Unearth your wild foraging skills on British canals
Amongst the Blackberries, the Common Hawthorn is forgotten. But what can you make from the thorny Haw?
Canal hedgerows brim with life on Britain’s canals, with nesting bird’s song from early Spring, throughout the long and lazy hot summer, and then to autumn’s end. Wild foraging on British canals is common, those seen plucking high, plump blackberries in Autumn, along the hedgerows. Yet few pick the Mayflower- conservatively named the Common Hawthorn, abundant in Spring, with delicate, small, hairy white but tinged pink, five petaled clusters of blossoms; a sweet bouquet!
As pretty as she looks, the Hawthorn family to which she is related is in contrast, of such poor reputation that even the bees might appear to stay away from pollinating the putrid whiff of rotting fish this virginal white lady of beauty wafts adrift. You’d be forgiven for your mistake, for a terrible smell to us, is a luring charm- reaching afar, like a megaphone calling all bees! From this local May-blossom these industrious and clever creatures in their secret hives, hide a dark amber, and nutty Hawthorn honey.
The Common Haw might send you running!
But not all that is beautiful or sweet, is good! The awakening of the senses: touch, smell, seeing- is key to the success of foraging. Hawthorn berries can cause a mild stomach upset. Never lick or taste new plants or fruit, unless you are sure. So one might think the unsavoury Haw scent with its sharp thorns, a warning! Is this nature’s way, to ward us off eating from the Haw tree?
Culinary foraging history
Yet, historic cookery books long forgotten on dust covered shelves, reveal that the Spring Hawthorn’s young tender shoots and leaves were known as ‘Bread & Cheese’. Perhaps the leaves enriched a cheese and pickle sandwich? Or was it because of the Hawthorn’s superior nutritious content- Vitamin C and B and its richness in antioxidants; Hawthorn is a well-known herbal for keeping the old ticker going.
The Hawthorn’s crimson berries were used for ketchups such as Dragon Breath Relish, jellies and wine. Even the flowers were eaten (Hawthorn flower syrup), and the branches too, were part of May Day celebrations of old. The Haw tree is a tough wood loved by the carpenter; he crafts it into boxes- expertly engraved, or furniture and boat builds. Revered by the farmer too, for his sheep and cows cannot escape through the Hawthorn hedge’s dense and prickly wall.
Why go wild foraging on British canals?
The Hawthorn appears abundant in positives: nutritious, tasty, versatile, healing properties, useful, pretty, and abundantly free! Alas, how many other plants do we saunter past, unnoticed and forgotten, cast aside in favour of modern day convenience? What native species and skills of old have we shelved in search of both process and progress?
Instead of a relaxing, healthy walk in the fresh air, the hunter-gatherer- a dying breed, withers away. Choose as little exercise as possible while seeking a diet of harmful chemicals and dyes with only a little nutritional value, and you will soon become what you eat- overweight, unhealthy and stressed. We have almost forgotten how to feed ourselves!
How to wild forage sustainably and responsibly
Easy pickings from the same place, once you identify an edible food source, can leave an area looking like an empty, cow trampled field. Consider the other wildlife that need your food too- bees, birds, insects and fish. They use herbs, bushes and trees not only for food; but nesting, protection, oxygen, and health. So, it’s only fair to leave plenty untouched. Watch out for bird’s nests in Spring.
Some plants are essential in rivers and canals, for filtering and purifying effluents. Find out which perinea’s are protected species- picking these is illegal, unethical and you can receive a fine. Get to know one plant source at a time- its seasons, uses, risks and visitors, and pick across several locations rather than one.
You should tread gently and leave no footprint. Don’t take more than you need- learn to trim cuttings correctly, as if pruning, and nurture more growth. Wrong pruning can leave greenery open to disease. Leave roots to grow back, digging them up is a crime. Respect other plants while reaching for your own. Re-planting projects are great ways to give back to nature.
Wild foraging on British canals- Top places to avoid!
Canal hedgerows are great places to find wild food as they are one of the few places that we cultivate or treat with chemicals. Places to avoid are where dogs walk- pick leaves and fruit from higher up, where a dog can’t water or mess. Uncaring people may throw pollutants into hedges- frequent rubbish and decaying dog poo bags can litter canals and their paths, more so in town areas.
High traffic areas create dust and pollution on plants too. Find a quiet spot, set back from the busy pathways. Hard to reach areas might be dense scrub, steep banks and woodland. Take care on foot, and dress to protect yourself from midges, mosquitoes and ticks. Deal with tick bites immediately and seek proper medical advice.
Foraging beyond the UK
In Britain there are few creatures that will harm you, but check your location. Some countries have very different risks and rules. Bears, snakes, spiders, and extreme weather- sun, snow or flooding, and protected species; in other places the risks differ.
