This article first appeared in our Women: time for action issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 02 July 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
Before the agricultural revolution a few millennia ago, every human’s diet would have consisted largely of wild plants, with some entomophagy (eating insects) and a little hunting on the side – usually of the rodent size.
This is ‘proper’ foraging, though it’s not what I’m proposing – not least because it would be impossible to feed the UK population (nearly 70 million) with our wild flora and fauna.
At a stretch we’d be able to feed a million this way; the best land has sadly already been left barren by modern monoculture.
The proposition here is to obtain an edible reward for sure, and the potential rewards run much deeper than nutrition alone.
Foraging is becoming more popular, and rightly so. The trend looks like it’s here to stay, with interest bolstered by the rise in staycations brought on by the pandemic.
The lockdowns have gifted us a perfect opportunity to get outdoors and learn about a few plants – whether edible or not – at the same time.
The health benefits from being active outdoors in the fresh air are boosted with social time and a companion. Walking in the countryside or woodland has been shown to bestow benefits to the immune system and mental health, with a staggering 50% improvement of functionality (according to Dayawansa, 2003; Li, 2007 and Park, 2010, among others). A drug with this sort of efficacy would be hailed a ‘wonder-drug’.
Japan leads the way in the understanding and appreciation of walking in woodland. Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, involves a walk through the woods that takes on the form of a sensual journey, with eye-candy from aesthetically pleasing shapes and colours and olfactory interest from various pungent plants.
By sitting in quiet contemplation, the sounds of nature are allowed to permeate our senses.
Possibly the biggest – yet least understood – benefit is the possibility of a reconnection with nature, because we don’t just live on Earth, we are all made from Earth.
Now more than ever we need this coming together, this remembering of a common unity. With the rise in interest in local history, flora and fauna, an unexpected side-effect of the pandemic has been this opportunity to reconnect.
There is an essential element of our existence that can never be fulfilled when living an urban existence, and that is our connection with the natural world.
Often we don’t even know it’s missing; it’s not essential like water, but it is essential for a humanness which, when suppressed, leaves us incomplete. Fortunately it is quite easy to reignite.
There is not enough space here to provide an adequate or safe guide to foraging; I can only advise getting out there and doing some as soon as possible.
Of the many worthy foraging books to take with you, consider Food For Free by Richard Mabey, or Hedgerow Medicine and Wayside Medicine by Julie and Matthew Seal.
Roger Philips’s excellent identification books of ferns, wild foods, herbs and mushrooms provide hundreds of pages of information and more plants than you could probably ever see.
The plant to start with has to be the nettle: pinch out the top few leaves before the plant flowers or seeds (some fresh growth will be around up until October). Pop in a fruit tea and enjoy.