where to look and how to find them, wherever you live in Ireland

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Ireland lost much of our traditional knowledge of native plants and herbs during the devastation of the Famine and the colonial oppression that preceded it, yet in recent years we seem to be trying to rediscover it; with leading chefs, TV survivalists and outdoor adventure guides all keen to reintroduce us to the hunter-gatherer practices of our Mesolithic forbearers, who first pioneered the practice of rummaging around the undergrowth for tasty roots, aromatic stalks and nutritious leaves.

With every year, more of us are relearning the basics of foraging: how to distinguish delicious field sorrel from lethal Lords and Ladies, or how to scrunch up a nettle and pop it in your mouth without getting stung. Now, a new book, The Wild Food Plants of Ireland, offers a whole new level of immersion in this disappearing wisdom.

Compiled by the botanist and horticulturalist Tom Curtis and lichen-expert Paul Whelan, the book represents a paradigm shift from any previous Irish field guide, and has the potential to change your entire awareness of, and attitude to, the wild weeds and scrubby shrubs you encounter on a daily basis on kerbsides, field margins, rubbish tips, cliff tops, hedgerows and lawns. The aim of the book is to “show chefs, cooks, foodies, foragers, seed savers, farmers, botanists, and the general public the richness of our wild flowering plants which have been and still are used for food”.

Curtis and Whelan’s main focus is on something called crop wild relatives, which are the wild ancestors of the modern vegetables, fruit, crops and herbs that we now depend on. “As well as being potential donors of resistant genes to modern cultivars, they are a reservoir of rich and diverse flavoursome foods,” they write.

The charlock was a staple food during the hungry months when the old potatoes were finished and the new season crop was not yet ready
The charlock was a staple food during the hungry months when the old potatoes were finished and the new season crop was not yet ready

By ignoring and gradually eradicating these wild ancestral plants, we risk losing their genetic diversity and their consequent traits of adaptability and vigour. The authors list 162 different ancestors of our modern food crops, giving detailed descriptions of each, alongside a history of their uses and their cultivation, their distribution in Ireland, their culinary uses, their current and potential economic value, and whether they are native or were introduced prior to AD 1500(archaeophytes) or after (neophytes).

Among the nuggets I learned was the fact that wild asparagus (lus súgach) grows on sand dunes from Wicklow to Waterford. It is more prostrate and blueish than its cultivated descendent, though equally delicious; yet as a plant protected under the Wildlife Act (2015) it’s an offence to pick it.

Succulent

There are many troublesome weeds which would benefit both us and the ecological diversity of the countryside if we ate them, such as couch/scutch grass (broimfhéar) whose roots and rhizomes are “succulent, sweet and nutritious, and taste like liquorice”. Scutch roots were widely used during the first World War for their anti-inflammatory properties and can be ground up to produce a flour for bread-making.

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