WILD VEGETABLES AND FRUITS AS FOOD

Basella alba, or Malabar spinach (also Pooi le...

Basella alba, or Malabar spinach (also Pooi leaf, Red vine spinach, Creeping spinach, Climbing spinach) is a perennial vine found in the tropics where it is widely used as a leaf vegetable. It is a fast-growing, soft-stemmed vine. The cultivated leaf vegetables shot has been taken at Dhulagarh, Howrah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

SOME of our wild food plants.were selected long ago to be parents of improved garden varieties; others are descendants of plants introduced into Britain to be specially cultivated as food, and these have become acclimatized as wildings. In gathering them respect should be paid to the law of trespass where this applies and to the rights of ownership generally. The possible danger of making rash experiments in connexion with unfamiliar berries, fungi, herbs, etc.., as food should not need stressing. Mushrooms. The food value of mushrooms is considerable, and those found growing wild in fields and among lush grass by the hedgeside are equal in quality to the cultivated mushroom. They appear in late summer and are most numerous in hot, moist weather. That more are not encountered by the chance seeker is due to the fact that professional pickers are out and about in early morning and have secured their basketfuls before later risers have taken the trail.

Quite a number of edible fungi abound in this country. Unfortunately there is a still greater number of unedible – and poisonous – kinds. It behoves the seeker after mushrooms to be able to identify without doubt the real thing from all others.

Points of identification are: the true mushroom’s smooth upper surface – the smoothness of a whitish kid glove; its underside (gills) varying between pale salmony pink and dark brown: almost black in older specimens; its white stalk; its feel – not woody or wet but firm and fleshy. Those points make identification sure.

Because the stalks are almost certain to have some soil adhering to them, under field conditions, the tops should be sliced away with a knife and the stalks left in the ground; the gills will not then become gritty on the way home.

Watercress.

Sluggish streams and ditches are obvious enough in summer as homes of wild watercress (identical with the cultivated cress) because they are then sheeted with white flowers. But out-of-flower seasons provide the best pickings, young and tender tips being best of all. Wash them thoroughly in two or three changes of clean cold water before eating.

Seashore Sea Kale. The wild form of garden sea kale is common along stretches of British coastline. Unfortunately its stems and leafstalks need to be blanched (caused to become white, like celery) to render them fit for eating. Blanching is done by covering the dormant plants with soil or ashes, to exclude the light.

Wild cabbage is another seashore plant, but though it is the ancestor of our cultivated varieties of cabbage, kale, cauliflower, savoy, it is unrecognizable as such and does not enter into the wild foods list. Nor do wild carrot and parsnip; they have but small woody roots and are in no way comparable with the cultivated forms. And wild celery is of botanical interest only.

Substitutes for Spinach.

A good word for the nettle: the young tips can be cooked and eaten as spinach. Masses of nettle flourish in waste spaces and along hedge-sides. During gathering, and washing in preparation for the cooking pot, they need to be handled with gloves on.

The dark green, large, triangular leaves of Good King Henry, known also as mercury, gathered when young and tender, are used as a spinach substitute; and the peeled stalks as a substitute for asparagus. The plant varies in height between 1 ft. and 3 ft.; has spikes of small, closely-packed, greeny-white flowers from May to August; and is found in waste, rough places, useful as a substitute for lettuce in winter; its golden flowers are conspicuous from March to October in meadows and waste land, but it is the long, deeply cut leaves that are used as salad.

Common sorrel of fields and meadows is noted for its acid-tasting leaves, refreshing when chewed and of value for making salads, flavouring sauces and soups; not to be confused with the low-growing wood sorrel which has shamrock-like light green leaves.

Chervil, for salads and flavouring, displays its finely cut leaves on stout, hairy, hollow 3-ft. stems, and flat heads of tiny white spinach. Masses of nettle flourish in waste spaces and along hedge-sides. During gathering, and washing in preparation for the cooking pot, they need to be handled with gloves on.

The dark green, large, triangular leaves of Good King Henry, known also as mercury, gathered when young and tender, are used as a spinach substitute; and the peeled stalks as a substitute for asparagus. The plant varies in height between 1 ft. and 3 ft.; has spikes of small, closely-packed, greeny-white flowers from May to August; and is found in waste, rough places.

