Free fruit!  Everywhere!  I ride over fallen pears every morning, pass hedgerows full of haws (steady…) and collect kilos of blackberries on weekends.  It’s Autumn, just about.

Last week, on a warm September Saturday we drove to Ranmore Common, Surrey with a two-litre tupperware in the rucksack and an appetite for free food.  Brambles lined all the pathways – a thorny nuisance at most times of year, their loops ready to catch your feet and trip you up.  These loops are formed by the stalks growing out then over and taking root in the ground again to grow a new bush.  Bramble leaves can be used dried or fresh to make tea and I’ve also heard they can be a tobacco substitute – if you’re desperate for a cigarette in a survival situation.  Brambles come into their own in late summer, though, when they are laden with delicious blackberries.

Not all brambles are equal – there are apparently hundreds, maybe thousands of microspecies – some made tough little blackberries and some huge juicy fruits.  Maybe they were microspecies, maybe they were at different parts of the stem or maybe they were just growing in different environments.  Either way, we quickly learned to identify the juiciest, easy pickings.  At the end of each stem, grows a clump and the lowest berry is the best.

After our pleasant rural ramble, we had 1 kilogram of blackberries!  That would have cost £15 in Tesco (when they’re not on offer).  We froze two-thirds and made crumble from the rest:

Sprinkle 40 g of sugar over a bed of  400 g blackberries and a couple of sliced pears.

In a separate bowl, mix 40 g cold butter (diced), 100 g self-raising flour and 60 g brown sugar and rub it together between your fingers until it forms soft crumbs (if it goes like dough as mine did, add more flour).  Sprinkle this over your fruit layer, bake at 200 C for 40 mins.

MMMMMMMMmmm blackberry crumble!

Whenever I see this (look left), it reminds me of singing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ in primary school assembly; remember the line that went, ‘The purple headed mountain, the river running by …’.  Well, that mountain’s head was purple because it wore a wig of heather, or ling. 

This particular hillside of heather was at the Devil’s Punchbowl, near Hindhead, in Surrey.  The later pictures were taken in Headley Heath, Surrey.

Heather is a shrub, a woody plant.  When you look closely at its stems and branches it does resemble a little tree, perhaps bonsai leylandii.  This makes it a tough but flexible little plant and I remember as a kid I would throw myself into a patch to take a rest on walks up Welsh mountains.  It makes a comfortable mattress, as long as you’re wearing a coat with a hood, and springs back into shape as soon as you get up.  In fact, I’ve just read that along with its uses in basketry, thatching, brooms and as a fuel, it was also used as bedding!  This shrub is so tough that even setting fire to it is fruitless as new shoots appear within a couple of years.

The spikes of bell shaped purple or pink flowers which are out at the moment were used instead of hops to flavour beer and if you dry out 40 g and simmer them in 1.5 pints of water, you get a heather tea 3 cupfuls of which per day will disinfect your urinary tract and kidneys.  In Roger Phillip’s ‘Herbs’ book, it is suggested adding a load to your bath to relieve arthritis.

On Headley Heath, plants book in hand, I learned that calluna vulgaris is not the only ‘heather’.  Look closely at this blurry picture, there is another heather growing with a different look: Bell Heather (erica cinerea)It’s not even from the same genus.  It’s thin leaves are in whorls up the stem and its flowers are larger and more bladder-like.  Here is a close-up:

I also saw Cross-leaved Heath Heather (or Bog Heather) which looks a lot like Bell Heather but with less fine leaves at a steeper angle.  I don’t know if these other two species have the same properties as Ling but it’s nice to see all three getting along well together on a heath.

Earlier in the year, when this plant was younger, I thought it might be Dog’s Mercury.  But there was something different about it – the leaves came out more horizontally and were on short stalks.  Now, in July, it’s bigger with its leaves in a circle on top of a stem about 50 cm high – like a green parasol.  What’s more, it’s in flower.

I’ve never seen it before, but then I’m finding that with a lot of plants in south-east England.  It grows in similar places to Dog’s Mercury; in the shade along paths in the woods.  Like its much larger cousin, Indian Balsam (impatiens glandulifera), it is an old invader from Asia.  Our native balsam is called ‘Touch-me-not’, a name which come from the fact that the seed pods explode when touched to propel the seeds away.  It looks like there might have been some seed pods on this plant in the photo but disappointingly I neglected to touch them.

According to the PFAF the young shoots are edible if boiled with one change of water, however you have to be careful because they contain a large amount of calcium oxalate, a poison which causes sores, numbness and is the main component of kidney stones (hey, you could always inject Mallow).  This poison is destroyed on cooking or drying though so, in a survival situation, bon appetit!

Common Mallow is a little wild medicine cabinet, albeit a poor man’s version of Marshmallow which has the same properties with higher potency.  The uses seem to all stem from the anti-inflammatory properties of the mucilage which is in high concentration.  This mucilage forms a thin film over mucous membranes (it acts as a ‘demulcent’) and relieves the swelling and inflammation.  So,

If you have toothache, chew the flowers. 

