)
Tricholoma magnivelare
The former grows in Sweden and Finland so there’s probably no reason why it couldn’t grow in Scotland.

Tricholoma bakamatsutake

Matsutake species that grows under beech and oaks.

Brown beech mushroom
Hypsizygus tessellatus

Found in Northern Europe.

White beech mushroom
Hypsizygus tessellatus

White variant of above.

Shiitake (koshin, donko, danko)
Lentinula edodes

King Oyster mushroom
Pleurotus eryngii

Golden oyster mushroom
Pleurotus citrinopileatus

Native to Japan and cultivated. Related to the Branched Oyster Fungus (Pleurotus cornucopiae) found in Scotland.

Lung oyster mushroom
Pleurotus pulmonarius

Burgundy mushroom /King stropharia
Stropharia rugosoannulata

Butterscotch mushroom
Pholiota microspora

Cloud ear fungus
Auricularia polytricha

Closely related to the Wood ear aka Jelly ear fungus found in Scotland (Auricularia auricula-judae).

Sticky bolete
Suillus viscidus

Found in same larch habitat as Larcch bolete (Suillus grevillei) found in Scotland.

Stone ear /Rock mushroom
Umbilicaria esculenta

Technically an edible lichen.

Straw mushroom
Volvariella volvacea

Snow mushroom
Tremella fuciformis

Medicinal mushrooms

Black hoof fungus
Phellinus linteus

Related to the European Willow Bracket (Phellinus igniarius).

Hoof /Tinder fungus
Fomes fomentarius

In Japanese this translates as the bell mushroom. Common to both Japan and Scotland.

Reishi mushroom
Ganoderma lucidum

Mannentake means the 10,000 year mushroom. Also called Kadodetake (the Departure mushroom), Hijiridake (the Sage mushroom) and Magoshakushi (the Grandchild Ladle). In Scotland, a very similar species is used. The Artists Conk Ganoderma applanatum and the Southern Conk G. australe.

Debated edibility/toxicity

Angel wings
Pleurocybella porrigens

Edible but with great caution. Toxins can cause fatal kidney damage especially in elderly people with a history of kidney problems. Common to Japan and Scotland.

Violet webcap
Cortinarius violaceus

Counted as an edible mushroom in Japan but rare in Britain and easily confused with deadly Cortinarius species.

Brickcap mushroom
Hypholoma sublateritium

Mixed views on edibility.

Woolly milk cap
Lactarius torminosus

Inedible mushrooms

Parachute mushroom
Marasmius funalis

Found only in Japan. Other Marasmius species are found in Scotland.

Poisonous mushrooms

Fly agaric
Amanita muscaria

Only edible when prepared correctly as otherwise it can make you extremely ill. Common to both Japan and Scotland.

Sulphur tuft
Hypholoma fasciculare

Common to both Japan and Scotland.

Brittlegill (unspecified)
Russula subnigricans

Found only in Japan, Taiwan and China.

Burnt knight
Tricholoma ustale

Found in Japan and the southern counties of England.

Devil’s cigar /Texas star
Chorioactis geaster

Found in Japan and Texas. Similar to Scottish earth star cup fungi.

The wood pinkgill
Entoloma rhodopolium

Common to both Japan and Scotland.

Magic mushroom
Psilocybe subcaerulipes
Can cause anxiety, panic as well as altered states of consciousness. Native to Japan.

A bioluminescent mushroom similar to Jack O Lantern. Native to Japan.
Omphalotus japonicus

Thoughts on the Autumn Equinox

The Autumn Equinox marks the first day of autumn. It is end of summer, when the day and the night have become equal lengths and, for the moment, nature is in balance. Soon these warm autumn days will be followed by the darkness and chill of winter.

Now, at the middle of harvest time, stop for a moment and reflect. We reap what we have sown. Look back on the past year and also your life. Have you lived the way you wanted to live? Is your lifestyle in balance?

The wild plants are setting seed for future harvests. What seeds will you plant, what plans will you make for new projects and enterprises? Sow now and let them lie quiet over the winter, gathering strength to hatch and blossom in the new year.

Celebrate. Give thanks for the harvest and the bounty that you have received. We are given so much by this earth. The passing of the seasons is inevitable and all things must come to an end. But in the passing of life all endings are marked by new beginnings.

