Hedgerow Harvest


Kerry Torrens BSc, DipION, Nutritional therapist and health writer

Year of publication: 

With most of us, even those living in urban areas, being close to a hedgerow, piece of wasteland or towpath we all have a ready larder at our disposal. These are the very locations where hardy species such as blackberry, elder and dandelion grow abundantly. With the current drive for local, fresh and seasonal produce and a desire to reduce food miles many of us are developing an appetite to learn more about the food available on our doorstep. Our native hedgerows have traditionally been both larder and medicine cabinet, supplying seasonal fresh food and a ready source of remedies for the treatment of wounds, colds, digestive disorders and respiratory complaints. Re-discovering the wealth of knowledge which supports the use of such plants as food, seasonings, beverages or medicinal therapy has seen growing popularity of late and with good reason. From a nutritional perspective, these crops provide a potent source of protective phytochemicals making them not only a valuable food source but a nutritional arsenal in our fight against modern-day diseases. Environmentally, they offer a low-impact harvest, minimising the energy demands required for growing, refrigeration and transport whilst escaping the trappings of modern cultivation such as the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

Picking polyphenols

Arguably, the most popular fruit to forage has to be the blackberry. Rich in vitamin C and protective polyphenols, blackberries have been ranked among the top 50 foods for antioxidant potency. Similar accolades have been bestowed on the American blueberry, but our native version the bilberry deserves to share the limelight, being one of the richest sources of anthocyanins. A true wild food, the bilberry remains relatively uncultivated and is smaller and more flavoursome than the blueberry. Studies suggest that even moderate consumption of this delicious berry leads to favourable changes in platelet function, HDL cholesterol and blood pressure. Berries such as these contribute a large proportion of our dietary polyphenols, most notably anthocyanins, which are responsible for their deep luscious colour. These protective compounds have proven health benefits with far-reaching influences. They act as valuable vasodilators, lowering the risk of coronary artery disease through their beneficial effect on blood pressure whilst also reducing age-related deterioration of both motor and cognitive function. Polyphenols also offer practical advantages such as inhibiting the protein oxidation which occurs during the storage and cooking of red meat, a property which surely explains our traditional pairing of polyphenol-rich berries such as hawthorn, rosehip and rowan with red meat and game. Of all the hedgerow berries, rosehips are credited with being the highest in both phenolic and carotenoid content as well as a good source of vitamin C. Long associated with immune support, there’s convincing evidence for their role as a nutritional supplement for the alleviation of chronic pain, including that of osteoarthritis. Another berry renowned for its immune benefits, the elderberry, offers other interesting applications including a potential therapy for diabetes, thanks to its positive effects on cell membrane sensitivity and intracellular signalling. Elderberries should not be eaten raw but make an ideal ingredient for a cordial or immune tonic thanks to their anti-viral properties which speed our recovery from colds and ‘flu. There are large variations in the properties of cultivated and wild crops with fruits differing in weight, sweetness, acidity and antioxidant content. Wild crops have a higher phenolic content than cultivated strains although there is considerable variation even between wild genotypes. Wild varieties of berries such as the blackberry are especially rich in vitamin E and C, potassium and soluble fibre.

Cracking nuts

Native hedgerow wild nuts make a valuable health contribution thanks to their beneficial protection against atherosclerosis. Hazelnuts or cob nuts have sound backing in this area with an ability to reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol in both those with high cholesterol and normal serum triglycerides. The wild hazelnut is smaller than cultivated varieties and lower in saturated fat than most other varieties of nut. They are versatile in their uses and work especially well ground finely and used as gluten-free flour for cakes and desserts. Another common nut, the beech nut, crops only once every 3-4 years and should be harvested sparingly because it, like other nut-bearing trees, supplies a crucial food source for wild birds and animals.

Folklore remedies

Although best known as a perennial weed, the dandelion is a traditional oriental medicine used for its diuretic and antirheumatic properties. More recently it has been associated with improvements in serum lipid profiles with both the leaves and root proffering these benefits. When harvesting you should aim to gather the leaves in the spring and use in a salad or cook with butter and enjoy in place of spinach. Collect the root in the autumn and dry thoroughly before roasting in the oven, then grind coarsely for use as a coffee replacement. Another prolific grower, especially on wasteland and roadsides, is horseradish. Best known for its pungent root which can be grated and used as a garnish for roast beef or oily varieties of fish, horseradish is a rich source of glucosinolates which have impressive anticancer properties. Use the prepared root as soon as possible in order to optimise its potency and select your harvest from younger plants if possible. In Eastern Europe, as recently as the 1960s, the leaves of the horseradish were widely used during baking, firstly to stop the bread from sticking and secondly to impart a unique flavour to the loaf. Fennel is another medicinal remedy used, most notably, as a digestive aid although more recent data supports a role for this herb in maintaining bone density, with similar properties reported for wild garlic. The mechanisms at play are not fully understood but may relate to the contribution of bone-supporting vitamins such as K and C as well as active plant chemicals that either stimulate bone formation or inhibit its resorption. Studies support similar benefits for plums and damsons which are a good source of vitamin K and, in their dried form, have been found to be effective at preventing and even reversing bone loss. Fresh damsons are especially high in vitamin C as well as protective carotenoids including zeaxanthin which is absorbed into the retina of the eye where it plays an important light-filtering function. Another relative of our cultivated plum, the sloe, has traditionally been used as a remedy for cramps. This fruit is smaller in size and more acidic to taste than the plum but grows plentifully in our hedgerows and is another potent source of protective anthocyanins.

Harvest handling

As with all foods, the post-harvest handling, length of time and temperature of storage and cooking as well as maturity and season are all factors that influence the nutritional value of the crop. These protective nutrients are highly unsaturated and prone to oxidative damage but benefit from the protective influences of vitamin C. As a consequence select your harvest carefully to optimise ripeness, handle as little as possible, stew or steam rather than boil in order to minimise the loss of water-soluble nutrients and to preserve antioxidant potency.

The bottom line

Re-discovering the knowledge of wild food collection allows us the opportunity to engage more closely with our surroundings and develop an appreciation of both the value and vulnerability of our native plant life. Harvested responsibly, such wild crops offer a low impact solution to current environmental concerns whilst supplying a stronger more virulent crop with enviable nutritional credentials.

FOOD, hedgerow, polyphenols,bilberry, hazelnut, dandelion, perennial weed
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