Small children are naturally good at identifying plants. Being closer to the ground, they spend a lot more time looking at their feet. The game of “jumping over pavement cracks” often introduces them to their first herbal friends (mostly ribwort and dandelions.) They naturally reach to pick blackberries, and the same inquisitive nature quickly teaches them to avoid the sting of a nettle.
As we grow up, we gradually lose this instinctive connection. We become onlookers of nature, seeing it as something separate to ourselves, rather than a world to which we belong. “Green blindness” sets in. Where it was once second nature to know where conkers fell, or where to find the fattest rosehips for making “itching powder,” we now defer to our screens instead of engaging all of our senses in outdoor “real time.”
The growing interest in foraging and wildcrafting clearly shows that people are crying out for the magic of nature. It stirs something ancient in all of us. Being outdoors is fundamentally rewarding for your soul. It’s something anyone, anywhere can enjoy for free.
Spring really is my favourite time of year. As my tutor used to excitedly tell us “This is the moment it all kicks off in the herbal world!”
I hope this post will encourage you to take an aimless ramble for no other reason than seeing what you can spot. Some plants will be familiar old friends, others may be new to you. There’s no better feeling than positively identifying a plant, which once learned is never forgotten.
If you’re new to the world of plant identification, a list of recommended reading can be found at the end of this post. If you live in Cornwall or are visiting on holiday, I invite you to join me for a walk. People seem to enjoy their day out. You can find out more information about that here:
What to look out for in Spring
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum)
Wild garlic is a member of the onion family, and can be used in much the same way. Unlike the kind of garlic you can pick up in the supermarket, the leaves (as opposed to the bulbs) are used. These can be dried in the oven and made into crisps, or chopped up and made into a delicious pesto. The flavour of the leaves is at its most fiery early on in the season.
If cows eat wild garlic, it flavours the milk. While not desirable for use in tea or poured over cornflakes, it does add a rather nice flavour to butter. This means of producing garlic butter was popularised in Switzerland in the 19th Century. Like bluebells, wild garlic is an indicator of ancient woodland. It has been found in settlements dating back as far as the Neolithic period. Its common name is Ramsons.
All plants in the onion family are poisonous to dogs. This plant is extremely toxic and the consumption of even a small amount can lead to severe poisoning. Be sure to wash your pets’ paws thoroughly if they come into contact with it.
*A note of caution: Wild garlic is often found growing together with patches of bluebells and Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) both of which are extremely poisonous. Take extra care when gathering not to accidentally pick the leaves of any other plants nearby which may contaminate your harvest. Never rely on smell alone to identify plants. When foraging, it can often linger on the fingers and cause a potentially serious error.
Primroses (Primula vulgaris)
The sight of primroses is usually a sign that warmer weather is on the way. If you’re lucky enough to spot a pink one, the tale goes that it was planted upside down and will bring you good luck. This wives’ tale was actually tested by scientists in the 1920’s who came to the conclusion that the pink specimens were usually found in areas where the soil had been disturbed (for example where a hedge had been planted, or a ditch, re-dug.) At the time this was taken as “proof” that the old superstition was based on fact.
This beautiful plant is a valuable food for bees. All parts can be used. The flowers and leaves are edible and can be cooked like a vegetable, or used (like nasturtiums) to decorate salads. Both can be dried and made into a tea. The roots can be dug up after a couple of years and powdered or made into a tincture.
Primroses are a good source of Vitamin C and trace minerals. Like the willow, the plant contains phytochemicals known as salicylates which have pain killing, anti-inflammatory, fever reducing and expectorant properties. The whole plant has a gentle sedative action and can be used to treat anxiety and insomnia. My own experience has shown that these effects are enhanced by combining the plant with other nervine herbs such as passionflower or valerian. The root can be made into an ointment to treat minor conditions including spots and wrinkles, and combines well with daisies and marigolds to make a soothing balm to effectively heal wounds.