New Forest fungi picking ban by the Forestry Commission

Aside from the lurid media “Aliens Ate My Fungi” headlines, the alleged criminal gangs sweeping the forests, the unsubstantiated evils of fungi picking on conservation, the misreported fungi poisoning statistics and the thinly disguised racism against Eastern European families, there are some concerns that have emerged that are actually not really about the fungi at all. 

One of the main issues that has come out of the #NewForestPickingBan debate is the lack of consultation with the public, on how to manage the perceived problems to a forest that many people treasure. 

Nearly half of the New Forest National Park is managed by the Forestry Commission, including much of the best-known open land and forestry plantations, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. (Whom I assume represents the voters and taxpayers?)

Other significant landowners in the New Forest National Park include the National Trust, Hampshire County Council, the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and some private estates and landowners.

For those interested in ‘fungi politics’ the EU Charter on Fungi Gathering and Biodiversity 2013 sets out very clear guidelines for the way that landowners and land managers (especially of publicly owned lands) like the Forestry Commission England, Natural England and other authorities should engage with the public. It also sets out the responsibility of those of us who forage, both private individuals and commercial collectors. 

It is clear, in the case of the New Forest blanket fungi picking ‘ban’, that the Forestry Commission completely ignored the EU guidelines. The full Charter paper is here. From page 9 onwards, a set of Principles are laid out with recommendations for all parties in the debate. At the heart of this, is transparent regulation and consultation with ALL stakeholders which includes local people who forage (including the Eastern European community), those who teach foraging (many represented by the Association of Foragers), commercial pickers as well as mycological societies, conservation groups, etc. 

I can’t imagine that any of the public want to see the loss of a habitat or a species. This includes commercial foragers (possibly excepting ‘illegal gangs’) as nonsustainable harvesting now, depletes their livelihood in the future. I know several commercial foragers and, from personal experience, they are acutely interested in conservation. But conservation also needs to include humans and human activities. 

The answer to everything is Education, Education, Education (of all parties) and that requires Engagement and Consultation. The Forestry Commission has no evidence on the impact of collecting fungi on the forest and yet hasn’t engaged with those that forage and know the forest and its fauna intimately in a way that the FC doesn’t. 

They are missing a huge opportunity to gather data, teach more people about sustainability, and create support for strategies that ensure all benefit – including the fungi. Sadly, their one-sided blanket pick ‘ban’, even on the forestry plantations which don’t qualify for SSSI status except that they are adjoined to ancient forest, demonstrates a dictator-like, non-consultative approach to the general public. This doesn’t bode well for access to any public land in the future by us, the commoners, although it will probably do nothing to deter the ‘illegal gangs’. 

Please also note that the Forestry Commission Scotland is a separate body that does have an excellent approach to the inclusion of stakeholders in the management of foraged resources. 

Why foraging? A trend or an ancient connection to nature…

foraging in Scotland

Foraging reconnects people with nature in a really positive way. Once you can identify plants, appreciate their culinary and medicinal values, recognise them as old friends and discover the wondrous ways in which nature works its sentient biochemical magic, you are left with a deep awe and respect for nature, the plants, the fungi, the algae and all living things.

Yes, you can also learn an appreciation from bird watching or nature surveys but, for so many of us, tapping into that most ancient instinct to forage, is a direct route to a life-long passion for the outdoors.

From an evolutionary perspective, we’ve been foragers for even longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens (c.90,000 BT). Our Homo species ancestors were cooking outdoors some 200,000 years ago. It’s hard wired into us. Over the many years that I’ve been teaching I’ve seen people transformed and transfixed. I’ve seen troubled urban youngsters, with hardly any experience of being outdoors at all, become fierce champions of their environment. Children as young as two cataloguing a lawn into daisies you can eat and buttercups you can’t. People on the autism spectrum who’ve relaxed and opened out over a fascination of fungi. I’ve seen grown men at the top of their careers, with tears in their eyes, become so absorbed in scrutinising the ground beneath their feet that they’ve forgotten to look at their phones and check their email – for hours! They feel liberated once more from ‘time’. Foraging does that do you. It takes you back to a world where we belonged for thousands of years, where we feel at home – connected to nature, connected to the planet.

