Comfrey for eczema, nappy rash and inflamed skin. Its old name is bone knit. These plants grow by riverbanks, and their deep roots draw nutrients up from below to make a plant rich in nutrients, especially potash. It is versatile and can be used to make a compost activator, seed compost, liquid feed, and fertilising mulch, but useful for treating skin conditions above because it has substances called allantoin and rosmarinic acid in the leaves. Allantoin boosts the growth of new skin cells, while rosmarinic acid helps relieve pain and inflammation. These were picked on the riverbanks by the footpath from Alverstone to Sandown:
I made this lovely salve by heating up pure coconut oil in a bain marie and squeezed comfrey juice (from pounded leaves) into the liquefied coconut oil. It is really soothing on my inflamed skin, and the best thing is, unlike steroids, I can use this as often as I need. It is not as powerful as pounded comfrey leaves applied directly to the shores, but it is less messy!
This plant is my first port of call if ever I need to dress a wound.
Making a poultice for my eczema flare-up:
I made a small tub of primrose salve. We don’t have that many primroses, so I just made a very small quantity.
Sea lavender (Limonium carolinianum)
Sea lavender is different from its terrestrial namesake in that it has no smell.
The roots contain tannin and are powerfully astringent. A decoction of the root has long been used as a popular domestic remedy for diarrhoea, dysentery etc and are also used to treat sore mouths, cankers etc. The dried and powdered root is applied to old ulcers or piles.
Salicornia, also known as sea asparagus (which belongs to family Amaranthaceae), has been used for its medicinal purposes since ancient times, in particular, for oxidative stress, inflammation, diabetes, asthma, hepatitis, cancer, gastroenteritis. However, it is high in high salt, oxalate and saponin. I dry salicornia and use them as salad topping or served with fish, or I just munch them like tiny crisps.
And a bit of trivia: this plant was a source of soda (sodium carbonate) for glassmaking dating back to centuries!
Cow parsnips grow abundantly along the footpaths through the woods next to the house. The stems look a bit like rhubarb, and they are edible though they must be cooked first. They are delicious cooked in butter and garlic. The leaves can be added to soups, the seeds taste like cardamon and the flower buds can be novel alternative for broccoli. It gets its name because its roots taste like parsnips, but they must be boiled thoroughly before eating.
Stinging nettles is a superfood, packed with nutrients and is a high source of proteins. It has also been a staple in herbal medicine since ancient times. There is a lot of legends and myths surrounding stinging nettles, which makes it a very fascinating weed. We have loads in the garden!
This is my favourite dish: nettles sauteed in garlic and mushroom, which I serve with pan-seared salmon. They are also delicious with scallops, which are delivered fresh from Cowes.
I make ‘nettleade’ as well: steep 2 cups nettle to 1 cup of boiling water. After a few hours, squeeze a lemon into the nettle water. Add honey to taste, and top up with sparkling water. This is a very refreshing, 100% natural drink!
I make a delicious cream of nettles, roasted garlic and asparagus soup (all from the garden). This is very simple: roast 2 heads of garlic and a bunch of asparagus. Saute 1 sweet onion in butter and olive oil. Add 2 cups of fresh nettles. Saute for a couple of minutes and pour in hot chicken stock. Add the roasted vegetables (remove garlic skin first). Simmer for a few minutes. Season to taste. Blend until smooth, and stir in cream.
I dried nettles and dandelion leaves for tea. This tea will be full of goodness. High in calcium and magnesium, this herb also cleanses and detoxifies to clear the system of harmful toxins that may be affecting fertility.
Note: the below is red deadnettles. It doesn’t sting, and tastes good in salads (I add this to smoothies too). PLUS, it has strong medicinal properties. In the 17th century, Nicholas Culpepper had a number of interesting things to say about it in his book entitled Culpeper’s Complete Herbal: A Book of Natural Remedies for Ancient Ills. Bees love red deadnettles too.
Pictured on the right is mixed leaf salad garnished with red deadnettles.
Gorse – fiercely piercing, the flowers are slivers of the sun and antidote for hopelessness. Nice account of it in Samuel Culpepper’s writing.
Harvesting for flower essence (as per Bach flower remedy) is different from harvesting for food. You have to choose the hour, let the plant choose you, connection. Hope the potency is retained as these buds travel halfway across the world.
People go crazy about it because it is so flavoursome compared with normal cultivated garlic, but there are many POISONOUS plants that look like wild garlic that can kill!
There is fatality every year from people eating very poisonous plants that look very much like wild garlic that are very poisonous, such as crocus and Lords and Lilies. Wild garlic also looks like Lily of the Valley and three cornered leek. Photo below show wild garlic amongst other similar looking leaves.
Amateurs think that the way to distinguish wild garlic is to crush the leaf between the fingers and smell. But here’s the thing: you may get the first one right, and then the smell lingers on your fingers and you mistake a poisonous one for wild garlic based on the smell that’s already on your fingers.
We plant wild garlic in our Kitchen Garden for visitors. It’s really, really flavoursome, and once you’ve tasted wild garlic, the commercially farmed ones pale into insignificance. Luckily for us, there’s a decent crop growing near the house, amongst the nettles and cleavers.
