N.B. Always be sure you can positively identify any plant before you pick it, and never eat anything you are unsure of. Make sure you leave plenty for wildlife (and other foragers!).
Velvet Shank Mushrooms
One of very few mushroom species that are around between December and March, the velvet shank copes well with low temperatures, and can even survive being frozen solid. Usually found clustered on dead or decaying wood (especially elm and oak), their caps (3-9cm diameter) are a striking orange-brown colour with a shiny surface. As the name suggests, the stem has a velvety texture, and graduates from a light shade near the cap to a darker base. There is no ring on the stem of the velvet shank, and it leaves a white spore print.
Identification should be relatively simple due to the lack of other mushrooms at this time of year, but always make absolutely sure you know what you have before you eat it! The mealy flavor of the velvet shank means it works well in game casseroles and winter stews.
Seafood is not so affected by seasonal changes as plants are, so it is great for foraging in the depths of winter. Mussels, oysters and whelks can easily be picked from rocks, tide pools and jetties, or you can comb the sand for cockles. These are often left exposed on the beach by a receding tide, but if they’ve managed to re-bury themselves then just look for the tiny bumps in the sand that indicate their hiding places.
Always harvest seafood from a clean beach, where you know that there is no sewage outlet into the sea. Its also worth making sure you are working in a public area rather than private land, and that there are no restrictions such as endangered species or nature reserve.
As with all molluscs you should discard live ones with broken or open shells, and don't eat any that are still closed after cooking.
In summer they can be the bane of every walker’s life when they begin to take over the footpaths, but at this time of year Nettles are great for bulking out your foraging harvests. New growth usually begins to appear in early February, and is a great superfood - rich in vitamins A, C, and D and stuffed with iron. Use gloves to avoid the stingers, and pick only the tips (the top four to six leaves) for the best taste. Avoid foraging near roads or other places where they might have been sprayed with pesticides. You can use the leaves as you would spinach, or how about making a warming nettle & potato soup?
Wild Garlic is a hardy perennial that tends to grow in woodlands, often alongside clumps of bluebells. In spring the plant gives off a strong scent of garlic, which is useful for the forager who likes to plan ahead: simply sniff out a patch, note the location, and then come back in late winter for the new growth. You can harvest wild garlic by simply pulling off individual leaves - the bulbs are also usable once the leaves have died down, but they are smaller and not as flavourful as cultivated garlic. They also don’t store well.
Beware of mistaking garlic for Lily of the Valley – the leaves look similar, but don’t have that distinctive garlic smell when crushed.
Traditionally spring flowers, but they can be found as early as February, and their bright colouration makes them easy to spot at this time of year when few other plants are in flower. Often found growing in the shade of hedgerows and on the edges of woodland, the heart-shaped leaves are good in salads but the main attraction for any forager is that bright purple flowerhead. They have a sweet fragrance that has long been used in perfumes and sweets (such as parma violets). One way to make use of the flavor is to infuse the flowers into a syrup for use in cakes, drinks etc. Alternatively they can be used like a vanilla pod by being layered in a jar with caster sugar, or even crystallised and used as decorations on cakes.
Birch sap is a good challenge for the keen forager, as it is only available for about two weeks. The exact time that the sap begins to rise varies depending on location and weather – in warmer climes it can begin in late February, whilst in Scotland you are more likely to find it in April. The common technique for tapping a tree is to drill a hole in the lower part of the trunk (obtain permission from the owner first!), approximately 5cm deep, and angled slightly upwards. If nothing comes out then the tree is dry, and if other trees give similar results then you might need to wait another week. To prevent leaking the hole should be about the same diameter as the tube or spiggot you are using. Insert one end of the tube/spiggot into the hole, and the other into your collecting jar. Cover the jar with a cloth to prevent leaves/bugs getting in, and leave overnight. After you have collected the sap, don’t forget to stop the hole with a tight-fitting wooden plug, and seal any leaks with wax. The sap doesn't keep long but you can drink it fresh (it tastes like mineral water), or use it to make vinegar or syrup. Birch sap wine has also been a popular choice for centuries – in 1718 author Ned Ward stated that it “drinks almost like mead, and makes a mans mouth smell of honey.”
Wood Avens/Herb Bennet (Geum Urbanum)
Wood avens are a great year-round staple, which flower from May right through to November and beyond. The leaves are edible but it is the roots that have the most flavor: when washed and dried they smell and taste like a subtler version of cloves. This makes them perfect for Christmas favourites like mince pies and mulled wine, but if you’ve missed the holiday season then they can also be used to add flavor to various dishes, soups and drinks.
Uprooting plants is illegal on privately owned land unless you have permission. Harvesting small quantities of this “weed” in public areas is usually ok, but don’t remove too many roots or the plant will not survive.
You probably won’t have to travel far to find this plant as it likes to grow in recently-disturbed areas of ground, path-edges, walls, and even in with pot-grown plants. Seedlings generally appear in summer and autumn but they are frost hardy and winter well. The stems grow in a ground-hugging rosette, with small leaves. Hairy Bittercress is a small member of the cabbage family, but has a mild peppery taste that is similar to rocket and works well as a substitute for basil in home-made pesto, or as a simple garnish.
This plant was introduced by Romans, though most gardeners would not thank them for it. It may be an invasive weed but has a mild lemon/parsley flavour, which means that it goes well with fish or in a salad. It is commonly found in graveyards (which might explain its alternative name of bishopsweed),but also sprouts in woodlands, hedgerows and gardens, and can be identified by its lobed leaves (and flat, creamy-white flower heads in summer). Young shoots can be found all year round but it is best eaten between January and June before it flowers, as afterwards the taste deteriorates and it can have a mild laxative effect.
Alexanders are commonly found in coastal hedgerows now, but were originally Mediterranean plants that the Romans used as as a fore-runner of celery. The stalks are great chopped-up and added to a seafood stew for texture.
Main image: Getty
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