The wild plant collectors of London: foraging in times of lockdown

During daily lockdown walks, urban food collectors in London discover their connection to nature through their taste buds.

“The best way to pick a nettle with your bare hands? Do it quickly!” Explains Izzy “Fizzy” Johnson. From the sunny hedge on the edge of a path in Tottenham in north London, the 24-year-old grabs the young leaves from the upper part of the stem. She skillfully rolls up one of the leaves like a cigarette, with the underside of the leaf upwards. This is how she keeps the needle-like hair that stings and burns when you touch it, away from her skin. Now she can form a plump ball out of the green tissue.

“This is how you eat a raw nettle,” she says, quickly pushing the plant ball between her teeth. And that is the best way to get the maximum nutritional value of a plant that is rich in iron and vitamin A and contains more protein than spinach.

“It tastes like these long green beans to me, but it’s different for everyone, of course,” says Johnson, who usually organizes walks under the name “Benevolent Weeds” to collect edible plants.

A path with nettles, yarrow, elder and other wild plants in north London A path with nettles, yarrow and other wild plants in north London

The lockdown, which began in Britain on March 23 and has since been eased, opened the eyes of many city dwellers – for plants that bloom in their neighborhood in spring and are otherwise simply overlooked. 

In March, urban collectors began to combine their daily allowance for grocery shopping and exercise. They are now collecting, for example, nettles, elderflowers, dandelions, rare spring mushrooms, sour blackberry leaves, anise-like meadow chervil, and plenty of wild garlic from bushes, on river banks and in wetlands.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis began, urban foraging became increasingly popular, says Wross Lawrence, author of “The Urban Forager: Find and Cook Wild Food in the City”.

When Londoners were suddenly confronted with long, empty days and deserted streets and untrimmed hedges, interest in collecting herbs increased. But the biggest change during the lookdown, according to Lawrence, is the change in thinking. “There are definitely more people out there who collect. I get a lot more social media news and a lot of friends to ask me,” What is this or that leaf? Do I pick the right thing? “Said, Lawrence.” I think the lockdown has made people come back into contact with nature. “

Hop plantThe sprout of the hop plant, which is known as an ingredient in beer, can also be eaten raw

Many different people such as restaurant chefs, Instagrammer, children, and pensioners want to learn from experienced collectors on the Internet. They broadcast their collective forays live on social media or share their knowledge – like Johnson – in discussions on the Zoom platform.

Crisis mentality

Kim Walker is something of a “food gathering teacher” and a graduate student at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. He believes there are many reasons why people collect wild plants. “One of those reasons is that we all feel this fear of the future – including the economic future. Where will our food come from? People may now be more interested in knowing what foods are edible in the wild if they are in should come up with a situation where it’s about survival. “

According to a study from 2017, interest in wild food searches reached its peak in a rather difficult time. The study looks at the 2008 recession and highlights how knowledge of foraging can support society’s resilience in social and economic crises.

But most collectors, known as field hunters by scientists, see it as an opportunity to discover their surroundings as the season’s change, to practice mindfulness, to deal with herbal remedies, or to pursue mythical and folkloric stories about native species tendrils, so Walker.

Meadow Chervil and Spotted HemlockMeadow chervil is edible, the similar-looking spotted hemlock is extremely toxic – be careful when looking for food!

“One of the philosophical questions about the origin of this crisis is: How do people live and why do they feel cut off from nature,” says Walker, “and is this also due to the fact that we do not live in harmony with nature?”

Hope and taste

Food supply chains were largely maintained during the crisis. But after the break from hectic nine-to-five everyday life, the Londoners tried to grow vegetables, exchange plants, bake with sourdough and other activities inquisitively to produce food with their own hands instead of buying them commercially.

Many have been guided by their taste buds and picked up on the trend towards urban foraging, including some chefs with a Michelin star. Rick Baker runs the pop-up pizzeria Flat Earth Pizzas in Homerton, east London, which uses organic and home-grown ingredients.

Before the lockdown, Baker was successful in selling a pizza topped with chickweed and nettle tips fried in brown butter. However, he had to respond to the concerns of his customers about the possible dangers from the ingredients that were collected. 

When the restaurants reopen, he hopes for a local food system that can combine the public desire to support small businesses and food workers with the euphoria for local food.

Burdock Bedstraw LondonBurdock ragweed (right) ranks up on a grid – you can also make herbal tea from it

“The industry I work in goes through hell,” says Baker. “Hopefully it’s the new normal that people are more curious. They are more willing to try things out now. They appreciate more what is going on around them.” He hopes that this time of reflection will raise further questions about our food.

“It’s a step-by-step process, people won’t go foraging just like that,” Baker says. “They’ll start growing herbs on the windowsill, or zucchini or whatever. And then you can start asking more questions about where this stuff comes from?”

Recover lost knowledge

London is not the only place where the new appetite for wild food is visible, says Lukasz Luczaj, head of the botany department at the University of Rzeszow, Poland. On his YouTube channel, Luczaj saw an increase in collectors across Europe participating in his lessons.

About 15 years ago, he led food gathering courses in London and found that, unlike Poland and its neighboring countries, the English had lost much of their traditional gathering culture. “Mushroom picking wasn’t very popular in the UK,” says Luczaj. “Perhaps more people will be interested in it after the lockdown.”

Michael Green is a civil engineer and lives on the border from London to the county of Essex. Years ago, he discovered his love for mushroom picking and shares the photos of his finds on Instagram.

Michael Green Collector and civil engineer Michael Green in a bed of nettles and wild plants in Waltham Forest, London

Green works from home during the lockdown and has replaced his otherwise two-hour commute with a long foray through forests and playing fields in northeast London. At the Passover festival, he collected horseradish leaves and distributed them when the shops at the beginning of the Jewish holiday no longer had any bitter herbs that would otherwise be served as part of the seder. 

“I’m so lucky to have this place on my doorstep. It’s like therapy that comes to me,” he says. “It helps me to slow down my everyday life instead of being in a hurry to go somewhere, get the bus, go to work. But now I have an eye for herbs and plants that appear between the paving stones and wildflowers that growing in wasteland. That makes the city more interesting. “

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