If you have a wound, apply a poultice of the leaves and flowers. 

Cough and cold?  Drink an infusion of the same. 

Bee or wasp sting?  Crush the flowers in olive oil and apply.

It gets better;  if you have kidney stones (gravel) or strangury (check this one for yourself) prepare a strong decoction by boiling up the leaves and flowers and …  

…inject(!)  The author takes no responsibility for the consequences of any natural remedy given here – he is merely passing on what he reads.  Maybe ‘injection’ is Mrs M. Grieve’s old English for ‘drink’ as that’s what you do with Marshmallow for the same disease.  Or, maybe you just need a pokier method of bodily introduction to get the most from Marshmallow’s poorer cousin.  Either way it won’t be my first thought if ever my kidneys seize up.

Finally, if you’re hungry, eat the leaves raw or boil them up.  The high amounts of mucilage make the plant a good thickener of sauces.

This bright young plant was growing on the grass verge along the road at work in Surrey.  Notice the notched purple/pink flowers with deep purple veins and the 5-lobed leaves.  It can grow to 3 or 4 feet, which is why I called this one ‘young’.

It’s getting late now, but if you want this cure-all medicine for yourself all year around, you have to collect it before it’s in full flower and dry it out thoroughly in the shade before storing in a jar.

Pretty, dainty Tufted Vetch started flowering a couple of weeks ago in Surrey.  This is the only vetch I can positively identify because its flowers form long purple rows on one side of the stem, almost like over-populated miniature bluebells.

Tufted Vetch is of the pea family so when these flowers become seeds they will be held inside green, then black (when they’re ripe), seed pods.  Irving describes Common Vetch but notes that the peas of other vetches are small but good to eat too.  The ‘Plants for a Future’ database lists the tiny seeds as edible after boiling or roasting and also states that the leaves are a tea substitute.

My usual confusion about vetches comes from the leaves, which look the same for many of the other species – having opposing leaflets like a ladder along the stem.

Several species, including this one, are too weak to stand tall under their own strength and so use branched tendrils at the end of their leaves to twist and grip onto other plants and drag themselves into the sunlight – sometimes up to 2 metres in height.  This one is growing amongst the Ox-eye Daisies I wrote about some time ago (which are now looking a little worse for wear). 

It’s not a lazy plant though, not by a long shot.  Plants of the pea family are leguminous, that is they grow nodules on their roots which house symbiotic bacteria which can fix nitrogen from the air into the soil.  They thus provide the nitrate ‘fertilizer’ that other plants need to grow… …so they can be forgiven for using them for a little support here and there.  We humans can fix nitrogen too, industrially using the Haber Process.  It takes about 500 °C and 200 atmospheres of pressure to make ammonia from hydrogen and air which can then be oxidized to nitrates for artificial fertilizer.  I bet those Tufted Vetch root nodules aren’t at 500 °C.

This vibrant attractive tree greets me every morning on the way to work by trying to whack me in the face as I cycle under its low branches.

Had it not been for its bunches of papery dangling fruits, I might have mistaken it for Wych Elm as the leaves are quite similar.  Checking the details, though, the edges of Hornbeam’s leaves are very rough, as if they’ve been torn from a sheet of green paper, and their veins are quite prominent. 

A couple of books say it could be confused for Beech but I think Hornbeam’s leaves have more tightly-packed veins and are much longer than beech’s.  To be certain, check the bark which on Hornbeam is lightly cracked vertically and coloured grey on brown.  Beech has very smooth, clean grey bark.

As is evidenced by this specimen’s location in the grounds of some flats, they are usually cultivated – in parks, along streets or as tall hedges.  As the latter it is particularly effective as the dead leaves stay on all winter.

The wood is apparently fine-grained and used to make tools and skittles (not the multi-coloured sweets).  It also burns slowly so makes good firewood – this is why it used to be pollarded (cut back so it grows several new branches) in Epping Forest.

The leaves have their uses too, including in an external compress to stop bleeding (they’re haemostatic) and heal wounds. 

After having found all this out, I shall look differently on Mr Hornbeam tomorrow morning.  Look out for it where you live and let me know if you spot one.

I have seen this geranium growing and flowering all over Surrey in the last few weeks.  I knew it was a Cranesbill or, in posh terms, a geranium but hadn’t until now mustered the courage to give it a specific name.  This one is growing from the paving stone crack outside the swimming-pool at work and intrigues me over its identity every time I pass it.

I have chosen, from Wild Flowers of Britain, Hedgerow Cranesbill, also known as Mountain Cranesbill (God knows why, it doesn’t grow up mountains – more in hedgerows).  There are loads of Cranesbills in England which is why I wasn’t sure which one this was.  A quick Google of its tentative name though revealed almost identical pictures as mine; here and here, for example.  If it’s on the internet, it must be true.

