Symbols of Spring – Foraging in Context

One of the most interesting things about foraging any environment is that you are required to build up an extensive and intimate knowledge of your surroundings. This may seem obvious, but it is perhaps important to remember that this manner of reading the world around you is almost entirely redundant in the way we live our lives today. After familiarizing ourselves with our immediate surroundings, we are rarely required to look any deeper into the details of place. By necessity, foraging forces you to focus just this awareness, as a basic understanding of seasons, the weather, and the other living things sharing a space, are all essential in getting to grips with the characteristics, and even more the edibility of the plants around you.

Serviceberry or shadbush (Amelanchier lamarckii) – just prior to flowering

Spring is the perfect time to begin drawing up a detailed predictive map of an area’s foraging possibilities. Even from far-off distances and with the naked eye, you can spot many species of blossoming trees and shrubs due to the relative lack of dense greenery. From February onwards, the cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) and blackthorns (P. spinosa) are blossoming, either as lone trees as is often with the former, and in long winding drifts, common with the latter. There’s something undeniably primal and satisfying about coming across these sites and marking them down, with the intention of returning for the fruiting season – it’s something we must have been doing for much the greater part of human existence. Practically speaking, in marking foraging sites for future harvests, you’re making long-term plans for sources of food, and you’re beating the competition by anticipating that harvest – try finding a bird cherry (Prunus padus) in season not yet stripped of the fruit by its namesake – yet if you already know where one is, you can watch it closely to get in as early as possible (tough luck for the poor birds, though).

Plants and shrubs that often get lost in the dense greenery simply stand out like a beacon in spring. The serviceberry (Amelanchier sp., often x lamarckii), with its pinnate, rounded leaves often hides itself within stands of rowan, though in spring its slender stems and magnolia-like flowers are unmissable. The same can be said of the cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), which puts forth masses of bright yellow flowers, much smaller than those of forsythia, only to fade into the foliage later in the season. Both of these trees/shrubs are highly regarded and densely planted in urban environments, and once you have noticed one or two, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. There are many other examples of this transformation of an environment with the changing of the seasons, and becoming attuned to this is as rewarding in itself as it is rewarding for the forager’s basket.
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) – flowering

In all environments there are exceptions to the common abundance or scarcity of one plant or another. Here in south-west Berlin, spring gives a short-lived but prolific season of few-flowered garlic (Allium paradoxum), a now-established escape from the Berlin Botanical Gardens in Dahlem. Large expanses of moist woodland are so densely carpeted with the plants (all of whose parts are edible) that other early flowering bulbs are crowded out. A particularly rampant neophyte from the Caucasus, there is no danger of over-harvesting few-flowered garlic in this area – but such statements are highly region-specific, and do not apply to other areas where the plants are perhaps found in much smaller numbers. Being able to count on the regularity and abundance of certain plants would have been an invaluable dimension to our sense of place before farming became established.

It’s not just about foraging, either; in general, an understanding of the seasonality of plants, their growth patterns and habits, leads directly to a more fully-engaged connection with your environment, potentially for absolutely anyone, independent of theoretical knowledge of plant biology; whether that be in the city or the countryside; whether in passing or in earnest study. In order not to reinvent the wheel on the subject and write at length what has already been written, I’d like to quote the plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson, giving his own advertisement of the joys of looking closer at the natural world:

“In this age it is a great pity that botany does not figure as an essential item in the education of everyone. A little knowledge of plants would add enormously to the pleasure and interest derived from visits near and far – a walk near home, a motor ride through neighbouring country or a trip to a foreign land. To be able to recognize and interpret the things around vastly increases the joy of living. It is a truism that the more one knows about plants the more interesting they become and the greater the enjoyment derived from their association. Plants with their beauty of form, of leaf and flower appeal to all … There are no happier folk than plant-lovers… (my italics)”

Ernest Henry Wilson, Smoke That Thunders

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