Where you can’t forage in the UK
Farmland is private, as are some woodlands too, so check you are not venturing past gates, fences and warnings, onto cultivated land. This land might be growing young seedlings that you can damage with careless feet, and much of the soil, farmers spray with chemicals or contaminate with livestock. Private woodlands host deer hunting and bird shootings. Some areas protect the environment from disturbance. Don’t break the hedgerows, watch children by the water, and keep to public footpaths where you feel safe.
Get to know your locality
If you live on a boat like me, then you become pretty familiar with the canal, and each location on its path. Some common herbs are easily recognizable, both good and bad. Living outdoors, you use your senses, you’re more aware. But when foraging, for most people, an area will be unknown, and the plants- new. So start local, and begin with three to four plants, no more. You will be surprised at what’s right on your doorstep, and how many recipes you can find for one plant. Everyone recognises Blackberries, Dandelions and Nettles, but building a wider repertoire comes with practise.
Plants to avoid- exploring on Britain’s canals
Mistakes are easy because so many shoots share similar looking leaves. Even using a book for identification is a challenge. Poisonous shrubs may include Foxglove, Deadly Nightshade and Hemlock. The first plant I identified using my foraging book was indeed- Hemlock- renowned for its historical links to witchcraft! Who would think such a delicate looking herb could be the most poisonous of them all; for only a tiny amount of Hemlock can render both human and beast- dead. But don’t be put off!
Another canal plant you don’t want to brush up against is the Giant Hog-Weed! It Looks very similar to what my Grandma taught me to know as Mother’s Die, the Anthriscus Sylvestris- (Cow Parsley, Wild Chervil, Wild Beaked Parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace or Keck); I would never pick it as a child in-case my mother died! But the Giant Hog-Weed is much larger with fat stems at full growth, and causes blistering and swelling, an allergic skin reaction to the sap- bad enough to leave you looking like you have a peeling case of Elephantitis and with an unwanted holiday in a hospital.
Forage with a pro
Either stick with a plant you absolutely know- one that you can’t confuse with a similar other, or seek help from an expert. There are some great foraging classes you can join now. Take a few classes combing the countryside, and learn from a knowledgeable certified forager. Hunting plants is a great day out and a fun social time! The exercise is good for you too.
Foraging events often end with a wild cooking experience, where you can try out your finds in a tasty dish. Try only a small piece of the new find, and one species at a time- the first time you eat it, if you are prone to food allergies. Some people tolerate cooked foods fine, where they can’t eat them raw.
How to pick wild mushrooms
It’s always advisable to trek mushrooms with someone who knows what they’re doing because many fungi contain lethal toxins. An expert forager will be knowledgeable about which part of the plant to eat or not, what season to find it, where to look for it, and how to identify it. They will be able to warn you of similar inedible plants. Some wild woodlands or pastures prohibit mushrooming to protect conservation, and commercial picking is illegal too, with hefty fines.
Where to find a wild foraging course in the UK?
Foraging courses are popular and you can find some more links below. Look for accredited organizations. There are many beginner’s guides online, but take care that you follow advice from someone who really knows what they’re doing. There are several professional groups who provide a course search near you, and some great recipes too. With wild veg boxes, private group bookings, vouchers for gifts and cooking on-site, what are you waiting for?
Check your cancellation policy if you don’t like the rain. A good foraging course will cost you from £30-£60 each, upwards. I advise warm waterproofs, good boots and a bottle of water to dilute strong tastes, but courses provide their own list of rules for children, dogs, essentials and disability advice. (Some courses are presently only available online.)
The verdict on wild foraging on British canals?
Nutrition often tops our Internet search agenda as we seek solutions to a variety of ailments. Can arable, recycled farmland and intense farming, compete with uncultivated and carbon rich organic soil, for growing highly nutritious food? Foraging also encourages exercise and a healthy lifestyle.
Don’t forget that wild food tastes superior. Try natural fresh herbs instead of the dried ones; taste the difference, convert! Chefs have made exploring natural foods, the popular pass time of today. And with lockdowns, who doesn’t want to get out? Local is best and you don’t need to go far.
Wild foraging on British canals- the verdict
You might be asking, is it all worthwhile? Is it worth the risks? After considering the benefits, the barriers, and the choices you have, I still think foraging is a great skill to acquire. In a world, where food is plentiful, perhaps there is no urgency to skill-up in food identification. But what if that world changes? And why do you need supplements if your diet is already healthy?
History teaches us that the community used to understand much more about the natural plants that grow around us. Our total dependency upon farming and the corporate monopolies that now control food agriculture, is something I once didn’t see as a critical problem to life; but since learning to live off-grid, my eyes are opening; and now in 2021, my agenda is for change.
Share your foraging day! Do you think food knowledge is important? Know any wild recipes? Comments welcome!
Before eating or licking any wild food, always check it is edible first, with professional advice and thorough research across several published and trusted sources. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, and children, should be extra vigilant. Disclaimer: The content on this website is only for your entertainment and the author takes no liability for your actions.
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