So it’s more than just a trend, fuelled by celebrity chefs and the annual “aliens ate my fungi” tabloid headlines. It’s more than the eating. Although finding your food and eating it is, like breathing and sex, one of the most basic of instincts, most silver-haired foragers that I know would still go foraging even if they could never taste the fruits of their labours again.

There are countless studies that show (I’m happy to send you a list of references) that when children and adults reconnect with nature that they are happier, healthier and better citizens for it. Even the most predominant bacteria found in the soil, boosts serotonin levels in our bodies and makes us feel happier.  Gardening makes us feel calmer. Walking in the woods lifts our mood, our spirits and frees us from the stress of the city, the constant pressure of noise, pollution and too many people. Loving nature makes you care for it.

When we teach foraging this is what we aim to inspire. Not a greed, nor a middle-class foodie trend, but an all consuming passion for plants and the places that they inhabit. Knowledge brings awareness. No self-respecting forager would trash the place that the wild garlic grows, nor trample mycelium under the moss that, just after the warm autumn rain, will bless them with chanterelles for breakfast.

This is why it’s such a tragedy to see foraging bans imposed. By all means pursue those who exploit the resource, but to impose a blanket ban on foraging for all – the sledgehammer to crack a nut approach – is yet another of our most ancient liberties removed. And one that the planet really needs, because those who forage for themselves and their families are those who truly care for Gaia the most!

The Future of Food and Technology

I was asked for my thoughts on the future of food and technology. It may have been a spam email but I answered it anyway:

“The future of food through technology will change it in ways we haven’t even yet thought about. Already scientists are trying to grow steaks and burgers from stem cells in the laboratory. Genetic modification is being used to breed vegetables that contain the DNA of animals as well as other plant species. As a committed wild food forager I find it hard to see the value in this. We once ate 7,000 species of plants yet 50% of the worlds daily calorie intake comes from just 3 species while increased red meat intake helps to sicken us. The problems of food supply to the poor are caused by global economics and politics and not a lack of current farming skills. Us humans are very inventive but never smart enough to foresee the mixed consequences of our inventions.”

Monica Wilde

How to make Diodgriafel 

…or how to make wine with wild yeast

In Wales, recorded in 1802, poor people would “make a drink called Diodgriafel by infusing [rowan] berries in water”. In 1798, John Evans writes that this was drunk with oatmeal-cake, barley-bread or potatoes. For a change they’d occasionally have hung goat, dried fish, goat or sheep cheese and acidified buttermilk.

Basically, diodgriafel was a rowan berry wine or ale recipe. Back in the days before the predominance of grapes and hops, the difference between a beer and a wine was often negligible. Nettle beer for example is really a country wine. I separate them in my head by using beer for a drink made by cooking grains, wine for a cold fermented drink with high sugar content and ale for a cold fermented drink flavoured with strong herbs (eg ale-hoof (ground ivy), yarrow, mugwort, etc.).

Going back a few centuries, to make a wine you would gather some fruits, mash them up a bit, cover them in water and left the lot to ferment until it turned into something vaguely alcoholic.

Old instructions will always caution you to pick your berries after the first frost. This is because when the berries are frozen it breaks down their cell membranes. This allows the natural wild yeasts, from the air all around us, to enter the cells and start fermenting them, feeding off the natural sugars. The berries start to soften, go mushy, decay and end up rotten. By picking them after the frosts have started, you are giving the wild yeasts a good headstart.

Don’t then go and spoil this by killing off the yeasts with boiling water! If you do that, you will then have to depend on your wine-to-be (the must) picking up wild yeast from the air in your house/garage. In my house there is certainly a lot about but that is an acquired state! If you want to make an entirely natural wine with the wild yeasts already on the berries try this:

Pick your berries after the frosts (rowan, hips, haws), or with soft fruit when they are completely ripe (elderberries, currants, bramble) or the flowers completely open (elder, rose, gorse, meadowsweet).

Don’t pick your berries when it’s just rained as much of the wild yeast will have washed off

Pick out any rotten berries, leaves, twigs, etc.

Don’t wash or rinse the fruit. Try to pick ‘clean’ in the first place.

Weigh your berries. Prepare some sugar water by dissolving 250g of water in 2 litres of room temperature, de-chlorinated water. You will need 2 litres of this sugar water for every 1 kilo of berries. It isn’t absolutely essential to sugar the water but it does give the wild yeasts a headstart.

