A Long Pause & New Adventures in the Land of Carrots

It has been a very long time between posts on this website and the only honest and easy way to explain that is that I had nothing new (new for me, at least) to say about foraging at the time. Since then I have made the decision, before the outbreak of the Coronavirus, to move back the UK, and was set to work mainly as an outdoors instructor specialising in wild edible and useful plants. This work is now on hold as I imagine most people’s lives are. Everything seems to be on hold. Only the natural world continues to go its course with anything like regularity.  Here in rural Devonshire, where I am staying in the cottage of an old friend, the natural world is much more immediate than the constructed one: it is necessary to commute to see signs of a pandemic.

Arum maculatum 08.04.20
Arum maculatum, lords-and-ladies, a torch of spring (not edible, at least not unprocessed)

I don’t know much more than anyone else who has casually informed themselves about Covid-19 and this is not an article about ‘Foraging During/Post/In Light Of’ that bombshell. I am aware that many people will simply not be able to do much foraging during this time. Currently I am able to get out and document and forage wild plants without putting anyone else or myself at risk. I have access to a small but well-stocked kitchen and herb garden, and am in general surrounded more by the natural world than I am caught in a man-made system. This is the reason I have decided to start writing these entries again. Good fortune has been mixed with what some might call rotten luck in getting here, and I won’t apologise for what in one way could be perceived as my perfect bucolic little cage. I am grateful to be forced toward choices either one way or the other in how I will arrange my life in light of the lessons I have learned on returning to the UK.

Claytonia sibirica 04.04.20
Montia sibirica, spring beauty, an edible relative of miner’s lettuce

Recent events have taught me a lot about place. Ideally I don’t want to be in a situation again where the outdoors are not on my doorstep, and if this is not likely to be the last time that we all have to go into self-imposed quarantine, I have to begin now making steps towards ensuring that I can make that happen. Plans B and C will have to follow this principle. The centre of this surely has to be a sense of adventure in all things. New adventures on old shores? A wild and essentially nomadic life? With pilgrimages to sites of specific botanical interest? Probably. But enough of this for now.

A few wild carrot (Apiaceae) genera, some material belonging to the same species. There are four different plant species here, two edible, two deadly.

At the very start of my wild food journey I threatened to write a guide to the common edible and non-edible members of the wild carrot family. At that time I was unaware of the work of people such as Monica Wilde and Mark Williams (found here and here respectively), who have already covered this subject in some detail. All the same I would like to add my own data and images for comparison and reiteration.

I say ‘wild carrot family’ when it could just as easily be called the parsley family, the carrot family, or any other common plant under its umbrella (I won’t even introduce the true wild carrot, Daucus carota, in this entry). The name Apiaceae translates roughly to ‘of celery’, that plant belonging also to this family (its type, Apium graveolens). The family has some first-class delicacies and therefore being able to harvest certain species safely is a great asset to any forager’s skill-set.

Chaerophyllum temulum
Rough chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum), a lover of dank woodland paths, and is both unpalatable and inedible. Don’t look like that, we’ve only just started!

As with all other plant families, the ultimate deciding factor of membership to the Apiaceae has to do with flower structure. This poses a problem for foragers as A: the structural differences in flower morphology are likely to be beyond the ken of non-botanists and B: much of the plant we want to forage is past its best when it is in flower. Therefore we have to rely on several other methods for proper identification: familiarity with all aspects of the plant’s growth, understanding its habitat, cross-checking several of its features, and something a little more abstract which might be called the sum of these methods focussed into one, the same way we recognise each other intuitively.

I’ll introduce a few of these and try to maintain a similar method of in-situ and single leaf comparison (though maybe I won’t have access to the enamel roasting-dish for continuity: cottage life). This will be primarily an identification post; uses and recipes will follow at a later date.

