Saturday, 20 December 2014

Hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Hemp (Cannabis sativa) is an annual plant from the Cannabaceae family. It is native to central and western Asia. Hemp has been used throughout the world by different cultures for thousands of years. It was probably known more for its use as a fibre than anything else.

Different varieties are grown for different purposes. Hemp grown for edible seed, fibre and oil is different from that grown for marijuana which contains high levels of the psychoactive compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.

Unfortunately, in recent history the growing of hemp for recreational drug use has rather demonised this plant and overshadowed its value for other uses such as food and fibre.

An image of cannabis sativa leaves. Wikimedia Commons
Cannabis sativa. Wikimedia Commons

Growing hemp

Hemp is easy to grow and when it does, it grows vigorously. Seed is usually sown annually in the spring. Plants require good soil moisture for the first six weeks but do not like overly wet soils or flooding. Hemp can grow from 1 to 5 metres in height.

Spacing of the seed depends on the end use. Generally hemp grown for fibre is planted densely to maximise the fibre yield encouraging tall plants with less branching and flowering. This dense planting discourages the growth of weeds and weeding is usually only required in the early stages of growth. Plants are harvested between early flowering and the setting of the seed. Hemp grown for seed are sown further apart to encourage branching and flowering. Hemp for seed is cut when 70% of the seed are mature. Dual or dwarf hemp seed varieties are also available which are grown primarily for seed and a small amount of straw for fibre.

Pests which may attack the plant include the flea beetle (Phyllotreta nemorum) but because plants are fast growing control measures are rarely necessary. Fungal infections such as Botrytis cinerea and Sclerotinia sclerotiorum may affect plants but hemp is unlikely to require the use of chemical fungicides.

Raw food suppliers sell viable seed for sprouting and growing. See Issues (below) regarding the legality of growing hemp in the UK. Other countries may hold different legal positions entirely so do check before unwittingly embarking on a life of crime.

An image of hemp seed with the shell (hulled)
Hemp seed with the shell (hulled)

Other uses

Hemp has thousands of uses. It is more commonly used to make paper, rope, yarn, cloth, bio-mass and bio-diesel. It has a long history and great range of medicinal uses. Hemp is a valuable plant to grow for wildlife providing food (seed) and habitat. In majority countries where fuel may be scarce and food security is a concern, the introduction of a dual-purpose crop such as hemp to meet food, shelter, and fuel requirements may significantly help preserve biodiversity.

Raw edible parts

Hemp has raw edible leaves and seed. The seed can be eaten shelled, unshelled or sprouted. The seed can also be pressed to make an edible oil and made into a milk. The pungent leaves can be made into a tea. The outer shell is rich in minerals and is used as a remedy for constipation. A raw hemp protein powder is also available from various companies and makes a useful addition to raw smoothies, cakes and breakfast cereals. Hemp seed contains a great range of nutrients including all essential amino acids.

An image of hemp seed without the shell (dehulled)
Hemp seed without the shell (dehulled)


At the time of writing a license is required from the Home Office to grow hemp in the UK even if you only want to eat it and not smoke the stuff! Unfortunately, this does serve to deter the home grower from growing and using the plant for edible seed and leaves.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Raw Edible Wild Plants - UPDATED Ebook for 2014-15

Originally published in 2011, this updated 2014 edition contains information on more than 100 wild plants, 40 colour photographs and new chapters on sea vegetables and fungi. All plants listed can be found in the British Isles and other places too, including much of Europe and parts of North America.

An image of the front cover of Raw Edible Wild Plants for the British Isles by Amanda Rofe

Raw Edible Wild Plants explains why we should be eating wild plants, which parts of these plants can be safely eaten raw and guidelines on foraging. Raw wild plants are unadulterated, unprocessed and unpackaged. They are locally grown and in season. Unlike today's modern hybrids, which are unable to grow without a great deal of help and persuasion, wild plants naturally thrive in their local environment.

Raw wild plants are high in nutrition. They provide us with beneficial nutrients that are lacking in today's fast growing, highly processed and over cooked food. These plants are organically grown and completely natural. They are also completely free so are ideal for those on a low income or tight budget. Wild plants are the ultimate sustainable survival food but suitable for every day use.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)

Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is also known as earth apple, sunchoke, sunroot, girasole and topinambour. From the Asteraceae family, this perennial plant looks very much like a sunflower and is grown for its sweet crunchy tubers. A native of North America, it was cultivated by native American indians long before Europeans settled in the region.

