• di_wack

12 May : Walk - Edible wild plants

Updated: Apr 22

with Robin Harford in St Swithun's Churchyard, Woodbury.

Robin Harford shows how it's done - identifying plants by smell

Possibly it was slightly controversial to invite a forager to talk to us in the churchyard, but as a historic site it is a fine habitat for a rich variety of wild plants - despite the fact that there had been some ill-timed mowing only a few days before! However, one of the key lessons of Robin’s talk was that foraging is about gathering ‘a little of a lot’, compared with farming which harvests ‘a lot from a little’.

Another main point was learning to know plants directly ourselves, through observation and sensation - crushing leaves and rubbing them to release their oils, then assessing them by scent before tasting - trusting our own ‘gut reactions’ as the best guide. Robin told how he once took some wild plants to renowned local chef Michael Caines, and was surprised to see that he did exactly the same with the leaves - assessing them by scent to decide how he might use them in cooking, without even tasting them.

The churchyard and lane behind it yielded a fantastic range of wild plants which Robin discussed in great detail, and he was careful to distinguish between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ plant groups.

Speaking more generally about ecology, he pointed out that wild plants have been in existence for about 400 million years, and modern humans a mere 200,000. After the last Ice Age there were only around 150 plant species in the British Isles, and there are now around 5000 - which begs the question what we mean by 'native' and 'non-native' - or even 'invasive' - species. He talked about humans’ role in ecosystems (humans as 'grazing animals and pollinators'), and the need to take that into account in modern approaches to conservation. And he also spoke about the role that some plants have in cleaning up degraded soils, and that plants that colonise areas of human habitation probably contain some element that not only the soil needs, but humans, too.

This reaction to Robin’s talk was typical:

  • “It was a very enjoyable afternoon and I had no idea before how many plants could be used in the way he described. He was a brilliant speaker, too.”

Robin Harford describes himself as an ethno-botanical researcher, exploring the relationship between humans and plants. His website is a guide to the wild edible plants of Britain.

Other wildflower walks are planned by us in the summer. Medical herbalist Melanie Shaw will lead a walk in Woodbury village on Sun 23 June, and there will be two walks on Woodbury Common on Thurs 4 July with Sam Bridgewater of the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, and on Sun 21 July with David Allen of the Botany Section of the Devonshire Association. Details to follow here soon. The walks are on a donation basis, but as numbers are limited it will be necessary to book, here.