The Adventures of Urban Foraging in London!
Sometimes it's easy to feel as though new and interesting wildlife adventures aren't available in our everyday environments in local cities and urban areas; however, you can usually discover really fascinating and often edible plant life growing everywhere, even near some cemeteries! I know it doesn't sound like you should be hanging around cemeteries foraging for food and definitely doesn't sound tantalising for the tastebuds, so let me explain.
Here's one of my adventures as a wildlife enthusiast and photographer...
Location: Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, London. All photos taken by Mala Vadgama @mkvphotography.
Planning a Forage
Planning a foraging tour or class is a great way to learn about some of the surprising things growing around your local area or along your travels. I have always wanted to learn about how to forage wild edible plants as I have a keen interest in various forms of plant life and organisms but couldn’t find any tours or classes near my local area. So when a friend found this Tower Hamlets Urban Foraging Tour, I jumped at the chance to begin the foraging adventure and learn more. A professional foraging teacher and member of The Association of Foragers (an international body of professional foragers which helps to maintain safe practices and standards) James Grant led the tour; this wasn't just a random cemetery walk and a rummage around!
James had a world of knowledge about foraging wild plants, flowers, fruits and fungi which was extremely important for us as beginners because some plants can be poisonous and lead to life-threatening illnesses if eaten or ingested. He showed us how edible plants can grow anywhere, even in darker areas or on fallen tree branches. The Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is surprisingly an urban woodland nature reserve of 31 acres so it is vast in its wild vegetation which allowed us plenty to learn about.
There are laws and regulations in place in the UK (namely 'The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981') which may prevent foraging in certain protected areas so it is always a good idea to check beforehand where possible. Very often there are signs at the entrance of a park which state whether personal foraging is allowed. Other countries and wildlife parks/areas will have their own set of laws and regulations.
Bear in mind, even if you are an expert at foraging, you still need to apply for permission to forage at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
Top Tip 1!
If you can't afford to go on a foraging course or tour with an expert, you can start by taking photographs with a phone camera (if you have one) & use image recognition technology such as Google Lens to help you discover the name of the plant. Again, be careful with this as some plants look VERY similar and may be poisonous, plus we all know from sci-fi movies how technology can sometimes fail us in big ways (think 'I,Robot', 'Minority Report' or 'Terminator')! Or keep it simple & borrow a book from a library for free to learn more.
What We Foraged
Wild Fennel (pic 2 above) - Commonly found everywhere in the UK including roadsides! Can grow higher than a metre! Full of vitamins & minerals like manganese, iron & zinc.
Garlic mustard - A wild herb with small white flowers, thrives in shady areas. High in vitamins A & C, plus chlorophyll & enzymes.
Sweet violets (pic below) - Wildflowers with edible flowers. Less common due to culinary foraging.
Turkey tail mushrooms - Contain vitamins B3 & D. Used in Asia for healing purposes for centuries. Fan-shaped.
Lunaria (last pic below) - Beautiful plant reminds me of a silver chandelier/mobil. The silver seeds have a spicy mustard flavour.
Oyster mushrooms - Quite common to find in many woods, especially on hardwood trees. Usually grey, silver or brown. High in minerals.
White dead-nettle - Common everywhere including roadside, hedgerows & woodlands. Makes lovely tea sometimes used in alternative medicine for skin or gut issues.
Pollia Japonica - In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) this is often used to encourage kidney Qi & treats conditions such as back pain & injuries from knocks & falls.
*Bare in mind allergies, illnesses & other conditions if trying any of these for the first time.
I found these interesting recipes that use some of the ingredients you may find when foraging. I haven't tried them yet so will let you be adventurous with wild experimenting & exploring recipes!
Garlic Mustard & Spinach Saag: https://veryveganval.com/2021/04/15/garlic-mustard-and-spinach-saag/
White Dead Nettle Tea: https://soothe-me.com/white-dead-nettle-tea/
Vegan Meaty BBQ Oyster Mushrooms: https://www.avantgardevegan.com/recipes/cola-bbq-meaty-mushroom-steaks/ Gaz Oakley's YouTube channel is one of my personal favourites.
Top Tip 2!