An image of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) plants
Jerusalem artichoke plants

Growing methods

Jerusalem artichokes are usually propagated vegetatively via tubers. Rhizomes, slips or cuttings can also be used. Easy to grow, Jerusalem artichokes will produce copious amounts of tubers. They only have to be planted once and they will continue producing tubers for many years to come. They can be grown in any soil or climate, and in full sun or partial shade. They probably do best in well dug fertile soil. Plant tubers at about 10cms in depth in the spring or the autumn in a permanent position.

To grow from seed, sow seeds in the spring under cover. Prick emerging seedlings out into individual pots and keep them undercover for their first year. Plant out into permanent positions the following spring or summer. Basal cuttings can be taken in the spring. Harvest shoots when they are 10-15cms long with plenty of underground stem. Pot them up and keep in light shade under cover until they root. Plant them out in the summer.

Jerusalem artichokes are tall plants so make sure they don't shade any other plants out. They can be mulched and watered and pretty much left to their own devices. They can also be mulched in the winter to stop the ground freezing in the winter and allowing easy harvesting. They are not frost tender.

An image of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) tubers
Jerusalem artichoke tubers

Tubers can be dug up at anytime but leave in the ground until required rather than lifting and storing. The tubers don't store well but if you have to place them in sand or peat to help retain the moisture. They have a thin skin which can easily be damaged allowing water to escape.Always leave a few in to continue the crop. The tops die down in the autumn and emerge again the spring. Cutting back the stems to just over 1m including the flowers helps to prevent the need for staking. We keep the flowers and stake where necessary as the flowers are very attractive. When foliage dies cut the stems down to about 8cm and leave on top as a mulch. Only water if really dry. It is recommended to replant in a different site every few years as the tubers will reduce in size. However, it really is up to the individual. There are now many named varieties to choose from.

Beware of slugs which may attack the young growth. Plants can be attacked by bacterial and fungal diseases later in the season or during storage. Sclerotina, a fungal disease, where plants rot at the base, may be a problem. To deal with this destroy infected plants. However, the disease may remain in the soil for a long time.

Raw edible parts

The white tubers have a crispy nutty flavour and can be eaten raw. They are often cooked in recipes and used in all the ways potatoes are used.

Other uses

Even if you don't eat the tubers, the flowers are stunning and the plant can be used as screening. Jerusalem artichoke can also be grown for biomass. The tubers are used in the production of inulin, ethanol and a sweetener. They can also be made into a coffee substitute. Jerusalem artichoke also has medicinal uses.


The inulin in Jerusalem artichokes can cause flatulence in some people. The amounts of inulin in the tubers varies. Inulin will depolymerize during storage, whether harvested or left in situ (Schorr-Galindo and Guiraud, 1997). Tubers, therefore, used late in the season, may be less of a problem for the digestive system. Another answer to the problem is to gradually increase the quantity of Jerusalem artichokes in the diet as the body does get used to the inulin over time.

Research on growing during the dry season in tropical regions showing that planting Jerusalem artichoke during lower temperature periods (10 -16°C) reduced total dry weight and inulin content, whereas inulin content increased when planted during warmer periods (21-31°C). AJCS 6(7):1159-1165(2012).

As a point of interest, chicory is also high in inulin.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Beech nuts (Fagus sylvatica)

It is now September and the beech nuts are ready for picking so we thought we would revisit the beech tree and provide some photographs of these little beauties. See beech (Fagus sylvatica) for the main article about these lovely trees.

An image of beech nuts hanging on a beech tree
Beech nuts hanging on the tree

We have very many beech trees of all ages from the very young saplings to the very large mature trees. Many of the larger trees are producing copious quantities of nuts at the moment. Others are producing absolutely nothing at all.

When the time is right, the burr opens up and drops the beech nuts onto the ground. Luckily some of the the nuts drop out onto tarmac and they can be easily swept up with a dustpan and brush! Those that fall into the long grass are lost to us. Some will be eaten by animals such as deer and squirrels, others will take root and grow into small trees or rot into the ground. nb a tarpaulin or other large sheet can be laid down under the trees to collect the nuts.

Here we have a bag of freshly picked beech nuts together with their fuzzy outer burr. The burr is closed and is very difficult, if not impossible, to prise open by hand. However, once the burrs have been left in a warm room for a few hours or days, they will peel open of their own accord. After opening, the two little nuts can easily be popped out.

An image of freshly picked beech nuts with outer casing or burr
Freshly picked beech nuts with outer casing or burr

The triangular shaped nuts are covered with a leathery casing which, thankfully, are not as difficult to remove as the casings from a sweet chestnut! One side of the casing can be fairly easily prised off with a long finger nail and the nut popped out. The nuts are small and the task a bit fiddly and time consuming. Some of the skins will contain a nut (seed) and others will often be empty.

