It's essential to be completely confident in your plant identification skills as many wild plants are poisonous.
The good news is that there are plenty of edible wild plants such as nettles and blackberries that are easy to identify and grow in abundance throughout the British Isles.
It's very important when foraging for edible weeds to forage away from poisonous traffic fumes, pesticides and herbicides.
The bad news is that this rules out a lot of Britain, and I dare say much of the rest of the world too. But don't worry there are still places out there where it's safe to forage, one just needs to exercise a little common sense.
If your unsure if a potential foraging area has been sprayed then find out first hand from the people who manage it. Legally it's also a very good idea to get permission to forage from the land owner.
The U.K.'s wild edible plants are protected by law, and the uprooting of any wild plant is illegal unless you've got permission from the land owner.
It is illegal to forage for wild plants on Nature Reserves, Nation Trust Land, and land owned or managed by the Ministry of Defense, unless permission has been given by the relevant authority. If in any doubt please ask permission from the land owner or occupier.
Traditionally we have been allowed to forage for the four F's.
The foraging of leaves, flowers, and fruits from common wild plants in moderation and for personal use is generally fine. Forage only for edible plants that you can confidently identify, and which are found in great abundance.
If you plan to sell your foraging bounty then it is even more important to have permission from the land owner as you can be prosecuted for theft!
A copy of the code of conduct for picking wild plants in the U.K can be found at the Wild Flower Society Website.
So where can you safely collect edible wild plants from?
If your lucky enough to have a garden, and you manage it organically avoiding chemical lawn treatments, then this is a good place to start (if it's not by a busy road!).
I have recently started to forage for edible wild greens in my garden, and am gradually learning what is safe and tasty to eat, and what isn't.
If you don't have a garden then local organic farms can make ideal foraging grounds. Some town and city parks are now managed organically, but please don't assume they are - check it out with the council, or get to know your local park keepers.
Places to avoid include golf courses which are very heavily sprayed, and busy roadside verges.
My husband is a Nature Reserve Warden, and many years ago when he worked up north one of his voluntary wardens told him this cautionary tale.
One day while waiting to collect his daughter from school he picked and ate some chickweed that was growing in the school playground. Later on he was rushed to hospital. The chickweed had been sprayed with herbicide (he wasn't sure exactly what -paraquat?), and it burned a hole in his stomach. He was lucky and survived to forage more sensibly another day.
The point being don't pick plants from anywhere other people could have sprayed. It's just not worth the risk.
Like most country folk I have always been confident about picking and eating the wild blackberries (brambles) that are abundant in late summer in the British Isles. As I child I spent many a late summer afternoon picking brambles with my mum and friends. I remember mum's bag being full of brambles, while mine and my friends held just a few as we ate most of ours.
I have much less experience in foraging for and eating wild greens. Despite having a horticultural background until recently the only wild plant that I regularly harvested each spring was the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) which I use to make my son's favorite nettle soup.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) growing in the garden. Spring '08
I haven't got any chemical science to back this up, but so far this is what I have learned.
Crushing the nettles neutralizes the acids that can sting you. You can crush them in your blender, your juicer, or even with your bare hands! The stings are on the underside of the leaves.
Pick a young nettle leaf touching only its top uppermost side. Next, being careful not to touch the underside of the leaf, roll it in on itself and give it a really good crush between your fingers. If your feeling brave pop it in your mouth, and chew well.
I have tried this and didn't get stung, although my mouth did get a bit of a strange 'green' feeling to it.
I've been experimenting with adding nettles to smoothies and juices.