This is the time of the year when the elder tree does its thing. The elder tree is a pretty insignificant tree for most of the year, but when June arrives, it bursts into amazing blossom that has a peculiarly wonderful scent. The tree generally smells pretty rank, the leaves are somewhat poisonous and the wood, if you can actually get it to burn, gives off an acrid, unpleasant smell. Farmers dislike the trees growing in hedgerows because, unlike hawthorns and blackthorns, they are very brittle and animals can easily push their way through into the next field.

However…….those flowers! Pick the flowerheads on a bright sunny day, and you have the makings of wonderful elderflower cordial, elderflower fritters, elderflower wine and even elderflower champagne. Leave the flowers to mature, come back in September/October, and there will be a profusion of elderberries waiting for you (and the birds). These can be made into jam, wine or simply scoffed raw.

elder and rowan

Elder and Rowan together

Here is an elder tree along with a rowan, or mountain ash. On the face of it, they look pretty similar. The rowan (taller and more tree-like) is near the end of its flowering period, the elder (more of a shrub really) is at the start. However, the easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at the leaves.

Rowan flowers and leaves

Rowan flowers and leaves

elder closeup

Elder flowers and leaves

The rowan tree has small leaflets on each leaf, maybe as many as 10 on each side. The elder leaflets are bigger and fewer in number. They also don’t smell nice – a dead give-away. The rowan flower heads are rather domed on top and very “blowsy” and smell like hawthorn, whereas the elder flower heads are pretty flat on top and smell just delightful.

So there are some recipes on the “recipes” page if you feel inspired. Don’t delay, the flowers will start to fade in a couple of weeks, and then you’ll have to wait another 12 months!

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Getting into the swing

It has been a while since I posted, and in fact quite some time since I have been foraging for myself. Since Mary died in December, I haven’t been so focussed, and I suppose I have been coasting along and working and birdwatching and stuff, but not really getting around to proper foraging. There’s still a couple of bags of marmalade oranges waiting to be transformed, so that’s on my mind.

However, this morning I took advantage of lovely crisp weather and headed for my nearest tract of wild land at Lagan Lands East, with the intention of making some nettle soup. I misjudged things somewhast, as the new growth of the nettles is just starting to show above ground. Not wanting to waste the opportunity of being in the zone and getting some edibles, I was able to pick plenty of other stuff, and ended up making “nettles and other greens soup”.

mixed leaves

My haul included some nettles, but also golden saxifrage, goosegrass, cow parsley, bittercress and sorrel – the soup was lovely.

Even though the nettles weren’t putting in much of an appearance, there was plenty of new growth appearing, and as long as I wasn’t picking where dogs were likely to have been peeing, etc., I had plenty to choose from. I did notice that there were quite a few hawthorn bushes in leaf – way too early by about 6 or 8 weeks – must be a variety sourced from a south of England or continental nursery. Having said that, with climate change they may now posess quite an advantage over their local brethren.

Hawthorn in leaf mid-February

Hawthorn in leaf mid-February

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Foraging by bike

This week, I ventured into Belfast on the bike for a bit of browsing in the bookshops. I took a few “divarsions” through the park and some other greenish spaces, to see what there was in the way of forageable stuff, and was surprised by what was about. Sloes and mammoth rosehips along the embankment, crab apples and nuts in Ormeau Park, blackberries on the river banks, all there for the taking.

Sloes along the embankment near Central Station

Sloes along the embankment near Central Station

In Ormeau Park, the squirrels are beavering away gathering nuts, while the jays are squirreling away theirs. The ones on the ground are fair game, but often these are the rejects that the animals have left behind. The best ones are still on the trees, and the squirrels use their teeth to open up the beech nut husks to get at the nuts themselves.

Beech nuts on the tree - hard to get into these

Beech nuts on the tree – hard to get into these



There are two triangular nuts inside each husk, and it seems that this year only one has developed, the other being empty. You can test a nut by squeezing it, and if it folds flat, then it is empty. If not, then you need to take off the outer skin, and there you have it. I was sent a youtube video which is nice to watch, and they advise roasting them a bit to get rid of some toxins. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDVbd_n4yAk.

Beech nuts on the ground - these are easier to get at, but the squirrels might have got there first

Beech nuts on the ground – these are easier to get at, but the squirrels might have got there first

The Spanish Chestnuts are also ripening, but have a way to go yet. Don’t confuse them with Horse Chestnuts, as these aren’t edible. Like the beech, the chestnuts don’t often develop and swell enough to eat, such are the joys of living well outside their natural range.

Spanish Chestnuts (and 1 conker) waiting for the squirrels and me.

