Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Autumnal salad

  I realise that the majority of my previous posts have been very mushroom-y and the recipes rather rich, so here’s something more green, more crunchy, and most probably more healthy – a salad of autumn leaves and flowers.

With the chill of autumn drawing in, the rapidly shortening days and the arrival of the first leaf litter ponding on the ground, it would be sensible to assume the shutdown of Nature’s hedgerow larder until next spring. Sensible, but far from correct.  In fact, autumn marks a resurgence for many of the greens you’d expect to see in spring, such as Stinging Nettles, Hogweed and Sorrel.  This is particularly apparent where the ground has been disturbed or hedgerows cut back – so get out in your local country lanes and paths to try to find where your friends the local council have trimmed large swathes of hedgerow, as you may well find your dinner!  There is a stretch of hedgerow near me that I’ve had my eye on for a month or so after it was completely cut back, the first week yielded no grub, but two or three weeks on and it is positively brimming with wild edibles, including Hogweed shoots and Sorrel by the plenty. 

Although there are numerous wild greens that are salad-worthy, I decided to keep my salad down to a choice few; 

Salad ingredients - just four plant species

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta):

Patch of Hairy Bittercress (amongst grass and other plants) in an unused border of a local park

Hairy Bittercress is not a difficult plant to find; it grows ubiquitously on waste and disturbed ground, and can be found on inner-city scrubland as well as along the edges of the most verdant country paths.  In fact, if you've ever had a veg patch or allotment, you will probably already be quite familiar with this plant - it is usually that annoying 'weed' that seems to thrive far more than the plants you had intended to grow.
I recently sowed more salad seeds in the veg patch in the garden hoping for an autumn/winter crop, but to no avail, however, I do now have a salad patch full of Hairy Bittercress instead - not a bad outcome at all!

The name 'Hairy Bittercress' does this little plant a great injustice, as it is not bitter in the slightest nor very hairy, in fact, it tastes almost identical to the cress that frequents egg mayo sandwiches and is grown at primary schools across the land.


Leaves form a small rosette about 10cm across. Leaves sparsely hairy, opposite, with one terminal leaflet. Flowers tiny, white, four petalled. Seed pods slender and upright

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media):

Chickweed made up the bulk of this salad as it is so easy to pick - the stems are just as edible as the leaves, so just grab a handful and cut the bottom of the stems and there you have it.  Like Hairy Bittercress, you will find Chickweed on almost any waste or disturbed ground, from cracks in the pavement to allotment plots.

Chickweed tastes somewhere between grass and gem lettuce you'd buy from a supermarket, don't let the grass part put you off however, the succulent supermarket lettuce part more than makes up for it.


Straggling, sprawling stems with a single line of hairs down one side (key ID feature! See pic below). Flowers are five-petalled, though this sometimes looks more like ten as they are deeply divided

Single line of hairs down the stem - a key identification feature of Chickweed

Black Mustard (Brassica nigra):

This plant packs a punch. The fiery mustard taste is not only present in the leaves but the flowers too, not in any lower dosage either - one flower is quite enough to make you go 'phwooar.'

This plant must have a been a late autumn anomaly due to the recently disturbed ground it was on, as they usually go to seen in July and August. Leaves are usually best in spring, but as these were small and hadn't gone coarse, they were also fine for the plate.


Black Mustard often grows up to 2m in diameter with large, deeply lobed, stalked leaves with a very rough surface. Flowers are four-petalled and yellow. Seeds black in small erect pods. All parts taste strongly of mustard

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa):

Sorrel has to be my favourite wild salad leaf.  It is surprising that such an innocuous looking plant tastes quite so delicious.  If ever I take people who haven't foraged before out on a walk, this is always the first plant I get them to try, and it always gets the same look of amazement. For those that haven't had the pleasure of eating Sorrel before, it is like biting on a lemon segment - it has a very strong citrus taste, though for some it is too strong to nibble au naturel.  This citric taste comes from oxalic acid and calcium oxalate - both quite poisonous substances if eaten in profusion, so don't go eating Sorrel by the basket load, but a couple of handfuls in a salad or yoghurt dip here and there will do you absolutely no harm, so don't be put off.

Beware of the poisonous plant Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum), it also shares the same indented leaf structure near the base of the stem, but has thinner leaves than the relatively succulent Sorrel and has rounded lobes at the stem/leaf intersect, whereas Sorrel has pointed lobes (see picture below).


Basal leaves form a rosette, arrow-shaped with sharply pointed lobes. Higher leaves clasping stem. Mature leaves reddening. Single stem, seldom branched, reddening. Flower spike tall, flowers and seeds rusty pink.

Pointed lobes - a key ID feature

The combination of heat from the Black Mustard and tartness from the Sorrel works brilliantly with the milder tasting Hairy Bittercress and Chickweed, and the mustard flowers add a nice touch of colour.  A super salad, for free.

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