27 May 2015

F ... F ... F ... F ...

Mating Flies on Naturally Dyed Cloth
The natural dye mania continues.

I've been raiding local parks for greenery: Buttercups, Butterbur, Hawthorn and Willow, to name a few.

It is quite a furtive operation. There is the initial reconnaissance sweep of an area, head down, suddenly stopping at seemingly random places to fondle a plant. Then there is the brandishing of garden pruners and determined gathering of armfuls of leaves. Followed by the stomp back home through suburban streets with rustling plastic bags stuffed with weeds.

Each outing is an exercise in embarrassment. What do other park users think I'm doing? Once when I was picking up autumn leaves a woman came up to me. When I said I was going to use them for natural dyeing her face suddenly lightened as understanding dawned. 'You're a teacher, aren't you?' she said. I nodded in agreement and she went off reassured she had slotted me into a socially acceptable role.

I think I'll use that explanation if  I'm asked again. I did try to describe to two men walking their Staffies what I was going to do with the bag of dandelions I was carrying, but it got horribly complicated and they went away with the idea I was a fashion designer.

Regardless of needing a succinct justification of what I'm doing, there is a worry that taking 'wild' plants from parks is not allowed. True, it is mostly weeds that I target, but sometimes its leaves from a tree, or municipal flowers.

I do worry that someone might challenge me about the ethics of the practice. It can't be denied that I'm destroying or damaging the plants and this impacts on their surrounding ecosystems. If I'm taking flowers from a plant it wont develop its normal amount of seeds or berries. I've eyed up elderflower flowers, but would it be wrong to prevent the development of elderberries?

Even the harvesting of ugly weeds deprives insects of food sources for their larvae. And I'm always fishing out insects and spiders from the hot water the plants eventually get simmered in.

It's a concern.

Hawthorn Flowers Simmering in Dye Pot

One of the reasons for going on the foraging walk last week was to ask about the legalities, if not the ethics, of taking plants from the 'wild'. Foraging is after all what I'm doing, even though I don't eat the result.

The leader of the walk said it is legal to forage as long as it's for your own use and not for commercial gain.

But then he would do wouldn't he? I think he was referring to foraging in the countryside, but my stomping ground is urban parks. Who owns the parks? Aren't there byelaws about the acceptable uses of parks?

I've done some Googling on the legal aspects, but it is confusing. Here are my findings:


The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 covers access to open land. In this there is a list of what you are not permitted to do while you are exercising your right to roam. You are not allowed to light fires, or walk about with an animal other than a dog, or bathe in non-tidal water for example. Picking plants is also restricted:

l)  intentionally removes, damages or destroys any plant, shrub, tree or root or any part of a plant, shrub, tree or root

However, I think this Act is talking about larger pieces of land like moorlands, forests and nature reserves.  Under this act those gorse flowers I picked from Southwold Common were strictly speaking stolen. Oops.


Maybe issues of access aren't relevant to urban, council owned parks.

And yet, parks aren't common land, which is a very restricted legal concept.  A council can prevent people, or an individual person, from going into a park. Those dandelions I pick belong to Manchester Council, or whatever NGO type of organisation they can fob them off to.

Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act you have to have permission to mess about with plants.  So although it is safe to assume I am allowed  into a park I don't really have permission to take away their plants because I haven't asked.

What is stopping the local police from whisking me off to the cells (apart from having better things to do) is Common Law. This is 'derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes.'  Customarily then people are allowed to pick the Four F's:  fruit, flowers, fungi and foliage.

This is with the understanding that it is picked for personal use and not going to be sold on.

The 1968 Theft Act:
"A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not ... steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward, or for sale or other commercial purpose’

I can relax then. The foraging man was right.

If anyone says I can't nip the tops off those nettles I can reply that I do have a right to them, because this madness is my own personal affair.

Now I've just got to get the ethics worked out, and I'll tackle the political considerations some other time.



Foraged tulip petals and associated fauna

24 May 2015

Defying Zombies

Foraging for Mushrooms
If you would like to know where to find magic mushrooms, particularly in south Manchester, just give me a call.