I love wild garlic butter. Pictured below: garlic butter with black garlic (left) and with wild garlic (right). I use wild garlic literally every time I cook if I have a fresh batch handy.
There is fennel and there is wild fennel, which you can see on sand dunes and road verges in Southern England. Fennel was probably introduced by the Romans as a herb for cooking and medicine. Wild fennel tastes more liquorice-y. You can eat every part of fennel – stalks and stems, fronds, flowers, unripe and ripe seeds, even the root. The wispy, feathery leaves taste good when chopped up and added to salad or yogurt dip or stir-fry. Or simply steep them to make a tea that will alleviate digestion problems. I love fennel because they grow prolifically in winter too. And they are good for the heart.
We used to call this prolific weed that grows in the garden and literally everywhere “sticky willie” because it has this annoying habit of sticking on to clothes. Geese love eating them, so they are also known as goose grass.
But sticky willies are really a good medicinal plant for cleansing your insides. Just chop some up, put in a jar, cover with spring water (or tap water that you let run for a while) at room temperature and leave to steep for 12 hours. Sweeten with some honey and drink to give your insides a good cleanse.
There are plenty of greens in the Kitchen Garden or just growing wild around the kitchen garden. They’re so good to put into a simple chicken consommé.
Even in the depths of winter, there are still nutritious greens around. I didn’t have far to go to pick this for a smoothie. I think greens which thrive in winter are your best defence against seasonal colds and coughs, as they have evolved to cope with the challenges of the season. I can taste the difference in nettles depending on the time of the year.
Where (and what) NOT to forage
Why foraged greens give you more nutrients (and hence, so much better for your body) than commercially farmed vegetables is because they grow wild on natural earth, rather than on depleted soil that had been over-farmed. There is not much goodness left in these type of soil. Indeed, modern agriculture has done much damage to the planet’s rich, natural soil with practices such as mono-cropping, and using synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
However, whilst foraging is all good and wonderful, do not forage plants that grow close to busy motorways or industrial sites. Motor vehicles emit carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), and these are needed by plants: plants need CO2 to drive photosynthesis that keeps them alive, and nitrogen in NOx binds to the soil and has a fertilising benefit on plants.
So whilst the main culprits of pollution are not harmful to plant health, it is other particulate matters and heavy metals’ interaction with plants exposed to these pollutants that can have a negative effect on human health. They tend to cling to the surfaces. Therefore, first and foremost, it is a good idea to wash vegetables properly first before eating as a lot of the heavy metals cling to the plant surfaces.
For me, rather than just the obvious health benefits of eating wild greens, foraging is an ideology, a life statement. It is about returning to the wild, turning our backs from the developments of the modern world, and rediscovering sustainability and Self.
And for the benefit of the woodlands, do not forage wild dandelions early in the season. They are food for bees before the summer flowers come out. Instead, marvel their magic – to me, dandelions’ lifecycle is characterised by hope, dreams, beauty, return to earth, and that is real magic.
Soil is often thought of as living because so many different types of organisms are living in it, from bacteria to fungi to earthworms. And this is why I love compost heaps. I always have. It is such a busy, thriving community.
I love this poem by Danusha Laméris called Feeding the Worms:
Ever since I found out that earth worms have taste buds
all over the delicate pink strings of their bodies,
I pause dropping apple peels into the compost bin, imagine
the dark, writhing ecstasy, the sweetness of apples
permeating their pores. I offer beets and parsley,
avocado, and melon, the feathery tops of carrots.
I’d always thought theirs a menial life, eyeless and hidden,
almost vulgar—though now, it seems, they bear a pleasure
so sublime, so decadent, I want to contribute however I can,
forgetting, a moment, my place on the menu.
So don’t put too much strong stuff in your compost heap – citrus fruit (lemons, oranges), spicy peppers, onion and garlic. They are also acidic when they break down.
Otherwise, it is very simple to make a compost heap: just add two parts of “Browns” and one part of “Greens”.
Browns – hay, straw, sawdust, woodchips, leaves, weeds that have not gone to seed. You can also be creative and add stuff like wine corks, fireplace ashes, and even human hair and pet fur. My favourite add is used tea leaves (removed from tea bags), coffee grounds, egg shells. People sometimes add newspapers and cardboard boxes but I don’t, as I am not sure about the ink from the print going into the compost.
Greens are just greens, but make sure they are not cooked greens as this attracts rodents. In fact, never add anything cooked, meat scraps, cooking fats and oils, milk products and bones.
If you find your compost heap getting too slimy, add more browns. Keep turning your compost heap over to make the process more efficient. You can also add in hardworking compost worms – I love Tiger worms! They are really hardworking, turning waste into nutrient-rich compost.
In taking care of the earth, the earth takes care of you back: at the end of the composting process, you will end up with something precious that will give back to you when you grow your vegetables with it, and it is called “black gold”.
I think it is so very important for us all to foster that connection with the earth beneath our feet and to the planet that sustains us.
I love homemade high quality compost, because you can get really creative and intuitive with it. I mix my own mix, and this is the combo for aroids – lots of aeration plus natural organic matter (wood bark, pebbles) in it. And just see how happy the variegated monstera is :-). Happy compost, happy plants ❤