Foraging Starts At Home


It can be tempting for novice foragers to spend a lot of time looking for things. Exploring is what we do.

This is entirely understandable – “ foraging ” certainly implies a degree of searching and some wild ingredients can take a good bit of finding. But it is much more efficient and rewarding to recognise resources that are hidden in plain sight close to home.

95% of an experienced forager’s repertoire is likely to consist of common weeds. Hardly any of the wild plants mentioned on this website or used in The Botanist are rare. In fact most could be described as hyper-abundant, several as problematic “weeds”. Within their distribution range, they don’t take a lot of finding. The real challenge is in drawing back the green veil of a hedgerow, wood or field, and identifying its useful parts.

Let me give you an example: There is a charming little plant called sweet woodruff.

It is beloved of foraging chefs and barmen for its sweet vanilla-meets-hay scent that infuses remarkably well into syrups and spirits – who needs tonka beans? As an excitable forager-chef I was eager to explore its delights (it makes a mean zubrowka) and kept what I thought was a keen eye out for it in my travels around the UK.

Some common, tasty plants gathered around the house

Here’s how I learned this…

After a year or so I was delighted to discover it in a woodland edge in NE Scotland – about 5 hours drive from my home. No matter – I was delighted to have finally run down my quarry, and it barely mattered that I might only be able to harvest it once a year.

About a year later while exploring a large woodland about 50 miles from home I found it again. Rejoice – I’ll be by a few times a year to harvest.

6 months later, and I pull into a layby about 10 minutes drive from home that I’ve stopped in a hundred times before. This time I happen to need a pee and pop through the hedge for some privacy… Lo and behold! Sweet woodruff! (I didn’t pee on it!) How had I overlooked it all these years?

Just a few months ago, several years after my first momentous discovery all those miles away, I take a wander up the lane by my garden, squeeze through a hole in the wall and down to the riverbank. And there, bold as brass, basking less than 3 minutes walk from my kitchen is a swarm of sweet woodruff…

The not-so-elusive sweet woodruff, galium odoratum

The lesson here is obvious: “Don’t search. See.”

With this in mind, I have taken a much greater interest in the close environs of my house.

I estimate that, over the course of a year, I can harvest 200 different wild ingredients within 15 minutes walk of my kitchen. On a bike, I can reach the coast in the same timescale, increasing the list to about 350.

I’m fortunate to live in a rural valley with a rich and varied landscape. But a similar experiment in the west end of Glasgow unlocked over 100 ingredients, including dozens of indigenous aromatics, bitters, sours and natural acidifiers.

So my advice to any aspiring forager is to start at home. Fathom out flower beds, research riverbanks and unpick your park. Challenge yourself to make a balanced drink just from what you find there. You will be pleasantly surprised and almost certainly driven to new levels of creativity.

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