Many wild plants are both edible and delicious (check out the Fascinating Experiments Nature section if you’re curious). Others, as with kitchen herbs, should not be eaten in large quantities but are great as an occasional seasoning.
Here are ten excellent and delicious wild plants that you can use as seasonings to augment the flavor of your food, in reverse order of deliciousness.
But first, a word of caution. While the herbs on this list are safe to eat in small quantities, as with many kitchen herbs, some of these plants should be eaten sparingly and infrequently. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, don’t take any chances — avoid them altogether. And ALWAYS make absolutely certain you’ve identified the plant correctly before picking (consult a good guide book and make sure the description precisely matches what you’ve found, right down to the precise shapes and scent of the leaves, stems and flowers).
To the uninitiated, wild plants may seem like a minefield due to the danger of confusing them with poisonous species. However, once you get to know your way around wild plants, they become as distinct to you as old friends. Each plant is really very different from every other when you look closely. Until you get to that stage, really don’t take any chances.
Wild chervil grows absolutely everywhere in temperate climates, sporting ‘umbels’ of small white flowers. Picked when young, it tastes somewhat like parsley — if you’ve got a good imagination. Try it with fish or make parsley sauce. Whatever you do, don’t confuse it with hemlock or fool’s parsley, which also have umbels of white flowers. If you’re going to pick this plant, either get to know it in detail and thoroughly — know the shape of the leaves, their smell, the shape of its stem etc — or grow your own from seed. But having said that, it’s so ubiquitous that growing your own seems a bit mad. Just don’t take any chances with identifying it.
Ground ivy is an intriguing little plant with a scent that hovers between strange and delightful (rub the leaves between your fingers and sniff). It has little purple flowers in early summer. Dried, it has been used in tea, which is possibly the best use for this plant — either that or potpourri. You can find it growing in shady places, and if you live in the UK or a temperate part of the US or Europe, you can bet there’s some not far away from you right now. It’s not terribly good for your health in large quantities so keep for occasional herbal teas. (OK, when I say ten delicious wild seasonings, I probably should have said eight delicious ones and two dubious ones ….)
Another incredibly common plant, mugwort is closely related to wormwood, the somewhat neurotoxic flavoring of absinthe. You can use it as a seasoning for fish or meat, but don’t eat too much because it’s just as bad for you as wormwood. It’s used in a number of Japanese dishes, according to Wikipedia. If you’re brave you could steep it in vodka, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Possibly the best use for it is as potpourri, or just rub it between your fingers and inhale the delightful scent as you enjoy your country walk. The scent is a little sharp like mint or sage, but quite unique.
Also known as garlic mustard, this is a garlic-scented relative of the cabbage. Like other brassicas, it has small four-petaled flowers in April and May, white in this case. Pick the leaves when young; they are fairly distinctive and smell strongly of garlic. As far as I know, this one’s completely safe to eat in quantity. Use the young leaves in salads or sandwiches, or rub them over anything that you want to taste of garlic. You won’t have much trouble finding this herb; it grows in fields everywhere.
Another very distinctive and common plant, and another one not to go overboard with and to avoid if you’re pregnant. Tansy has a head of pretty yellow flowers in late summer and is traditionally used with eggs, for instance in traditionally-made custard. The site I’ve linked to in the title says that tansy smells a bit like camphor, which isn’t a bad description, but the smell is warmer and more foody than camphor. Tansy also helped to keep our ancestors free from worms. Good to know.
Wild mint is very easy to recognise, particularly since we’re all familiar with the smell of mint. Like all herbs in the mint family (including thyme, rosemary and basil), mint has square stems and heads of really beautiful little flowers at the right time of year, typically pink-purplish. There are various kinds of wild mint, from water mint to apple mint to the sharp-scented spearmint. They’re all pretty good. Make your own mint sauce by chopping finely and adding vinegar, make it into sweets with icing sugar, or just drop a few sprigs in your favourite tipple.
Wild Sorrel (not to be confused with the potentially toxic and completely different wood sorrel) is a common weed in many places. It contains too much oxalic acid (apparently) to be eaten safely in anything other than small quantities, which is a shame because the flavor is really magnificent. Eat with fish, but only a little and not regularly! Oxalic acid isn’t poisonous in the way that, say, lead is poisonous; lots of foods contain some oxalic acid — the trouble is that too much of it will lead to calcium deficiency or give you kidney stones. So go easy. But certainly taste wild sorrel at the very least; it has a wonderful lemony flavor. Incidentally, wood sorrel is a delightful little woodland plant with a similar taste and a very different appearance, but wood sorrel is too poisonous to use as a herb (too much oxalic acid); but again it’s worth tasting.
Wild rose is common and easy to spot when in flower. The scent of the flowers seems to vary from strong to absent. The flower petals are edible and look great sprinkled on salads. Of course you could also use them to make sweets, (cf. turkish delight) or float them on a bowl of punch. Or drop them in your bath — whatever floats your boat. The fruits that appear after the flowers are also edible provided you take care to remove the “itching powder” inside that makes up most of their weight. Rose “hips”, as the fruits are known, are a great source of vitamin C and residents of Britain were encouraged to collect them during the most recent war with the Germans to make rose hip syrup. But personally I’d stick to the petals — I made syrup once and wasn’t impressed. It tasted — well, revolting. I’m not sure why.
Wild garlic is often found growing in acidic deciduous woodland; the leaves have such a strong garlicky scent that you can often smell the stuff just driving past woodlands in your car. The leaves are edible and you can use them to make salads, soup or garlic pesto; the bulbs are also edible but, unlike cultivated garlic, very slender and inconsequential. Use wherever you’d use garlic. Delicious!!
To me, this plant is the most magical of wild herbs. You can often find it growing on quiet grassy hillsides, where it produces small purplish flowers in summer. Although it likes warm climates and grows prolifically in parts of Italy, I’ve also found it in Wales and England, and it can be found plentifully as far north as Scotland. Wild thyme is a relative of mint, and has similarly-shaped flowers and square stems, but it’s smaller than mint and creeps low to the ground. I don’t know what it is about this plant that captures my imagination so; maybe it’s the unique, fragrant but very foody and mouth-watering scent, combined with its low-profile and beautiful little flowers. And the way it always seems to grow in the nicest of places; this plant has taste in more ways than one. Use it where you’d use its cultivated relative, for example in stews. As with cultivated thyme, it’d probably make you ill if you ate it like a vegetable. So don’t. But as a seasoning it’s excellent and quite unique.