Free Salads.

Sorrel, dandelion, chervil, chicory are cultivated in large gardens as salad plants; all four are common in the wild state. Dandelion is specially useful as a substitute for lettuce in winter; its golden flowers are conspicuous from March to October in meadows and waste land, but it is the long, deeply cut leaves that are used as salad.

Common sorrel of fields and meadows is noted for its acid-tasting leaves, refreshing when chewed and of value for making salads, flavouring sauces and soups; not to be confused with the low-growing wood sorrel which has shamrock-like light green leaves.

Chervil, for salads and flavouring, displays its finely cut leaves on stout, hairy, hollow 3-ft. stems, and flat heads of tiny white flowers in May to July, along hedgerows and ditch sides; it is a descendant of the sweet chervil formerly extensively grown for kitchen use.

Chicory, or succory, arrests attention during July to October through its large, flat pale blue flowers; it is common in chalky districts. The leaves, which resemble those of dandelion, are a worthy addition to the salad bowl. The thick, fleshy roots of the cultivated variety are roasted and ground for use as coffee, or for mixing with coffee. The plant grows from 3 ft. to 4 ft. high.

Substitute for Cucumber.

A pronounced odour of cucumber coming from dry, chalky down-land betokens the presence of a plant with foot-long, narrow leaves divided into several pairs of toothed, oblong leaflets lying flat on the ground; with foot-long flower-stalks topped with minute purplish flowers from June to August. Its name is salad burnet, and the leaves have the flavour as well as the odour of cucumber; in days past they were used as cucumber substitute in salad making, and there is no reason why they should not be so employed today.

Herbs and Seasonings.

Mint, thyme, tansy, horse-radish, fennel are common in various districts, and three of them are familiar enough in most kitchens.

Mint, including peppermint and pennyroyal, favours wet, marshy places, the unmistakable odour making identification easy.

Thyme throws up clover-like heads of rosy purple flowers in summer on wind-swept lulls and heaths where rabbits and sheep keep the grass close-cropped but leave untouched the creeping stems of this fragrant herb. In the wild state it is less robust than cultivated thyme, but still serviceable; more so than wild marjoram, which grows in similar places.

Tansy once enjoyed great renown for seasoning and flavouring; cakes, puddings and omelettes were incomplete without the fragrant but bitter leaves. These are very finely cut; the plant makes a dense bush 3 ft. high, carries tight little yellow button-like flowers in flat heads during summer, and flourishes by country roadsides and in waste places generally.

Horse-radish is difficult to confine in gardens because of the vigorous, wandering growth of its thick, fleshy roots which, scraped or flaked, provide excellent accompaniment to roast beef.

Where it occurs in a wild state (the large, coarse leaves dominate many a bit of rough ground) it is not necessarily a garden escape; it is a true native of Britain.

Fennel and fish naturally go together. It is a graceful plant, 5 ft. in height, with very finely cut leaves, the divisions being almost thread-like. It grows on and in the neighbourhood of cliffs and has flat heads of tiny yellow flowers. It is the finely chopped leaves that are used for seasoning, making fish sauce, and for boiling in soups.

Candy – and Pickles.

The crystallized green sweetmeat known as angelica is made from the stalks of the plant of that name, candied with sugar; the young stalks are also used for salads. In its wild form it grows about 5 ft. high, in moist shady places, and produces large heads of white or purplish flowers in July.

The thick, fleshy, much divided smooth leaves of samphire, bluish-green in colour, were at one time in great demand for pickling, and such a use might well be made of this plant now. It grows in crevices of rocks in many coast districts, near to high-tide level. Greeny-white flowers are borne in flat heads from June to the end of summer.

Hops – and Wine.

The wild hop occurs far distant from hop fields, the rough stems, with equally rough, toothed leaves, twining up trees and over hedges and producing flowers in July and August. The flowers have a use apart from brewing; country-folk stuff them into pillows, the drowsy odour banishing wakefulness. They know also that the young shoots can be cooked as a very relishable vegetable dish.

The yellow flowers of cowslip, common in April and May in meadows where the ground is clayey, are used in the making of an excellent wine – a fitting use for fragrant blooms which bees never neglect in the prosecution of their business of making honey.

