Urban foraging for wild food

Elderflower spray
Elderflower an urban delight

I’ve been foraging in Bristol since around 2006 when I first arrived in the city. Over that time I have searched almost every green corner for wild food and drink ingredients; further educating myself with each trip across the city.

In 2006 I was earning a massive £50 a month in revenue from my first website. These were hard times, my brother whom also lived with us at the time wasn’t contributing much towards bills and so my partners low wage had to feed us all. Foraging actually became a necessity for us and we’d often head off on our bikes on missions to supplement our diet of food from Aldi.

To find out more about urban foraging and even for some of my secret foraging locations in Bristol then read on.

Foraging in the City – a few hazards

Being a forager in Bristol city itself we are faced with the same hazards as any city or urban forager faces – dog mess, pollution and plants treated with roundup being top of this list.

Nellie the dog in a patch of wild garlic
Did a dog wee on that wild garlic?

I love John Renston’s  approach on the subject of dog wee and poo – picking above the dog wee zone, avoiding plants that looked scorched, avoiding plants growing around the base of city trees and I’d also add avoiding plants near any post be it gate or lamp.

As for avoiding pollution, I personally leave the sides of busy roads and areas where there is excessive idling such as near junctions and traffic lights. I’m also a bit wary about picking in industrial and post-industrial areas due to heavy metals that could be present in the soil. If you are going to be frequently picking from an area then please do your homework. Graveyards are a funny one too as coffins were once lined with lead – mushroom picking in a graveyard might then be hazardous but according to this study fruits and even leafy greens could be ok. But please do you own further research.

Avoiding weed killers like Monsanto’s cancer causing round up and other harmful chemicals can be a bit more difficult, you do after time learn what round up smells like.  I find it sweet and sickly with a hint of abrasive. I’ve also learned that most will use around April-May time, just as everything is growing, and so this is a time to be extra cautious.

Foraging along the River Avon – my favourite spot in Bristol

One of my favourite walks back in 2006 as now, is along the river Avon the opposite side to Beese’s tea gardens –  Take the footpath from the edge of Netham Common (where I once found marsh puffballs) and follow the river Avon in the direction of Keynsham. You’ll be rewarded with more than just wild food as this area is a fantastic oasis in the middle of the city. Urban developments open out to steep tree-lined banks, herons stalk the river edges and if you are lucky you might even see a kingfisher darting across the river.

The tree-lined banks are of course the perfect environment for wild garlic which is abundant right through the Avon valley. There are patches too of some of the invasive – Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan balsam – as yet, thankfully, neither have really settled in and taken over. There are a few wild apple trees dotted around if you know where to look. But it is the haul of oyster mushrooms there that really excited me back in 2006!

Alas, they grow on dead wood standing, the tree fell the following year, there was a very hard frost and I never saw them growing there again!

Foraging in castle park, Bristol

Bristol is full of wild food, if you know where to look. Every year castle park in the very centre of town is full of cherries, many of which will fall to the ground un-harvested. Although, one year I noticed an enterprising young man half way up a step ladder with a massive sack tied to his waist harvesting as many as he could carry!

There is also a massive fig tree growing from a wall on the waterside edge of the park. It rarely seems to grow figs of a decent enough size yet, I recently discovered that you can infuse fig leaves in a 20% abv alcohol or make a syrup out of them and then use as amazing ingredients in cocktails. Amazingly enough there the fig flavour comes from just the leaf.

Incorporating foraging in the city to day to day life

I now rent an office and I have tailored a walk there that involves as much green space as possible. I walk past elder, wild garlic, spruce, hogweed and hawthorn. Instead of continuing to learn about new plants my focus is on finding new uses for this handful of plants. It can be more of a challenge and just as rewarding as trying to ID and collect as many different plants as possible. A trait I know many foragers share. It also means that I am constantly working with the freshest ingredients possible and trying to find ways of extending the season of each plant.

I’d highly recommend this approach to anyone who is just learning how to forage. It makes sense to have the landscape working for you, to find your food, medicine and drink ingredient on routes that you frequent daily..