Put the berries into a sterilised bucket (Milton, bleach or a commercial sanitiser will do, if not scour with boiling water) that has plenty of room and a lid. This prevents other microbes that are living in your house from interfering with your brew

Add 2 litres of the sugar water for every 1 kilo of berries.  Leave a hands-width headspace at the top of each bucket.

Cover your bucket. I use muslin or put a hole in the bucket lid and either insert a commercial bubbler, or cover the hole with an upturned shot glass. This allows your yeasts to breathe but stops unwanted dust, flies or microbes from getting in.

After 2 or 3 days, give it a stir. You should notice that fermentation has started. Keep an eye on it. If the ferment seems weak you may want to add a little more syrup or some crushed apples as a nutrient.

Once it had bubbled happily for a while (times vary hugely but generally a week or two), fermentation will naturally cease as the alcohol content rises and kills off the yeasts. Wild yeasts rarely make alcohol stronger than 6% so don’t leave it to sit after fermentation has stopped or it will start to spoil.

When you think it is done, strain the must into a new sterilised bucket and allow it to settle for a day.

Once the sediment has settled to the bottom, carefully siphon the wine off into sterilised bottles. Plastic fizzy water or soda bottles can be used to avoid explosions if you had a particularly lively yeast and think you have champagne! Cap tightly.

Leave to mature for a few months before the sampling process begins! But give them time – at least 6 months, ideally a year… or two. I often find that the best wines I’ve made were those that I thought were disasters, that got lost on a back shelf somewhere to be rediscovered years later when I’m finally having a clear out.

As you’ll have gathered, not knowing the wild yeasts you have means there is a lot of guesswork going on here. There will be some disasters along the way but they are usually salvageable as vinegar. The more you do, the more you’ll develop an intuition for the process and know how to respond to your ferment.

To speed the development you can even pick some of the berries a week or two earlier than your main crop, get the yeast going, feed it with sugar water added to the must, and then add it to your main mix. This helps the yeasts to colonise more quickly and exclude any unwanted outsiders!

However, removing the guesswork to get reliable, consistent results is why modern wine yeasts were developed! So if you’d like more control over your rowan berry wine see my recipe here.

Green Sweet Cicely Seed Sweets

How to make sweet cicely seed brittle, a form of boiled sweet, and mukhwas, a foraged wild take on Indian sugar coated fennel seeds.

Seeet cicely - Myrrhis odorata
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is found growing wild in the parts of the British Isles that have a cold enough winter for the seed to set. This is mainly north Wales and the Midlands and north, being abundant in Scotland. It is easily distinguished from other umbillifers as it has a distinctive aniseed smell, has velvety soft leaves that are marked on the base fronds with faded, whitish patches that, at a casual glance, look like a bird shat on it. It has very juicy stems that, containing anethole which is sweeter than sugar, can be boiled with rhubarb instead of sugar. It makes delicious crumbles, ice cream and an excellent rhubarb, sweet cicely and ginger jam. Alternatively infuse it in vodka to make a wild sambuca!

The seeds, eaten young and raw, are reminiscent of the aniseeds found in the centre of traditional gobstoppers (in the US, jawbreakers). So it was only a matter of time before I experimented with sweet cicely candy!


2 cups of young green sweet cicely seeds
2 cups of granulated sugar
1 cup of water
1 dessertspoon of glucose syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste


Pick the young sweet cicely seeds when still tender. If you leave it too late in the year they become fibrous. Late May is a good time to harvest in Scotland.

Green sweet cicely seeds
Put the water and sugar into a saucepan over a gentle heat, stirring, to slowly dissolve the sugar. Then bring to the boil. Once it has reached a slow boil, add the sweet cicely seeds. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until you can put a drop of the sugar solution onto a cold plate and it keeps its spherical shape without collapsing flat onto the plate.

Now, using a pot holder to hold the pan, hold the pan lid on leaving a small gap, tilt and strain the excess sugar solution off into a silicone flan case leaving the seeds trapped in the pan. (Carefully: Hot sugar burns!) Allow it to spread out thinly in the case by tilting it from side to side while still warm. Leave to cool before scoring and breaking into pieces.

Green sweet cicely seed brittle
Return the pan to the heat and ensure any remaining sugar solution is mixed evenly through the seeds and fully absorbed. Empty onto a silicone sheet and separate with a fork to make a version of mukhwas – a take on Indian sugar-coated fennel seed mouth fresheners.

