Yew liqueur, you!

So, we all know (or should know) that every part of the Yew tree is highly toxic to humans. When I say highly toxic, what I mean is that a very small amount can kill you. All parts contain taxin, a complex of alkaloids which are rapidly absorbed.

If you are poisoned by it, sometimes there are no symptoms, followed by death within a few hours. Where there are symptoms, they include trembling, staggering, coldness, weak pulse and collapse.

So what’s the good news?

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, there is one part that is not toxic. See those pretty little red berries, the red flesh is not toxic, and is also quite nice and sweet tasting; However, the hard, dark-coloured seeds inside, have probably the highest concentration of toxins of the whole tree. It is said that if unbroken, the seeds will pass through you without being digested and without causing harm.

I’m not sure it’s worth the risk, personally. However, I have been known to pick a few and spit the seeds out. The flesh is really quite nice (although I have heard some people compare the texture to snot – but I couldn’t possibly comment).

I’m assuming that it’s for for safety’s sake that there are no recipes for yew berry flesh, or even many instructions to tell you the safe way of eating them. After all, I could easily imagine someone seeing other people eating them and assuming that they’re completely safe, followed shortly afterwards by a trip to the hospital, or the morgue!

Time to make some yew liqueurs

That said, I decided that I would have a play with the flavours and some spirits to see if anything gave good results. Maybe some kind of yew liqueur?

The first step is to separate the flesh from the poisonous seeds. I tried to freeze them first to make it easier, but they didn’t freeze very well, so it was a quite disgusting manual job. The squeezed flesh went quite sticky.

So finally, I split the berry flesh into three portions and put them into some clean, sterilized Kilner-type jars. Over each, I then poured filtered white rum, filtered gin, and filtered vodka. Then I left them to sit and infuse (hopefully), giving them a helpful little shake each time I passed by.

The results…

So, after infusing for 2 weeks now, so it was time for a little try. At this point, the spirits had started to sweeten slightly, but not much change to colour or flavour.

After 4 weeks, things had moved on somewhat, so I strained and bottled the infusions.

White rum, vodka and gin yew infusions

Now you can see that not only have they taken on slightly different colours across the different spirits, but also I’ve ended up with slightly different amounts of end product, despite the fact that they started with the same volume of berries and spirits.

The judgement

First of all, they are all quite nice. The berries have imparted a slight sweetness, some of their stickiness has come through and made the spirits thicker and smoother, and there’s a very subtle citrus berry flavour.

However, one stands out above the rest. The Gin infusion seems to have worked very well. It’s nice to drink on its own, and if we hadn’t drunk it all it would probably go quite well in a cocktail. Maybe I’ll make it again this year, but try to save some for cocktail experiments, or make some more!

Himalayan Balsam – Invasive Pest or Tasty Food?

I was out for a walk around the Lee Valley last night, particularly looking out for Elderberries and Yarrow for some home-brewing projects I have planned. I found what I needed, but I could help also noticing the huge amounts of pink flowering Himalayan Balsam along the river’s edge just about everywhere.

Himalayan Balsam

Whilst it looks very pretty, it’s a controversial plant as it’s the invasive immigrant, Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). It is highly invasive, and tends to choke up rivers quite quickly.*

Himalayan Balsam

It does this with an amazing seed spreading system, which involves the seed heads ‘exploding’ and flinging the seeds up to seven feet away.

Exploding Seed Head

However, there is a positive aspect to this plant. Most of it is edible, and being in such abundance and widely hated, there is no reason not to collect some (carefully) and cook it up!

*Himalayan Balsam and the law

I’ve been asked by the Non-native Species Inspectorate, quite rightly, to point out that the transportation of seeds or whole plants of Himalayan Balsam is an offence under the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 in England and Wales and Section 14AA of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in Scotland. This means that no seeds or plants should be removed from the site where they currently grow, and sowing seeds or planting elsewhere either deliberately or accidentally would be a particularly serious offence.