Spanish Chestnuts waiting for the squirrels and me.

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Autumn is just around the corner

I’m always banging on about our seasons, and that’s probably because we patently don’t have the same sorts of seasons as everyone else in the world, here in our little corner of the emerald isle. Our seasons are very blurred, with long springs and autumns and short winters and summers. This is actually great from a foraging point of view, because it means that many forageable things have a really long season, as they seem to be as confused as we humans are by the weather we have.

Not only that, but I’ve noticed that the likes of elderflowers have an artificially extended season by the planting of numerous ornamental cultivars in parks and gardens, which seem to be still in flower while the native ones are largely over. Also, if you feel you’ve just missed something, you can always head across to Donegal or Derry as plants are usually a couple of weeks behind, being further west. My local lime flowers are over in Belfast, but I was able to get some in Derry as they are still in flower.

Lime flowers, snipped and ready for drying

Lime flowers, snipped and ready for drying

So, autumn is nearly upon us – I usually feel autumn starts in early August, as blackberries are starting to fill out and one’s picking fingers begin to twitch. We’ve done the summer fruits, and it seems to have been a bumper year. I made a good batch of blackcurrant jam thanks to a mammoth pick by Rosie (daughter in law) in Cushendall – probably the easiest and most idiot-proof jam to make, once you get rid of the stalks. The raspberries have been great as well, and I was up at the park in Derry beside Racecourse Road, which is stuffed with wild raspberries at the moment.

I reckon that it should also be a vintage year for blackberries, judging by the absolute profusion of flowering on many buishes. Get prepared. fo if it is a good year, next year may not be as good andf it’s worth availing of a glut to stock up for a lean year next year. Make extra jam, wine and juice, freeze berries and juice and it certainly won’t go to waste.

A fine showing of bramble flowers - a sign of good things to come?

A fine showing of bramble flowers – a sign of good things to come?

Very pretty pink brambles

Very pretty pink brambles

White bramble flowers

White bramble flowers


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Forage comes home

We were away during the first three weeks of May to forage for birds. May is the peak bird migration season in temperate North America, with a mass movement of birds passing through on the way north. We timed the trip to coincide with this, and hired a campervan (RV in Americanese) and traveled through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with a brief spell in Delaware and Maryland. It was a wonderful trip, but sure made us appreciate little old Norn Ireland all the same.

Most of our time was spent in woodland areas, and there is a lot of it about. What was interesting was that there are lots of plants similar to home, some of them aliens such as garlic Mustard and Japanese Knotweed, and many more that are native and the same as ours, or else similar but slightly different. There are lots of different species of violet, some blue, some white and some yellow and all beautiful. We were shown some edible plants, such as greenbrier, and these made the birdwatching walks more enjoyable.

Common Greenbrier - edible and delicious in all its parts

Common Greenbrier – edible and delicious in all its parts

An amazing woodland plant we saw was American Mandrake, or May Apple – it has a strange umbrella-like leaf, which branches in two and produces a beautiful white flower and then a large yellowish berry. The berry is edible when ripe, but the rest of the plant is poisonous and was used as a purgative by the native Americans when they needed to get something out of the system. We were a bit early for the fruit, but it was a lovely plant to see.

Mayapple/Mandrake - careful now!

Mayapple/Mandrake – careful now!

We managed to see over 190 bird species, 100 of which were new to me, so it was a fascinating 3 weeks. Now we can get back to what we know best – first stop Rathlin Island (see our events page).


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Forage goes to Rathlin


We are off to Rathlin Island for a spot of foraging this summer, and you are welcome to join us. We expect to have a wheen of activities covering foraging, food and the arts, starting in June on Monday 2nd through to Wednesday 4th. We will be doing it again in July (3rd to 5th) and August (26th to 28th) and if it works well, we might try this out as an annual affair. Our idea is that we will run events in the morning and afternoon, so that visitors can choose between coming for a session, for a day or for longer. There’s plenty of accommodation on Rathlin these days, although booking is pretty advisable. There are also plenty of ferries, although it is also important to book your space on the boat in advance.

We hope to rope in some other “forage friends” to bring a whole lot of other workshops and events during our forage-fest, including some amazing cooks, musicians and artists. There will also be opportunities to book boat trips to see the puffins (the RSPB visitor centre is closed this season) and learn about cooking fish. Later in the season, we hope to do something tasty with seaweed.

We won’t have any cost associated with this, although a donation would be nice. You would need to arrange your own accommodation if you want to stay over, be it in the Manorhouse, the new hostel, the various bed and breakfasts or self-catering houses or even camping.

