It's not always necessary to stray far to find wild edibles. Take a closer look at the plant pots, paving and borders in your own back garden and you may discover some of the best spring salad leaves lurking in plain sight.
Hedge garlic (Alliara petiolata)
Other common names: garlic mustard, Jack-by-the-hedge, poor man's garlic
Season: most of the year This shade-loving brassica begins to grow in abundance from early spring, usually in hedgerows or under trees. The leaves, which smell faintly of garlic when crushed, can be eaten raw in salads or also lightly steamed. Although it is not an allium, its genus name Alliaria means “resembling allium”, in reference to its onion/garlic odour.
Hedge garlic attracts a bit of a Marmite response — some people love it while around one in 10 will experience a strong unpleasant aftertaste after chewing the leaves. Tossing the leaves in an oil and vinegar-based salad dressing usually overpowers any unpleasant flavour, however.
Its small, white flowers appear from April to June and can also be sprinkled through salads for visual interest. After the plant has flowered, its seeds appear in pods of 10-20. These can be collected for use as a mustard-flavoured seasoning or ground down with a pestle and mortar to make a rustic wholegrain mustard, which can be useful in wild salad dressings.
Hedge garlic is a biennial whose leaves form a basal rosette in the first year before growing a spike in its second year, when the leaves become more pointed. Leaves are best collected in the plant’s first year or from the top of older plants.
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)
Other common names: hoary bittercress, flick weed, lamb's cress, hot weed, spring cress, popping cress
Season: most of the year.
Hairy bittercress is often viewed as a nuisance - or "weed" - by gardeners because it is vigorous - appearing between cracks in paving or brick, in bare soil or in light grass. Its spread is facilitated by its explosive method of seed dispersal that has also earned it the name "popping cress". This very common member of the brassica family makes a choice salad leaf, however, and it's useful for foragers as it can be found in a wide range of otherwise hostile habitats. In the UK, it will go through its life cycle several times throughout the year but is at its peak in the late winter and spring.
Its scientific name Cardamine comes from the Greek Kardamon, meaning cress-like and it will add a cress or rocket-like flavour to salads. It is also great in sandwiches and is ideal for pepping-up scrambled eggs or egg mayonnaise. Both the flowers and leaves are edible, but the flower stalks tend to be woody. It is best eaten raw or otherwise it can lose its flavour.
Hairy bittercress has been used in folk medicine across a range of cultures. In the Nordic countries, it is also said to have been used as a de-wormer for livestock (Githiori et al., 2005).
Smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)
Other common names: Sow-thistle, hare's colwort, milky tassel, swinies, hare's thistle, hare's lettuce, thallak, common sow-thistle
Season: spring to autumn
Like hairy bittercress, this is a cosmopolitan leaf that can often be found growing in your own back yard, finding its home in plant pots, on waste ground and in other disturbed areas. Although sow-thistle is widely considered a "weed", its species name oleraceus means "from the vegetable garden" in Latin.
As its common names suggests, it is favoured by pigs and hares but is also a choice salad leaf for humans, although it can be eaten raw or cooked. It is one of the species eaten in Chinese cuisine as kŭcài or "bitter vegetable" but it is mainly only after flowering that the plant becomes unpalatably bitter. It is a source of vitamins A, B and C, and minerals including iron, potassium and calcium, as well as being relatively high in protein.
The plant throws up its flower stalk between June and August, producing a yellow flower that resembles a smaller version of a dandelion — understandable as the species belongs to the dandelion tribe (Cichorieae) of the daisy family (Asteraceae). Like the dandelion, its root can also be used to make coffee.
It has been used in folk medicine in cultures as widespread as the Native Americans and Maori, where its uses have included the treatment of diarrhoea (despite the fact that its stem juice is thought to be a laxative) and to bring on menstruation.
Ground elder (Aegopodium podograria)
Other common names: bishop’s weed, goutweed, gout wort, snow-in-the-mountain, English masterwort, wild masterwort
Season: leaves are best picked from early spring until May
Ground elder’s quick-spreading rhizomes might make it a nightmare for gardeners to get rid of but for foragers this is a useful leaf for salads and sauces. It was first introduced to Britain by the Romans as a pot herb and has a remarkably similar flavour to parsley. It can also be used the same way and eaten either cooked or raw.