I really like the plant’s bright green leaves, which are held like spinning plates on sticks.  If that isn’t showy enough, then its bright purple flowers will really draw your eye.  It’s looks will have to suffice for now because I can’t find any uses.  Miles says no geraniums are poisonous but he’s only eaten the roots of Cut-leaved Cranesbill (which has much more divided leaves) and he didn’t like them.  The latter has all kinds of medical uses too, but I’ll describe them when I describe the latter … one day.

Ramsons!  The only plant I know that you smell before you see.  When you’re in a wood and suddenly there’s a strong smell of garlic, stop looking for the Italian restaurant and skim the ground for a carpet of green leaves growing straight from the soil.  These are Ramsons or Wild Garlic.

I haven’t often seen the flowers, which look like small sparklers on fireworks night, but last Saturday near Leatherhead, they were prolific.

Of course, the plant is edible including the bulb though this is nothing like cultivated garlic, resembling more of a spring onion.  We chewed a bit of a leaf on our walk and it was tasty and garlicy but then, since there were so many, we tried the flowers.  These are delicious.  They have the same strong garlic taste but this is combined with the sweetness of the nectar to produce a flavour unlike anything I’d ever tasted before – having never mixed sweet rosewater with garlic paste.  A real wayside treat – just a shame we stank of garlic for the rest of the day!

How about this for a familiar roadside / streamside / pathside / everyside sight at the moment:

Cow Parsley, it’s everywhere!  Like a big sign in white spray-paint all along the hedgerows saying ‘English summertime’.  This particular profusion is near Leatherhead, Surrey not far from the beautiful wooded hilltop that is Norbury Park.

Cow Parsley, or Wild Chervil as it’s also known, is an edible herb.  But it’s not as simple as this.  You see, that head of dozens of tiny flowers means this plant is an umbellifer (that’s its family’s name) and there are a lot of umbellifers which look a lot like each other.  The most worrying are Fool’s Parsley, which is poisonous, and Hemlock, which is deadly. 

These two have leaves which look like Cow Parsley’s.  In his book ‘The Forager Handbook’, Miles Irving has detailed all the differences very precisely in a table.  Fool’s Parsley is easy, underneath the flowers, it has really long green bracts that droop downwards.  We once had some growing in the garden and I was surprised how long and obvious the bracts actually are.  Cow Parsley doesn’t have any such thing.

Although the stem of Cow Parsley can have vaguely purple joints or can be quite darkly coloured, it never has purple blotches like the deadly Hemlock.  The leaves of Hemlock also look a lot more complicated, perhaps being more one extra time more pinnate (divided with leaflets either side) than Cow Parsley which is 3 times pinnate.  One of the nicest ways to identify Cow Parsley, I’ve just read, is by the U-shaped groove down the leaf stalk.  At the end of the day, a plant should only be eaten if you have positively identified it, or in other words: KNOW YOUR STUFF, NEVER BLUFF.

Identification complete, we gathered a load of leaves this afternoon and transported them home in my shorts pocket.  They’re supposed to go well in salads or chopped and sprinkled over cold potatoes as their flavour is only very mildly like parsley.  We were having rice though so I chopped them up and stirred them in just before covering and steaming.

Mmmm… Cow Parsley rice:

I’m afraid it made no difference to the flavour whatsoever, the rice tasted just like… …rice.  Maybe I should try it in a salad – or on cold potatoes.  I’ll just have to convince myself we must have eaten some extra micronutrients and have learned to eat another food source for free.

For a couple of months now, on the sunniest days, I’ve sat outside behind work to eat my lunch to the sound of bird song and the sight of trees and green.  Always glancing around at the plants as they develop, I’ve been perplexed by a set of oval, slightly toothed leaves – like these:

As the weeks went by long, dark, yellowey, greeny, brown (I just asked my girlfriend the colour) stems covered in white hairs began shooting up.  Still I was none the wiser.

We have two gardeners at work and I knew that they’d have it in mind to strim the entire patch soon.  As the plants got bigger and started to grow buds I knew they were about to reveal their identity – but would it be too late?

A couple of days ago, one and a half flowered – Ox-eye Daisy – so obvious when you see that big ring of white petals around a yellow centre – but I didn’t have my camera.  The VERY NEXT DAY, they strimmed!

But, thanks to some environmental policies of theirs or our workplace, they left a large patch of wild flowers for the wild life.  Brilliant:

The genus of it’s latin name ‘chrysanthemum’ means golden flower and the ‘leucanthemum’ species part means white flower so that’s a rather good description.  Richard Mabey says that John Evelyn says that the roots are eaten in salads in Spain while it says in The Modern Herbal that the leaves are eaten in salads in Italy.  I’ll try the latter tomorrow and let you know.  Irving suggests putting the chopped up buds to your dinner as they have a pleasant odour or taste.

Medicinally the flowers, leaves and stalks can be boiled to relieve them of their aromatic resin which seems to be useful against coughs.  The decoction drank or rubbed on the outside is also said to reduce swelling and heal wounds.  Good stuff!