We’re looking forward to it, so if you’re interested, drop us a line at foragerathlin@gmail.com so that we can anticipate numbers. For details, take a look at the “Events” page here on the website.

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Straidkilly Nature Reserve

Here’s an opportunity to visit a wonderful woodland nature reserve you’ve probably never heard of, and do a bit of foraging while you’re at it. The site is Straidkilly Nature Reserve on the Antrim coast between Glenarm and Carnlough, a gorgeous pocket of hazel and ash woodland overlooking the sea. It is managed by Ulster Wildlife, and they are holding an event with us to do some foraging in the woods. Last year we did a similar walk in Glenarm which was really good, so this should be the same but different! It’s a free event, but Ulster Wildlife would like people to book beforehand to keep an eye on numbers. It is on Sunday 13th April at 11 am. See you there.

Straidkilly in the Spring

Straidkilly in the Spring

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Happy St. Valentine’s Day

Love and Peace to you all from Mary and Dermot. We did a lovely couple of workshops this week, making St.Brigid’s crosses and Valentines’ decorations. The crosses are made from fresh rushes gathered from the fields – in Northern Ireland, rushes are plentiful and like nothing better than a damp field in the hills. I got mine from Slievenacloy nature reserve, where there’s no shortage of rushes.

St. Brigid's crosses.

St. Brigid’s crosses.

The 4- legged one is the more traditional cross that is made, but the 3-legged one is thought to be used by Brigid to teach the concept of the Trinity. That’s what they say anyway, and who am I to contradict that?!





The heart was made from twigs of birch, willow and dogwood. They are dead easy to make, just needing tied with a bit of string or wool, and they can be decorated with whatever is to hand. We love making these in our workshops, as each one is totally individual and often reflects the personality of the maker. Obviously, mine is the mark of a hopeless romantic who likes trees.

Heart shaped from birch, willow and dogwood

Heart shaped from birch, willow and dogwood

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It’s always possible to find summat

Today was a real return to winter, cold wind, sharp showers and a flurry or two of snow. My feet took a long time to thaw out despite the thick wool socks in my wellies. Mary is somewhat obsessed about socks needing to be pure wool, but on a day like today, I think she has a right to be a bit particular.

Even though it’s only mid January, stuff is beginning to grow. Unless we get a really Arctic blast of air, it looks like many of our perennial “weeds” will begin to put on a spurt of growth. Maybe it’s the lengthening days, for we are over a month past the Spring equinox. The crows are flying out from their roost almost 30 minutes earlier than they did at Christmas, and they’re maybe a bit noisier to boot – the hormones are also rising and they’re  showing off a bit.

Out and about today, I found quite a bit of good fresh growth of cleavers, dandelion and cow parsley in the woodland at Oxford Island. I nibbled some and couldn’t get over how fragrant and fresh it all tasted, and with no bitterness. I brought a bunch home and blitzed it in the blender with a bit of oil and just added it as a side serving with the dinner. I suppose I could have blanched it a bit as well, but I wanted to see what it was like, effectively raw. The cleavers can be a bit “rugged”, but as it was such young growth, it was pretty soft and palatable.

Cleavers/goose-grass emerging through the leaves

Cleavers/goose-grass emerging through the leaves

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Didn’t we get the good of the day……?


Freda trying to imitate a horse

This was the refrain from Mary and me over the Christmas hols, as we were so fortunate with our timing when we went for long walks. Particularly on Boxing Day and last week, when we went down to Tyrella for long walks.

The night had been blustery and wet, but the morning dawned bright and sunny and we piled into the car and off we went. The walk was great, 6 miles of beach walking with hardly anyone else about, as if we were in the furthest flung reaches of Donegal. The sun on the sea was so bright, and the breeze was cold and brisk, but as we were well wrapped in our woolies, we didn’t feel the cold, although Susan’s feet took a while to thaw out. Freda the dog had a good swim, as is her wont, not mine.

The tide was out, so at Tyrella that means a huge expanse of sand to walk over and get lost in thoughts. IMG_2715Plenty of birds about, but no rare ones. Flocks of sanderlings, knot, lapwings, golden plover and Brent geese, especially along towards Ballykinler. The military range was off duty, so we could have walked on and around to Dundrum Bay if we’d had the will and legs. IMG_2732

We sat IMG_2738and had a picnic at the rocky point between Ballykinler and Corbett’s beaches, not a soul about, and basking in glorious sunshine. When we got in the car and were heading home, it had clouded over and there were some spots of rain, a prelude to the deluge to come. Our smugness was complete – “didn’t we    get the good of the day?”


HAPPY NEW YEAR from Mary and Dermot and Forage

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