Wild Chervil/Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)

Wild chervil is a tasty wild herb in its young state and is so abundant that it wouldn’t quite be a discussion of wild carrot family plants without it. Note that the stems in the first photo are shot through with a reddish/purplish colour which is continuous, while the leaf on the right is only mildly tinged with this. The plant when crushed smells pleasantly and strongly of celery to my nose. The leaves emerging from the central meristem at this stage in its growth will be V-shaped in section (cut through and look down the stem) and given a good selection of leaves you will find tiny hairs, sometimes obvious, sometimes diminutive, running along the stems.

For comparison, the above-left photo is a flowering stem of wild chervil, and the above-right photo is a leaf with a slightly more rigid, less curled aspect. Note the deeply purple flushed colour of the flowering stem, and the much less-prominent coloration of the leaf. I use it mainly as I would chopped (garden) parsley.

Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)

Common hogweed is a much more robust-looking plant than wild chervil/cow parsley, and while branching in a similar manner, thrusts up large and broad shoots in early spring. The stems are more shield-shaped in section and can be deep dark purple or deep green in colour and are densely hairy, as are the undersides of the leaves (the top surface of the leaves less so).

As you will see by comparing the first close-up of the common hogweed leaf with the above-left photo, the young shoots can be sparse and simply divided or tightly crammed and bushy in appearance. This variation in leaf morphology is not unique to common hogweed by any measure but is prominent. The above-right photo shows an immature inflorescence, which are fantastic steamed or grilled and are possibly my favourite part of this plant from a culinary point of view. And with that, a note on picking/handling:

*Wild plants have obviously not ‘benefited’ from the protection and cultivation of worrisome agriculturalists, and therefore they still have the claws and teeth which sometimes help them fight against the threat of pests, undue herbivory (being munched on before reproducing) and other dangers, though these are the main ones we might come across. Both common hogweed and its larger, more daunting sister giant hogweed (H. mantegazzianum) contain chemicals which can cause phototoxic reactions, essentially serious burns and rashes, if handled without care. The sap is mainly responsible for this reaction and the whole plant is rendered completely harmless and delicious through steaming or cooking. Wear gloves and long-sleeved clothing when harvesting common hogweed and you’ll be fine, but do take special care especially if you are harvesting to share with others as it is your responsibility to inform others around you as to the potential dangers of this incredible plant. While we’re on the subject of dangerous plants, we might as well take a look at common hogweed’s poor notorious sister, giant hogweed.

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Once you have learned to identify common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) and are confident with harvesting and cooking it, you will be in line to lose a good degree of social standing if ever mentioning this in polite conversation with anyone vaguely familiar with the H-word; they will invariably and wrongly be thinking that you are claiming to enjoy eating the above-pictured plant, giant hogweed. This closely-related species is greatly feared and even hated by some people, and while serious problems with common hogweed are few, giant hogweed can deliver blisters and reportedly third-degree burns if the sap gets onto exposed skin, especially in strong direct sunlight. The giant hogweed is massive, with leaves much more toothed and spiky than common hogweed, with stems with dense spiny hairs which are hollow and flecked. While it’s difficult for any outdoorsy folk to completely avoid the chance of physical contact with this plant, foragers should revise their familiarity with common hogweed and take extra caution when later in the year harvesting what they assume to be common hogweed seeds, as depending on the site and condition of seed-heads it might not be possible to rule out the possibility that the seeds do not in fact come from giant hogweed, whose flowering stems sometimes grace the winter landscape, being easily up to six feet tall.

Leaf stem of young giant hogweed. Note that it is hollow, prickly and blotchy.

