Friday, 13 April 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - April - Set One

I trust you have enjoyed your first month of gently getting into plant recognition and can remember the useful and edible parts. If you're not keeping up, then just stick to one set a month. Remember, it's better to remember few than to forget many. I imagine some of you have looked up a few extra plants or a few more facts about the ones we've covered so far. Hopefully you've found most of them and that some of you lucky ones have been able to locate some morels.

If you've come in half way through, then please do take a read through the archives to see what you've missed.

As the month has progressed, the Nettles will have grown and it's now worth remembering that as they grow chemicals build up in the lower leaves that can cause stomach upsets, so we stick to the top couple of sets of leaves. The Beech trees may have started producing leaves which at this stage can be eaten raw, having a nutty taste. Most of the Jew's Ears will now be dry, but remember, they can be rehydrated. Navel wort will be abundant where established and the new growth will be consistently preferable to the old. Ash buds will likely be exploding into quite distinctive plumes which can be seen from quite a distance. The Morels will still be hiding.

Remember not forget these species, giving yourself a constant reminder and you pass them day to day. Relay the facts in your mind or out loud and try to spot them from a distance. You should continue to analyse habitat and by doing so, you'll begin notice companion plants.

And so to the first set for April. Again a tree, plant and fungus. This time there is not a lot to eat, but these plants build on what we've learnt so far and start to tell us more about our environment and how plants can give us clues.

Tree - Sallow (Pussy Willow or Goat Willow)

Male Sallow Catkins
The leaves are starting to come out and though they are a good identifier, some are very similar. One of the easiest, albeit short lived, identifiers for trees is their catkins which are clusters of small flowers which ultimately turn to seed at which point they become a rather good natural tinder.

Male Sallow catkins form early in the year and are spray yellow all over the leafless branches. The females are more sedately green, but larger. Pollen is distributed by wind, insects and birds and seeds ultimately by wind, so you can often find many Willows, both male and female in one area. With no leaves, it's now time to start taking note of structure and bark.

Female Sallow Catkins
Habitat is generally moist earth, be it river banks, reed beds or even ditches. As an indicator of wet ground, they represent somewhere you do not particularly want to camp. Note also that fallen willow can often have taken on some of this moisture.

All of the willows have a good for making baskets, hurdles and flexible enough to be used as a form of wire. Willow bark is also quite tough and good for binding and also contains salicin, the precursor to asprin. Not being very hard, it's a fast burner and often crackles whilst throwing out plenty of sparks. It's actually grown as a biomass fuel. Additionally it's good for making charcoal, and cricket bats.

As time progresses, note the developing leaves which are consistent between males and females and somewhat rounder than other willow species.

Plant - Gorse

Gorse Flowers
Gorse flowers early and as a shrub it is quite obvious. Get up close and you'll find Gorse is very spiky indeed. It's hardy and can stand the weather, this is why it can be found extensively along the coast, along with Heather. It does, however, need plenty of sunlight. With this in mind, one might like to consider its location as exposed and not ideal for shelter (pun intended).

When picked in direct sunlight, Gorse flowers taste of coconut, other than that, they have a inoffensive sweet grass taste. They can be eaten raw or made into a tea, or wine, for that matter.

As an evergreen, they can be a source of food for local fauna and may be a good place to start winter tracking exercises. When dead, the thin branches make an excellent natural tinder.

Fungus - Cramp Balls (King Alfred's Cakes)

Cramp Balls
One of the many tinder fungi, this one is a Bushcraft favourite. It can be used straight from the tree. I generally break it in half to ensure it's brittle, since a moist tinder is pretty useless. You will generally find that those with broken shells have got a bit squishy inside and are no good. 

Cramp balls can be found on dead wood,  generally Ash, but also live Ash. Since we've already been taking note of Ash, we can start using it as for an indicator for Cramp Balls, as well as Cramp Balls as an indicator for Ash. 

Be careful how you store these, since they have a tendency to spore black everywhere.

Pop quiz ... are the Cramp Balls in the photo on dead Ash or something else?

So there you have a new set of things to look for, but once again, don't forget the others. As I'm sure you can see, the choices I've made might not be the most obvious, but hopefully encourage you to start taking more notice of habitat as well as companion and indicator species.

This month is rife with plants flowering and many of the leaves will start to show on trees. Identification will start to take a different tack. Thankfully, there are some tasty treats on offer from some absolutely unmissable. 

Happy foraging and keep an eye out for complementarity articles.

REMEMBER: Do no pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal.

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