An image of beech nuts with their leathery skin
Beech nuts with their leathery skin

Beech nuts have a brown furry astringent covering which can be eaten in moderation but is best removed.

An image of beech nuts with the brown astringent skin
Beech nuts with the brown astringent skins

We soak the nuts overnight and then just slide the brown skin off. Nuts can then be eaten as they are or dried for later use.

An image of beech nuts soaked and skinned
Beech nuts soaked and skinned

Don't forget that now is the time to sow the fresh beech seeds. Sow in pots outside in a coldframe or in a seedbed and they will germinate in the spring. Seeds are not viable for very long. When the seedlings are big enough prick out into individual pots and grow on for a year before planting out into their final position. Beech trees are very very large so be prepared to find a suitable final planting site for them.

UPDATE: November 2017

We stored a quantity of beech nuts in a plastic container in the kitchen cupboard. We'd love to say we were doing a three year study on storing them. To be truthful we forgot they were there! That said, it was a useful exercise. They were stored minus their outer burr but with their leathery skin. The container was not airtight. The kitchen is rather humid. Warmish in the summer and cold in the winter.

We removed the leathery skin and the brown astringent layer underneath had turned black and dry. Around one in ten of the nuts tasted and smelt stale. The odd one or two were empty. None of them were rotten or contained any pests. The flesh of the 'good ones' tasted sweet and almost as fresh as when we picked them. We were happy to eat them. Not a scientific study. The oil may well have been rancid! Our taste buds may be poor! Interesting all the same.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is a hardy perennial plant native to Europe and Asia. Also known as common wood sorrel, wood sour, fairy bells, cuckoo's meat, and shamrock because of the clover-like leaf. It is an indicator of ancient woodland.

An image of wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) leaves and flowers
Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

Wild foraging

Wood sorrel is relatively easy to spot. It is very low growing and spreads like a carpet. It can often be found in patches or clumps in lightly shaded wooded areas and often grows in mossy areas, particularly on moss covered wood. The leaves are heart shaped and fold in the middle. It flowers from April to May and the flowers are white with light purple veins. Both flowers and leaves close up when the sun goes in and open up when the sun comes out. This plant has no odour but does have a tangy lemon flavour which can be used for identification purposes.

How to grow

Fresh wood sorrel seeds should be sown in pots and placed under cover. Plant out during the following spring. Established plants can be propagated by division. Individual plants are quite small and delicate. They probably do best in pots to get established before they are planted out.

Raw edible parts

Wood sorrel has raw edible flowers, leaves and tubers. The flowers and leaves have a sharp acidic lemony flavour because they are high in oxalic acid. The leaves and flowers make a good addition to a green salad. As a point of interest oca or New Zealand yams (O. tuberosa) also have raw edible flowers, leaves and tubers.

Other uses

Because of the acidity in the plant, it can be used to curdle plant milks. The fresh or dried leaves have many herbal medicinal uses.


Wood sorrel contains oxalic acid so shouldn't be used in large quantities (or at all) by those suffering from kidney disorders, gout or rheumatoid arthritis.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Hosta species

Hostas are herbaceous perennial species from the Asparagaceae family. Other common names include plaintain lily and funkia. In the British Isles they are usually grown as a leafy ornamental plant and are particularly popular for shady areas of the garden. Native to Asia, the hosta genus has around 45 different species and an estimated 5000 different cultivars.

An image of hosta leaves
Hosta species

Hostas are popular in Japan as a vegetable known as urui and prepared in a number of different ways including boiling in water and frying in a tempura batter. The term hosta is named after the Austrian botanist Nicholaus Thomas Host who was a botanist and physician to the Holy Roman Emporer Francis II.

Growing methods

Hostas will not necessarily grow true from seed and take some years to get established. Sow seed in the spring and barely cover the seed with soil. Ensure the soil remains moist. Plants will germinate within a few months. When seedlings have emerged prick them out and pot them on into individual pots. Keep them under cover for the first winter and then plant out the following spring or summer after the first frosts.

Hostas flourish in damp fertile soil, although will do well in most moist soils. They like a mulch spread around the base and this can prevent heave. They grow well in full sun or deep shade. They are in flower from August to September. Although we have read they don't do well competing with the shallow roots of trees our plants are doing well growing around the base of a large old beech tree.

Hostas are generally quite easy plants to grow. Very vigorous and clump forming, they provide a dense carpet crowding out other plants in the borders. Plants can be divided easily at any time of the year. Water well before hand and keep them well watered until they are established. Hostas will hybridize freely.