Green sweet cicely seed mukhwas
Store both, when cool, in airtight containers.

Spruce Pine Honey

I love the fresh growth on pines, spruce and larch and make fresh, citrussy-pine needle teas from the young needles. I also adore this spruce ‘honey’ (a pouring pine syrup), made as soon as the new bright young tips appear on the spruce trees. I am indebted to the lovely Meriel Cairns for this inspiration, a treasured neighbour when I lived in Perthshire. She makes it every year in a huge pot that simmers gently on her Aga all day, infusing her house with the fresh, clean smell of Spring.


8 cups (or 2 litres) of water
2 cup (500ml) young spruce needle tips (or pine needles)
2 cups (500ml) sugar
(Or 1 cup (250ml) honey plus ½ cup (125ml) cheap brandy)


Put the water into a large stainless steel saucepan with a well-fitting lid. Put into the stove and bring to a boil.

Chop the fresh needles roughly. Once the water is boiling, add them to the pan. Simmer on a low heat for half an hour with the saucepan lid on.

Switch off the heat and leave to steep for two to three hours. Then pour through a sieve or filter bag to strain off the needles.

You now have a strong spruce ‘tea’. Put the strained tea back on the stove and simmer for another hour until the tea has reduced to half the original quantity. Remove from the heat.

Measure the tea. You should have about 2 cups.

If using sugar: To each cup of spruce tea, add a 1/2 cup of sugar. Slowly add the sugar to the warm tea and stir until dissolved. Now bring back to the boil, and boil rapidly for 5 minutes. Pour into sterilised bottles and cap. There is no need to keep this in the fridge until it has been opened.

If using honey: To each cup of spruce tea, add a 1/4 cup of honey. Slowly add the honey to the warm liquid until you reach the thickness that you want. You will need to add brandy to help preserve this mixture (as it does not have the preservative properties of sugar) and store it in the fridge once bottled.

Dribble over vanilla ice cream!

Hedge Woundwort on the Midge Battlefield

Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica)

Early June and the midges are out. I suddenly noticed this when I walked into a sylvan glade in the woods. It was so beautiful. The brilliant sunshine dapples by the shade of luminous green beech leaves. The last of the bluebells nodding gently with the white flowers of pignuts, scattered with yellow tormentil. Then suddenly brought out of my reverie by the savage attack of the midges! These insects are so small you can barely see them, yet can make our lives misery. I am sensitised to insects in general – due to a nasty centipede bite – and within minutes could feel lumps swelling up around my eyes, on my cheeks, neck and arms. Ow!!

Usually I have a supply of marsh woundwort on hand (see Marsh Woundwort in the Field) however, today I had none. Nature rarely lets us down though and along the lane where I had parked my car, there was some dock and sone small hedge woundwort plants (Stachys sylvatica).

Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica)

The traditions medicinal use of hedge woundwort is to treat pain, swelling and inflammation. Mrs Grieves reports that “An old authority tells us that this herb ‘stamped with vinegar and applied in manner of a pultis, taketh away wens and hard swellings, and inflammation of the kernels under the eares and jawes.'” Elizabeth Blackwell 1739 records it’s use for all sorts of wounds (especially green (pus infected) ones, and also that it helps stop internal bleeding. 

Although it’s been incredibly hot, there was also still enough dock gel under the new leaf sheaths to apply to the swellings (see Do dock leaves really work?) to take the initial itch and aggravation out of the bites. Not having a camp stove with me – rare, but I’d cleaned out the car to take guests around – all I had was a water bottle. So I just picked the plant, crushed it between my hands and pushed it into the bottle. I then gave it a good shake and drank it. Relief was only minutes away!


Both hedge and marsh woundwort are highly undervalued plants. Even as foraging for food has become popular again, many people are put off by their musky scent that smells like an old room where mice have been living. However, it never tastes like that thankfully! They were widely used in the Middle Ages especially when treating the wounded on battlefields as, not only are they good for dealing with inflammation and swelling, but they are excellent for managing pain. I occasionally use betony (Stachys officinalis) tincture to manage the occasional migraine but the fresh herb beats the tincture hands down in with the Stachys family.


