My love of foraging began almost a quarter of a century ago, when I started making country wines. Since then I’ve chalked up a respectable repertoire of wild nuts, berries, mushrooms and (gulp) roadkill meats, but my knowledge of wild greenery – weeds, you might say – has been much slower to develop. It’s not that I haven’t tried, you understand: I have. It’s just that I’m often unimpressed by the end product. Devotees of the subject tend to be rather generous in their descriptions of flavours and textures. One rather famous book urged me to try young hogweed shoots fried in butter, a boring recipe that earned me an armful of painful blisters that took weeks to heal. It turns out the author forgot to warn readers that the sap can cause some people severe photodermatitis. Still… how we laughed, on the way to Accident & Emergency.
The Weeder’s Digest – Identifying and Enjoying Edible Weeds by Gail Harland (£12.95 Green Books) is refreshingly honest about the edibility of the many plants it lists, telling the reader which are worth actually looking for and which should be your last resort. Potential toxicity is always clearly flagged, and the author clearly knows a fair bit about it: as well she should, having both a BSc in Nutrition and Dietetics and an RHS Diploma in Horticulture.
This is a well thought out and thoroughly researched book, rather than a simple field guide. Harland is at pains to give her readers some context in the way that they think about weeds, so she invites us to weigh up the pros and cons rather than embark on a campaign of wholesale eradication. Some weeds attract birds or beneficial insects, while others improve the soil; on the other hand some fling their seeds for many metres or do their best to poison neighbouring plants. If you think you know weeds, think again.
No book on weeds would be complete without a section on controlling them, and The Weeder’s Digest does not disappoint. Chapter 2 has the magnificent title ‘Achievable weed control – a question of balance‘, and frankly I would have bought the book on the strength of that phrase alone. Naturally, however, the bulk of the book belongs to the weed monographs themselves. These are well judged, providing just the right balance of description and uses, with enough genuinely interesting trivia to make you want to read the whole thing, cover to cover. When was the last time you said that about a gardening book?
My initial impression was that the photos in this section of the book were not always sufficient to allow accurate identification, and indeed the standard disclaimers appear in the text. As I read, however, I realised that together with the text descriptions I had no difficulty in identifying many weeds with which I struggle manfully each year (to no discernable effect, I might add). Harland also tells you which other plants you might get confused with – an admirable safety net that I have previously only seen done well in mushroom books.
But it’s the recipes in The Weeder’s Digest that really got me excited. The author isn’t just a weed enthusiast; she’s also a wife and mother and as the blurb says, she has been feeding weeds to her husband and children for nearly 20 years. ‘Meadowsweet dessert with cherry sauce’ and rosebay willowherb scones (which look beautiful, by the way) make me want to get out there and scour the hedgerows for ingredients. And the hogweed? It’s kept where it belongs, in the ‘harmful weeds’ section.