Help! What to do when you don't know that plant!

Advice for beginners, but some more advanced links to resources for ID at bottom of blog.

Recently, a few people have posted on our Instagram and Facebook photos asking help with identification. It can be really tricky to ID things via a shaky mobile photo and I generally prefer not as I can’t usually be 100% confident unless I could see sharp clear botanical features. Those are, more often than not, the part that is missing from the snapshot.

I gave some lines of advice and it really got me thinking about what I did when I first started out foraging. Gaining confidence is key. Here are a few things that I would advice on the path to becoming good at ID

  1. You don’t nee to know allll the plants. Just start with a few, step by step. So, choose 1-5 and really get to know it/them. Once you have your ‘eye’ in for those, you can move on.

  2. Choose really common plants first, ones that grow everywhere. Good ones are ones that have lots of uses which will keep you busy experimenting for a while. Ones like nettle, elder, hawthorn, linden, wild rose.

  3. Plant of the year. An a mazing way to get to really know a plant is stalk it for a year. Go sketch it through the seasons, try the different parts (if not toxic, obviously) and try all the recipes you can all year round. Take notes, sketches, photographs. You don’t have to go hiking to virgin countryside to do this. Just choose a tree you see on your commute.

  4. Get a good book. My first go-to guides are photographic chronological ones - my favourites are Roger Phillips Wild Flowers of Britain (Pan Books, 1977) writing this in October 2018, I can see second hand copies for under £2 on amazon. The other is Sarah Cuttle and Rae Spencer’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (2005 & 2018 reprint) The new version is £11, and older versions are pennies second hand.

  5. Buy both, it’s good to get a cross reference. They may not be the smallest books, but very worth packing them when you go out.

  6. Find people who know this plant, and get them to show you. Even if they aren’t botanists. Many Grannies and Grandads (don’t have to be yours) are good at this.

  7. Find a hedgerow hassler. If you ever see someone picking things/staring at hedges carefully, and feel comfortable doing so, go ask them what they are doing and what they will use it for. I have learnt many things this way.

  8. Foraging walks. You really can’t beat learning from others who can SHOW you. So follow up points, ,5 & 6 if you can and also - Go on a foraging walk. Plenty good ones out there. Start at the Association of Forager’s directory to find your most local forager. Ask to be put on their mailing list for upcoming walks. You can also find courses on just plant id, without the uses, from the Field Studies Council (FSC)

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Once you have ‘got your eye in’ you’ll start recognising plants yards away and all that generic 'green space will start to become a fascinating library.

Good luck on your journey, and let me know any questions/share your tips in the comments below.

Kim x

online keys using plant descriptions to get an identification:

(There are more but I use these ones)

Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) key:

http://www.botanicalkeys.co.uk/flora/content/SEARCH.ASP

Go Botany, New England Wild Flower Society (Still useful for Europe)

https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/simple/

Foraged Mugwort Mochi

 Mochi with rosehip and pear stuffing. I used nettle to make this mochi, which is much less green.

Mochi with rosehip and pear stuffing. I used nettle to make this mochi, which is much less green.

I absolutely love the podgy, glutinous Japanese sweet known as ‘mochi’(餅), it has the strangest but most satisfying texture to eat. It isn’t too sweet, it’s simple and quick to make (just four ingredients) and it contains one of my favourite herbs - Mugwort. In Japan, the species used is Artemisia princeps but I used the closely related, native species to the UK: Artemisia vulgaris. They both keep a bright green colour when infused that is used for colouring the mochi. I explain a little about mugwort here, but skip to the bottom for the recipe and the picture instructions.

Mugwort: the moon herb

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is a herb with fabulous magical folklore, it’s latin name - ‘Artemisia’ is said to refer to Artemis, the Ancient Greek goddess of the the moon, wilderness, hunting and childbirth. It is used medicinally by traditional western herbalists for regulating the menstrual cycle (to the moon cycle). It was also used to bring on delayed menses, so should not be used in large medicinal amounts by pregnant women, particularly in the first trimester.

The aromatic oils contained in the leaves are a bitter digestive and are also strongly antibacterial. Mugwort is one of the 9 healing wound herbs recorded in the ‘Ley of the nine herbs’ recorded in the Lacnunga, an Anglo Saxon manuscript (circa 1000AD). Mugwort infusion, infused oil or tincture can be added to wound healing recipes. A translation of the 9 herbs poem gives these lines:

Remember, Mugwort, what you revealed,

What you set out in mighty revelation,

‘Una’ you are called, oldest of plants,

You have might against three and against thirty,

You have might against poison and against infection,

You have might against the evil that travels around the land.

