The woodlands and hedgerows at this time of year are awash with colour as leaves turn and hips and berries ripen. Never is there a time when nature’s bounty is more evident, with fruits, nuts, seeds and fungi of all types available in abundance. So, stuff a carrier bag in your pocket, grab a pair of scissors or a small pocket knife, and get out and enjoy some crisp autumn air.
Here is The Rooter’s quick guide to the best free pickings.
Blackberries (Rubus fructicosus)
One for the pot, one for the mouth; these plump, sweet fruits are probably the most instantly recognisable of all wild edibles and a source of happy childhood memories for many. The prickly shrub grows untamed in woodlands and hedgerows, along roadsides and on waste ground, and are heavy with ripening fruit from late summer through early autumn. Eat fresh with a generous dollop of thick Greek yogurt, make wine, bake pies and crumbles, or make into chutneys, preserves and bramble jelly. Try a refreshing blackberry sorbet on a warm September afternoon.
Hazelnuts (Corylus cornuta)
This is one food you really will have to race the squirrels for. Found in deciduous woods and old boundary hedgerows where its wood is grown as coppice, the name applies to the nuts of any of the species of the genus Corylus (hazelnuts, cobnuts, filberts) and they’re ripe for picking when the leaves are just beginning to yellow. Give a branch a shake and search the ground below (placing a sheet underneath makes gathering them easier). You can pick them when they’re green and leave them to ripen in a warm, dry, dark place, but remember to move them often and remove the outer shell before eating.
Rosehips (Rosa canina)
Rosehips are the fruits of any plant of the rose family, but those commonly found in the hedgerows in autumn are the dog rose (Rosa canina) and field rose (R. arvensis). These pointed ovals, about 1-2cm long, ripen from green to bright red in from late August onwards, although the best time to harvest them is after the first frost as the frost helps to sweeten the flavour.
Rose hips are sweet, but tart, and are packed with vitamin C, making them ideal for staving off winter coughs and colds. The whole, fresh hips can be used, but the seeds inside have an irritating, hairy covering, which you need to remove during processing. Straining them through a jam bag while making syrup or jelly, is an easy way to get rid of the hairs. You can also use them to make a mild, tangy rose hip tea and fruit leather.
Pick hips that are still firm and leave dried, shriveled fruits for the birds.
Haws (Crataegus monogyna)
The humble hawthorn tree can be found in abundance in woodlands and hedgerows. Its white blossom (May blossom) brightens the landscape in spring, and its round berry bunches (haws) add splashes of lipstick-red throughout the autumn, remaining on the tress until early winter, long after other hedgerow fruits, such as blackberries and sloes, have wizened and fallen.
The fruits have a gentle, apple-like flavour (Richard Mabey, in his 1972 book Food For Free likened the taste to ‘avocado pear’) but they are generally not consumed raw due to the large stone and dry, starchy flesh. They are much better cooked and make excellent jams, jellies and vinegars. Try hawthorn berry ketchup or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s haw-sin sauce.
Sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa)
The European sweet chestnut is a large, long-lived deciduous tree that found its way to Britain thanks to the Romans. Its edible seed, the chestnut, has been used in cooking for millennia and has been widely consumed across Southern Europe, Turkey and southwestern and eastern Asia since ancient times.
Pierce the skins and roast them on an open fire, or try them in stews, stuffings, puddings and desserts. These beautiful, shiny nuts are wonderfully versatile and can be used in an array of both sweet and savory dishes. They are abundant and ready for harvest in late autumn, when they fall to the floor along with the leaves.
Fresh chestnuts must always be cooked before use and are never eaten raw, owing to their high tannic acid content.
Crab apples (Malus slyvestris)
They’re small, sour and they make your mouth pucker. You wouldn’t want to eat one raw, but these diminutive, misshapen cousins of the larger edible fruit still has a range of culinary uses, from jellies and sauces, to pickles and pies.
The Crab apple is a deciduous trees native to most European countries, which fruits from late summer through to October. It can be found in woods and hedgerows, or on old orchard sites.
Just a quick word before you go –
It perhaps goes without saying, but please avoid damaging wildlife habitats or rare species, and check you are allowed to forage in the area before start. Ensure you leave plenty behind for wildlife (who need it more than you do) and only pick from an area with an abundant supply. And lastly, be absolutely sure you can positively identify the plant before you pick it, and never eat any plant or fungi you are unsure of.