Cristina Ertze – 18th August 2022
Every year I fail to get my head around just how fast and powerful the Scottish landscape comes to life in the spring and summer. I specifically remember the impact of this when, 12 years ago, my partner and I built our house on a wee rural plot. We first viewed and bought the plot during the winter; you could actually stand in it and get a good sense of where things could go. By the time we started preparing for the build in July you could not step in it without channelling a character from Jumanji and clearing the way with a machete!
These fast growing ‘weeds’ didn’t seem to mind our stomping, trimming, begging, our building of a house on top of them nor the traffic of the children, ducks and chickens who have grown and played within their turf for the last decade. They keep on coming, they always look healthy and they are definitely doing a much better job at adapting to changing climate conditions than any of our other more ‘chosen’ garden residents.
To be honest, I have a huge admiration for them. I really can’t understand how it came to be that we prefer imported crops over them, since I now know that most of them had been used for centuries, until not that long ago. How is it that we prefer to turn a blind eye to the environmental impact and the ethical ambiguity of importing crops which are unsuitable for our land when we have incredible alternatives growing all around us?
Scotland’s native flora is incredibly rich and diverse and, when allowed to thrive, so is its fauna. But for the sake of this short article, I will focus on the specimens which have kept me company for the last decade and which I know will be familiar to many more folk out there.
Nettles. Oh yeah. The stingy horrors. It’s not that I have forgiven them for the pain and suffering, but honestly, they are as thuggish as they are amazing. Left alone they provide wonderful shelter and food for a massive variety of animals and insects, but also, as a farmed crop they can be used for textile and cordage fibers (stems), vegetable rennet for cheese making (young leaves), protein source (seeds), pain relief (root) and as nutritious food (their leaves are full of iron and antioxidants) and even as plant feed for your begonias! These are all uses that share centuries of historical applications throughout the world. For those of you who like your facts: Nettles contain 26% protein for the calories. They also contain: iron, calcium, magnesium, silicon, potassium, manganese zinc, copper, and chromium, vitamins A and B. Nettles are more nutritious than spinach, kale, or asparagus.
Rosebay Willowherb (Fireweed) They bring colour to our verges and hills while attracting bees and wildlife with their lovely pink flowers. Young shoots can be cooked as you would asparagus and young leaves as you would spinach. Later on the leaves are too fibrous and bitter, but they can be harvested along with the flowers, dried and lightly roasted in the oven (similarly to how you would process black tea) and they provide an incredibly similar-tasting substitute to Earl Grey blends, minus the caffeine. The petals of the flower also make for a pretty garnish in salads and puddings, but beyond that they make an unbelievably fragrant and just uniquely delicious syrup when cooked with some sugar. Aye, I know, sugar, right? Well, the pith of the flowering stems can be harvested for a sugar substitute. But even if that is a step too far for you, you can forgive yourself for skipping this step by knowing that rosebay willowherb has ninety times more vitamin A and four times more vitamin C than oranges and it is high in mucilage and tannins, which makes it a great gastric anti-inflammatory aid, as well as a soothing remedy for sore throats. This wonder herb is also ideal for coppicing as it will regrow more than once if cut within the season and its long stems can be used for cordage.
Hogweed. The young shoots, leaves and buds are delicious! You only need a bit of salt and butter and you’ve got a delicious cooked side-veg that becomes crisp as its sugars caramelise and which provides 105 mg of vitamin C as well as 3.25 g carotene, 5.31 g protein, 6.42 g carbohydrates and 50 g calories per 100g of fresh leaves. My kids loved the texture and flavour of the wee florets and they have become a serious contender for broccoli in our house. My favourite part though, are the seeds. When dry they are very easy to harvest and they are wonderfully aromatic and complex. The nearest comparator I have for them is cardamom… they are absolutely lovely for curries and sauces. An important note of caution though: Giant hogweed is extremely toxic to the touch, so I would advise to read and get further identification instructions before adventuring on this one.