So in other words, pick it and eat it/use it where it grows, and don’t take it somewhere else!

Himalayan Balsam Recipes

A quick internet search for “Himalayan Balsam Recipes” will turn up plenty of results for you. I won’t copy them here (unless it’s to review them after I’ve given it a try), but some of the things I’ve seen include:

  • Champagne (Flowers)
  • Wine (Flowers)
  • Curry (Seeds)
  • Using the stem as a straw for drinks
  • Preserve (Flowers)
  • Falafel (Seeds)
Large Birch Polypore

A Definition of Foraging

Introduction to a foraging definition

I wanted to post something along the lines of a definition of foraging and what it means to me, but I am in no way an absolute authority, hence it’s more of a discussion point rather than a hard and fast definition. This is what it means to me, but I’d love to hear from readers about their opinions.

Why made me think of this

The incident that spurred this, was a night in with my wife, watching an old favourite film on the TV – Crocodile Dundee. Early on in the film, Sue is in the bush with Mick Dundee and he’s prepared a spread of “bush tucker” for her to eat. This spread included fire-roasted goanna, yams, witchety-grubs, fire ants. etc.

Crocodile Dundee

Sue says to Mick “What about you. Aren’t you having any?”

Mick replies “Me?” and gets a tin out of his bag.

“Well, you can live on it, but it tastes like shit.”

Categorisation

That had me thinking that there’s actually two types of food foraging:

  1. Foraging for survival.
  2. Foraging for everyday consumption.
Witchety grub
Crow garlic chicken dinner

Where foraging for survival is all about calorie intake regardless of flavour/texture/palatability; and foraging for consumption is about finding wild food which is pleasant on it’s own, or which adds to the palatability of everyday meals/snacks.

Foraging for survival might include such things as cat-tails rhizomes and silverweed roots for carbs/calories, ground elder, nettles, etc for teas and their nutrients.

Foraging for everyday might include things such as blackberries, raspberries, red-currants, hazelnuts, wild garlic and so on for their flavours.

Other considerations

You could possibly include a third option of “Foraging for the study of Ethnobotany” to the foraging definition, where Ethnobotany is the study of the human usage of plants. However, I would class this is something that sits alongside the other two options.

And this article doesn’t even go into foraging for medicinal wild plants (which I am also doing).

Discussion

Which category an item fits into, can be entirely down to who is doing the eating. For example, you may find the suggestion of eating woodlice completely distasteful and categorise them as survival food; on the other hand, you may enjoy their shellfish-like taste as part of a rice, potato, or bread-based dish, in which case they fit into the other category.

Whilst it’s not really possible to look at one category without the other in this foraging definition, my main area of focus is foraging for everyday consumption. So, along the way I’m also discovering survival foods, and understanding certain aspects of Ethnobotany.

Lime or Linden Tree Flowers – Tilia x europea

As something I’ve been aware of for some time, and looking out for Linden tree (Lime) flowers in the local area; I was pleased to find a big, old Linden tree not far from where I live. And it was positively overloaded with flowers.

Just for clarification, with these trees the name “Lime tree” and “Linden tree” are interchangeable. They are not the tree which bears the lime fruit. Also, I’ve titled this Tilia x europia (common Lime) because that’s the tree I found. It’s equally applicable to Tilia platyphyllos (Large-leaved Lime) and Tilia cordata (Small-leaved, Lime).

The flowers are usually within reaching distance anyway (unless the lower branches have been trimmed), but as an added bonus, this tree was on a slope too, so a lot of branches were at waist height, for easy picking.

