Wild Food in our Woodlands
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 29th April 2015, last updated: 11th June 2019
Today, in honour of Scottish Year of Food 2015, we are exploring the wild food of our forefathers, those who lived on Keil Hill when our nature reserve was still part of the ancient woodland. For the hunter-gatherers of old right up to those living just a few hundred years ago, many of the plants and trees we see today would have held a special place in their lives and in their kitchens!
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in the wildwood. They collected the fruits of trees and shrubs, ate an amazing variety of greens and roots from the forest floor and hunted wild animals large and small that shared their ecosystem. Along with the fruits to be gathered from the nearby sea and shore, such as fish, sea-kelp, and crustaceans, the ancient woodland offered humans enough nutrients and medicines to survive and thrive.
Everything was important from the bark of the sallow (willow) tree which yielded pain-relieving salicylic acid when chewed, to the humble clover which is a treasure chest of nutrients. Here are some other essential ingredients for the hunter-gatherer’s larder:
Wild food: Acorns
Acorns on a sessile oak- photo by Penny Mayes
Oak forests yielded up an important staple to the ancient people that they would have made full use of – acorns. Even today hunter-gatherer tribes will use acorns whenever they are available, even when there are other sources of food. This is because they are very nutritious. They contain carbohydrates, an essential part of the human diet which can’t be obtained from just meat and vegetables. They also contain some protein.
In their natural state acorns contain a lot of bitter tasting tannins. Eating them is like chewing a tea-bag. But our ancestors would have known how to remedy this, using quite an involved process. Acorns may even have been the first processed food!
First they split the acorns with a stone then dried them. This made it easier to remove the shells. Once the shells were removed, the nuts were crushed into a floury ‘meal’, then they would leech the acorns of their tannins, perhaps by putting them in a bag secured in a river or stream where water could flow through. The tannins would leech into the water like a tea stain over a couple of days. When the water ran clear the tannins were much reduced and the acorn nuts rendered sweeter and nuttier to the taste, delicious in fact.
After this, cooking them was a relatively easy matter. It is thought that our mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) ancestors would have cooked a meal of acorn by stirring in hot stones from the fire until the meal was hot. The hot acorn meal smells like toast when it is ready, yum! Today in parts of the world bread and other products are still made from acorn meal.
Why bother with troublesome acorns when the naturally sweeter tasting hazelnuts were also plentiful? The answer to this lies in the fact that bitter acorns contain not only carbohydrate, but a large quantity of fat, something that in the wild wood was hard to come by without hunting. When animals were scarce especially in winter, the fat from acorn meal was a good substitute. In fact 1 oz of acorn meal contains 110 calories, 12 grams of carbohydrate, 7 grams of fat, and is also rich in potassium.
Squirrels do their own version of tannin-eradication by burying their nuts in the ground. The tannins are slowly released into the damp earth and when the squirrels dig them up again the nuts are sweeter and easier for them to digest. And we thought they were just hiding them!
Wild food: Hazelnuts
Hazelnuts on the tree
Our Mesolithic ancestors roasted and ate hazelnuts in great abundance. At one time hazel trees covered the inner Hebridean islands such as Colonsay, where a recent archaeological dig has revealed masses of charred hazel shells, the result of a tremendous amount of roasting and shelling, which hunter-gatherers where engaged in repeatedly at certain times of year, perhaps to store for the winter months. It is unlikely that they would have eaten so many hazelnuts in one sitting, or perhaps they were having a party!
Like acorns, hazelnuts also contain fat, as well as carbohydrate, dietary fibre and a good helping of vitamins and potassium. They are an excellent source of magnesium, an extremely important mineral which enables our bodies to perform well under stress. Today’s diet suffers from a lack of magnesium, which can lead to hypertension, osteoporosis and other age-related symptoms. If they could, our ancestors would tell us to eat a lot more hazelnuts!
Wild food: Hawthorn
Hawthorn flowers, also known as Mayflower
In late spring the hawthorn in our hedgerows comes to life with thousands of fragrant white flowers. This is a real sign that the frosts have finished and summer is imminent. Our ancestors called it the May flower, and the old rhyme ‘ne’er cast a clout til may is out’ refers to the flower, not the month, because you know that warm weather is certain when the may is in flower and you can finally ‘cast off’ your winter vest! It featured in May day celebrations, with the flower being used in festive garlands.
The hawthorn berry was very important to our ancestors and would have been assiduously collected. The pulp of the hawthorn berry sets to a jelly-like consistency, and can be dried to make fruit leather, which is surprisingly sweet and delicious. Dried fruit leather keeps for months, if not years, and would have been very welcome in the winter months. Hawthorn berries contain certain antioxidants which are especially useful in preventing the furring of arteries, and are known to help reduce cardiovascular problems such as poor circulation and angina. Germany and Switzerland especially support the use of hawthorn as a complimentary medicine in heart health.
It’s hard to talk about wild food without also mentioning the medicinal properties of many of the plants our ancestors ate. Imagine a time when all medicines were collected and distilled from edible plants. It wasn’t so long ago. A physician was as much a herbalist as a doctor. Conrad Gessner, an influential 16th century Swiss physician, and the author of many books on the practise of medicine, became a doctor after gaining his degree in botany!