Take a macro lens or use the zoom on a phone camera to capture the tiny details of the small insects, molluscs, fungi & plants interacting. These are some of my favourite photos to take as they are like magical tiny ecosystems that you can look at in detail when home. Look at this cheeky little slug below, I think he's taken a bite of the mushroom and is going back for seconds! If you don't have a camera, take a notepad to write or sketch your foraging findings - there's usually a lot of valuable info to take in.
Sharing The Planet
It can be easy to get excited on the foraging adventure and want to pick lots of different vegetation when you first start; however, respecting the environment and remembering that we share it with other magical creatures and organisms is important. Nature teaches us so much and shows us how our environments can often adapt to share space, so be mindful of leaving behind enough for the other creatures that exist as essential parts of the ecosystems. It can be helpful to remember the 4 F’s of Fruit, Foliage, Flora and Fungus are usually only allowed for personal consumption in the UK (unless you have a commercial license).
I definitely encourage others like me who have always wanted to engage with nature and their outdoor local environment in new ways to get out there and explore the world of foraging. Learning about plant life in my local area in London is now more of an adventure for me as I come across new foliage all the time, even literally on the cracks of my doorstep! It's a hobby you can engage with on your own or with others. I have found foraging enthusiasts to usually be very happy to share their discoveries.
I hope more people who have not always felt welcomed or have been overtly or subtly pushed out of these outdoor natural spaces due to racism, ableism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia or other prejudices/subconscious biases, also get a chance to engage with foraging. I would love to hear about more inclusivity and diversity in this field to welcome, respect and actively involve all types of people, while also embracing different ways to engage with the environment; just like we try to do with the biodiversity of the earth. Nature is for everyone to share and everyone belongs.
I’ve included a few links to groups/individuals that I have come across that actively work to embrace the journey and dialogue of inclusion in natural spaces at the end of the post.
Final Foraging Tip!
If picking fungi, only take them if they have opened caps as this means they have likely dropped their spores so will be able to germinate and grow more mushrooms for others. Leave the tiny button mushrooms if you can for the tiny organisms such as caterpillars, slugs & other insects (nature needs them). Only collect flowers, leaves, fruits & seeds if there are plenty there. Sustainable foraging is important to allow continued crops.
I hope this post gave you a helpful starting point for a new ‘wild’ adventure!
Finally, some foraging tours offer lunches/dinners/snacks cooked outdoors using the picked ingredients which sounds even more satisfying after a long treasure hunt for ingredients! Some also offer courses in bushcraft, seaweed foraging, wild medicine (herbal), coastal foraging, and more.
Feel free to choose what is right for you and I'm sure you'll find new discoveries right on your doorstep or at least by the roadside (look out for that abundant fennel)!
Good luck & happy discovery in your foraging adventures! Be safe.
Useful Links & Articles (click on the titles):
*Dadima's Chiltern Walks: 'Dadima’s is a friendly, intergenerational walking community, organising monthly walks in the Chilterns (UK), often with inspiring guest speakers. The group aims to encourage people of all cultural backgrounds and all ages to feel welcome in the countryside.'
*Black Women Hiking: Worldwide hiking community with motivational/inspirational posts on Instagram of POC hikers.
*The Nappy Herbalist: Tiktok videos about harvesting and using some homegrown/allotment-grown vegetation.
*Jasmine Isa Quureshi: They are a journalist, writer, photographer, wildlife film-maker, marine biologist, activist and conservationist who speaks about the inclusion/exclusion experiences of being a trans person of colour.
*Peaks of Colour Group: Peak District (UK) based nature-for-healing club by and for people of colour.
*Go Grow With Love: Non-profit social enterprise led by women. With the ethos of traditional African and indigenous skills development to support the creation of sustainable food systems.
*Flock Together: A birdwatching collective for people of colour.
*Article: 'Freedom to Forage: Why is Foraging a Race Issue?' : By Alicia Upton on 7th Sept. 2021. American article with interesting points about the history & current factors relevant to race and foraging.
*Woodland Trust: UK's largest woodland conservation charity.
*Country File: Online countryside magazine. Article on 'Foraging in Britain.