BLOG: Forage & Feast: July

3 July 2020

In our partnership with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild this month we look at three things to forage in July: Water Mint; Darwin’s Barberry and MeadowSweet.

July is one of my favourite months for foraging as we come to a cross roads where there are still plants where you can use the leaves, some which we want the flowers and others which have produced the first of the berries for the year - so there is something for everyone.

This month we have three plants to look for, one uses the leaves, the other the flowers and the last the berries.

Water Mint (Mentha aquatica)

When it is not in flower it could be very easy to overlook Water Mint, as it is rather a discreet looking plant, but once you rub your fingers over the leaves the divine scent is unmistakable.

Water Mint is probably the commonest of the mints in UK and where it grows it can be abundant. Mints are notorious for hybridising but due to the nature of the habitat of where Water Mint grows it is usually easy to identify.

When young, the leaves and stem take on a rather red-purple appearance but as it gets older it becomes much more green. The leaves are oval and bluntly toothed, in some areas it can grow to around 0.75m, the flowers are lilac and are produced at the top of the plant in clusters.

This species of mint really likes wet areas, it can often be found submerged in ponds, wet meadows, along rivers and streams and even in wet woodland. It is also a commonly planted species in peoples garden ponds and it is often ‘weeded’ as it can start to spread, so instead of just throwing it away why not use it.

Water mint has a strong, fresh almost peppermint like flavour and goes well with chocolate and even fruits and sweets. The leaves and flowers are edible but the leaves are at the best when they are younger and less tough.

A word of caution, in some areas where water mint grows in slow moving water close to cattle, it can occasionally be host to a liver fluke (a parasite). If you cook the mint it kills the parasite. This is only an issue in the wild where there is cattle, and it’s not an issue if the mint is taken from garden ponds.

In Ancient Greece it was common to use different herbs to scent different parts of the body and mint was used to scent the arms. In Roman mythology, Pluto fell in love with Minte (also known as Menthe). His wife, jealous, changed her into a small plant that people would walk on. Pluto was unable to help, but gave her sweetness so that her fragrance would console him.

 

Water Mint Tea Recipe

This month’s recipe is just a simple water mint tea recipe, just take a minute to sit down, relax and enjoy a simple cup of freshly made mint tea. You can use water mint, but you could also replace it with any mint you may have growing in the garden, each mint gives a different flavour.

It is easy to make;

  1. Grab a handful of mint leaves, place them in your hand and clap, this will help to release some of the oils in the leaf and their wonderful aroma
  2. Place the leaves in a pot or cafetière (you can put them in a cup but you will need to strain it) and pour boiling water over them, steep for 3-5 minutes. It will go a light green colour
  3. Strain through a sieve into a cup and enjoy.

 

Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis darwinii)

Darwin’s Barberry is a great introduction to ‘urban-foraging’ and is a species that you often encounter. Used widely in landscaping and gardens as a plant that is evergreen and provides ‘spiny’ cover to keep people out, you can often find the berries whilst you are out and about.

The name comes from Charles Darwin who ‘discovered’ this plant on his voyage on the Beagle (although locals had been using the plant long before he arrived) and brought it back to the UK with him.

Darwin’s Barberry is a shrubby evergreen that has small thorny leaves reminiscent of small holly leaves, they even have the same glossy appearance but are much, much smaller.

In the spring and summer it produces large amounts of small yellow-orange coloured flowers in clusters. The berries are produced by July and go right through the autumn (if the birds do not get them) and are a lovely blue colour which can have a whitish bloom. They form like a miniature bunch of grapes, each berry having what looks like a little stalk growing the from the bottom.

The large bunch of ‘grape-like’ berries are edible and have a wonderful but slightly acidic flavour. They are full of seeds which although small can get in your teeth. The root can be used to produce a yellow dye, but the root bark itself can be toxic if ingested.

Due to the fact the berries have small seeds in, I usually make jelly or a Darwin’s Barberry syrup which can be used to mix lemonade, soda or other drinks. The jelly is delicious on toast in the morning.

 

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

This is a perennial plant which can grow to around 1.5 m with a woody stem and leaves in numerous pairs which are finely teethed and oval. The flowers are a wonderful creamy colour in dense, messy clusters and have a wonderful aroma.

This is a species that likes to have its ‘feet’ damp and so is often encountered in wet meadows, along the sides of rivers, marshes, ditches and even by the side of ponds. There are other plants that like the same habitat which are poisonous (such as Hemlock Water Dropwort) so ensure you pick only Meadowsweet.

The flowers have a wonderful aroma, some say similar to honeyed almonds, and can be used dried as potpourri or they can be used to make syrups and other drinks. The Meadowsweet name comes from Meadsweet as traditionally this was the plant used to flavour and sweeten mead. The root can be chewed and will help relieve headaches (although do not go and uproot wild plants).

Meadowsweet cordial makes a different alternative to elderflower cordial, simply use the same recipe but replace elderflower with meadowsweet flowers. You can use the flowers in jams and jellies to give it an almond flavour.

It is best to pick the flowers at the heat of the day when they are dry. Using wet flowers (from just after the rain) never produces as good flavour as when they are dry.

People allergic to aspirin or have asthma should avoid using this plant.

Meadowsweet can grow in large numbers in suitable habitat, but remember to only pick a few flowers from one area then move on and pick a few more from somewhere else, so there are still plenty of flowers for others and insects to enjoy.