RECENTLY there has been a massive revival in ‘grow your own’ following escalating fears over food security, planet sustainability and a mistrust in mass-produced processed products.
Growing your own can be a precarious occupation as many of the fruit and vegetables we traditionally grow are not native, making them a bit precious.
This means lots of care, attention and protection often in the form of insecticides and chemical fertilizers which we are now less willing to use.
Our historical relationship with food has created a fear of eating native plants. They are called wild and marginalized into hedgerow and small pockets of woodland along with much of our wildlife.
Way back in time we used to cherish out native food source but evolution has moved us away from our roots.
The Romans brought with them agricultural systems that grew the food they knew such as cereals and tomatoes.
Over centuries a food snobbery developed as wealth increased and a class system emerged.
Growing food was seen as a poor mans pastime, the aristocracy flaunted acres of uncultivated land and grew exotic fruits just to show they could afford to be so indulgent.
Now if you have a few acres and time on your hands you could be self-sufficient but for many one or the other is not an option so food foraging in the wild has become the in thing. I have an issue with mass foraging. I want more wildlife, it’s a sign of a healthy planet so I am not going to encourage everyone to pick what little food is left for the wildlife the more sustainable option is to grow these plants as a crop.
They are, after all plants that thrive in our climate, which is why we refer to them as weeds when they invade our more precious crops.
Some native edible plants are admittedly not very edible. Quite frankly you would need to be desperate but others are delicious, adding new and exciting flavours now much-sought after by many of our top chefs.
Some native plants are predicted to be mass-produced foods of the future but you could start experimenting right now.
Before you start there are a few very important things you need to understand about native plants. Firstly, you can’t just go digging up wild plants as many are protected.
You must check with your local nature conservation group and the landowner or preferably buy seeds or cultivated varieties.
Wildflowers.co.uk and gardenorganic.org.uk are good starting points.
Secondly some of them are poisonous and unfortunately look very similar to extremely edible ones, umbellifers are a perfect example of this, that’s the cow parsley family to you and I.
I would strongly recommend that you consult an expert forager before you start experimenting with your weeds.
Although there are some really good books on edible plants, I still need someone to show me the real thing. With the help of my experts, Robin Harford who runs the brilliant website www.eatweeds.co.uk and Rachel Lambert who conducts wild food walks. Visit wildwalks-southwest.
We have compiled the top five native edible foods. and have picked the obvious exapmles that are easily recognised, grow like mad and crop’til they drop with no effort at all, surely the perfect way to farm. Of course make sure you are confident you can clearly identify plants for your own safety.
Lime leaves make an excellent salad leaf when they are young so coppicing or pollarding is a great way to keep the crop going.
Not to be confused with its citrus namesake, the lime tree (Tilia X Europaea) is widespread in the south of England The older leaves can be used as a thickening agent for example, in stews. Lime leaves can also be ground into flour and used to make bread.
The best rosehips come from the Japanese, Burnet or dog rose and can be grown in hedges, flowerbeds or up walls so they take little floor space.
Rosehip syrup is the most popular recipe but you can also use them in cooking.
We have become so removed from the benefits of our native plants that it does take time to gain confidence and recognise their reward.
Forget our in-built phobia of weeds taking over, if you cultivate them, you can control them.
It helps to start with the ones you know and then move onto other common but less obvious plants including sorrel, chickweed, plantain, cleavers, hedgebed straw and dandelion.
There are around 450 to choose from so there must be something to suit your surroundings and taste buds.
Nettles are now being called the new superfood because like many of our native plants, they are extremely nutritious and as we all know, grow anywhere.
You can cook and eat new growth which means you can cut them back and they keep cropping. Similar to spinach, nettles also make great pesto, can be added to pasta sauces and stews and used to make nettle beer.
Full of nitrogen, the left over bits make a fantastic fertilizer, chopped and left to soak in water.
Brambles are often ripped out as an invasive weed but blackberries are as nutritious and delicious as many ‘superfood’ berries imported from halfway round the world.
You can pick blackberries fresh from your doorstep and they generate a huge crop with no effort. You can also eat the tender new shoots of the bramble tips before they open. If you cant stand the thorns, thornless varieties are available.
Elderberries can be used in the same way as blackcurrants to make cordials, desserts or cooked in a syrup.
They are a good source of vitamin C and freeze well but you must remove the poisonous leaves, stalks and stems. The flowers can also be used to make champagne and added to a salad.
Elders grow quickly so they make a boundary, wind break or sustainable wood crop.