Get to grips with foraging in your own back yard with the help of expert Monica Wilde

As autumn transitions into winter, Scotland’s outdoors become a magical place to dwell.

Forest floors become dense with orange needles, mountain tops don their white caps and beaches appear their most dramatic, evolving into salt-water sprayed cat walks.

Despite the brutal conditions this Narniaesque wonderland bears fruits, nuts and mushrooms for the 21st century forager to pocket.

Monica Wilde is one such gatherer who capitalises on our country’s vast and varied pantry.

The aptly named master forager, research herbalist and ethnobotanist has shared her top gathering, safety and seasonal tips for beginner scavengers.

Safety first

Before browsing the Highlands, Lowlands and isles for wild produce, it’s vital to exercise caution. Many of Scotland’s native plants and fungi are poisonous and have been known to cause fatalities.

Wilde recommends taking a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to foraging.

“Always make you sure you are 100% sure of everything that you eat. If there’s an element of doubt don’t take chances,” explains Wilde. “The devil is in the detail and beginners often need to learn to look very carefully at tiny differences.”

Picking more than is safe to eat is also a common problem, notes Wilde.

Its not just the risk of poisoning that foragers should be wary of, however.

Taking simple steps, such as letting someone know where you’re going and when you’re expected to return, can be important should you encounter misadventure, according to Wilde.

Basic navigation skills are also a must.

As an extra precaution to aide navigation and communication, Wilde also recommends carrying an extra battery pack for your phone.

What to pick

Hawthorn berries

Hawthorn berries are typically found in field hedgerows (Monica Wilde)

Hawthorn berries are typically found in field hedgerows (Monica Wilde)

“Hawthorn is a common hedging plant with red berries that look like miniature apples with a stalk at one end and a tiny star on the other. Soak them in gin with a little brown sugar for 3-4 weeks until the colour completely leaves the berries, then strain off the coloured gin, bottle it and keep it for at least three months before drinking. Just pick them before your local council or farmer savages the hedge with a mechanical cutter for the sake of ‘tidiness’.”

Sea buckthorn

Sea buckthorn is found along Scotland’s coasts (Shutterstock)

“Down at the coast there are still the bright orange berries of sea buckthorn full of a juice that is too tart to take raw, but diluted with a little sugar makes an excellent vitamin-rich drink or ingredient for cheesecake or toffees.”

Rose hips

Rose hips can be made into a sweet and tasty syrup (Shutterstock)

“The hedgerows often still have rose hips for jelly or rose hip syrup to drizzle over your morning porridge. During the Second World War children were actually paid to collect them and deliver them to their teachers as a government drive to make a vitamin-C rich drink to keep the population healthy. “

Scurvy grass

Scurvy grass possesses a distinctive flavour (Monica Wilde)

“This is a winter vegetable found along the coasts. It is traditionally eaten to provide vitamin C in the winter, and has a punchy wasabi-like flavour.”

Crab apples

Crab apples can be utilised in a number of ways (Monica Wilde)

“These tiny crab apples that make the best ever country wine. Cooked with wild berries such as rowan, they provide natural pectin to help jams and jellies set firm.”

Chanterelle mushrooms

Chanterelle mushrooms can be found in Scotland’s woods (Monica Wilde)

“The easy to identify chanterelle, and edible mushroom has had a particularly abundant year in Scotland this year.”

Where to pick

Not knowing where to begin with foraging can be off-putting for would-be gatherers, but Wilde says that treats can be found in most environments in Scotland – even the local city park.

“A city park is home to many edible species as wild plants like the disturbance to the ground that humans create, and they are often richer in choice plants than the middle of a wild forest,” muses Wilde.

Less surprising hotspots include the forests of the Highlands, which are rich in fungi.

Though Wilde insists that any outdoor space “that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals” will be teeming with wild plants.

Barren areas such as mountain tops and stretches of sandy coast should also be avoided as they are typically bereft of edible plants.

“Woodlands with non-native trees like sycamore are also worth avoiding as they lack the mycorrhizal associations with edible fungi such as chanterelles and penny buns, according to Wilde.”

As for specific hot spots, Monica Wilde keeps her cards close to her chest.

“Ah! A forager rarely shares their exact locations to prevent over-harvesting.”

A helping hand

Like with any new hobby, newcomers will undoubtedly make mistakes.

As well as adhering to the aforementioned safety tips and avoiding over-harvesting, Wilde recommends working closely with an experienced forager if you want to progress at any real pace.

“A book doesn’t give you the sense of scale, texture or smell that another person showing you something does.

“A good guide can give you a wealth of tips about identification, food preparations and techniques and also the plants Availability in your area.

“They will also inspire a love of the wonders of the natural world as good Foragers are also good environmental stewards.”

Monica Wilde runs foraging courses and events throughout the year. Read more at monicawilde.com

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