How to reconnect with the urban landscape through foraging

Picture: Wross Lawrence in his book The Urban Forager. Photo: Marco Kesseler

Published: 3 Jun 2020

Emma Latham Phillips explores the world of urban foraging, with a few pointers on why, where and how you can start to explore the wonders of the forage.

Why Should I Forage? 

One positive thing that we can take from this pandemic is that it’s encouraging many to re-evaluate their relationship with nature. London is famed for its hurried commuters; however, since we’ve been forced to slow down, going outside has become a different experience. We now have the time to take in our surroundings and with that comes a newfound curiosity. Foraging brings the city alive and it’s the perfect activity to do during the lockdown. Not only can it better your mental health and reconnect you with your local landscape, but it’s also accessible to everyone – you don’t need a garden to do it. Most of London’s wild spaces are free. From a graveyard to a marsh or street tree – there’s food everywhere if you know what to look for.  

Humans have forgotten how to be in nature, with statistics showing that, even before Covid-19, British people spend 90% of their time indoors. This disconnect from the natural world has led to a disconnect from our food. Consumers trust supermarkets more than they do themselves. “Take spinach for example,” food activist and forager, Sean Roy Parker explains. “It’s something you can find easily in the wild but we only recognise what we buy in those plastic bags. It’s very difficult to know what that product might look like outside of this context.” 

Foraging is hugely beneficial because it reestablishes these lost connections. “I encourage beginners to find out more about the plants they already know”, John Rensten, author of The Edible City explains. You might be able to identify a dandelion – but did you know its flowers, leaves and roots are edible too? If you have no ties to the land then why should you care about it? “You cannot expect people to become ecological stewards if they don’t have this emotional relationship”, John muses. However, with foraging, you become invested in the landscape. Imagine if you discover that the tree next to your bus stop grows plums – once you harvest these fruits, you’ll want to protect it from being cut down. Learning the landscape of green doesn’t have to be hard. “You don’t have to study botany”, John explains. “Instead, you can just walk past something, again and again, to see how it changes from shoot to flower”.  

You’ll find that the park becomes far more interesting when you’ve discovered what grows there and what it can be used for. “It gives you a dialogue with your surroundings”, professional forager, Wross Lawrence explains. Start by exploring a local green space and “take a walk around the perimeter”Countless studies have shown walking in nature increases happiness and foraging is a form of mindfulness. “Noticing your surroundings is hugely beneficial to mental health”, Wross comments. When you feel overwhelmed, focusing intently on one task can be meditative. “When I pick wood sorrel in the forest, I become so absorbed in the activity that I find I’ve been there for eight hours”, he explains. If you’re struggling with what to do during the pandemic, foraging is a great way to be productive. Wild cuisine encompasses everything from the beginner to the gourmet and it’s a chance to experiment with new recipes. 

Wild foods are also nutritious. “Thanks to the sheer diversity, it’s an excellent way to get a wide variety of phytonutrients in your diet”, foraging educator, Ru Kenyon explains. These plants have not been subjected to generations of farming and domestication. While organic food can be unaffordable, foraged goods are accessible. In fact, a wild salad can be quicker to collect than a visit to the shop. 

Where Should I Forage? 

London is incredibly biodiverse. The countryside, by comparison, is dominated by monocultures. Our city is a network of chopping and changing habitats – from streets to parks and canals. Within these spaces, you have naturally occurring urban-dwellers, but you also have garden escapees and “intentionally planted species, perhaps even growing for the common good”, Ru comments. “I have a friend who picks Kiwis in Tottenham and I found some yuzus last year”.  

People have forgotten that our city holds abundant free resources. When John foraged at Clissold Park, he discovered 175 different edible species. You can forage anywhere (except a polluted road). However, always be mindful of what you pick and make sure to save some for others and the environment. “Don’t just visit the well-known green spaces like Hackney Marsh”, Ru tells The Jellied Eel. “Head outwards to where the green seams seep into the city”. 

Foragers do not divulge their favourite locations – and this isn’t just because they want to keep their spoils a secret. “Foraging is about self-discovery”, Ru explains. “It’s just not the vibe to not find these foods yourself”. 

What Should I Forage? 

When foraging, you can use a guide book to help with identification. Triple check if you’re uncertain and if you’re worried about picking the wrong thing – acquaint yourself first with the UK’s poisonous plants. Make sure to pick the best specimens, wash them thoroughly and use while fresh. 

Here our experts share some of their favourite foragable foods. 

John Rensten: Elderflower  

Elderflower is in season; its clusters of delicate white flowers fill the summer’s air with a fragrant scent. Elderflower comes from the elder tree, which grows between 5–10 m tall. The leaves are a serrated shape, arranged opposite to each other with one single leaflet at the tip. Turn these flowers into sweet fritters or make sparking champagne with them. John Rensten’s recipes can be found in his book, The Edible City. 

Ru Kenyon: Linden Leaves and Blossom 

The Linden Tree is a common deciduous tree, easily recognizable by its big lime-coloured leaves – these are always edible but best eaten in a salad when young, at around 2 in. The blossoms are flowering soon, a favourite amongst bees. Harvest and dry them to make a tea. Ru Kenyon leads foraging events – search London Wild Fruits on Facebook. 

Sean Roy Parker: White Dead-Nettle 

The white dead-nettle looks similar to the stinging nettle but without the bite. Dense whorls of white hooded flowers appear on its stems. Pick the smaller, newer leaves at the top of the plant and mix them up into a frittata or soup.  

Wross Lawrence: Honeysuckle 

The scented honeysuckle found tumbling over city walls produces nectar that can be suckled from the base of its flowers. These blossom from June–August and can be used within iced tea or turned into a syrup to drizzle over yoghurt. Find Wross Lawrence’s recipes in his book, The Urban Forager 

During lockdown many organisations are offering online foraging courses and workshops. Wild Food & Foraging have been holding live workshops over Facebook, Forage London and Beyond are posting video demos, and Actif Woods have weekly foraging sessions over Zoom.