Jekka's guide to UK native herbs

Some of the most delicious ingredients are free, and just a country walk away or even closer. In Jekka’s Herbetum we have a number of raised beds dedicated to UK native and indigenous herbs which enables us to showcase what we have on our doorsteps. These are becoming increasingly popular due to the fashion of foraging and cooking with culinary wild herbs.

Foraging can be really easy and can be done in your local area. However, care must be taken when picking from the wild and you need to be sure that what have you gathered is indeed edible. If in doubt, please do not eat and seek an expert’s opinion. Also, you should not gather plants that are by busy roads where they can absorb the polluting fumes of traffic as well as plants that might have been sprayed with herbicide.

Here is our pick of some of the most useful and widespread herbs hiding in hedgerows across Britain.

Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum)

From the family Alliaceae, Wild Garlic is a native bulb that is found in profusion in woodlands and hedgerows favouring moist fertile soil in semi-shade or full-shade. It’s a rich source of folklore and is credited with the ability to ward off vampires and evil spirits. The leaves are great in salads, soups, as a vegetable or used to make a pesto. It can be simply wilted in butter and served with mash potato or added to soups or stews for flavouring. For the home bakers, try lining your bannetons with a few leaves and baking to get a garlic infused bread. The flowers are also edible and have a delicious garlic flavour. Please see our Jekkapedia page for a video of Jekka explaining more about this herb.

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Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

Angelica is from the family Apiaceae and there are many varieties of this magnificent herb. It is monocarpic herb, meaning it will survive until it sets seed; usually in the second year when it has a dramatic flower head. It is found in moist fields and hedgerows throughout Europe. To see Jekka explaining some of the history of this herb, please see the video on our Jekkapedia page.

WARNING: There have been cases when foragers have mis-identified Hemlock to be Wild Angelica, this is a cousin of Angelica and looks very similar when young however, Hemlock is extremely poisonous.

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Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

If we said Camp coffee, there is probably an audible realisation of what this beautiful blue flowering herb is used for. Chicory, from the family Asteraceae, grows in fields and hedgerows in lime-rich soils. It is the roots of Chicory that are dried, roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. The young leaves provide a bitter flavour, which has been found to be increasingly important in our diets, and the flowers add wonderful flavour and decoration to salads.

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Sea Fennel (Crithmum maritimum)

Sea Fennel, also known as Rock Samphire, is from the family Apiaceae. Rock Samphire was once cultivated in English gardens for its seed pods and sold in London where it was called Crest Marine. The leaves can be eaten fresh in salads or cooked in butter and have an aromatic, salty flavour that are very high in vitamin C.

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Meadow Sweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

This herb is also known as Queen of the meadow and is from the family Rosaceae. It likes damp spots and can be found growing wild in profusion near streams and rivers, in damp meadows, fens and marshlands. It’s name is supposedly derived from the Naglo-Saxon word medesweet, which owes its origin to the fact that the plant was used to flavour mead, a drink made from fermented honey. It is also a traditional black dye plant.

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Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)

Ground Ivy is part of the dead-nettle family and is clump-forming aromatic plant that likes woodlands, hedgerows and damp places. It has strong smelling violet flowers that appear from March until June. In mediaeval times Ground Ivy was used to treat fevers and coughs and the fragrant leaves once made it a popular bitter agent for beer until Hops eventually replaced it. Today the leaves are great with mushrooms or for making a lovely spring tisane.

Mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Common Mallow is often found growing in hedge banks, field edges and on road sides in sunny locations with beautiful dark pink or violet flowers. It is from the family Malvaceae. The leaves were traditionally used to thicken soups as they are mucilaginous with a mild flavour.  A tea was made from the leaves as an excellent laxative for children.

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Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis ordorata)

There is currently a lot of interest in Stevia as a sweet herb but our UK native sweet herb is Sweet Cicely; not as sweet but equally as useful. The roots can be cooked as a vegetable and served with butter or a white sauce. The flavour is like parsnips with a hint of sweet aniseed. The leaf flavour is sweet aniseed and, as shown on our Herb Based Cooking Master Classes, it is cooked with tart fruit such as gooseberries, plums or rhubarb to add a natural sweetness.

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Cowslip (Primula veris)

Cowslip, from the family Primulaceae, is also known as St Peter’s keys or Keys of Heaven. These names are associated with the legend that St Peter let his keys to Heaven drop to earth when he learned that a duplicate set had been made. Where they fell the cowslip grew. Jekka recalls that when she was a child Cowslips were picked to make a wine.  Nowadays, due to the fact that this herb has become rare in the wild, this is no longer possible.  Medicinally they were traditionally used as a sedative and a tea made from the flowers is a simple remedy for insomnia and nervous tension.

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Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Primrose is also known as Early rose or Easter Rose from the family Primulaceae. Primrose is the herald of spring and is often the first herb to appear each year in the garden. The fresh yellow, sweetly scented, cheerful flowers are often a welcome break from the cold and grey weather.  The young leaves can be eaten as a salad or boiled as a pot herb. Traditionally the flowers were ground with rice, almonds, honey and saffron to form a ‘Primrose pottage’.

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Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

If you have tried a leaf of this inconspicuous plant you know its hidden magical flavour reminiscent of a sharp granny smith apple, it has a smaller tougher leaf than the Buckler leaf sorrel (Rumex scutatus) which we grow in the Herbetum; both are hardy perennials from the family Polygonaceae. It is distinguished from ‘normal’ sorrel as the mid-green leaves, that turn brown as the fruit ripens, are shaped like squat narrow lance shaped shields. You can use the leaves in salads, soups, omelettes or fish sauces.

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Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion is one of nature’s great medicines, from the family Asteraceae, it has become naturalised through the temperate world. The apothecaries knew it as Herba taraxacon or Herba uruinari and Culpeper called it piss-a-beds, all referring to its diuretic qualities and use as a herbal remedy for kidney and liver complaints. Dandelions are also a culinary herb, sometimes referred to as a super food, as they are very high in nutrients (for example, vitamin A is higher than in carrots). Both the leaves and roots can be used a salad herb or they can be cooked or blanched and served with a little butter like spinach or endives. The flowers make an excellent country wine and the roots can be dried, roasted and ground up to make dandelion coffee, which is a popular beverage sold in many health stores. As a herbal fertiliser, dandelion has a good supply of copper.

It is joyous to be able to walk along the lane and around our field and find so many herbs that one can forage, pick and eat just as our forefathers did. We hope you will have a look around and see what you can discover. It really is surprising how many really useful plants are growing in the areas where we live, and yet most people have not a clue and either ignore the plants, or perhaps go as far as killing them as weeds. But as we have mentioned, please seek advice if you are uncertain of what a plant is before eating.

Jekkapedia: UK Native Herbs

Whether you are starting out, an avid chef, a plant enthusiast or garden designer our collection is likely to have something to inspire you. We are growing a virtual Herbetum called Jekkapedia enabling you to browse and learn at your leisure.