by Pat Dodd Racher
An incredible variety of plants growing wild around Llandeilo station could be used as FOOD, we learned this afternoon (April 21st), on a foraging walk led by Fiona Gallagher. My foraging has never gone far beyond blackberries, wild strawberries, and field mushrooms, but what a lot I’ve been missing.
Llandeilo railway station in the rain did not seem a promising departure for a wild-food walk, but Fiona found a new edible gem every few paces, impressing the dozen fellow walkers, ranging from the already knowledgeable (most) to the novice (me). First, on the edges of the station car park, was ground elder, the leaves of which can be steamed or fried, or made into an infusion for tea. Beware, said Fiona, not to confuse ground elder with the poisonous dog mercury (Mercurialis perennis), which to the uninitiated look similar, but the ground elder leaves have a feathery edge. Later in the walk she found some dog mercury so we could make a comparison. Would I be completely sure if on my own? If I had photos with me, yes. Relying on my fallible memory, no.
Lesser celandines have pretty star-like yellow flowers, but the edible part is the white root. On the other side of the roadway was a profusion of ribwort plantain, its leaves offering relief from bee and wasp stings. Dandelions are everywhere, the leaves good in salads, better still when mixed with daisy leaves.
Common thistles, too, are hardly reclusive plants, but I had never thought of eating any. Cook the young roots, said Fiona, and you have a potato substitute. You would have to collect quite a few thistles to feed a family, but it’s good to know it is a possibility. Fiona also found sow thistle, the leaves of which she deep-fries and serves with brown sugar and soy sauce.
Nettles – “toast the leaves over a fire and add to potato soup”, advised Fiona – are nutritious although unpleasant to pick without gloves. Liquidised nettle leaves make a useful liquid feed for plants, at very low cost. In one of the planters on the station platform we found edible bittercress, with tiny white flowers, next to a type of borage, with blue flowers, both bordering a display of daffodils. The planter was also home to spinach, evidently a happy companion of borage and bittercress. Not far off the platform Fiona found cuckoo pint (Arum maculatum), containing calcium oxalate and poisonous, but the root can be filtered in running water – “for a week”, said Fiona – and then pounded and ground into a flour, used in the past as a substitute for arrowroot.
We followed the path across the railway track to a small wood above the river Tywi, the river easily visible through the bare branches. Fiona stopped to point out wild garlic (delicious), a hogweed, the young stems of which she boils and then fries, and new growth of Himalayan balsam, pairs of small round leaves. Himalayan balsam is highly invasive, but the seeds are edible and contain oil.
The toxic, bright green hemlock water dropwort is definitely not one for the kitchen. It can be mistaken for wild celery, and is a warning that poisonous and edible plants are often near neighbours. Groundsel is poisonous too, but the next plant Fiona spotted, jack-by-the hedge (Alliaria petiolata) has a tasty root, with a mustardy flavour that lingers.
Leaving the wayside and woodland plants, we walked the medieval track up into Church Street, and near the council offices in Crescent Road passed a blackthorn tree coming into flower. Another snack: the petals taste of almonds, but blackthorn is not a plant for beginner foragers or novice herbalists, because it contains cyanogenic glucoside from which cyanide is derived.
I wouldn’t forage anywhere that has been sprayed with herbicide or pesticide, or on landfill that may be toxic, and I need to know a great deal more before foraging without an expert companion, but the afternoon’s tastes are startlingly superior to the standard round lettuce or hothouse cucumber. Gain in convenience, lose in flavour.