Slugs and snails love them. Since we don't use any poisons or traps in the garden, our hosta leaves always have a few holes here and there but it doesn't bother us over much. Rabbits and deer are supposed to be attracted to them but we have never found this to be the case. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) in the UK say they are generally disease-free.

Raw edible parts

The shoots, leaf petiole, whole leaves and flowers are edible raw. The fresh leaves and stems are best harvested while young and tender. The older leaves become tough and fibrousy and may become bitter in flavour. Hostas can be used as a cut and come again plant and will readily re-grow their leaves after being chopped down to the base.

All hosta species are edible but H. montana and H. sieboldii are most popularly used for vegetables. H. plantaginea is grown for its sweet flowers. In Japan the species H. montana is also known as oobagiboushi. Ooba means large leaf and giboushi means a type of cylindrical column or ornament used on Japanese bridges. H. montana is found growing wild in the mountains and is also cultivated for the vegetable market. Urui is the word used to describe the young leaves of this particular species.

Hosta stems are often likened to asparagus. The leaves are crunchy and have a good green leafy flavour. Hostas are a good salad plant and should probably be a lot more popular as a vegetable in the UK than they actually are. Hostas are easy to grow, far easier than asparagus that's for sure. They make a good permaculture plant and understorey plant for edible forest gardens.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a deciduous tree native to the British Isles. It is also known as common beech or European beech. Beech trees are one of the largest trees in the British Isles and are typically identified by their smooth grey bark and copper coloured leaves in the winter which hang on the tree until just before new spring growth emerges.

An image of young beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaveswhich are edible raw and used in salads
Young beech leaves are edible raw and used in salads

Hedges are often made of beech and can be treated as evergreen and used as screening. The dense shade and carpet of leaves from these trees often prevents plants underneath from growing. This is particularly the case in a beech wood.

An image of beech (Fagus sylvatica) planted as hedging
Beech planted as hedging

Growing methods

Sow fresh seeds when they are ripe in the autumn in pots outside in a coldframe or seedbed and they will germinate in the spring. Seeds are not viable for very long. When the seedlings are big enough prick out into individual pots and grow on for a year before planting out into their final position. Trees are slowing growing in their first few years and can be susceptible to frosts. Beech trees are shallow rooted and do well in a woodland position.

Other uses

Beech wood can be used to make tools, furniture, flooring and for turning. It is an excellent fuel burning with a great deal of heat. It can also be made into charcoal. It has been used as a source of creosote, tar, methyl alcohol and acetic acid.

The dried leaf buds picked on the twigs in the winter months can be used as toothpicks. The nuts can be used as a food for wild and domestic animals including squirrels, mice, voles, dormice, deer, boar as well as pigs and goats. Horses and ponies enjoy the young spring leaves and buds. Oil from the nuts can be used as lighting fuel, for polishing wood and as a lubricant. The dried leaves can be gathered in the autumn and used for stuffing.

Beech has certain herbal medicinal uses and is used in Bach flower remedies.

An image of mature beech (Fagus sylvatica) trees
Mature beech trees

Raw edible parts

The buds with the young leaves just emerging in the spring are edible raw and are good for salads. They have a slight lemon flavour. Leaves can become chewy as they mature so catch them early on (about now).

An image of the new growing tips of beech trees in the spring which are edible raw
New growing tips in the spring are edible raw

The triangular shaped nuts may be eaten raw but can be small and fiddly to prepare. They are best soaked to remove toxins if eaten in large quantities. They can be dried and used as a flour. They can also be pressed for a very good edible oil which stores well. The nut residue is not edible.

Every five to ten years there is a 'mast' year and a huge number of beech nuts are produced. Inbetween mast years the tree may produce empty shells. Other trees such as oak and pine also have mast years. To eat the nut (seed) remove from the green prickly burr or case and then peel the hard skin away to reveal the nut.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

The nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is a trailing annual plant from the Tropaeolaceae family and is the only genus in this family. It is also known as Indian cress, lark's heel, monk's cress and garden nasturtium. Originating from the Andes region in South America, it has naturalised in parts of North America. Nasturtiums are usually used in the UK as a colourful annual summer flower.

An image of nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) leaves and flowers
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) leaves and flowers

Growing methods

Nasturtiums are easy to grow. Sow seeds in the spring in pots or in the ground in their final position. Seeds will come up quickly, usually within 2 weeks. Thin seedlings out to about 30cm apart. Nasturtiums will flower throughout the summer and into the autumn. The flowers come in various colours including yellow, orange, cream and reds. Leave the flowers to set seed and plenty of plants will come up next year of their own accord. In this way they can be treated as perennials rather than annuals.

Plants like the sun and well drained soil. If they are grown on rich soil then there will be an abundance of leaves but fewer flowers. The poorer the soil, the more flowers will be produced.

