February is the time of year when we start eagerly anticipating the arrival of spring, while all around us it still looks very much like winter. The weather is unpredictable, swinging between surprisingly warm sunshine, sudden hailstorms and icy winds. The mud is at its heaviest, the ground is waterlogged and much of the plant life around us seems to have died right back.
Yet if you venture outdoors into the wild and look closely, the first signs of spring are all around, with plenty of plants already showing new green shoots alongside the appearance of our favourite early flowers like snowdrops, daffodils and primroses. For fans of foraging, there is actually a surprising amount of wild food available even as early as February – if you know what to look for and where to look for it. Here are five common plants that can be found and eaten from February onwards:
Also known as Wood Garlic or Ransoms, this plant is generally unmistakeable due to its scent of garlic. Commonly found alongside bluebells, this little plant covers whole swathes of woodland floor and hedgerows throughout spring, finishing the growing season with its show of multiple white flower heads around April/May. Visibly, it could also get confused with Lily of the Valley, which is poisonous but does not smell of garlic. The whole plant is edible but the bulbs are tiny and fiddly to work with. Most wild cooks prize the leaves which add a milder garlic flavour to dishes than the domestic garlic we’re used to.
The perfect beginner’s foraging plant as it is easily identifiable and easily found as it grows pretty much everywhere. Considered to be highly nutritious and beneficial to health, the best tasting part of the nettle is the very young leaves and shoots which start appearing about this time. Obviously, the plants do sting, so wear gloves while harvesting. Cook them similar to spinach, blanching or boiling in hot water will deactivate the sting.
Usually regarded as a weed, this small but hardy creeping plant is found in many a garden, hedgerow, waste ground and field margins. The whole plant is nutritious and edible, including its small white star shaped flowers. It has a mild flavour, so doesn’t require cooking and can be simply added to salads.
The gardener’s perennial nemesis, this tough little plant will grow anywhere, especially where it’s not wanted. However, most people don’t realise that it is edible, and like all other edible wild plants, highly nutritious. It is also believed to have diuretic effects. Every part of the plant is edible, the roots, leaves and flowerheads can all be used both raw and in cooked dishes. The leaves can sometimes be a little bitter, so pick the youngest leaves from the centre.
Another very recognisable and common shrub that is found in many places, especially hedgerows, waste ground, moorland and coastal areas. Easily identified by its spiky, spiny branches (which you don’t particularly want to try eating) and the bright yellow, very fragrant flowers which are the only edible part. Although gorse’s peak time for flowering is spring/summer, it is possible to find a flowering gorse bush at any time of the year, even in mid-winter. The flowers can be used as baking decorations and flavouring. They also be used to make tea, wine or to flavour other alcoholic beverages.
As always, be extremely careful and only consume plants you are absolutely certain of their identification as some highly toxic ones can be mistaken for edible ones. If in doubt, don’t eat it. If you are a novice forager, consider taking part in a foraging course or trail with expert guidance before attempting to gather wild food on your own.