Sea Buck’s Fizz Recipe

Sea buckthorn berries

A classic twist on a Buck’s Fizz – that traditional mix of orange juice and champagne – the Sea Buck’s Fizz is a lovely sweet/sour, sherbet, fizzy drink guaranteed to get your guests relaxing. I first made it with my friend John Wright, who wrote the River Cottage handbook ‘Booze’, when we served it up at a seashore forage and feast event that we did four years ago. It’s been on the menu ever since!


Sea buckthorn juice
Castor sugar
Frozen sea buckthorn berries


Make a strong simple syrup by adding two parts of sugar to one part of warm water and mixing until the sugar dissolves. Then cool it.

For the Buck’s Fizz, mix equal parts of the sea buckthorn juice with the simple syrup. For each serving that is 25ml juice and 25ml syrup  So for 10 people you will need 250ml juice and 250ml syrup.

Put 4-6 frozen sea buckthorn berries into a champagne flute (if you still have any in the freezer from the winter harvest!).

Add 50ml of the buckthorn syrup (2 cocktail measures) to the glass as well.

When ready to serve, fill up the glass with chilled Prosecco.

Stir very quickly with a swizzle stick and serve immediately.


Spruce Pine Honey

I love the fresh growth on pines, spruce and larch and make fresh, citrussy-pine needle teas from the young needles. I also adore this spruce ‘honey’ (a pouring pine syrup), made as soon as the new bright young tips appear on the spruce trees. I am indebted to the lovely Meriel Cairns for this inspiration, a treasured neighbour when I lived in Perthshire. She makes it every year in a huge pot that simmers gently on her Aga all day, infusing her house with the fresh, clean smell of Spring.


8 cups (or 2 litres) of water
2 cup (500ml) young spruce needle tips (or pine needles)
2 cups (500ml) sugar
(Or 1 cup (250ml) honey plus ½ cup (125ml) cheap brandy)


Put the water into a large stainless steel saucepan with a well-fitting lid. Put into the stove and bring to a boil.

Chop the fresh needles roughly. Once the water is boiling, add them to the pan. Simmer on a low heat for half an hour with the saucepan lid on.

Switch off the heat and leave to steep for two to three hours. Then pour through a sieve or filter bag to strain off the needles.

You now have a strong spruce ‘tea’. Put the strained tea back on the stove and simmer for another hour until the tea has reduced to half the original quantity. Remove from the heat.

Measure the tea. You should have about 2 cups.

If using sugar: To each cup of spruce tea, add a 1/2 cup of sugar. Slowly add the sugar to the warm tea and stir until dissolved. Now bring back to the boil, and boil rapidly for 5 minutes. Pour into sterilised bottles and cap. There is no need to keep this in the fridge until it has been opened.

If using honey: To each cup of spruce tea, add a 1/4 cup of honey. Slowly add the honey to the warm liquid until you reach the thickness that you want. You will need to add brandy to help preserve this mixture (as it does not have the preservative properties of sugar) and store it in the fridge once bottled.

Dribble over vanilla ice cream!

Spruce Pine Honey

I love the fresh growth on pines, spruce and larch and make fresh, citrussy-pine needle teas from the young needles. I also adore this spruce ‘honey’ (a pouring pine syrup), made as soon as the new bright young tips appear on the spruce trees. I am indebted to the lovely Meriel Cairns for this inspiration, a treasured neighbour when I lived in Perthshire. She makes it every year in a huge pot that simmers gently on her Aga all day, infusing her house with the fresh, clean smell of Spring.


8 cups (or 2 litres) of water
2 cup (500ml) young spruce needle tips (or pine needles)
2 cups (500ml) sugar
(Or 1 cup (250ml) honey plus ½ cup (125ml) cheap brandy)


Put the water into a large stainless steel saucepan with a well-fitting lid. Put into the stove and bring to a boil.

Chop the fresh needles roughly. Once the water is boiling, add them to the pan. Simmer on a low heat for half an hour with the saucepan lid on.

Switch off the heat and leave to steep for two to three hours. Then pour through a sieve or filter bag to strain off the needles.

You now have a strong spruce ‘tea’. Put the strained tea back on the stove and simmer for another hour until the tea has reduced to half the original quantity. Remove from the heat.

Measure the tea. You should have about 2 cups.