Tilia x europea – Common Lime (Linden)

Identification

  • Common Lime is a deciduous, broadleaf tree, native to the UK and quite common.
  • The bark is pale grey/brown and has irregular ridges.
  • It is quite common to find multiple shoots growing out from the base of the tree.
  • Twigs are hairy and brown, but can turn reddish when in the sun.
  • Leaf buds are red with two scales; one small and one large. The buds look a little like a boxing glove.
  • The leaves are dark green and heart shaped, usually six to ten centimetres. The base of the leaf is asymmetrical and the underside has tufts of small white hairs at vein axils.
  • The flowers are white-yellow, five petals, hang in clusters of two to five, hang from a bract, and have both male and female reproductive parts.

Uses

So why am I going on about these Linden tree flowers? Well, in the past, Linden Flowers have been used as a herbal remedy for all kinds of ailments, including high blood pressure, migraine, headaches, digestive complaints, colds, flu, insomnia, liver and gallbladder disease, itchy skin, joint pains and anxiety.

Apparently, during the war, Linden was used to make a soothing, relaxing tea. You can imagine why people might have wanted it then!

Personally, I have been known to suffer from mild anxiety, insomnia (of a kind) and joint pains, so I’ll be giving it a try (after doing my own research).

As I understand it, it also makes a nice drink, and as an occasional thing isn’t likely to do any harm

Warning

As always, you absolutely must do your own research before diving into believing the first thing you read online, and also check with your doctor too. Apparently some people have reported allergies to Linden, but apart from that Linden tea is pretty harmless stuff.

What to do with Linden tree flowers

Make sure that you pick the pale green bract that comes with the flowers – you’ll need it all. Also, pick responsibly. Whilst it’s unlikely that you could over-harvest a tree, if you need a lot, make sure you take small amounts from several trees.

linden tree flower

Next step – either dry it for future use (in the sun on a sheet, in your oven, or in your electric dehydrator), or make a tea from it immediately.

Tea

Put a few handfuls of flowers in a pan with one to two litres of water.

Bring to the boil, cover and remove from the heat, and leave it overnight.

Strain out the blossoms and keep the infusion in the fridge for up to three days. You can drink it cold, or reheat it. You can freeze the tea to keep it for longer, or make it into an elixir (thanks to the ladies at www.handmadeapothecary.co.uk for the idea) by adding 50% spiced rum to use as a cold remedy (take 50mls in hot water and go to bed to sweat it out).

Next steps

Coming soon – I plan to make my linden tree flower tea on video…

Structure and Parts of a Leaf

No seriously! It’s more complex than you might imagine, and having a common language really helps when talking about the parts of a leaf.

For the avoidance of doubt, leaf refers to both the flat type that you imagine, and the needles and scales found on some evergreens. This is not a complete reference, just the parts that I find most useful.

You’d better get comfortable, this is a long post…

Simple Parts of a Leaf

Parts of a leaf diagram

This is a simplified, generalisation. There are, of course, exceptions and variations. The leaf Blade, attaches to the stem of the plant with it’s Petiole. Quite often you will find a Stipule at the base of the petiole, which is like a miniature leaf arrangement. Within the leaf, there will be at least one strengthening midrib, and veins running from it. The leaf receives water and returns sugars through these.

Identification Categories

When it comes to identifying plants by their leaves, there are a number of areas to consider:

  1. The arrangement of the leaves on the stem.
  2. Simple vs Compound Leaves.
  3. Characteristics of the petiole.
  4. Veins.

1. Arrangement

The arrangement of the leaves on the stem can provide vital clues to the identification of a plant. Indeed, for some plants, it’s even in the name. For example, Opposite-leaved, Golden Saxifrage.

These are the main arrangements you may encounter:

  • Opposite – Two leaves from the same point at each point or node on the stem, growing in opposite directions.
  • Alternate – One leaf attached at each point or node on the stem, each successive leaf growing in opposite directions.
  • Basal – Arising from the base of the stem.
  • Cauline – Arising from the Aerial stem.
  • Whorled or Verticillate – Three or more leaves from the same point or node.
  • Rosulate – The leaves form a rosette.
  • Distichous – Leaves are attached in two rows. They can be either opposite or alternate in arrangement.

