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Monday, 16 April 2012

The edible lawn

A continuation of "101 uses for a weedy, scruffy lawn".

Every spring I like to go out for a forage around the garden to collect wild leaves to put in a salad. I usually only do it once as it's pretty time consuming and so many of the leaves are so small you could spend all day first looking for them, and then picking them! But it's fun to do and good to know that should famine or misfortune befall us I do have some knowledge of wild plants to eat. Although I do think we'd get very skinny.

There are many edible plants out there in the wild growing in all sorts of habitats, but it was lawns I was talking about in my previous post, so only those edibles that I know of that I find here in our lawned/mown areas are what I'll mention here. Many of them are more prevlent in our shadier, wooded areas but some grow all over the place.

What grows near you will depend of course upon where you live, the climate and your soil, but I think most of what I'm going to mention are very common in both the UK and France.

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

This is one of the best flavoured of the wild leaves with a peppery taste similar to cress or watercress. The downside is that the leaves are so small it's hard to find enough. It grows in lawns, flower beds and the veg patch but of course I couldn't find it in my lawn right now for a photo, so took one in the veg patch instead!

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Celandine leaves are abundant at the moment so it's not too difficult to harvest enough of them although it does take some time. I don't think they have that much in the way of flavour to recommend them, but they don't taste bitter or unpleasant, so I am quite happy to eat them mixed in with other leaves. I wouldn't eat a bowlful of these leaves alone though!

Edit: I've since read a few sites that have mentioned there is a certain toxicity which may upset those with sensitive stomachs, so either not to eat too many of the leaves raw, or better still, to cook them as that gets rid of the toxins. I've never eaten it in large quantities and will continue to add a few leaves to a salad as a few leaves here and there don't affect me, but I thought I'd better add this caution to those who have not tried it before.)

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Another good flavoured leaf, sorrel has a lemony zing to the leaves. Popular in France as sorrel sauce or made into soup (French name: oseille). In the photo the small young leaves on top grow all through the lawn, whereas the big clump are growing just out of the mown area in a wild patch. Harvest the young leaves for salad - they really are worth mixing in even with just some bought lettuce!

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)

I've tried them and find the leaves too bitter for my liking but it is possible to blanch them first which is said to remove the bitterness. They are popular in France but have a diuretic effect, hence their French name 'Pissenlit', which literally means 'wet the bed'! You can also make a kind of jam, more of a runny sweet yellow syrup, from the flower heads. One of my French neighbours gave me a jar and it was pleasant, with an almost honey-like flavour. You'll need a lot of flower heads though, so unless your lawn looks like the field above, you may need to go for a wander through some ungrazed meadows.

Jack by the Hedge/Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Some years we have an abundance of this interesting flavoured plant, but this year I've barely noticed them. Now that my OH has done the first mow of our woodland glades most of the few that were there have been mown off! They tend to grow on the edges of our wild patches spilling out into the lawned areas, but don't seem to be a plant of full sun. The flavour of the leaf is garlic with a hint of bitterness, or bitter with a hint of garlic, whichever way you look at it! It's quite pleasant and as the leaves are larger than most of the other leaves I forage, all the better for padding out that salad.

Pignuts (Conopodium majus)

Pignuts are the pretty frilly leaves with Celandine flowers on the left

I'm adding this here as, after photographing these leaves a few weeks ago, and not knowing what they were, lo and behold Chants Cottage writes a post on her blog about pignuts! Hey presto, I've found out what I have growing in great swathes in the woodland lawn, where not much grass is growing. It's not the leaves which are edible, but the tuberous roots which have a bulbous bit which resembles a nut. I realise eating this plant involves digging it up, and I've yet to try, but it's growing throughout the mown and unmown parts of my woodland garden, so I will be going out shortly with my fork and having a nosy and a taste test!

It also goes without saying that many of these plants are beneficial to insects and butterflies; they were not put on this planet for our usage alone, so don't strip any plants or whole patches of plants bare - think about the fauna. There are pollinating insects which feed on the nectar and pollen in the flowers and larvae of pretty butterflies that need to eat the leaves!

Important note and disclaimer: Please don't try eating anything wild unless you are 100% sure that you know what you are doing. If in any doubt, photograph the plant, and check in books and on the internet. Don't take the first photo on google images as gospel truth either. Check reputable sites. I have tried to check out both the common and Latin names and make sure that what I am showing in these photos is what I say it is - I've eaten most of them and I'm still standing, but I am not in any way an expert in the field of foraging.


  1. More lovely (and useful) pictures... I keep meaning to go out and have a right good look at what edible goodies we've got growing out here, apart from the pignuts. I have had a go on the sorrel leaves too - my mum says when she was a girl they knew them as vinegar leaves but I think they are as you say more lemony. Haven't done much with them yet... I'm sure I've seen some garlic mustard knocking about the place too. I ought to get out there with me trowel and postmodern trug (ie Morrisons carrier bag).

  2. Thanks - I really intended to dig up some pignuts today but got sidetracked by other jobs. Maybe tomorrow! It's well worth looking around but really, once you've got some veggies going they do tend to have a better taste! There are a number of edible weeds in the veg patch too, but why you'd want to eat them at a time when you have cultivated veg I don't know!

  3. Ooh, thanks for adding a few edible wild plants to my list. I wondered about celandine - I've been carefully avoiding it when picking sorrel that's growing in amongst it. I don't need to be so careful any more!

    Hairy bittercress grows in such abundance in my garden - all over all the veg patches - that I pull up whole plants and discard the roots. They're still fiddly to check over and clean, but I get quite a decent quantity that way, and there are still plenty of them all over the garden.

    OK, next on my list of plants to spot has to be pignut :-)

  4. Hmmmm just read a bit on lesser celandine and whilst many sites say it is fine to eat the young leaves, others are saying it is midly toxic so don't eat too many, or better to cook it as that removes the toxins. The thing is, it doesn't taste that brilliant so I don't eat much of it. That'll teach me to post about something I've munched on for years so haven't read recent updates about it.

    I think next time I'm weeding the flower beds I'll take a bowl out with me to put the hairy bittercress in - sounds easier that way than to leave the plant in situ and pick the leaves! I'm always weeding it out anyway.

  5. Thanks for the caution. You prompted me to do a bit of my own googling. As far as I can gather, the toxicity increases when the plant flowers (i.e. it's OK earlier in the year), but is destroyed by cooking. I'll proceed carefully!