One of the joys of late summer and early autumn is walking or cycling along hedgerows and woodland edges, hunting for the abundant free food on offer – sweet-tart brambles, fat rosehips, huge clusters of glistening rowan berries, purple-black sloes, and more. Fruits from some of the most common species of trees and shrubs can be easily processed into autumnal delights such as jams, jellies, pies or even a cheeky tipple.
You don’t need much equipment to start foraging – a harvesting basket, box, or bag, a pair of gloves to protect your hands from thorns and nettles, and a good plant identification book are all useful.
Rowan and Elderberries
Rowan trees (also known as mountain ash) bear small, vivid red fruits in clusters, which makes them easy to spot from a distance. Rowans are tolerant of quite poor soil conditions and can often be found in dry, rocky places – it’s not unknown to find them growing in the walls or roofs of ruined buildings or even, believe it or not, in the branches of other trees!
Rowan berries are most often made into a jelly, paired with crab apples for pectin, but they can also be used to flavour liqueurs and schnapps. Harvest them when they’re fully red and ripe, but before they begin to soften. They’re quite tart raw, but cooking and adding sugar tames the flavour.
Elder is perhaps more famous for the wine and cordial made from its frothy flowers, but its berries can also be made into wine, added whole to apple pies, or turned into tasty elderberry jelly. They’re ready to pick when the berries are black, plump and beginning to droop.
For both rowan and elder, the easiest way to harvest and prepare is to remove the whole cluster by snipping the stem, then at home wash the berries and strip them from the stalks with a fork.
Blackberries, or brambles, are rampant spreaders, which is good news for the hungry forager. The secret to the blackberry’s success lies in its ability to propagate itself by tip layering – the spiny stems arch and root where the tip touches the ground, and in this way they can ‘walk’ for quite some distance.
If you’ve ever gone brambling you’ll know that the flavour can vary considerably from bush to bush, with some being very sweet and others more tart. They ripen over a long period too, so fruits from the same bush will also be in different stages of sweetness, with those at the tips being the earliest to ripen.
Blackberries can be cooked in pies or made into delicious bramble jelly, but I confess that I enjoy them best fresh as a welcome energy boost when out walking.
Haws and Sloes
Hawthorn and blackthorn are the villains of the hedgerow – armed to the teeth with thorns that are ready to prick the thumb or poke out the eye of a careless forager. Hawthorn fruits (haws) are bright red and not unlike rowan berries, but the leaves of the trees are distinctive – the hawthorn’s are small and wavy-edged, as opposed to rowan’s slender, oval leaflets. Haws should be harvested when slightly soft. The native British species (Crataegus monogyna) isn’t great raw unfortunately, being quite thin-fleshed and dry-tasting, but they do make good hawthorn jelly. Be careful not to eat the stones, as they can cause stomach upsets.
Despite being the ancestor of all cultivated plums, the fruit of the blackthorn is much too astringent to eat raw. Blackthorn fruits, known as sloes, can be used for preserves or in wine-making, but the most common usage is for flavouring gin. Sloes are best picked when softened or ‘bletted’ after the first frost, but popping them in the freezer overnight will have the same effect. Mix them with half their weight in sugar, add some cheap gin and let them steep for two or three months, shaking regularly until the sugar has dissolved. Your sloe gin should be ready in time for Christmas, and the gin-infused berries can be recycled into gin sloe chocolates.
All varieties of rose, wild and cultivated, are edible (although you will need to refrain from deadheading your garden roses if you want to enjoy the hips). Wild roses can often be found climbing through hedges, and the outer flesh can be eaten raw – you need to be careful to avoid biting into the hairy seed and pith however, as it is an internal irritant.
Making jelly or syrup are the easiest ways to process rosehips as the seeds are strained out. During World War II, people in the UK were encouraged to harvest wild rosehips due to their extremely high vitamin C content, and children were often given a spoonful of rosehip syrup a day to boost good health. You can also make rosehip wine or herbal tea.
When food is free it’s tempting to harvest everything in sight, but remember that wildlife too needs these nourishing fruits, so be sure to only take what you need and spread your harvest over several plants.
Of course all of these trees and shrubs can also be grown in the home garden if you have space– while you will miss out on the thrill of the hunt, for the time-pressed forager having fresh ingredients for jam or fruit pies right there in the garden is undeniably handy!
By Ann Marie Hendry.