In appreciation of the NHS*

Foraging has health benefits - but you must know what you're looking for. Picture by Gerard Binks.

Foraging has health benefits - but you must know what you're looking for. Picture by Gerard Binks.

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This week, Isle of Man Friends of the Earth secretary Cat Turner sings the praises of the NHS (*that’s the Natural Health Service)

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In the Turner household we’re big fans of foraging, for food and for plants to fix what ails us.

In part this is a result of being mighty broke, and in part because it’s a great thing to do with children, provided you teach them caution – our beautiful and relatively unpolluted island holds abundant scope for greediguts such as us.

Of course, you need to know your limits. I don’t want us to end up in a news report headed ‘family hospitalised after eating toxic “mushrooms”, and I’m well aware of how similar some plants look to one another.

But by drawing on the knowledge I gleaned from my mother, Elisabeth, the guidance of experienced pals, and widely available books and other media, it’s possible for most of us to identfy a score or so of different wild edibles.

And many of these have powerful health benefits – either for curing specific ailments, or in terms of supporting general wellbeing and a robust immune system.

Obvious examples include ransoms (wild garlic), the leaves of which we pick when young and cook as a scrummy, if pungent, alternative to spinach. These are a supercharged source of vitamins and protective compounds, especially if they’ve grown in healthy soil.

It’s rather too late in the year for that now, but the roots are still good to use. Be careful where you take them from, though, in case of spraying or uptake of any nasties through the root system.

The same goes for blackberries, which – yahoo! – are nearly on us; bilberries, meanwhile, grow in places where there’s less risk of toxic herbicides and petrol fumes.

And lots of folks have experimented with elderflower cordial, a gloriously-perfumed drink which knocks colas and the like into a cocked hat and makes a stunning iced-lolly too. Brilliant, I’m told, as icecubes in a white wine spritzer.

A variety of wild leaves can be used for salad and ‘spinach’ (sorrels, dandelions, nettles are the best known but there are many others), and last year I was given a useful lesson in making leaf curd from the leaves of common trees. It’s not the most engaging of ingredients – a bit tanniny depending on the leaf you use – but people are apparently successfully selling the blocks of curd at farmers’ markets in the UK, for use in soups and stews, and it can be surprisingly high in protein - something that an all-natural, vegetarian diet often lacks.

But the thing we’re enjoying most at present is our rosehips. When my plenitude of Rosa Mollis and Rosa Canina was installed by the Highway Board a few years ago, as an exercise they undertook in replacing a wall, I was initially grumpy about ‘roundabout foliage’. But now, having reacquainted myself with their blowsy petals and amazing scent – like plunging your face into a bowl of the most fragrant cool water – I wouldn’t be without them. And this year, the hips are the best for several summers - huge, rosy and sweetly fleshed. Mine are in my garden, but there are plentiful wild patches near to where we live, too.

Rosehip syrups and cordials were a staple of my upbringing, and I loved them. I’ve lost mum’s original recipes, but have been experimenting.

I refreshed my memory with her old copy of British Herbs (Florence Ransom, 1949, Pelican), a lovely work from a decade still wearing the hangover of two World Wars and rationing.

At the time, the brilliantly-named Vegetable Drugs Committee (part of the then Ministry of Supply) was overseeing a nationwide collection of rosehips to boost the country’s supply of vitamin C. With collectors (each county had a Herb Committee), chemists and drugs firms drew up ‘Operation Rose’, an exercise that in one year, 1945, collected 480 tons of these jewels of the hedgerow.

Girl Guides, Womens’ Institutes and high school children helped with the gathering and it formed an essential weapon in maintaining the country’s health at a time when rationing had induced lots of cases of malnutrition.

Now, of course, it’s junk and fast food that’s the culprit – those calorie-rich non-foods that people stuff into their faces to assuage the gnawing appetite born of undernourishment. Eat nutrient-rich food, and your hunger goes away.

I was surprised to see how much the vitamin C content of a hip varies by type and region – hips from the North of England and Scotland can have up to 10 times as much as those grown in Cornwall, for example.

I’d expect, given the island’s position, that we’d do relatively well here (though not the best – the harder the conditions, the more ascorbic acid the plants produce).

You have to be nifty with them, and gathering and processing is a same-day job: hips hold an enzyme that starts breaking down the vitamin C shortly after picking, so they need to get into a freezer, or to be being percolated / macerated in hot water pretty much immediately. We do a bit of both, as well as grazing the fleshy pulp whilst we pick for an immediate boost! Thereafter, though, concentrate the sugary cordial at as low a temperature as possible, so as not to break down the vitamin content after all your hard efforts. It’s delicious, and my girls love to drink, and serve, something glorious that they’ve made themselves.

It makes me wonder why our health service doesn’t pay more attention to the medicines we can gather or grow locally, as happens in some other countries. (Or maybe it doesn’t surprise me, when I’m feeling cynical enough about the influence of a profit-hungry ‘Big Pharma’ on the ‘real’ NHS). Still, in these straitened times, when nature offers us free or cheap, natural nutrients, often with well-understood or no side effects compared to those from commercial drugs, it’s an area we might usefully learn more about.

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