Who’d have expected that it is often easier to find free food growing in the metropolis than in the countryside? Justin Irving is a forager and documentation maker for Kew Gardens. He has found that foraging can be more fruitful in London because of the non-native species introduced in London’s gardens and parks.
“You can get rosemary, lavender and bay leaves,” he says. “They aren’t native but if you’re thinking about just taking advantage of what’s there, you can have those because they’re there.”
Sporting a curly red beard, an earthy brown jumper, and carrying a wicker basket under one arm, Jason does appear to belong in his woodland stomping ground of Hampstead Heath and Finsbury Park. Here, he leads walks for members of the public to pass on his foraging knowledge to others.
He describes to me the various indicators of whether a plant is poisonous or not: the leaf shape, flower shape, the structure, number of petals, petal colour, habitat and smell; all these elements can determine whether a plant will make a tasty stew or make you drop down dead.
But there are plenty of plants that are edible and Jason’s basket is filled with tinctures, syrups, vinegars and jams that he has either made or infused with the fruits of his foraging endeavours. From glass syringes, he allows me to taste drops of some of his concoctions: sloe gin, elderberry vodka and elderberry vinegar. They are sweet but subtle in flavour, more refined than industrial products alone.
Jason picked up foraging skills from his father at first. “He’d show me some mushrooms, like puff balls and parasol mushrooms, the obvious ones. Or he’d make nettle or wild garlic soup in the Spring.” Later, when he finished a degree in International Politics at SOAS, Jason saw his uncle’s foraging business in Kent and was immediately fascinated. His visit, that he had intended to last a couple of days, stretched out for a couple of years. Recently, he returned to London, hesitant about his prospects as a forager there. “When I started doing the walks I’d spend a few hours in a park, checking there was plenty to talk about.”
But there is a sad twist on why the city can provide more of an abundance. Habitats in the countryside are steadily being lost thanks to modern farming practices and housing development. Jason explains, “We’ve lost about 70 per cent of our native grassland over the past 60 years.”
Loss of habitats in the countryside is linked to field expansion for more efficient harvesting, as farmers expand their fields into the space taken up by hedgerows and wild grass areas that provide sanctuary to much wildlife.
As a result of such practices, Jason has discovered that certain “wild” species are more prevalent in London. “The council plants a lot of trees so rowan berries are actually easier to find in London than they are in a lot of the countryside, that people consider to be wild.” He adds, “I did seed collecting with Kew, and we went to the Peak District and it was really hard to find native rowan trees to collect the seed because big, vast areas are used for conifer plantations or they’re used for grouse shooting, or they’re used for farmland.”
It is a shame then, that what is steadily being lost in the countryside is found more easily in the city. But it does mean that in the hardhearted metropolis, foraging provides another way to find free food.