The UK’s Top 7 Hedgerow Herbs
Jessica Law recommends her favourite everyday herbs found in hedgerows across Britain
Some of the most delicious ingredients are free, and just a country walk away – or even closer. Here’s my pick of the most useful and widespread herbs hiding in Britain’s borders and hedgerows.
1. Wild garlic
April – June
At the time of writing, you’re likely to be knocked out by the pungent aroma of huge swathes of wild garlic, or ‘Ramsons’, carpeting woodlands and shaded hedgerows across the UK. Their leaves taste like a milder version of conventional garlic, making them great for soups, stews, or wilted in butter and served alongside mashed potato. Alternatively, leave some rolled up leaves in a bottle of olive oil for a few weeks for a delicious garlic marinade. They also make an excellent pesto and, in my experience, taste great slapped straight onto a cheese sandwich on a woodland walk!
June – October
As a child, I would delight in grabbing and eating a handful of these aniseed-scented, thread-like leaves on a hot summer’s day. It now turns out this could have been quite dangerous: fennel is one of a number of plants that produce toxic, skin-blistering chemicals in strong sunlight. However, there’s nothing to stop you from eating the leaves and seeds when cooked – just make sure you gather them wearing gloves! The seeds are great in curries, and the leaves make a delicious addition to fish dishes.
And if you decide not to risk it, that’s fine. There’s no need to take the old Welsh saying too literally: “He who sees fennel and gather it not, is not a man, but a devil."
3. Stinging nettle
March – May
The Romans have a lot to answer for – they’re the ones who introduced stinging nettles to this island. The bane of every country walk (traditionally known as ‘Devil’s Leaf’ in Somerset), they lose their sting when cooked, and the young shoots make a delicious addition to soup, herbal tea, and even haggis! Award-winning herb grower Jekka McVicar features a delicious recipe for nettle soup on her blog.
May - September
These delicate blue flowers were traditionally used as a kind of herbal pep-pill, said to have acted as a hangover cure, and aphrodisiac and, according to 17th Century diarist John Evelyn, “to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student.” Today, their light, fragrant flavour makes them an attractive addition to salads and summer drinks. Acclaimed edible flower grower Jan Billington features them in her ingenious recipe for Pimms jelly.
5. Corn mint
April – September
Bearing a superficial resemblance to peppermint, the scent of this versatile hedgerow herb is somewhat sharper and less ‘minty’ – but don’t be fooled by the smell. It can be used exactly as if it were a garden mint, and is especially effective in savoury dishes such as mint sauce or Indian mint chutney: Perfect for summer cooking!
Their sheer abundance alone should be enough to qualify them for this list – but dandelions also make an excellent salad base, and can be served either raw or cooked with butter like Spinach. They’re also high in nutrients, to extent that they were recommended to Brits during the Second World War to supplement rationing. Choose the young, tender leaves for extra delicacy.
7. Ground elder
June – August
This spinach-like member of the carrot family is still a common pot herb in Scandinavia, and was originally introduced and eaten by the Romans. It often appears in large patches, and fell out of cultivation due to its tendency to completely take over its hosts’ gardens – a trait which caused 16th century botanist John Gerard to bemoan: “where it hath once taken roote, it will hardly be gotten out again.” So don’t take any back to plant in your garden!
So - go forth and forage!
Remember to gather in moderation, give them a good wash, and make sure you’ve got the right plant – I’d recommend investing in a good field identification guide. You can even crush and smell the leaves to make absolutely sure. Now, get out there, gather and, above all – enjoy!
With thanks to:
- Food For Free: A guide to the edible wild plants of Britain by Richard Mabey
- A Book of Herbs by Dawn Macleod
- Jekka’s Herb Farm blog
- Maddocks Farm Organics recipe blog
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Read the Soil Association’s Head of Horticulture, Ben Raskin, top tips to growing your own herbs. Or check out organic farmer Joe Rolfe’s new idea to support beneficial insects by creating specialised ‘beetle banks’.
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