At this time of year I can’t take my eyes off the trees. I crane my neck on buses, risk near-misses on the bike, I detour and wander all over the city in search of that next find. I have discovered walnuts on a housing estate in the centre of town. I have found apples in a car park, a relic from when it was once a private garden, medlars in parks, and every back alley offers damsons, elderberries and blackberries. A week ago I found fresh almonds outside Birmingham Social Services building. This city, all cities, are rich in bounty for the picker. It’s knowing about where and how to look.
Urban foraging has real perks. You can use public transport to go picking, you can grab a latte on the way and it’s truly diverse - you are not limited just to native plants: you can pick figs and loquats in the warm microclimate of the city.
Of course there are particular issues to overcome too. Pollution is the most obvious. Isn’t any food grown in the city going to be riddled with it? Well, yes and no - like any foraging, even in the countryside, there are places that are more suited to picking than others.
Busy roads will have a lot of petrol - and diesel - related issues; the far side of the hedge is always the better bet. Fruit that is on the ground will undoubtedly have meet a rat or two and there can be issues with past industries leaching into the soil.
Soft fruit such as raspberries and blackberries are shallow-rooted and will take up soil pollutants, but apples (both crab and dessert) are much more resilient, keeping their fruit clean and storing the pollutants in the leaves and bark. Finally, you have to be mindful about dog pee. Dogs love to mark territory, so stay clear of the blackberries to the bottom of the bush and head into the middle where the dogs won’t wander.
There are laws to consider as well. If the land is privately owned then you’ll have to ask permission and you are not allowed to dig up plants without prior permission. More enlightened parks and wider spaces will offer foraging walks and guides on how they expect their areas to be treated. We have a commoner’s right to our land and responsible foraging that does not seek to profit (there’s a huge issue with unlicensed foraging for restaurants) is a good thing for our green spaces.
People connect through food, and foraging is a way for us to cement our fragile relationship with nature. For the city dweller the autumn bounty or first flush of spring greens mark the seasons in a way that is so often lost in urban spaces. There are numerous community projects making use of all this spare fruit. Fruitshare.net, Abundance and Freecycle connect those with too much fruit with those who have none. And community fruit-picking parties, urban foraging walks, apple pressings and jam parties are popping up left, right and centre.
Where to begin
So where do you start? Well the blackberry is probably the best starting point. Not that I think anyone needs a lesson in recognition but, if you read a botanical description of a blackberry, you can start to decipher the language in which identification is written. Once you are there, you can move onto more exotic fare.
The Japanese flowering quince is a low maintenance municipal shrub that flowers in early spring and come autumn is crowned in small, apple-shaped fruit that can be treated just like true quince. These are found in car parks, around offices, parks and in front gardens. The fruit is often a little hidden as it fruits on last year’s wood, but once you find a supply you’ll keep coming back. This makes fine jellies, jams and membrillos [quince cheese].
Many older establishment universities, hospitals and parks will have mulberries in them. These are large weeping trees with heart-shaped leaves. Once you get under the canopy and look up you will see a host of dark, blood-red berries to pick.
The last forage for autumn is medlars. These graceful, spreading, small trees are found in parks and older gardens (and thus quite often behind large house converted into flats). The brown, crown-shaped fruit is 5cm or so across and needs to be eaten bletted (which essentially means rotting). The flavour is sweet, like custard and dates together. These are ready from late October through to November and make a fine fruit cheese or just delicious raw straight from the tree.
The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler is published by Kyle Books