If using sugar: To each cup of spruce tea, add a 1/2 cup of sugar. Slowly add the sugar to the warm tea and stir until dissolved. Now bring back to the boil, and boil rapidly for 5 minutes. Pour into sterilised bottles and cap. There is no need to keep this in the fridge until it has been opened.

If using honey: To each cup of spruce tea, add a 1/4 cup of honey. Slowly add the honey to the warm liquid until you reach the thickness that you want. You will need to add brandy to help preserve this mixture (as it does not have the preservative properties of sugar) and store it in the fridge once bottled.

Dribble over vanilla ice cream!

The Association of Foragers

The Association of Foragers (www.foragers-association.org #AOF) was founded in 2015. It is an international professional foragers association, promoting sustainability and ecological stewardship through teaching and harvesting wild plants and fungi for use as food, drink and medicine. Members are foraging teachers and foraging suppliers. Our statement on Principles and Practice clearly lays out our collective approach to responsible, sustainable and mindful foraging.

Association of Foragers

The first members of the Association of Foragers. Bristol, 11 December 2015.

The Association was founded on 11 December 2015 by 23 founding members who’d travelled from all over the UK, Ireland and Poland to meet in Bristol. At the end of September 2015, we are 85 members and growing each month, with members all over the UK, Ireland, Poland, France, Scandinavia, the USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand. We all have access to a lively forum where we can freely debate the issues of the day, exchange ideas, information and research. So far, the large landowning organisations have welcomed our participation in the discussions around land use and resources.

For more information on the Association of Foragers, please contact any of the members listed in the Members Directory.


Learn how to forage for wild food

I’m often asked if foraging is hard to learn. “With so many plants and fungi out there will I remember them all? Could I poison myself?”

Foraging in Scotland The week that you dedicate to a plant, learn everything about it – including any possible dangerous lookalikes. Pick it, press it, draw it, smell, feel, touch and taste (if edible!). Learn where it likes to grow, look for it, find it. Just sit and hang out with it!

As you learn each one you’ll find that one by one your eye improves. You start to see shape and colour, serrated or plain edges, succulence, delicacy, the feel of the square stem of those in the mint family, the dry taste of tannins. Your learning speed will start to increase. But you have to learn through being out there.

Learning from books teaches you only so much. It can never impart touch, texture, smell, taste, aura, mood. These you only learn by being there. Go out with others that know plants. Come on a foraging walk. Adopt an elder. Just take the time to hang out with each plant.

Soon the plants will start to teach you. Your eyes will start to truly see, your whole senses will start to tell you about the world around you in a way that you just don’t know right now. You will experience a sense of harmony with nature that doesn’t just find you food, but revives your spirit and lifts your heart too.

You may not believe me now but I promise that you can do this. It’s our birthright since the dawn of humankind. We’re hard-wired to be foragers in the most ancient part of our brains. Just start to be open again to that knowledge – one plant at a time.

How can I tell if the seawater is clean?

Seacliff Estate

A lot of people ask me “How do I know if the sea water is clean and if it’s safe to gather seaweed, pick shellfish, fish or forage for sea vegetables?”

Laver seaweedOn one hand, use your common sense and ask the locals!

Don’t forage near town sewage and drainage outlets.

Avoid river outlets with a high amount of green algal bloom which is often an indicator of fertiliser run-off.

Look at the water. Murky, slimy water devoid of sealife is giving you clues. Whereas clear water full of pollutant-sensitive sea anemones (such the snakelocks anemone Anemonia viridis, the beadlet anemone Actinia equina, and the strawberry anemone A. fragacea) are a good indicator of water quality. They are sensitive to low oxygen and high chlorophyll a conditions. Anemones are also very sensitive to oil pollution and lose their ability to feed and reproduce. If there are chemical pollutants in the water, sea anemones start to whiten – losing their colour – and die off quickly. The richer the variety of sea creature and brown seaweed species on the shore the better. See this Defra report for a full list of rocky shore health indicators

The government do, and require many commercial companies to do, coastal water testing, for various reasons. These can be helpful for learning more about the water quality near your beach or section of the coast.

FSA monthly reports on monitoring for shellfish in Scotland: click here

SEPA monitoring of Scottish bathing waters: click here 

For England and Wales use Safer Seas Service alerts from Surfers Against Sewage: click here 

UK government bathing water test results for England: click here