Free foods to forage in spring

Garlic mustard - I think - growing in my garden.
Picture: Sheena Grant

Garlic mustard - I think - growing in my garden. Picture: Sheena Grant - Credit: Archant

We’ve been having some beautiful, sunny weather this week, reaching the kind of temperatures when my thoughts turn from soup to salads.

Thankfully it’s also the time of the year when there’s free food to be had for both.

Nettles are growing in abundance at the end of my garden and although we don’t think of them as a food plant these days, they do, in fact, have a wide range of nutritional benefits. You just have to take care while harvesting them, usually best done wearing a pair of stout gloves and grasping the tender new shoots firmly in order to crush those vicious stinging hairs.

Nettles are said to help detoxify the body, boost immunity, increase circulation and improve energy levels, among other things. But they do need to be cooked in order to neutralise that sting. I’ve used them in soups before and you can also make tea from the leaves, use them in risottos, pasta and a variety of other recipes. Spring is the best time to pick them and you shouldn’t harvest once they begin to form flowers.

But nettles aren’t the only free foodstuff growing in my garden - and probably yours - now. I’ve also got a good crop of garlic mustard, at least I’m fairly certain that’s what it is. I qualify my identification slightly after my difficulties with mushrooms last autumn, which regular readers may recall. For that reason, I never forage fungi but I was confident enough about my garlic mustard crop to take a nibble of a leaf, which tasted as I would have expected, a cross between garlic and mustard.

It too is nutritious, said to be good for your heart, able to lower cholesterol, and perhaps even guard against cancer. Also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, garlic mustard is considered invasive, which just means more free food, really. You can use its leaves in salads, perhaps along with a little garden dandelion or chickweed, or make a pesto. Apparently, every part of the plant is edible for at least some of the year.

Other free foods that are good to forage in spring include sorrel, lime flowers, which you can use to make a tea, and hawthorn leaves and flower buds, something else I have in my garden.

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