As a stem grows, leaves tend to grow in the optimum position for collecting light. This can result in leaves forming a helical pattern around the stem.

2. Simple vs Compound Leaves

So, a leaf is a leaf, right? Well, not exactly. There are simple leaves, and leaves which are made up of leaflets. In deciduous trees, for example, the part which detaches itself from the tree in Autumn (Fall) is a leaf. So in Oak trees, that’s a simple Oak leaf, whereas in Ash trees, it’s a compound leaf with multiple leaflets (see images# below).

A simple leaf may be deeply lobed, but as long as gaps do not reach the midrib, it is still a simple leaf. Each leaflet of a compound leaf may have it’s own Petiolule (equivalent of a Petiole) and Stipule (Stipel).

Types of Compound Leaf

  • Palmately Compound – Leaflets radiate from the end of the Petiole, like the fingers of a hand e.g. Horse Chestnut
  • Pinnately Compound – Leaflets are arranged along the main or mid-vein.
    • Odd Pinnate – With a terminal leaflet e.g. Ash.
    • Even Pinnate – Without a terminal leaflet e.g. Mahogany.
  • Bipinnately Compound – The leaves are twice divided. The leaf has a main vein, and further secondary veins on which the leaflets are attached e.g. Silk Tree.
  • Trifoliate – A pinnate leaf with just three leaflets e.g. Clover.

3. Characteristics of the Petiole

Leaves with a stalk (petiole) are said to be petiolate. Those without a stalk, which join straight to the branch are said to be sessile.

Where the blade of a leaf partially surrounds the stem, it is said to be clasping or decurrent. Where the blade completely surrounds the stem they are called perfoliate.

The stipule, where present, is a leaf-like appendage on each side at the base of the petiole. Stipules may remain (such as on roses) or be shed as the leaf expands, leaving scars; Known as stipulations.

4. Veins

Veins, occasionally referred to as nerves, extend into the leaf via the petiole and transport nutrients and water between the leaf and the stem. They also play a mechanical role in supporting the leaf structure. Branching from the main vein are secondary veins, and there can be many more branchings, sometimes leading to a net-like structure.

Leaf Shape Terminology

ImageNameDescription
 Auriculate Having ear-shaped appendages near the petiole e.g. Arum Maculatum
 Cordate Heart-shaped, with the petiole or stem attached to the notch.
 Deltoid Shaped like Greek letter Delta, triangular, stem attaches to side.
 Digitate With finger-like lobes, similar to palmate.
 Elliptic Oval, with a short or no point.
 Hastate Spear-shaped: Pointed, with barbs, shaped like a spear point, with flaring pointed lobes at the base.
 Lanceolate Long, wider in the middle, shaped like a lance tip.
 Linear Long and very narrow like a blade of grass.
 Lobed Being divided by clefts, may be pinnately lobed or palmately lobed.
 Obcordate Heart-shaped, stem attaches at the tapering end.
 Oblique Asymmetrical leaf base, with one side lower than the other.
 Oblong Having an elongated form with slightly parallel sides, roughly rectangular.
 Obovate Teardrop-shaped, stem attaches to the tapering end; reversed ovate.
 Ovate Oval, egg-shaped, with a tapering point and the widest portion near the petiole.
 Palmate Palm-shaped, i.e. with lobes or leaflets stemming from the leaf base.
 Perfiolate With the leaf blade surrounding the stem such that the stem appears to pass through the leaf.

Leaf Edge Terminology

 Entire Even; with a smooth margin; without toothing.
 Ciliate Fringed with hairs.
 Crenate Wavy-toothed; dentate with rounded teeth.
 Lobate Indented, with the indentations not reaching the center.
 Serrate Saw-toothed; with asymmetrical teeth pointing forward.
 Doubly-Serrate Each tooth bearing smaller teeth.

