Here and Now – James on March


Our in-house forager James is well-tuned to the stirrings of early spring, as he watches for when to start harvesting the gin botanicals. The first plant he picks for production is gorse,  but not until later this month. This year, he says, “It’s been unseasonably warm weather and spring is well ahead of itself.”

He loves being out and about pre-season, but sounds a warning. “For me and everyone, exploring wild plants and seeing what you can ID is very challenging at this time of year. Things are in their very young state and youthful plants can look quite different. See how you get on and anything you’re not sure of, revisit it through the season to get an in-depth familiarity throughout the growing season.”

Here are his notes about a selection of plants that have been early to re-emerge in Islay this year.

Young leaves (now) are tasty, cabbage, radish, spicy.

Sea Radish – Brassicaceae, cabbage family. All the family are edible, none toxic, some not very tasty once mature. One of the things that gives it away as a brassica is that it’s growing splat on the ground in a rosette, out from the centre of a circle. More about identifying brassicas from John Renston here >

Distribution – coastal, especially SW Scotland. Young leaves (now) are tasty, cabbage, radish, spicy. Seliques, like pea pods, in summer are super tasty and very like radish. Get them before they get woody though.

I have planted a bit in my garden which I found washed out of the sand. Will be interesting to see if it takes in rich woodland soil vs sandy coastal conditions.

More about Sea Radish by mark williams here >

Ground Elder / bishop weed / gut weed

Almost certainly introduced by the Romans as a food plant.

Ground Elder – Aegopodium podagraria, is in the carrot family (Apiaceae).  Many are tasty, many are deadly, so be careful. [Carrot Family overview from Mark Williams here >]

Distribution – very common, the bane of many gardeners, a nightmare to get rid of once established.

Almost certainly introduced by the Romans as a food plant, every monastery had a patch reserved for the Bishop, roots are long and white hence gutweed, if they get broken up they will continue to grow from broken bits.

Very tasty when young, just now it’s perfect for salad use. Steam or sauté when they’re a bit older. Taste more carroty than carrot.


Oak galls / Oak apples

Not sure about eating these, as they house wasp larvae. Could use them to make ink though.

Oak galls – caused by gall wasps laying eggs into the leaf buds of the oak tree which form this protective ball. There’s a wee worm inside which will eventually work its way out as a gall wasp, leaving a little hole.

Once used to make ink; Leonardo da Vinci drew with it, and many others. [for a modern recreation, courtesy of a quick google search, see ]. It’s because they’re acidic and full of tannin, apparently, which also makes them useful in dyeing and as an astringent.

Kate has one I gave her with a hole in it, I have a couple on my desk that don’t. They will probably hatch and infest the office before very long…

More info at homeopathy school >

Sticky willies / Goosegrass / Cleavers

A bedstraw from the Rubiaceae / woodruff / or coffee family.

Cleavers – Gallium aparine, are closely related to Lady’s Bedstraw, Gallium verum, which is in our gin.

Distribution – Grows everywhere.

Note the cotyledons or seed leaves still very evident, as it’s new out. It’s edible but this is about as old as I’ll eat it raw, otherwise it sticks to the back of your throat just as badly as it sticks to your school jumper.

Good year round for juices, very green tasting, said to be very cleansing. Seeds can be roasted to make a coffee substitute and I think do contain caffeine.

Pignut, carrot family

These feathery leaves, like carrot tops, indicate another member the carrot family, but with a spherical nutty tuber.

Pignuts – Conopodium majus (Apiaceae). You need permission from the landowner to dig anything up, but if you can carefully follow the very fragile stem down below the surface, anything from a few cms to several, you will find a wee nodule, up to 25mm across. Wipe the mud off and it’s got the taste and texture somewhere between almond and water chestnut; very tasty.

Distribution – Very common, sign of long established grassland and equally common in open woodland.

As you see though it grows among the bluebells and it’s very easy to mistake bluebells bulbs while digging for pignuts. Bluebell bulbs have a taste somewhere between violent puking and hospital. So be careful not to mistake that. Plus this is in the carrot family so always proceed with caution, and double check when ID-ing.

Japanese knotweed. Looks like little dragons!

Earthy, tangy rhubarb flavours. A delicacy in Japan.

Japanese knotweed – Fallopia japonica is from the Polygonaceae, or buckwheat, family. Very tasty alien relation of rhubarb! Either get it when its stems are young and soft and do whatever you’d do to rhubarb, or treat it like asparagus and bend it from the tip, it will snap in the right place.

Sliced into 1cm sections and pickled it makes a great alternative to an olive for a martini.

Distribution – Ooh, terrible, evil invader! Might knock down your house and steal your children.

Be very aware that it is heavily sprayed in most places and don’t go near it if there’s any chance of chemicals. Do all prep on site and boil any waste before disposal. Don’t let bits go down the sink etc.

Wild Garlic / Ramsons

Garlic is an allium, same family as daffodils and snowdrops – Amaryllidaceae 

Wild Garlic – Allium ursinum – Tasty, tasty. Pesto, fermented, in a sandwich, scrambled eggs.

Distribution – common in damp woodland once Spring has arrived. You can eat the flowers too, once they come up after about 3 weeks.

Don’t mistake for bluebells, snowdrops etc which grow intermingled. The leaves are generally broader and smell of garlic!

Very good for you as a general tonic and blood cleanser. Believed that bears would eat it when they came out of hibernation for strength and wellness, hence ursinum relating to bears.

And lastly, another member of the Amaryllidaceae family. But don’t eat this one.

SPRING SNOWFLAKE Leucojum vernum

spring snowflake islay 

Distribution – rare on Islay. Likely a garden escape. Pretty though.

Poisonous. Although one of the toxic compounds Galantamine is used for the treatment of cognitive decline in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease and various other memory impairments. Same stuff is in normal snowdrops.

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