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)

Now that we’ve rounded the Cape of ‘Edible but Potentially Burny’ and navigated the Strait of ‘This Will Ruin Your Entire Holiday’ in a safe fashion, we arrive at the calmer and more forgiving territory of Alexanders, a true coastal delight whose glossy lemon-and-lime foliage and flower-heads can be seen at some considerable distance. The one pictured above is from a roadside verge (here in the UK on the south-eastern coast of Ireland and in England skirting the coast from around about the Mersey Estuary to The Wash in Norfolk) but you may find it almost at the water’s edge. Whereas most ‘wild’ carrot family members have white or pinkish-white flowers, Alexanders has pure yellow flowers and eventually tough black seeds (unlike the papery seeds of say common hogweed). All parts of this plant are delicious and its root is substantial.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about edible wild carrot species without talking about two deadly poisonous plants, one of which is pictured above, called hemlock or poison hemlock. I have chosen the above-left photo specially due to it being untypical of the sort you find in books or online, which show blotchy, dark, solitary and imposing individual plants, and not just blanket-like mats of feathery green, as is also often the case. The above-right photo shows a typical leaf stem with minor red blotches lower down (a feature of hemlock), but even so this plant isn’t spattered with the tell-tale dots. It seems that just as cow parsley can have continuous purplish stems or not, hemlock can sometimes be almost completely spot free. Other identifying features of hemlock to look for then are the hairlessness and also the hollowness of its stems. Taking an aggregate of several plants you should be able to find some with the characteristic blotchy markings and be able to corroborate your first two features with a third. Remember that cow parsley and hemlock can grow in identical habitats and can look very much alike; take extra special care not to harvest hemlock or any other wild carrot in handfuls of your desired green.

Hemlock water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata)

Lush and emerald green and often with one foot in the river, hemlock water-dropwort is an abundant wild carrot genus with several species including the one pictured above. It loves damp grassland but can also turn up where there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of flowing water. Its leaves are slightly notched, flatter and less feathery than the other hemlock (Conium) though its stems are also hairless, hollow, but also grooved. For a third feature of hemlock water-dropwort we have to go underground…

Dead man’s fingers…

The roots of hemlock water-dropwort are striking, being long, thin, starchy, and extremely poisonous. They are sometimes washed out of eroding riverbanks and protrude from the earth, and so one folk-name for these clusters is ‘dead man’s fingers’, which is a recurring ethnobotanical and ethnomycological motif which never spells a good thing. Human deaths from eating hemlock water-dropwort roots have been recorded and the cause of misidentification was with wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa). The name Oenanthe means ‘wine-flower’ as some say there is a wine-like scent to the umbels.

If this all sounds like pretty savage stuff then allow me to introduce an idea. Our relationships with plants and our ability to navigate in their world have changed much and often over time but I am convinced that we are still entirely capable of reaching an instinctive, intuitive level of plant identification given the right motive. The final wild carrot I want to introduce (or use to further my argument) is known for the pains it brings to very specific non-wild spaces, and I am sure that almost every gardener from here to the shore of the Bosphorus has had to deal with this garden pest at some time or another:

Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria)

Ground elder always strikes me as the best example of a wild carrot which many people  can still identify on sight requiring no ID book and without the plant being remotely in flower.  The aforementioned ‘abstract’ faculty of identification is at work precisely here, experience and bitter familiarity overriding the scientific process. Few of these people know that it is edible and deliciously fresh-scented when still young, and it seems to me the ideal candidate for allowing a safe sojourn into the wild carrots. Take a look at its structure: branching, slightly-grooved hollow, hairless stems, the leaves grouped into threes with two distinct notches one on either side and about half way down each leaflet.

This is a manner in which almost nobody ever bothers to look at ground elder, and if other members of the wild carrot family still played such a prevalent role in our lives, I imagine our ability to identify each of them on sight would be similarly apt. In some way the last vestiges of a hunter-gatherer perception are alive and well in us through the common garden-variety hatred of so many for this little plant.

Well this has been a pretty lengthy post and I hope some people will gain some confidence in getting to grips with wild carrots from it. This is an amazing family of plants and one that deserves to be appreciated, smiled at on roadsides, carefully nibbled upon along coastal walks, saluted on riverbanks and generally offered other such signs of appreciation.

As I have alluded to in this post early on I have now returned to the UK for the foreseeable future and I still appreciate your correspondence to grunewaldforaging@gmail.com.

All the best,

Jonathan, Devonshire, April 2020


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