First pickings

11th March 2013

The first wild food I was introduced to as a child was the leaves of the Common Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna.  I can’t remember exactly how old I was (probably about 8 or 9), nor who actually introduced me to it but it was likely to have been either my Grandfather or an old Woodcraft Folk leader known only as “Badger”.  Regardless, it was this plant that started me on my wild food journey.

Now nearly 40 years later,  my first glimpse of the buds starting to open still brings back happy memories of those first exploits into the world of foraging.  Hot on the heels of the Blackthorn or Sloe flowers, the hedgerows at this time of year start to take on a bright, lime green tinge as the Hawthorn leaves start to unfurl.

Hawthorn buds unfurling in our Oxford woods

Of the 200-400 species of hawthorn (depending on the author) there are only two native species in the UK, the Common Hawthorn C. monogyna and mainly in south and central England, the closely related Midland or Woodland Hawthorn C. laevigata which is less common and normally only found in old hedges and ancient woodland.

They can be told apart by their leaves; the leaves of the Common Hawthorn have deeper lobes, extending more than half-way to the leaves’ mid rib. Their flowers; both have white flowers, although there is a wild form of  Midland Hawthorn which can have pink flowers, but the main difference is that Common has 1 style whereas Midland has 2-3. And their fruit; Common has a single seed in the haw whereas Midland has 2-3.  However, the two species readily hybridise producing intermediates forms C. x media and in addition there are several cultivated forms of both which can also intermingle with wild plants.

All this leads to a very variable mixture of Hawthorns in our woods and hedgerows which will manifest its self in lots of ways such as the number and colour of the berries and at this time of year in the opening of the leaf buds……’s not unusual to have some plants completely in leaf whilst the one next to it in the same hedge hasn’t opened its leaves at all.

At the end of the day, telling one from another doesn’t really matter as from a culinary point of view they can be used interchangeably.

Just as with myself, young Hawthorn leaves were in the past often the first wild green leaves that children were taught to eat and they became universally known as “bread and cheese”, although Richard Maybe in Flora Britannica suggests that it this name may come from children in the past eating the Autumn leaves (bread) with the berries (cheese).  Names aside, the young leaves for the first few weeks after the buds open and indedd the unopened buds themselves,  do make a pleasant addition to a salad or sandwich or can be simply nibbled straight from the hedge.  They are tender, not bitter and have a pleasing “nutty” quality to them.

There are also recipes that use the young leaf buds in a cooked form. Mix with nettles and dendelions etc. in cooked wild greens, add to soups and they go well with potatoes. In Flora Britannica there is a recipe dating back to the 1930’s where they are incorporated with bacon into a suet pudding.

Like the flowers and the berries, Hawthorn leaves contain tannins and flavonoids such as rutin which are beneficial to the heart and circulatory system, so eating them regularly has health benefits as well.

Kev Palmer

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