Other uses

Nasturtiums are considered a good companion plant in the garden. They will attract insects and butterfly larvae away from other plants and therefore be used as a trap crop. Use them to fill up any empty spaces or gaps in the fruit, vegetable or ornamental garden.

This plant has many herbal medicinal uses and the plant has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and antiseptic qualities. In the Andes it is used as a disinfectant, expectorant and wound healer.

A drying oil can be obtained from the seed which can be used in paints and varnishes.

Raw edible parts

All parts of the plant are edible raw. The taste is peppery, spicy and hot. The flowers are less hot than the leaves. The leaves are less hot than the seed pods. The seed pods are very very hot! The flavour overall is similar to cress.

The leaves, flower buds and flowers can be added to salads. The ridged unripe green seed pods can be eaten raw or pickled in vinegar or salt water to be used in a similar way to capers. The flowers can be added to raw apple cider vinegar to make a peppery nasturtium vinegar. The dried seeds can be ground down to use as a pepper or pressed to make an oil.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Tulips (Tulipa species)

Tulips are spring flowering bulbs from the genus Tulipa in the Liliaceae family. Tulips were first cultivated in Persia (present day Iran) and were thought to have been bought to Europe by Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq, ambassador to Suleiman I of the Otterman Empire (present day Turkey). Throughout the world there are many wild species and these were the proginators of the domesticated tulip. Wild tulips are usually much smaller than the garden hybrids. Wild tulips are also known as species tulips or botanical tulips.

An image of garden tulips (Tulipa spp) by John O'Neill
Garden tulips (Tulipa spp) by John O'Neill

Growing methods

Most, if not all of tulip bulbs, will have been treated intensively with chemicals. Very few are grown organically. In Britain the Organic Gardening Catalogue sell eco bulbs which are completely chemical-free. Those in America should try Eco Tulips for supplies.

Bulbs should be planted in the autumn about 10 – 20 cm deep. Tulip bulbs need a period of vernalization which is a period of cold weather to thrive. They prefer fertile well drained neutral soil, full sun, a long cool spring and a dry summer. They dislike wind and excessively wet conditions.

Wild tulips (Tulipa sylvestris) by Chantal Tasson

To encourage flowering year after year it is recommended to lift and dry the bulbs after flowering. Bulbs prefer to be baked dry in hot conditions during the summer months which is not always possible in the British Isles. Certainly we have seen bulbs in Kent repeatedly flower for years without being lifted each year. Bulbs can be stored in trays or net bags in a warm, dark, well-ventilated area at 18 - 20°C. Replant the stored bulbs in the autumn. Add organic compost when planting and apply more when they start to emerge from the ground. Deadhead the flowers after flowering but don't cut back the leaves. Leave them on the plant until they die back naturally.

The Royal Horticultural Society say that dwarf species such as Tulipa kaufmanniana, T. fosteriana, T. greigii and their hybrids often re-flower without lifting. Gardeners' World say that wild species are as reliable as daffodils at flowering, will cope with extreme weather and bulk up into clumps after a few years. Planting bulbs deep in the ground (about 30cm) will ensure no offsets are produced.

Tulips are propagated using bulb offsets, seeds or micropropagation using plant tissue culture under sterile conditions. Bulb offsets (small bulbs situated around the edge of the main bulb) can be taken and replanted during the dormant season. These will produce a genetic clone of the plant and will usually take at least a year to flower.

Seeds should be sown in the spring and will take several years to produce a flowering plant. Most cultivars are sterile or produce few good seedlings. Tulips hybridize very easily.

Tulips may be affected by various fungal diseases such as Botrytis tulipae.

Raw edible parts

All tulip petals are edible raw. The petals are large, crunchy, colourful and often sweet. The flavour depends on the species and growing conditions. Sometimes the white bit at the base of the petal is a bit bitter so it can just be snipped off.

The bulbs are actually edible but only after removing the outer skin and inner core and even then they have to be cooked. They are considered a famine food and only eaten during times of real hardship. Green Deane from Eat The Weeds says that “ … not all species of Tulipa need to be cooked. The Bedouins ate T. amblyophylla raw.”


Some people have an allergic reaction to tulips. This can be caused by simply touching them. To check for a bad reaction take a small piece of plant material, chew it a little and spit it out. Wait for about 30 minutes and see if there are any side effects such as flushing, sweating, dizziness, rashes or nausea.

Tulip fingers is an allergic contact dermatitis from handling tulip bulbs. It is a common occupational hazard among workers in the European tulip industry.

nb. Daffodils, another popular spring bulb in the British Isles, are not edible.