The woods are still abundant with the raw materials of an old physician’s trade. We wander past these plants today, like so many wild weeds, not knowing the rich legacy they gave us. For today our synthesised medicines are all copies of properties found in the natural world.
Wild medicine: Meadowsweet
Meadowsweet flowers, once known as Meadsweet, as it was used to flavour mead.
Alternatively known as bridewort or meadsweet, this plant has been used for millenia as a medicinal herb. Though it really came into its own in the middle ages. To Elizabeth I it was the ‘strewing herb’ of choice. Our medieval and early modern ancestors used to strew herbs around the floor of their dwellings, rich and poor. These would serve as insecticides or astringents, and keep the house smelling fresh. Lavender for example was used as an insect repellent, and penny royal to repel fleas and ticks. Meadowsweet, however, had Royal approval.
The herbs were laid on the ground on top of the usual floor coverings of reeds or straw, or ‘thresh’ (from which we get the term threshold: a piece of wood secured across the doorway which stopped the ‘thresh’ from dispersing out of the door). The ‘thresh’ would be swept out and changed about twice a year. But regular use of strewing herbs would keep the place sweet and (they hoped) bug-free!
Walking on the strewing herbs in all the rooms of the house would crush the plant and release a pleasant odour. This practise was popular from the early Middle Ages right through to the 18th century. Trying to keep houses smelling sweet must have been a full time job, as this was also a time when bathing was considered bad for you!
Meadowsweet had other properties that made it even more precious to our ancestors. Like the willow it contained salicylic acid, a very useful pain-killer and fever reliever, obtained by chewing the root. It is the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea, which inspired the name Aspirin, though the plant has since been reclassified as Filipendula.
It was also used as a flavouring for mead and beer, and its flowers were a popular ingredient in jam-making and stewed fruit. It has a pleasant taste similar to almond. Meadowsweet has been found in several iron-age burial sites, and seems to have been highly prised by Neolithic (Iron Age) people. It grows in abundance in boggy and open woodland, and is a regular visitor to our nature reserve in summer.
Wild medicine: Comfrey and Plantain
In any wood it won’t be long before you trip over a medicinal plant. Comfrey has to be one of the most effective, but today we pay it little heed. It was once considered the queen of medicinal plants. To our ancestors it went by the name knitbone because the leaves and especially the roots contain an active chemical that accelerates cell regrowth. Extraordinary claims have been made about comfrey. ‘The water of the Greater Comferie druncke, helpeth such as are bursten, and that have broken the bone of the legge.’ So wrote George Baker in his medicinal manual, Newe Jewell of Health, in 1567.
A poultice of leaves, or drinkable concoctions made out of the root can mend broken bones, even allegedly re-grow teeth! It works as an anti-inflammatory, soothes stomach ulcers (especially those that are ‘bursten’), and heals surface wounds very fast, so fast that it can cause the surface to heal over a deeper wound inducing suppuration, so careful administration is necessary. Further on the down side too much of it can cause liver damage!
‘In the field’ you can use comfrey as a quick remedy for insect bites or nettle stings. Spit on a leaf and rub it over the skin and it will soothe the sting very quickly.
The same is true of Plantain, the herb that is, not the banana-like fruit. This rosette of veiny ribbed leaves with a few central spikes of drab-looking flowers is found all over wild flower meadows and woodland habitats. You probably have some in your garden lawn. Plantain is such a good anti-histamine it can sooth all manner of allergic reactions. It needs to be crushed so the juice can be extracted, you can do this in your hand by rubbing a few leaves until you get a paste, or chew the leaves then apply topically as a wet poultice.
It’s extraordinary that we forget the excellent anti-histamine properties of comfrey and plantain and only remember the vastly inferior dock leaf when trying to soothe a nettle sting.
When the first European settlers went to America, the native European plantain seemed to sprout up from the soil wherever they walked, and the Native Americans named it ‘White man’s footprint.’ Plantain is not only a great medicine, its leaves are edible. Used in salads they contain high doses of Vitamin C, A and K, and also calcium. When using plantain in salads, chop crossways through the fibrous spines, making them into ribbons, then rub in a little olive oil. Leave to marinade in the oil for twenty minutes then dress as you would any salad leaves and serve.
Wild food: Wood Sorrel
Wood sorrel flowers in Glencoe Wood
We are lucky to find this pretty little flower in the nature reserve. Wood Sorrel, or Oxalis acetosella, flowers between Easter and Pentecost (50 days after Easter Sunday), and for that reason older generations called it Alleluia, after the Alleluia psalms which were sung during this period in the church services.
The presence of wood sorrel is a good indicator of original ancient forest, as it grew in large swathes under the dappled light canopy of deciduous forests of oak and birch. It is also an edible plant which has been eaten by our ancestors for millennia.
Wood sorrel leaves have a slightly sour taste which is quite refreshing, and are rich in Vitamin C. It can be used as a salad ingredient and goes well with game. So our ancestors probably had a bit of wood sorrel on the side with their leg of freshly hunted venison. It was also used as a medicine. When chewed it can reduce mouth ulcers and sores. In our sea-faring past it was commonly consumed as a cure for scurvy.
These are just a small selection of the nuts and plants still to be found in our woodlands, which our ancestors would have prized. The nutritional properties of many wild plants are almost forgotten today or else the plants are seen as weeds, but everything in nature was important to our ancestors. Today we can still learn a great deal from their profound knowledge.
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