Supermarket delivery services are stretched (and the supermarkets themselves are getting tense) as more Covid-19 cases start appearing in NZ. But even if you’re in isolation, you can still go for wanders outdoors (just keep away from others!), same if you're social distancing. So, why not turn to your neighbourhood verges as a source of kai (and adventure)?
First off, there are some rules for foraging, even if you are sticking to your own garden:
- Don’t eat anything until you know for certain what it is, that it’s edible, and not endangered.
- Don’t eat anything which has been sprayed with pesticides or weed killers (and wash everything thoroughly).
- Don’t eat anything from a polluted area.
- Always leave the root of a plant (you’re allowed to disregard that rule if you’re in your own garden and don’t mind the plant not growing back).
I’ve stuck to plants (and fungi) which can be safely and easily identified and are common to New Zealand cities.
Red clover and white clover
How to ID: Clovers are grass-height little plants with three leaves on the end of each stem and a white or light green arrowhead pointing outward on each leaf. The flowers are multi-floreted and white or, if they're red clover, light, bright purple - use them as signposts for clover patches. More info here if you need it.
What it’s good for: Clovers are so small they take ages to get enough to eat, so you can kill a bit of time collecting them. Red clover is slightly tastier, but both kinds are edible: the stems and leaves are good for a salad and the flowers can be used in tea.
How to ID: The easiest way to spot a dandelion is the bright yellow flower (which is actually lots of little flowers on one stem) or fuzzy seed heads which scatter when you blow on them. Dandelion leaves are toothed (like rocket leaves) and grow in clumps from the root, with one leaf per stem. When you cut a dandelion’s leaf, stem or root, it’ll bleed a little white milky stuff (which will not hurt you). If you still aren’t sure, there is more detail on dandelion identification here.
Dandelion leaves are not fuzzy or hairy, unlike the look-a-like ‘hairy cat’s ear’ also known as ‘flatweed’. Hairy cat’s ear is also entirely edible, if you’re all good with the odd, fuzzy texture. This is an invasive weed, so you're allowed to remove this one from the ground roots and all - but have a think about whether you or someone else will want to forage it later.
Then again, if the plant has long, narrow, toothed and hairy leaves, that's hawkbit which is also edible but you may as well check it out further. Hawkbit is an invasive weed (so you can take the whole plant, roots and all guilt free).
What it’s good for: Much like the clover, all parts of the dandelion are edible but look online and you’ll see people like to get particularly creative with this multi-purpose plant. The leaves are great in a salad, sandwich or a cheeky dandelion pesto, or you can pop them on the stove and cook them to soften the leaves or you can make dandelion fritters. You can use the flowers to make tea and if you’re enterprising enough, the roots can be used to make caffeine-free coffee.
How to ID: Fennel is tall, bright green with thin stems and even thinner almost feathery looking thread-like leaves. In summer you can barely see the leaves for all the lacy yellow (or sometimes white) flowers.
If the flowers are white and the leaves are broad ferns, leave that alone, Socrates: that is hemlock and it is very poisonous. Thankfully, they are hard to mix up by sight and hemlock doesn’t smell like anise while fennel really, really does, so follow your nose and avoid ferny leaves. Always make sure you know what a plant is before you eat it and you’ll be fine - click here if you still aren't sure.
What it’s good for: Use the flavourful stems and leaves for salads, soups and garnishes for an anise-flavoured kick. Collect the flowers and dry them out to collect crunchy, pungent seeds and pollen that tastes like anise and citrus – both can be sprinkled on a meal for extra flavour. Wild fennel doesn’t have a bulb that you can eat but if you manage to find a non-wild fennel plant (I doubt there would be one in your garden that you didn’t already know about), dig up the bulb (ask the owner first) that is more mild-tasting and has a lettucey crunch or is soft and sweet when cooked.
Dock and plantain
How to ID: All varieties of dock leaf, (broadleaf dock, sheep’s sorrel, fiddle dock and clustered dock) are edible. However, they are tricky to identify because they just look like leafy shrubs hidden amongst grass or growing inconspicuously on verges. They grow in clumps (which start as small rosettes) with one leaf on each stem. The stems are often rhubarb-like red, and if you look at the underside of the leaf, the stem can be red all the way up the leaf. Even if the plant doesn't have red stems, there'll be dots of red where a leaf is damaged The leaves are hairless and if the dock is young (when it’s tastiest), there will be tightly rolled leaves unfurling from the centre. Depending on the variety, the shape of the leaf will differ so click here to see the variations and what they look like when they are mature (but good luck to you finding mature dock plants in the city).
If the leaves are hairy, you’ve found a young plantain plant, which is also edible. The broad-leaved plantain looks like a smaller, flatter dock, but ‘narrowleaf plantain’ or ‘ribwort’ has, well, narrower leaves. Both types of plantain (there are more but those are what you're more likely to find in my neighborhood anyway) grow in little rosettes. Click here for more info on them - they are easy to identify once you get the hang of it!
What it’s good for: A good rule of thumb for dock leaf and plantain is to treat them like spinach, cooking-wise (they even taste quite a bit like spinach). Like spinach, young leaves are soft and juicy and can be munched on fresh. Old leaves will be tough and much more bitter, so you’ll want to boil before eating to soften them. Better yet, blend them up into a soup.
How to ID: Nasturtiums have round, light green leaves with white veins radiating from a central point (they look a little like cartoon lily pads). Each leaf has its own stem and the stems are juicy and hollow. They grow low to the ground, spreading over a large area if no one stops them. A nasturtium is most easily identified by bright yellow, orange or red five-leafed flowers.
What it’s good for: You’ve probably spotted a nasturtium or two lurking in the salad of a plant-based cafe and the bright flowers are not only pretty as a garnish, they are juicy, spicy and tangy. The leaves are similarly spiced and are delicious in salads, sandwiches, pesto or soup.
Wood ear mushrooms
How to ID: Wood ear fungi are squidgy and springy little mushrooms which look like a squashed, crumpled ear. In colour, they are light to dark brown and often translucent. They grow on dead or rotting wood.
What it’s good for: When boiled with garlic and onion, wood ear mushrooms make delicious broth. You can then leave the squidgy mushroom in the broth and eat it. Otherwise, boil the mushroom (keep the water! That’s mushroom stock now!) and pop it in a salad with chilli and tofu or use it to add flavour and texture to a stirfry - there are actually loads of uses for this so have a Google.
How to ID: Like it’s pacific cousin kava (not found in NZ), kawakawa has heart-shaped leaves on dark, thin and woody branches. They can be up to three metres tall and tend to grow in groups of more kawakawa. The leaves are sometimes covered in holes bitten by caterpillars - that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick those ones though and I’ll tell you why in a second, but just to make sure you got it right, check this out to make sure your ID is correct.
What it’s good for: You can use kawakawa to make tea or add spice to hot chocolates, meat rubs or even just dry it and use it as a peppery spice. However, the plant is a traditional Māori medicine and has a long CV of health properties: it’s antimicrobial, reduces cramping, improves circulation, and reduces inflammation (though in this specific instance that might actually be a bad thing - French authorities reckon that anti-inflammatories might worsen the coronavirus). If you chew the leaves, it serves as a diuretic, a painkiller for toothache and can be made into a balm to treat cuts and wounds. If you want to utilise these health benefits, go for the ones that the caterpillars have bitten holes in - the clever critters choose the leaves with the strongest concentration of diayangambin and myristicin - the chemical that gives the plant its health properties.
All these images were taken within walking distance of my Auckland home.