Dock Weed. First of all, its leaves will be a saving grace when you decide to go out foraging for them nettles. A wee rub on the affected area and the sap from the fresh leaves will help soothe the sting by cooling your skin down a bit. It’s not magic, but it is a small comfort that goes a long way. Nettles are just horrible in that way. Dock is just as much of a thug and incredibly hardy, which makes it a much-hated garden resident for most. But as I recently discovered, its prolific seed heads, which no doubt you will have spotted on road sides looking like copper spires sprouting from every bit of unattended land, carry with them a rich source of starch, perfect for milling into baking flour. Each seed head contains hundreds, if not thousands of seeds, each enveloped in a papery husk and each packed with protein, dietary fibre, amino acid, vitamins and essential minerals and they are gluten free. I harvested only two spires and got enough flour for a loaf simply by rubbing my fingers across the stems. I then gathered the seeds, shoved them in the oven to toast for five minutes and then ground them (chaff and all) in a coffee mill. The texture and final flavour is very similar to what you get with wholemeal rye flour: certainly more bitter and dense than wheat; perfect paired with pickles and chutneys. The leaves, when very young, are edible and lemony and the stems are hollow but quite sturdy, which can be used for anything from cordage to climbing crop support to soap bubble blowing instruments with the kids… they make a fantastic light-sabre sound as you whoosh them about too. Or they are also great just left in piles in wee corners of the garden to be used by beasties as shelter.
My list of favourite forages could go on and on and on!
Think about your garden, the bit of green out on the pavement (if your local authority hasn’t yet sprayed the life out of it), or the verges you pass by as you transit from one place to the other. Regardless of where you are geographically in Scotland, and even, now, well past that early summer boom, you can still find a wide variety of amazing smaller herbs including dandelion, pineapple weed, ground ivy, ground elder, alexander, plantain, thistle, herb robert, meadow sweet, not to mention all the richness in our hedges (dogwood, rosehips, gorse, sloes, rowan, brambles, raspberries, etc)… All of them offer tons of potential, none of them are environmentally unsound as a harvest crop. Many of them are excellent substitutes to kitchen and industrial elements that we’ve grown used to calling our ‘staples’… the fact that we import these ‘staples’ (tea, peppercorns, cotton, etc) is telling in itself.
I am not proposing that we all take on foraging individually and I would definitely urge folk to read some basic identification guides before attempting to do so for food. But instead, I would like to understand why we don’t favour the agriculture of these plants over that of crops which require the use of pest control and additional irrigation. Why are we willing to dismiss our potential as raw material manufacturers and growers, only because cotton is not an ideal crop to grow in our land? In the same way that we have understood the value of our land and the domestic farming and processing industry for crops like oats, barley and rapeseed we could invest in Scotland’s native weeds and reduce our reliance on imported crops and goods for everything from animal feed to sustainable raw materials for our textile needs.
We are already seeing how post-globalisation and as the true damage of capitalism starts to reveal, the world is finally looking into more sustainable crops, like hemp and bamboo, for loads of applications to which we were convinced (not so long ago) there was no other alternative but plastic or deforestation. Some of us wonder why we hadn’t before. In Scotland we seem to have not only a rich variety of raw materials we could be tapping into, but some of them also happen to be extremely hardy and pest defiant, but they seem to be determined to grow on our land whether we want them to or not. Additionally, we have extensive historic records and folk traditions to give us a head start on most of their uses.
Alas, I fear that even if we succeed at revamping the agriculture of our native plants, throw tons of support onto its research and industry and we manage to create a fabulous new line of products for all to enjoy, our society has become so reliant on marketing to make its own moral choices that we mistrust anything not widely commercially available.
Even worse, we are willing to accept all kinds of greenwash as long as it has an ‘organic’ or ‘fair trade’ related logo on its packaging, without considering that even the most organically grown tea leaf will have hurt our planet enormously if it is to be brought over all the way here from the other side of the world and packaged in plastic to be kept fresh until we decide to drop it in a cup of boiling water. We need to help people to get into the habit of questioning ethical values of the food and materials they use, whether that wee bit of difference in taste or texture is worth the extra thousand carbon miles and added preservatives. Maybe it is ok to add nettle seeds to your morning smoothie rather than getting a certified organic, grown in India, processed in America, zip-sealed, foil-lined pack of spirulina from your nearest health shop.