My daughter and I used to have a favourite walk. It took us from our home, high on a hill into the more sheltered climes of an old woodland on either side of a small river. In the summer we’d collect the bilberries lining the path, and in autumn, the blackberries. If we were lucky, we might spot an edible mushroom, always vigilant for the apricot aroma of a chanterelle, a heavenly favourite.
The path forced a river crossing. Great in summer, you’d just paddle across, but in the winter you had to be more adventurous. We used to crawl over a mossy tree trunk. Once, we tried to do it like homo sapiens, on two feet, but that really wasn’t the best of ideas.
The walk passes in front of a 17th century inn, which in winter would have an open fire greeting you as you enter – best kind of a welcome when you’re cold and wet. The chefs at the inn take pride in their menus and a good lunch would always lift our spirits, and the staff would politely ignore our muddied and bedraggled state. I think they are used to hikers and Yorkshire stone flagged floors have survived many a year of muddied boots.
We’ve both moved on, and its been a while since I walked that path. Yesterday, I had the splendid idea that myself and Verd would have a grand day out if we retrace the route with cameras and with foraging intent.
It would mean taking the path in the opposite direction to that which I was used to, but I didn’t think it’d be a problem, the route is straightforward and my memory isn’t that bad – is it?
So after consulting siri for potential weather surprises, we set out armed with little more than cameras and our boots. I even forgot to bring a vessel to store the wealth of our foraging expedition. Not that it mattered too much, it was too late for bilberries and too early for blackberries. Nettle seeds, we ate on route, having become accustomed to the inevitable stings. I’m confident they’re a preventative cure for future joint problems.
I have the strangest of notions, sometimes.
It’s peculiar how things look so different when you view them in reverse, particularly muddy paths. Even the initial starting point (a choice of three paths) was unrecognisable. Although it appeared to be the most logical, I chose the wrong one.
We puffed and panted up a long climb, making a resolution to step up the fitness programme. We paused to observe a pair of large birds of prey and debated over identification. Their gradual flight away from us made it difficult. My educated guess was a buzzard, but didn’t feel as confident as I usually do in recognising one. However, once home, a reasonably clear picture help with the identification process.
Once out of camera sight we moved on, and it became increasingly obvious we weren’t walking through a pretty woodland valley like we should be.
The path was well-signposted as the Calderdale way, but I’m sure that’s hundreds of miles long. Not the walk we were equipped for.
“I should have brought the map,” I vaguely mutter, hoping it was more to myself, but the comment didn’t go unnoticed. I found myself at the top of a hill, looking down at a pair of arms waving crazily at the bottom. Arm waving is surprisingly easy to understand. I’m a good interpreter:
“I’m not going up there unless you can tell me we’re going the right way!”
I was suitably reassuring in the expert arm wave back, I managed to get consternation calmly taking photos again. The fact the path was going right when we needed to go left was omitted from my confident reassurance.
Meanwhile, we paused to take pictures of a variety of insects delving into the himalayan balsam vaults of pollen and nectar and discussed how edible the plants might actually be.
Thankfully, the right turning path turned into a sharp bend and I was now more confident our steps were taking us in the right direction. We bumped into a friendly local inhabitant of the human kind, who gave us easy to follow directions. We soon arrived at our starting point, where we discovered the answer to whether himalayan balsam is edible or not:
A deer’s digestive system is different of course to our own, but I thought it was worth investigating the edibility, nutritional or medicinal value of himalayan balsam. I’ve found little scientific evidence for the last of these two, but there is some general advice about the edibility of the plant that seems to be standard. Flowers, stems, leaves, seeds and seed pods are all edible. However, regular eating of the plant raw, particularly leaves and stems could be toxic due to the presence of calcium oxalate. It is destroyed in cooking , even if only a quick blanching.
Forage with Caution
The plant itself doesn’t sting or have any prickly parts, but stinging insects love to burrow inside the flower and are easily missed.
Himalayan balsam tea drink looks inviting, and can be sipped using a stem ‘straw’. The stems are hollow, therefore making a valuable ecological substitute for plastic varieties.
Flowers are a good garnish for salads, and if your nasturtiums suffered from black aphids like mine did this year, these are a pretty replacement. They can be similarly used to garnish ice-cubes.
The seeds are said to have a nutty flavour, so can be substituted in recipes where hazelnuts might be used, and they also contain an edible oil. Eatweeds suggests an interesting curry recipe using the seeds, which has been a traditional use for the plant. I do, however, recommend the cheat being one of the Aagrah pastes rather than pataks! They are highly authentic and are made with very simple ingredients, no additives. Other than that, I recommend a sauté of a teaspoon each of turmeric, cumin, fennel, chilli powder and fenugreek in lots of onions and garlic with two finely chopped finger chillies in LOTS of oil as a reasonably decent base for a medium curry!
A plant for the permaculture plot?
Particularly if your plot is damp and wet. Himalayan balsam plants can each produce 800 seeds within highly sensitive seed pods. Touch the pods and they will catapult the seeds as far as 7 meters away. Next year you will have 800 plants all with a further 800 seeds awaiting expulsion. It is a highly invasive plant. So while the English countryside is profuse with a late summer plant, it’s best foraged rather than encouraged!
In fact, foraging like the roe deer could help keep it from drowning out the native weeds, just mind you don’t set off too many seedpods when you do!
I did read an interesting perspective on the UK desire to try and stem the spread of the plant. Like many others concerned about the preservation of native plants, I saw it as a menace. However, it only appears late summer and into autumn, then it completely dies back. It could be an important food source in the future and it is a great attraction for pollinators, all in need of help. During the walk, I noticed that our typical moorland plants continued to thrive, appearing unperturbed by the immigrant. If deer have a liking for it, then its spread could be curbed by natural processes and wouldn’t need any human intervention.
It was an observe and learn walk rather than a productive foraging expedition, but I’m always happy if I capture one photo I’m proud of:
I was awakened from my thoughts about the hike when the favourite 17th century inn stood imposingly before us. We packed away cameras and selected a dry barrel cider. A rare choice for me, it was a perfect way to end the walk and I savoured every drop of its fermented apple taste.
I had discovered where two out of the three initial paths led to, and learned that the third is the one we really should have taken. I didn’t share this knowledge with Verd. I’m not sure he would have been so impressed.
Maybe next time, but with a map!