The wine that is made from elderberries is as comforting to drink as it is rich in colour. Elder is a wayside tree, or tall bush, advertising itself in summer with creamy flowers in big flat clusters, followed by massed, shiny black berries. These are produced in such quantities that a basket can be very quickly filled.

Eirth-nut and Hedge Nut.

Because of the instinct which pigs have of locating (for eating) the earth-nut, this brown tuberous root, the size of a chestnut, is known also as pig nut. Boiled or roasted and eaten chestnut fashion, or raw, it is wholesome human food, though familiar to few. It grows in woods chiefly, has threadlike leaves, and the clustered flat heads of small white flowers appear in early summer.

Hedge nuts may be there for the picking, but because they shade in so well with the foliage of the hedge tree or shrub which bears them they often escape notice. Before they are ripe the shells are green and soft; they should be gathered in autumn, when brown and hard.

Blackberry – and Others.

Luscious blackberries are perhaps the most familiar of all wild fruits; there are few open spaces where the bramble that produces them is not found growing. The largest berries are generally out of reach and a hooked stick may be required to bring them within gathering range; a contempt – or at least tolerance – of hooks and prickles is an asset on a black-berrying expedition in late summer. The fruits play an important part in the making of jam, wine and jelly.

The blackberry’s relative, the wild raspberry, with red or yellow fruits, is found in woods and on heaths; jam and wine making are uses to which it may be put. The wild gooseberry may be in evidence, too, but its berries are poor things compared with the garden varieties.

The dewberry, which has its culinary uses, resembles a slender blackberry plant; but fewer berries are produced in a cluster and the fruit has a bloom upon it.

Bilberries, or whortleberries, in demand in autumn for jam making, resemble blue-black currants. They are the fruit of a hill-growing shrub about 2 ft. high with dark green glossy leaves and stems; with rosy, egg-shaped, inverted flowers in early summer. Its near relative, the cranberry, a few inches in height and with evergreen leaves, is a bog plant; the small red acid berries make excellent jelly and sauce.

The elongated purple berries of the common barberry are associated with tasty preserves. The shrub, which grows up to 10 ft. high, favours dry, stony ground. The berries are preceded in early spring by small yellow flowers in pendulous clusters; the leaves are small and egg-shaped.

Strawberry and Red Currant.

Though fruits of the wild strawberry are diminutive they lack nothing in taste. On chalk downs and in clearings in woods they are produced plentifully in early summer, and a basketful for dessert or jam making is well worth gathering.

The wild red currant too is worth picking when encountered in quantity in late summer.

Crab Apple and Quince.

Too sour to eat with any relish but excellent as a jelly, crab apples provide an ample harvest in late summer to those who can climb a tree which ranges from 20 ft. to 50 ft. in height. This wild apple – man used it as a food in prehistoric times – is found in many parts of the country, and the opportunity of gathering them should never be missed.

As a preserve, the quince holds high rank, used alone or with other fruits. The tree grows 12 ft. to 20 ft. high, and the fruit is ready for gathering in late October. They are ripe when yellow.

Wild pears are not, unfortunately, worth gathering, the fruit being small and woody.

Cherry, Sloe and Bullace.

The wild cherry tree, or bush, makes up for the small size of its fruit by producing them in great quantity. They lack the lusciousness of the orchard cherry, but, after all, they are free!

Associated with sloe gin, the fruit of the sloe, a low tree or shrub, is blue-black, round and small, extremely sour, and ripe for gathering in October. The shrub is known also as blackthorn, from the colour of its bark. The white flowers are produced before the leaves appear in spring.

The sour, black bullace, produced by a tree that figures in many hedges – it is usually about 15 ft. to 20 ft. in height, full grown – has a deserved reputation in connexion with jam, puddings and pies. These small wild plums are ripe in October; at their best when they have been frosted.

Rowan, Medlar.

Rowan or mountain ash provides in great quantity scarlet berries which are used for making jelly. The tree is found flourishing in even the poorest soils. The leaves resemble those of the ordinary ash, but the flat masses of fragrant, creamy-white flowers are very distinctive.

The brown fruit, about 1 in. in diameter, of the wild medlar tree, is not appetizing to look at, but makes good dessert, preserves, jellies, and is used for flavouring. It needs to be over-ripe.

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