Ground elder is a member of the Apiaceae (carrot) family and is unrelated to elder (Sambucas nigra) but is so called because of its similar-shaped leaves. The leaves are best eaten in the spring when they are young and tender. Although all parts of the plant can be consumed, including the flowers, as it ages its medicinal properties are enhanced. After it flowers in May to June, it should only be eaten in moderation because of its increased diuretic, laxative and soporific effects.
As its common names “goutweed” and “bishop’s weed” indicate, ground elder was used in folk medicine as a treatment for gout (‘bishop’s weed” because bishops were thought to be prone to this condition, because of a tendency for over-indulgence). Ground elder’s main compounds are polyacetylenes (such as falcarinol and falcarindiol), which have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, although it is also recognised as a source of vitamins and macro-nutrients including iron, copper, manganese, calcium and potassium (Jakubczyk et al., 2020).
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Other common names: starweed
Season: all year
Chickweed is a weak-stemmed plant that gets its scientific name, Stellaria, from its small, white, star-shaped flowers. Its common name is derived from the feeding of it to caged birds in the 19th century. It is a member of the Caryophyllaceae family — the pinks or carnations — and is widespread throughout most of the world.
Chickweed’s flavour is spinach-like and mildly salty and it is used as both a salad leaf and a cooked green. Nutritionally, it contains vitamins A, C, potassium, calcium and iron (Stark et al., 2019). Its early appearance has led it to be one of the ingredients in the symbolic seven-herb dish of the Japanese spring-time festival, Nanakusa-no-sekku (Japanexperience.com, 2017).
Chickweed is well known to gardeners as a prolific "weed" (we prefer pioneer plant) that is often one of the first to colonise broken soil. It is able to grow and flower all year round, although its seedlings sprout most frequently in spring and autumn. It’s a reliable spring leaf as it can tolerate low light levels and has been known to survive down to temperatures as low as -10. It can also easily be grown in pots on a kitchen windowsill, should you chose to cultivate it.
In British and Irish folk medicine, chickweed has been used for the alleviation of skin ailments. It is associated with accelerating the wound healing process and emollient properties (Furey & Kingston, 2010). Its secondary metabolites are thought to have anti-obesity, antifungal, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antidiabetic and anxiolytic affects (Oyebamiji & Oladeji, 2020).
The leaves contain saponins, which are toxic but poorly absorbed by the human body and are found in many plants. It is best to avoid consuming them in excessive quantities, however.
de Paula Filho, G. X., Barreira, T. F., & Pinheiro-Sant’Ana, H. M. (2022). Chemical Composition and Nutritional Value of Three Sonchus Species. International Journal of Food Science, 2022, 1–9.
Furey, A., & Kingston, R. (2010). Looking backward to find the path forward. Pharmacognosy research, 2(3), 121–124.
Oladeji, O. S., & Oyebamiji, A. K. (2020). Stellaria media (L.) Vill.- A plant with immense therapeutic potentials: phytochemistry and pharmacology. Heliyon, 6(6), e04150.
Jakubczyk, K., Janda, K., Styburski, D., & Łukomska, A. (2020). Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria L.) – botanical characteristics and prohealthy properties. Postępy Higieny I Medycyny Doświadczalnej, 74, 28–35.
Stark, P. B., Miller, D., Carlson, T. J., & de Vasquez, K. R. (2019). Open-source food: Nutrition, toxicology, and availability of wild edible greens in the East Bay. PloS one, 14(1), e0202450.
Nanakusa no sekku: the festival of seven herbs | Japan Experience. (2017, January 5). Www.japan-Experience.com.
Githiori, J. B., Höglund, J., & Waller, P. J. (2005). Ethnoveterinary plant preparations as livestock dewormers: practices, popular beliefs, pitfalls and prospects for the future. Animal Health Research Reviews, 6(1), 91–103.
Always make sure you are 100% sure of your identification before consuming any plant or mushroom