(Pollington, 2008)

Mugwort is also used in dreamwork with scented pillows made from the flowers, and infusions of the leaves are used to increase lucid dreaming.

Harvesting

 Mugwort leaves showing silvery underside. The flower stalk on the right is a little too brown and gone over for best use, but still tasted good.

Mugwort leaves showing silvery underside. The flower stalk on the right is a little too brown and gone over for best use, but still tasted good.

For medicinal use, mugwort leaves and flower stalks are best gathered at the height of summer when the young flowers are at their most aromatic and still green. This is perfect for making infusions for medicnal uses and infused dream oils and balms.

Edit: it is the young spring leaves and the the autumnal second flush of leaves that are best used for mochi making. Thanks to @Littlelilly_godvalley who let us know on instagram.

Mugwort is a tall plant with heavily lobed dark green leaves with a silvery underside. Get a good ID book to see what it looks like as it is a shy plant and it is hard to get a good photo of it in the wild. Always be 100% sure you have picked the correct plant before eating.

Making Mochi

Though I have a much quicker recipe for making mochi below, the traditional method uses a lot of muscle power to pound rice into the sweet, glutinous paste that forms the base of the recipe. A fascinating (short!) video about this can be seen here, courtesy of Great big Story.


Sweet Mugwort Mochi Recipe

The important ingredient in this recipe is the glutinous rice powder. It must be glutinous rice powder, as regular rice powder will not work. It is quite cheap and a little goes a long way. I tried a few recipes but found this one to be the simplest adapted from snapguide**. I have added a gallery of pictures below of how each stage looks.

  • 110g glutinous rice powder

  • 55g sugar

  • 180 mls water

  • 1 cup of chopped fresh mugwort leaves and flowers (estimated amount!)

  • cornflour to coat

Step-by-step pictures below.

 You don’t have to add a filling your mochi, just slice into bite sized pieces, or roll into little balls.

You don’t have to add a filling your mochi, just slice into bite sized pieces, or roll into little balls.

Place about 200mls water and the mugwort herb in a pan over a medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and place on the lid. Cook for 5 minutes. Remove the mixture form the heat and pour into a blender. Whizz up the herb and liquid well. Strain out the herb and measure out 180mls of the green liquid. (If you have simmered off too much liquid, add a little extra water). If you like, you can add a couple of tablespoons of the leftover mugwort herb to add the mixture.

In a heat proof glass bowl, mix together the glutinous rice powder and sugar. Add 180mls of the mugwort liquid into the bowl, whisking briskly into the rice-sugar mix. This will make a fairly liquid mixture.

Take the same bowl with the liquid mix and either suspend it over a pan of gently simmering water, or place the bowl in a steamer rack over a pan. Place a lid wrapped in a tea-towel over the bowl to prevent steam dripping in and spoiling the mixture.

Steam for 5 minutes, then remove lid and stir, scraping the mixture down the sides to the middle.. The mixture will be lumpy. Return to the pan and cover again. Steam for another 10 minutes. The mixture should now be a consistent translucent gel texture throughout, though it may appear lumpy until kneaded. If not translucent, give it a stir and steam for a couple minutes more.

Remove the bowl from the pan, and carefully scrape out the mixture onto a cornflour coated worktop. Allow to cool enough to handle. Cover your blob of mochi with cornflour and roll out to desired thickness (0.5-1cm). These can be cut into squares to eat alone, or use a biscuit cutter to make circles to wrap a filling.

SHELF LIFE: keep in the fridge and eat within 3 days. Alternatively, freeze for later use for up to 3 months.

However, mochi is usually stuffed with red bean paste. Instead, try hedgerow purees using elderberry, rosehip, hawthorn…. let me know if you create a good filling.

Picture guide for recipe

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Strain off the mochi liquid

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Whisk the liquid briskly into the dry mixture

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The mixture will be liquid with the consistency of double cream

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Steaming the mochi mixture with tea-towel wrapped lid

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Texture after 5 minutes

Springy, translucent texture after 15 minutes

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Place on a cornflour coated worktop and allow to cool slightly

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Cover with cornflour and roll out

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Cut into circles ready for filling


*Excerpt taken from: Pollington, S., (2008). Leechcraft: old English charms, plantlore and healing. Ely: Anglo- Saxon Books.

**https://snapguide.com/guides/make-sweet-mochi/