Foraging is a peak Cheapo activity: bang on trend, budget-friendly and a decidedly urban version of cool survival skills.
Before you start
There are some things you need to know before you hurtle out of the door, basket in hand:
- NEVER pick or eat anything you can’t identify with 100% confidence; wild plants can be extremely poisonous, and in some cases fatal. There are numerous books or apps you can download which can help you identify plants but the best place to start is either with something quite distinctive (such as sweet chestnuts) or, better still, buy an illustrated guide or book yourself on a tour – see below for some suggestions.
- Don’t forage in the Royal Parks – Richmond Park, Bushy Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park, Green Park, Greenwich Park & Regent’s Park – and check on local council websites whether foraging is permitted in their parks. Rules have tightened up since the Covid pandemic, as foraging soared during lockdowns and some parks were damaged.
- Don’t take more than you need. You are not allowed to sell anything you forage as this then makes it a commercial activity; also, play nice and leave some for other foragers, and for the local wildlife.
- Don’t pull plants up by the roots – wild plants are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and you can’t dig them up and replant them. Take some scissors or secateurs to cut leaves and flowers cleanly.
- Finally, wash anything you pick REALLY carefully before you eat it. Some councils spray roadsides with pesticides, plus parks and commons are all very pretty but just remember why dog walkers take their dogs there. Enough said.
Foraging in London month by month
Obviously a lot will depend on the weather which can speed up or slow down the appearance of plants in a given year, but here’s a couple of suggestions of what to look for and where you might find it. For a more detailed list, check out The Woodland Trust‘s website, which also has some handy recipes.
Dandelions – young dandelion leaves have a light peppery flavour and are ridiculously nutritious. Very common wherever there is untended ground; start along Camden Lock Canal.
Hairy bittercress – Once you get over the name, this spicy, peppery plant is great used raw in salads or in a pesto or risotto. It’s available all year round and will grow through pavement cracks, in grass, in fact pretty much anywhere; find it in Hackney Marshes.
Wild garlic – basically, you’ll find wild garlic in the same place we sent you to find bluebells in London, i.e. shady ancient woodlands. It grows widely across London but start with Streatham Common, Hillcrest Woods and Abney Park Cemetery. Use the leaves like a garlicky spinach – great in salads or for making pasta, pesto and flavoured butter – and the flowers make a beautifully delicate edible garnish.
Gorse flowers – gorse actually flowers all year round, so it’s fabulous for foraging. The flowers are scented with coconut; use them in salads and garnishes, or to make tea. Good sources are Putney Heath and Hampstead Heath. The bright yellow flowers make it easy to spot, but watch out for the spiky leaves!
Nettles – great in soups and can be used like cooked spinach. Blanch briefly in boiling water then refresh in iced water to remove the sting but keep the fresh, green flavours. Nettles are found pretty much everywhere, but try London’s commons; pick the young and tender leaves (you’ll be needing thick gardening gloves and scissors).
Meadowsweet – the leaves have a slightly antiseptic smell but the flowers have honey, vanilla and almond notes, which are great muddled into cocktails or used with cream and berries. In ancient times they were also chewed as a cure for headaches. Found in damp grassy areas, so search alongside rivers and lakes. Try Tottenham Marshes (or actually any of London’s marshes).
Hawthorn – infuse the scented flowers to make cordials and syrups. The haws, or berries, are great for jam-making as they are high in pectin, which helps the jam set. Look in Highbury Fields.
Elderflowers – steep the flowers and sweeten to make a classic elderflower cordial or keep the flower heads whole, fry in a light tempura-style batter and dust with icing sugar. Follow your nose for this one – check out Primrose Hill.
Pineapple weed – aka wild chamomile, the flowers have a distinctive pineapple scent and flavour. It makes a great syrup to flavour cordials, granita or ice cream and Michelin-starred chef Simon Rogan uses it to make vinegar. This plant likes dry, well-trodden pathways; look along London’s canal paths and also car parking areas around commons.
Rose petals – the petals of the wild rose (also known as dog rose) can be infused in water to add a Middle Eastern flavour to desserts or a delicate floral note in baking. Petals can also be crystallised and used to decorate cakes and desserts; simply wash and pat dry, then gently brush with beaten egg white, dip in caster sugar and leave to dry on a wire rack. Wild roses love a hedgerow; try Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and Hackney Downs.
Brambles/Blackberries – very young shoots and leaf buds can be eaten raw, and larger leaves used to make tea. Eat the berries fresh, bake in pies and crumbles or turn into a cordial for drinks – including cocktails, obvs. Often found growing along roadsides but check out Hampstead Heath near the ladies’ swimming pond, Walthamstow Marshes and Wormwood Scrubs Park.
Rosehips – make into a floral yet tart syrup, great for drinks, ice cream, wine and jelly. As above, check out Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and Hackney Downs.
Sloe berries – most often used to make sloe gin or vodka, which should be ready by Christmas. Pick after the first frost. Sloes are the fruit of blackthorn bushes; try Wormwood Scrubs, Hampstead Heath or Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
Sweet chestnuts – the key thing here is that these are NOT the horse chestnuts that you play conkers with (those are inedible). The outside cases of sweet chestnuts are spiny rather than spiky; crush them gently underfoot (thick-soled shoes/boots please) to remove the nuts, which are fabulous roasted. These can be found in most London parks.
Crab apples – classically used for jewel-like crab apple jelly but they also make great crisps, crab apple butter and liqueur. Head to Clissold Park in Stoke Newington or Brompton Cemetery.
Books & Tours
There’s plenty of information available online about foraging but, while that’s a great place to start, it’s important that you consult a reliable source on whether a plant is edible or not.
A guide book with colour photographs to help identify plants is really useful; we like the pocket-sized The Urban Forager by professional forager Wross Lawrence.
A guided tour is probably the best start (and a fascinating, fun day out). Once you have actually seen, smelled and tasted the plants in the wild yourself you will feel much more confident in finding them unaided – especially if you have been introduced to some prime foraging locations during the tour.
Ken Greenway, Manager of the oft-mentioned Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, runs in-person foraging tours of the park; see our events listing here, or tickets can be booked direct for longer tours organised by the park.
Have fun, keep safe and tag us on Instgram with your foraging finds or dishes!