Hunting strawberries, honey …and a weed left by the Roman

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Some foraging is an easy win, says expert Carl Mintern, but remember not to ignore the weeds when you look for the strawberries and honey
As well as tasting delicious, honeysuckle is hugely valuable to wildlife, supporting several rare UK species. Butterflies such as the white admiral (which is in decline), rely specifically on honeysuckle, and it is also prized by bumblebees. Pollinating moths are attracted to the sweet scent of honeysuckle at night, when it is strongest; and birds, including thrushes, warblers and bullfinches, eat the berries when they ripen in late summer and autumn. Dormice rely on honeysuckle for both shelter and food – they use honeysuckle bark to build nests and eat the sweet, nectar-rich flowers.

June has arrived, with its long warm evenings and the most hours of daylight (is it too ambitious to say sunshine?) that we will see all year. If you have been waiting for an opportunity to do some evening hedgerow harvesting, then wait no longer.

Eat the weed!
Let’s start by talking about ground elder (aegopodium podagraria ) which gets its name because its leaves resemble those of the elder tree (sambucus nigra). The tender leaves have been used in antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages as a spring vegetable, similar to spinach. It has many names which can tell us something of its traditional medicinal uses against rheumatism and gout (gout weed, goutwort) in the form of a poultice. Around the end of the first century, monks started to include it in their herb gardens so its presence around ecclesiastical buildings gave rise to other names – bishopweed and bishopwort.
First introduced to the UK as a pot-herb by the Romans, it was cultivated as a valuable food plant. It soon spread, and the modern day gardener now spends fruitless hours attempting to get rid of it, considering it an invasive weed. With a similar flavour to parsley, you can eat the young leaves and shoots (before the
leaves have unfolded) raw, or add to salads. Alternatively, you can cook young shoots the same way as you might spinach, by boiling, steaming or frying in butter. They can also be added to many dishes as you would parsley.
Widespread and shade-loving, look for this plant under hedgerows, in woodlands – and in gardens! Look for oval, serrated leaves growing in threes, close to the ground on a stalk which is grooved.

Ground elder is a member of the carrot/parsley family (Umbelliferae), which also includes poisonous species such as hemlock, fool’s parsley, Satan’s parsley, giant hogweed, etc. In the UK, there is a very easy distinguishing test. Ground elder is the only one with a stem that is triangular in cross section.

Sweet honeysuckle
Next I want to talk about honeysuckle (lonicera periclymenum). This beautifully scented plant can be found in woods and hedgerows throughout the summer. Just look along the tops of hedgerows while travelling through country lanes and you’ll often see the distinctive honeysuckle flowers. And it is these delicious blooms the forager seeks!
These fragrant wildflowers can be used to infuse a sweet, honey flavour into a variety of drinks and foods. Only a few flowers are required to inject the taste of sunshine into water to make a refreshing drink, but they can also be used to enhance ice creams, jams and jellies. Or, like me, just eat them fresh in salads and as garnishes on any meal.
Remember it’s the flowers we are looking to collect – the berries of some varieties can be quite toxic.

It takes dedicated picking to collect many tiny wild strawberries, but it is definitely worth the effort. They have an extremely intense, sweet flavour with a hint of vanilla, and the fruit is best eaten fresh on its own, perhaps served with Greek yoghurt, cream or ice cream. Preserve into jams, jellies and syrups or use in muesli and granola mixes.

Tiny wild strawberries
Finally I wanted to mention wild strawberries (fragaria vesca) which can be found in woodlands and on
shady ancient banks under hedgerows towards the end of spring and carry on throughout the summer.
They are much smaller than the cultivated ones we see in the shops, but that makes the discovery of the
miniature fruit all the more rewarding as they are often hiding in plain sight, using only their diminutive size and unassuming habit as cover.
They frequently grow in small patches, and sprout tall-stemmed, small white flowers before they fruit with tiny, dense berries which burst with an intense flavour – they make up in taste what they lack in size. The fruits tend to start ripening from June onwards.
So all that begs the question – what are you waiting for?

by Carl Mintern – See details and availability of Carl’s local foraging courses on his website SelfSufficientHub.com

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