Source: Wikipedia, Paul Kirtley at frontierbushcraft.com.

The Parts of a Flower

I’m finding that as I learn more about plants and trees, it’s becoming increasingly useful to understand some of the botanical words and phrases that are used. Not just the Latin names (which are helpful sometimes), but also the parts of plants. So the long long white things with yellow things on the end, become the white Filaments with yellow Anthers.

Parts of a flower diagram

It seems to make it much easier to make myself understood, but also it helps me when I’m looking into a plant or tree, and I find myself reading some of the more scientific resources that you find on the web.

Parts of a Flower

When it comes to the parts of a flower, I knew what stems and petals were; And I think I vaguely remember the terms stigma and stamen from school (although I wasn’t sure what they were). When the term “Sepal” came up, I have no idea, and yet it is the simplest thing. When a green flower bud opens up, and the cover becomes small leaves that often support the petals.. They are the Sepals!

The Stamen is the “male” part of the flower, which consists of a Filament, with an Anther on top. The Anthers are where the pollen forms to be spread by wind, insect or bird.

The Carpel is the “female” part of the flower, which consists of the Stigma, which receives the pollen, the Style which transfers the pollen to the Ovary, and the Ovary which is where the magic happens. This is complicated slightly, as some flowers have multiple Carpels, which can be referred to as a Pistil. When there only one Carpel, the term Pistil can also be used.

Edible Desk Pretties (Edible Wild Flowers)

I came across some edible wild flowers on a walk, and they reminded me of my wife, so I brought a few home for her to brighten up her desk. Pretty flowers for my gorgeous wife, Samantha.

Edible Wild Flowers

So hopefully they’ll provide some inspiration whilst she works; and if she gets peckish, she can have a little much on Forget-Me-Not and Greater Stitchwort.

My lovely wife, Samantha

Hedgerow Beauties – Edible Spring Flowers

Given the time of year, we all know that the countryside is full of green and flowers, I was out looking for edibles when I came across these edible hedgerow beauties, so I thought I’d share these spring flowers with you.

Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra) spring flowers

First up is the Wych Elm. This tree, with one of the prettiest flower bunches over also has a great many uses. Sticking with the edibility, the young leaves are edible (raw or cooked), the inner bark has been dried and used to thicken stews, and the seeds are also edible.

Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)

Greater Stitchwort is one of those anonymous white spring flowers in the hedgerow or on the side of the road that largely gets ignored. Until you take a closer look, that is.

Hedgerow Beauties – Greater Stitchwort

The flower is made up of five white petals, lobed so deeply that they look like ten petals. Five green sepals support them, and the stamens are yellow tipped, growing from a green centre. The green parts look very much like grass before the flowers open, apart from the fact that the edges feel quite rough; As does the stem, which has a square cross-section.

The green shoots, flower buds and flowers are all edible raw and cooked. You can chop them straight into a salad.

Forget-Me-Not (Genus Myosotis)

Forget-me-nots are tiny blue spring flowers which you could easily walk by, if it wasn’t for the striking contrast of the blue against a green background.

Forget-me-nots

Forget-me-not covers about 74 species, but the flowers are usually pink/purple in the bud, turning blue when they open. The flowers have five petals, five sepals, yellow centres and are under one cm across. The leaves are long, thin, and unstalked. The stems are hairy, and the leaves are also hairy sometimes.

The flowers are edible and you can eat them as a walking snack, to decorate cakes, and in salads.

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Sometimes, with these wild flowers, it’s hard to believe that they’re not cultivated because they look so perfect, and in my opinion, the Primrose is one of those.

Wild Primrose

Easy to recognise, Primula vulgaris has a rosette of crinkly, tongue-shaped leaves that are so wrinkled that they look old even when new. Each flower grows from it’s own stem (which has fine hairs) and has five pale yellow petals, with a darker yellow centre. Sometimes, the darker yellow centre forms a pentagram.

