Chickweed is an overlooked but underrated weed with cleansing and healing properties and is packed full of vitamins and minerals.
How to use it: its tender leaves can go in salads with lemon and olive oil dressing. Blend into homemade pesto, or use to liven up fish or chicken. The tiny white, edible flowers make a pretty salad garnish.
What to look for: it’s a tough, creeping annual common throughout the UK on waste ground and in gardens. It’s abundant throughout the year from spring to late autumn. Look for its small, white, star-like white flowers. Look for it from February.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
The name of this plant literally means lion’s tooth (dent de lion) probably referring to its jagged leaf edges. It’s long been associated with folklore and herbal medicine and is probably best known for its diuretic effect.
How to use it: all parts of this slightly bitter plant are edible, both raw and cooked. Add young leaves to salads, sandwiches or pies. Flowers can be used in many dishes from risotto to omelettes, for decoration and to make beer and wine. Unopened buds can be marinated and used like capers. Roots can also be thrown into stir-fries or added to vegetable dishes or try making dandelion coffee by drying then grinding the roots.
What to look for: really common, easy to identify and found almost everywhere. Young leaves from the centre of the rosette are best – the dark outer leaves may be too bitter. They first appear in February.
Goosegrass or cleavers (Galium aparine)
Easy to find and abundant, goosegrass is really starting to shoot up now. It’s known by most people as the plant you pick to throw on your friend’s back. If you’re going to eat this plant as a vegetable, it needs to be picked really young. This plant is in the Rubiaceae – the same family as the coffee plant.
How to use it: If you’re eating this as a vegetable just use the fresh looking tops when the plant is very young before the seeds appear in summer. As the plant matures it becomes fibrous and bitter. Cook it as a green vegetable or add to soups, stews and pies. You can also eat the seeds. Wait until they’ve hardened, then roast and grind as a coffee substitute.
What to look for: it’s easy to identify – it has a square stem and is covered in tiny hooks. Look for it from February and March along hedges, path and roadsides, wasteground and
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
Common on sunny sites and with sandy soil especially around cliff-tops, wasteland, commons and heathland. Its vivid yellow flowers are sought after for their coconut and almond flavour.
How to use it: take care when picking the flowers because it has prickly spine-like leaves. They are delicious eaten raw in salads or steeped in fruit tea. Or experiment and infuse its sweet flavour in gorse ice-cream or gorse wine.
What to look for: gorse is a dense evergreen shrub with spine-like leaves. Its deliciously fragrant flowers are at their best in early spring, but you’ll find it flowering from late autumn right through until early summer.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Hawthorn is one of the first trees to really wake up after winter. Now is the perfect time for picking the fresh young leaves before they toughen up and become unpalatable. In the past the leaf and unopened flower buds were a favourite forage for children- known as bread and cheese- the leaf being the bread and the flower the cheese.
How to use it: young leaves and unopened flower buds have a pleasant nutty taste. Clusters and can be eaten straight from the hedgerow or add them to green salads, potato salad or sandwiches.
What to look for: hawthorn grows in woods, hedges and scrubland, on heaths and downs. The little green leaves are most tender in March and April.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
This invasive plant has managed to find its way into all corners of the UK and has become a major environmental problem costing millions to eradicate. Fantastic, then, that you can eat it! It’s apparently quite good for you containing high levels of vitamin A, vitamin C, antioxidants, minerals and resveratrol, a substance that lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart attacks.
How to use it: strip any leaves and scrape off the papery tissue that divides the sections of the stem. You’ll need to peel tough pieces. You can substitute it for almost any rhubarb recipe including jams, chutneys, crumbles, pies and even knotweed vodka. Note that this plant is rich in oxalic acid so if you suffer from gout eat only small quantities of it or avoid it.
What to look for: look for it along riverbanks, on wasteground and by roadsides throughout the UK. Its young shoots are tenderest between March and May. Cut young stems with a knife but take care. Just a small fragment of the plant can cause it to spread so don’t throw any off cuts back onto the land. Boil or burn them and deposit them in the bin.
Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Nettle leaves are a surprisingly versatile ingredient and are reputed to be a great super food that’s rich in iron and vitamins A and D and packed with minerals. New growth usually begins to appear in early February.
How to use it: the favoured leaves to pick are the tips – they’re tender and give the best flavour. You can use gloves to avoid being stung. The leaves have a favour somewhere between cabbage and spinach. You can use nettle in the same way as spinach or to make tea, beer or soup (try creamy nettle and potato).
What to look for: it’s an unmistakable plant familiar to everyone. It grows pretty much everywhere. Just remember to avoid roadside and pesticide-ridden areas. It’s best picked from late February to early June.