Today I wanted to make a part green, part fruit smoothie using my new Nutribullet blender which my lovely girlfriend Rosie (Famed founder of Raw Food Rosie’s) got for me. I’m not a huge fan of really ‘green’ tasting smoothies so I thought I would try and forage for some relatively mild tasting greens that could easily be masked by the sweet, sweet fruits.
With this in mind I set my sights on finding some Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), which is a common member of the edible Goosefoot family. Interestingly, to me at least, this used to be a popular green vegetable up until a few centuries ago, when it was replaced by its relative – spinach. This may have been an oversight, because it has more iron and protein than spinach or cabbage and is also rich in magnesium, calcium, sodium and vitamins A and C. It can be eaten raw or sweated in butter for a few minutes and as far as I’m concerned has a nicer flavour and texture than spinach.
It is an incredibly common plant that you have probably walked past many times on roadsides or disturbed ground. That said, it comes with a few warnings. Firstly, it accumulates toxins and nitrates very efficiently from the soil, so avoid plants growing by busy roads or on land that is fertilized with nitrates. In small doses for an adult, on occasion, plants from such locations would do little harm but should certainly be avoided during pregnancy nor given to children. Moreover, Fat Hen contains oxalic acid (just like spinach and many other dark, leafy greens) which can interfere with calcium metabolism and should be eaten in moderation by anyone with kidney stones (but the same Is true for spinach, so don’t let that put you off!) Finally, do be aware of its lookalikes, which belong, unfortunately, to the Solanaceae (Potato family) and include the poisonous plants Black Nightshade (Solanum nigra) and Datura (Datura Stramonium). I brushed up on the lookalikes and took The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose with me to be sure of precise identification. This turned out to be a worthwhile strategy as when I finally found a good patch of Fat Hen by Pebmarsh Lake it was interspersed among another plant with similar leaves but small white petals. This was Black Nightshade, the leaves of which are eaten in some countries, but the berries are poisonous, containing solanine, the same chemical in green potatoes.
This might sound worrying, but it highlights the necessity of making a good study of edible plants and their poisonous plant lookalikes. In fact, I find it quite a relief to locate a poisonous plant as it really helps to get to know it, beyond just seeing it in a book, and in this case I could compare the difference with the adjacent Fat Hen really easily. The key features are that Fat Hen, when young has a mealy or powdery surface on the leaves that is visible and unmistakable when you rub them. Mature specimens also have spikes of flowers not the little white drooping flowers of Black Nightshade.
The other wild edibles I collected were some Cherry Plums, Prunus cerasifera which I found growing in a hedge by a roadside. These look like large cherries, but with a typical plum groove down the side and are usually red or yellow. Some can be incredibly sour while others are sweet with a slight hint of vanilla that is delicious. To complement my find I also collected quite a few early ripening blackberries.
As I wanted some extra greens, I collected some young Plantain (Plantago major) leaves. Again, this is a much overlooked, common plant that has a variety of uses. It is high in phosphorus, calcium and Vitamin A. Its astounding range of medicinal uses include: wound healing activity, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, weak antibiotic, immuno modulating and antiulcerogenic activity. Place it on cuts, bites and stings; I find it is far better than dock leaves for relieving nettle stings. To get the juice out you need to rub a large leave rapidly between your hands until the juice is released.
Finally, to round things off, I collected some green hazelnuts, which are pretty bland compared to ripe ones, but fine in a smoothie, with the advantage that you can get hold of them before the squirrels. They are another good source of protein.
As I made my way back home, brushing up on poisonous Fat Hen lookalikes came in handy again, when I came across an unusual plant growing abundantly among some maize. As you can see in the photo, it has large leaves with pointed lobes, trumpet-like flowers and a strange spiky seed pod. It was the pod that triggered my memory, and checking my guide confirmed that this was Thornapple or Datura. This is a powerful plant that can be deadly, though it is used in many shamanic cultures for its seriously strong hallucinogenic properties. Those that might like to experiment with hallucinogens should be warned that the deadly dose and hallucinogenic dose aren’t too dissimilar and concentrations of the active ingredient vary enormously within and between plants. Moreover, the hallucinations are known to be extreme, often unpleasant and can place the user into some dangerous situations.
That said, it was fascinating to find such a potent plant growing innocuously around the Colne Valley. I am always amazed at the array of seriously poisonous plants on our doorstep. England is so benign when it comes to animal species, yet we have some really deadly yet widespread and common plants and fungi that can kill you in some truly horrible ways. Don’t let that put you off foraging though! There aren’t that many of them and they can be easily learned and identified, just stick with the species for which there are no seriously poisonous lookalikes and study a variety of books or go foraging with someone who knows what they are doing.
I highlight such dangers because (a) I have a bit of a morbid curiosity about poisonous plants and fungi, and (b) it is important to know that foraging should be taken seriously. Finding wild food is an experience that I wholeheartedly recommend, it reconnects you with the environment, it is good exercise, interesting and puts you a step ahead in survival ability should any form of apocalyptic scenario take place… However, it should be done with care – start with obvious edibles – blackberries, elderflowers, dandelions etc. and only branch out after some diligent study of many different field guides and/or with guidance from an experienced forager and only eat what you have identified with 100 per cent certainty.
As for my smoothie, having washed and prepared my wild foods, I then added an apple and some raw honey to sweeten things (the other ingredients would have been a bit sour on their own) along with some almond milk. The result was the purplish mixture pictured, and tasted pretty good, with the added enjoyment of knowing I had found the majority of ingredients for free.