WARNING: I’ve eaten the flowers raw, and the leaves both raw and cooked, yet some people have reported that the leaves have caused a rash. It’s worth checking first, and if the leaves do cause a rash or any kind of contact dermatitis, definitely do not eat it.

Forage close to home

Strictly speaking, this post isn’t about foraging as such, more like plant identification. The key point is this: You need to be able to positively identify plants in order to be able to forage for them. However, if you don’t live near the great outdoors, you can practice your plant ID anyway.

For example, just around the corner from my house is a small patch of ground in front of some houses. It’s not owned by any of the householders, and the local council probably can’t justify looking after it; So it’s left to get overgrown for a few years, then stripped back to almost bare earth. The following spring is a great time to go looking, as all the low growing ‘weeds’ get a chance to sprout.

Roadside plant identification (forage)

I wouldn’t forage from this spot because it’s too close to a busy road and a residential parking area, and therefore likely to be polluted.

What can I see here, that I could forage elsewhere?

Well, quite a lot as it happens. Good thing too really, or this whole post would have been pointless!

Firstly, there’s one of my favourites:

Crow Garlic. A great addition as a salad leaf and a garlicky flavour for soups and stews.

Then Burdock. The young, first-year leaves can be eaten, but will be quite bitter, the flower stem can be steamed, and the roots have been used for many types of drinks, not to mention all of the traditional medicinal uses.

Cleavers: The young leaves can be used in salads, the dried seed balls can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute, and the juice has been used in traditional medicine.

Common Mallow: The leaves and young shoots can be eaten raw and cooked as greens. The leaves are mucilaginous, which means that they thicken soups and stews nicely, the immature seeds are also edible raw, but so small as to not be worth the effort.

Dandelions are just starting to become prolific again, with those bright yellow flower heads popping up everywhere; Every part of the plant is edible.

Dock is great as a cooked leaf (like spinach) and can be used in pesto, and is high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The root is great for teas and medicinal uses.

Speedwells can be used to make a slightly bitter tea, which apparently, has good medicinal properties.

Ground Elder, pick the youngest, freshest shoots and they can be steamed or gently fried.

Stinging Nettles are one of the best natural resources out there; High in nutrients and as many uses as you can think of as a leaf, herb, flavouring, and for cordage.

Purple Dead Nettles are a little hairy compared to stinging nettle leaves, so use them sparingly as whole ingredients.

Spear Thistle roots taste like Jerusalem Artichoke when cooked, apparently, and you can eat the flower stems as a vegetable.

Clover can be used in small amounts to add variety to a wild salad.

Finally, Common Yarrow is edible both raw and cooked, but I just found out that apparently, it can be used in place of hops for flavouring and preservatives in beer! Guess what I’m looking forward to trying…

Litter in the coutryside rant

Some of you already know how I feel about litter in our beautiful countryside, so this litter rant won’t come as too much of a surprise to you. I went out for a quick walk in the Lee Valley Park this lunchtime and the litter was appalling.

It was only a short walk, out and back; So on the way out I saw all the litter and when I turned around I decided I’d do something about it. As I’ve said in the past, the new addition to my kit is a bin bag, so out it came.

Within twenty minutes, my bag was half full. Discarded gloves, cans, bottles, crisp packets, energy bar wrappers, and finally… Bags of dog mess! Really? You can be bothered putting it in a bag, but you can’t be bothered taking it to one of the many bins provided? Also, all of this was collected from within a foot of the path; I didn’t even have to stray very far for any of this.

Litter rant. Collected from a 20 minute walk in the Lee Valley

I spoke to a Lee Valley ranger who happened to be in the car park, and apparently they have considered litter bins; But unfortunately this leads to overflowing bins which they can’t keep up with.

Litter rant proposal

My proposal would be that if everyone who visits collects 2 pieces of litter while they’re there, it’ll soon all be under control. What do you think?