The other evening, as the sun sank, and I sipped elderflower wine from a plastic cup, I found myself trapped in a conversation between young people discussing hallucinogenic mushrooms, from which I couldn't extricate myself without appearing impolite ... and square.

Wood chip, apparently. Magic mushrooms grow on the wood chip councils sling under shrubs in car parks. There, how cool am I?

This embarrassing, and yet educational, encounter came at the end of a guided forage walk in Fletcher Moss park.

In my increasing botany mania I found the walk very interesting. It is surprising how many plants are edible. Though that's not to say many are palatable. I think it is more a matter of being able to whisk up an impressive salad for your hipster friends, rather than being able to cook anything delicious. It is also reassuring to know, that come the apocalypse, when supermarkets are overrun by zombies, the local park could help keep starvation at bay.

The list of plants sampled included the old favourites of wild garlic and three cornered leek, but also ground elder and the flowers of oil seed rape. Basically you can nibble the young tops of seemingly any plant. They all more or less taste the same - bitter and peppery. The tendrils of vetch were different, tasting, not surprisingly, like pea shoots.

One of the more challenging plants we sampled was Japanese knotweed. If you strip off the outer skin of young stalks there is a gelatinous layer that is edible. Some people said it was like cucumber. I didn't, but ate it because of the zombies.

Huge amounts of mushrooms were picked, particularly Chicken of the Forest. I am not really interested in fungi - it's weeds that float my boat, so I was surprised how easy it was to find edible mushrooms once you've got your eye in.  At the end of the walk the leader (a slim, steely haired man in a bottle green jumper) cooked up the fungi with half a block of butter and some cream. Trusting to his expertise I shovelled some up with a crust of bread. It tasted .... of mushrooms, the kind you'd get in any Aldi store. And sadly I didn't turn temporarily into a zombie.

But, still, it was all together an enjoyable evening.


See the sweet man in the middle? He had bought this walk as a gift for his pregnant wife. Sensibly she refused to come.

17 May 2015

The Unicorn And The Duchess


Coincidence is a strange phenomenon isn't it?

Here is my latest brush with it:

This Saturday's Guardian (I think you can guess who I didn't vote for this past election) had a review of a book called 'A Natural History of English Gardening'. Naturally I pounced on it. This book is "one in which the garden is seen as an ecological and cultural system rather than a stage for fashionable designs or horticultural achievements." Yes, definitely my kind of book. Unfortunately at £45 this review is as near as I'll get to seeing the contents of its pages.

As it happens this may not be too much of a loss because I get the impression the author's focus is not on the garden in the cultural context of the normal person. Instead, by cultural system he means 18th century land owners and their ability to send botanists to far corners of the empire to bring back new plant species. Perhaps not my kind of book after all.

However, we are all, rich or poor, human and there was one plant collector I found some sympathies with. The Duchess of Beaufort (remember that name), who had a garden that rivalled the one at the royal palace at Hampton Court, used gardening to help deal with depression.

"When I get into storys of plants," she said, "I know not how to get out."

I understand that.

I put the paper down and went to the Unicorn (a vegan veg shop) in Chorlton. On the street approaching the shop I spotted a pretty weed growing under some trees that I hadn't seen before. Being a shameless plant hunter (give me a brigantine and a merry crew and I'll go get you some plants for your garden) I picked a few flowers and took them home to identify.

The flowers had yellow daisy-like petals, so we are talking of the Asteraceae family, and they had a look of groundsel about them. I went through a couple of flower ID sites online, but they didn't reveal anything. So I resorted to the old fashioned method of using a key system in a book. This pointed to ragwort, but to me ragwort is a big aggressive plant, this one was chirpy and dainty. With an extra boost of some Wiki flicking I got the answer: Oxford Ragwort .

This plant came from the lava fields of Mount Etna in Sicily. Originally it was intended as a garden ornamental but it escaped and famously spread throughout Britain along the clinker trackways of the new railways.

'I have seen them enter a railway-carriage window near Oxford and remain suspended in the air in the compartment until they found an exit at Tilehurst'

Now here is where that coincidence weaves its magic ...

In whose garden was it first grown? The Duchess of Beaufort's of course.


Mary, Duchess of Beaufort, 1650