Urban Growing

First time foragers

By Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton, author of The First Time Forager, due to be published on 12 April, is running a series of foraging walks and events this year. Find out how to get involved.

It’s already that time of year when your well-intentioned new year’s resolutions have gone to pot. But what if you could hit three or four at once? What if there was one thing that could have you eating well, getting more exercise, learning a new skill and saving money. Foraging does all this and Bristol, being one of the greenest cities in the country, is a great place to learn this primal skill.

Bristol sits amongst some pretty diverse countryside, estuary, flatlands, rolling hills and woodland are all in easy reach. But its maritime past, forward-thinking individuals and abundance of parks and green spaces mean the plants available in the city itself are amongst some of the most diverse in the country. This April, I’m running an ID course and serving up a picnic (or soup if it’s still cold) in one of my favoured teaching spots, St Werburghs. This will coincide with the launch of my new book – The First Time Forager.

I cut my teeth as a forager both here in Bristol and over in Bath. Arriving at the start of the century, and with the help of my trusty A-Z, I sought out any place covered green. This I’d recommend to anyone starting out and eager to learn more. You’ll find hazelnuts, walnuts, apples, pears, cherries and kiwi fruits across the local parks. Magnolia blossom too, which dried, tastes exactly like ginger.

Then there are the wild forgotten spots, the verdant verges, the edges of the cycle routes, forgotten cemeteries, and all the places that haven’t yet been snapped up by property developers. Here you can find a host of things from rosehips, mugwort, dandelion and the exotic sounding sumac which can be made into a lemonade-style drink or a food spice.

If you are worried about how which-plants-are-which don’t worry, First time foragers already have the skills needed to forage, and forage well. You know to choose the most succulent, the ripest and the best food from a whole variety of fruit and vegetables. That’s all you need in the wild. Even if you are reading this and secretly harbouring the worry that you don’t know the differences between an apple and pear and have no idea when a fruit is ripe, don’t worry! I bet you can tell a wide variety of corporate logos apart – First Bus from Proper Job for example – this is simple pattern recognition.

Photo credit: Roy Hunt

Knowing what is good to eat is simple pattern recognition too and, it’s a transferable skill meaning if you can distinguish one thing from another you can be a great forager. It’s a skill that improves with practice and once you start foraging. it won’t be long before you can tell the difference between an over-wintered dandelion leaf and a fresh one or wild garlic from poisonous lords and ladies. Furthermore, you’ll be able glance at a stinging nettles patch and know if they are at their prime and tasty, or terrible and grainy. It takes a tiny amount of applied effort that’s all.

I have this in mind both when I teach and when I write. I know that plant knowledge can be daunting for the uninitiated. But the main worries seem to be universal. Lots of people worry about dog wee, and everyone worries about poisoning themselves. In time (and not that much time either), the forager learns what to look out for when assessing both. Scorched-looking plants could be diseased, sprayed by weed killer, damaged by the sun, nutrient deficient or covered in dog wee. The simplest remedy is to leave anything but the best-looking specimens alone, just as you would when shopping at the greengrocers.

As for poisonous plants, they are not as plentiful as you might imagine. As I look out onto my garden I can’t see a single plant that’ll kill me out of the 20 or 30 different, and fairly ubiquitous, plants I can see. I can see plants that need preparation before they are edible and plants that just wouldn’t be tasty, but nothing that would kill me.

However, that’s not to say they don’t exist and it’s useful to learn a small handful of the poisonous plants. It’s also useful to stay vigilant, every forager will repeat the mantra – don’t eat anything you are not 100% sure of. It’s what keeps us alive and that list of edible plants will steadily grow as you start to learn.

Andy Hamilton is the author of The First Time Forager published on 12 April by National Trust books and Booze For Free (Eden Project Books). He’s running a series of foraging walks and events over this coming year – check out theotherandyhamilton.com for more details.

Photo credit: Roy Hunt


Where it grows: Verges, lawns, allotments, meadows, cracks in pavements – wherever there is a thimble of soil!

Dangers: The leaf sap can cause dermatitis on those susceptible.

Edible parts: Flowers, leaves, roots.

Use in: Drinks, salads and as a side dish.

Fun fact: The word dandelion derives from dent-de-lion or lion’s tooth. Yet in France, it is known as pisdenlit (wet the bed) due to the diuretic qualities of this plant.

Photo credit: Roy Hunt

Wild Garlic

Where it grows: Broadleaf woodland, beneath hedgerows – anywhere with dappled shade.

Brief description: Green leafy plant, 25cm long leaves, white star-shaped flowers.

When it grows: Jan-May/June – best in March.

Harvest notes: Pick carefully and methodically to avoid picking anything else. Young leaves are great if used sparingly in a salad or for pesto. Older leaves for cooking and later the green buds of the seeds can be pickled and used as tiny capers.

The look-a-likes? Lilly of the valley (Convallaria majalis), lords and ladies (Arum maculatum).

Fun fact: Huge traces of wild garlic pollen were found at a Neolithic site in Switzerland, suggesting a long legacy in Europe of wild garlic consumption.

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So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation now.

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