Ribwort (Plantago lanceolata)
I first learned about this plant by falling off a climbing frame. My grandfather chewed up a leaf and made an instant “poultice” to stop the graze from bleeding. Being always to hand, (it grows everywhere!) it’s a useful topical application for children’s scrapes and bruises. The old herbals write of its ability to soothe the throbbing sensation of toothache. I imagine in by-gone days when dental care wasn’t available on the NHS, a leaf chewed and held between the gum and inner cheek would offer welcome (albeit temporary) relief.
The brownish seeds on the top of the spike are dried and made into psyllium husks. This popular supplement is widely used in modern day herbalism for cleansing the bowel. When taken correctly, psyllium husks are extremely effective at moving stagnant material from the system, making them a useful weight loss aid. Many people have told me of the benefits they’ve experienced using psyllium husks as part of a herbal detoxification programme.
Cleavers (Galium aperine)
Also known as goosegrass, cleavers is “that sticky plant” which around these parts is widely known as “Sticky Willy.” This is because of the tiny hook like hairs that cause it to cling to everything from your pet cat to children’s bobble hats. It was a useful plant in Medieval kitchens because it was so abundant and could be gathered even in frost or snow. The plant’s tiny bristles soften when boiled, making it a popular pot herb for soups and stews.
It’s modern day use is as a “blood cleanser.” Herbalists use cleavers to support the lymphatic system. It’s a useful remedy for hot, itchy skin conditions such as acne and eczema. The plant has diuretic properties (makes you pee!) and is sometimes used in formulas combined with soothing, demulcent herbs (like marshmallow root) for cystitis and UTI infections.
Cleavers is commonly prepared as a cold infusion.* The young leaves are gathered in Spring, which is traditionally the time to throw open the windows and undertake a cleansing detox. It helps to lighten the body, and move tissue congestion caused by eating too many rich, heavy foods over Winter.
Cleavers belongs to the coffee family and its seeds have been ground to make cleavers coffee.
*To make a cold infusion – pour a litre of boiling water over two large handful of cleavers and leave to cool overnight. Store in the fridge and drink one to three cups daily. Make a fresh batch each day for a week.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
If you are a reader of my blog, you’ll already know how much I rate nettles. They grow in such abundance (there are over 500 species worldwide,) their valuable properties can be harnessed for free by almost anyone, anywhere on the planet.
Evidence unearthed from Bronze age sites in Denmark shows that stinging nettles have been used to make clothing for almost 3,000 years. The tough fibre obtained from the stems of the plant was woven into a durable cloth, which was then dyed a deep green colour using dye obtained from the leaves. During the First World War, nettle fibre was collected on a huge scale in Germany and Austria to make military uniforms.
Nettle has a similar flavour profile to spinach and can be cooked in much the same way as any leafy green vegetable. When preparing the leaves, it’s important to first soak them in water and cook thoroughly in order to neutralise the sting. A quick online search for nettle recipes will bring up a whole host of ideas from nettle kombucha to pakoras. It can even be used to make your own cheese.
For a whole load of nettle projects (including how to make nettle mojitos and DIY seed tincture..) check out my downloadable eBook.
Books are great for reference, but I’ve always thought the best way to learn about plants is to see them in the flesh. Getting up close so you can smell, feel, touch (and if safe to do so,) taste the plants, really is the best way to learn. There are a lot of great courses in every country of the world, many of which are run by members of The Association of Foragers.
A quick place to start is my digital download which contains lots of information about common medicinal plants to look out for in Spring. As opposed to carrying a physical book, being able to access clear photos on your phone can be a handy thing when you’re out and about.
Here’s a short list of other resources I’ve found to be particularly helpful.
- The Wildflower Key by Francis Rose (Revised Edition) How to identify wild plants, trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland
- The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvests by John Wright A very comprehensive guide written by one of Britain’s best-known foragers.
- Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants of Britain and Ireland by Robin Harford Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants of Britain and Ireland by Robin Harford
- And lastly, some reviews of other books from Mark Williams at Galloway Wildfoods.
Alternatively, if you’re in the area, why not join me for a seasonal nature immersion walk? These walks follow some of Cornwall’s most ancient routes, and are a combination of folklore, wild medicine facts, storytelling and sound. The price of the walk includes lunch / refreshments, a take home goodie bag and a downloadable eBook with information and photographs of the plants we connected with that day.