Identify Plants – a short guide

Plant ID can remain an inscrutable subject for many. I use a triangulation method when trying to identify a new plant – one guide is a classic field guide that groups plants by colour, flower type and then habitat. I use another guide that groups things by genus – this is useful to double check on plants of the same family that may share similar characteristics and that have been identified with the first guide. Finally, I use a guide (photographic) that takes plants by month to show what is flowering or seeding or fruiting. By using this method ID becomes a much more confident exercise.There are many excellent guides but the three books I most often use for this method are:

  • Wild Flowers – Aichele and Golte-Bechtle ISBN 0706404742 (grouped by characteristic and habitat)
  • Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe – Fitter, Fitter and Blamey ISBN 0002112787 (grouped by genus)
  • Wild Flowers of Britain – Roger Phillips ISBN 033025183x (grouped by calendar date).

The Law

The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act states that ‘….if any person ….not being an authorised person, intentionally uproots any wild plant…shall be guilty of an offence.’ There is also a special list of plants on its ‘schedule 8’ and it is an offence to damage them. Similarly, there are laws protecting the picking of plants not on Schedule 8 but are protected by a conservation status such as SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). Fines can be significant for doing so.However, the fundamental law governing foraging is the common law right to collect the ‘four ‘f’s – fruit, flowers, foliage and fungi’. This is enshrined in the 1968 Theft Act. The two things to emphasize are that the plants are wild (and not farmed or planted with a purpose) and that you are picking for personal and not commercial use.

‘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 (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward, or for sale or other commercial purpose’

What this law is actually saying is that if someone is trespassing they are not committing an act of theft. There are of course exceptions and on some land this right has been withdrawn through use of a byelaw prohibiting the collection of any plant, fungus or animal. However, you can still be ‘done’ for trespass!If you are on private land, without implicit or explicit permission from the land-owner then it is trespass. Where access has been granted or allowed or if you are on a public right of way (PROW) then you should be okay.Land given access rights under the Countryside and Rights Of Way (CROW) Act confers no right to collect wild food. The Act states no one is entitled to be on the land if they ‘…..intentionally remove, damage or destroy any plant, shrub, tree or root or any part of a plant, shrub, tree or root.’ In this instance you can do little other than take a walk.When a site is registered as an SSSI, a declaration is drawn up of its biological, physical (even geological) characteristics that make it special. It is an offence to damage any of these characteristics – and this will probably include its plants. It is usual for the publication of such a declaration to list ‘operations likely to damage’ the site. Within the declaration is usually the term stating something like ‘removal of or damage to any plant, fungus or animal’. You have been warned!

Food Safety

Sharing knowledge about wild food is great pleasure but also a grave responsibility. There is a bewildering array of plants, they can look different from your field guide, they can take different forms (like over-wintering as a rosette) at different times of year, they can change in edibility and different parts of the same plant can be safe or unsafe. Also, plants growing in different places, soils or climates can have changing concentrations of active chemicals or pests within them. This can present a real challenge and especially so since people also have varying degrees of sensitivity and reaction to them.

  • Do not EVER eat anything unless you are 110% sure of its identification and that it is safe for you (or others) to consume.
  • Different plants can be safe or unsafe at different times of year. If you cannot remember which part of the plant is used and when then leave it alone.
  • Different people can react to different plants in different ways. Just as no two plants are the same, neither are two people.
  • Even those plants that are regarded as ‘safe’ should be approached with some care. For instance – Nettles, normally regarded as okay, can reduce blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Similarly, hawthorn is a significant cardiac herb but one I use often to make fruit leathers and ‘turkish delights’. So check your personal tolerance to ANY new edible wild plant before consuming in quantity.
  • If you have a medical condition or are taking medication then you must seek professional medical advice before ingesting wild plants as they may contain stuff that impairs or amplifies that medication or your condition.
  • Some plants need processing (e.g thorough cooking, leaching etc.) to make them safe to eat.
  • Do take special care in noting where the plant grows – it could be contaminated land, or sprayed with chemicals or other pollutants that will make them unsafe. You might not be able to see the weedkiller, the liver fluke, the dog poo or the heavy metal left by a car exhaust!

So, if the difficulty in identifying plants, risk of breaking the law, or putting your health in jeopardy has not put you off from this fascinating and rewarding pastime then the following tips on foraging, kit, courses and further reading should provide further inspiration!

Top tips on picking wild plants

  • Get to know your local habitat – in every season – and understand what grows and does not grow when and where.
  • Start with your garden or your walk to work
  • Start with the safer and more easily identifiable plants.
  • Start with one plant and get to know it really well – what it looks like, what similar plants it could be mistaken for, what properties it has, how to cook it. Once familiar then learn a new plant. Over time you will speed up.
  • Make note of similarities in ‘families’ of plants. It helps with plant ID.
  • There are edible plants and medicinal plants – sometimes they are both so extra awareness on how this might affect you and others is needed
  • Know your poisonous plants – it is more important to know the bad ones and not just the good ones! Some are similar to edible species, some are more difficult and dangerous to identify – like fungi and umbellifers – and are best left alone. Getting it wrong can result in permanent injury or even death.
  • Don’t uproot any wild plant and only pick (flowers, fruit or foliage) in moderation. Ensure that plenty is left for others to enjoy. If a specimen really is needed, remove the minimum quantity of material. Don’t strip a plant – it could kill it – leave the majority of its flowers, foliage or fruit.
  • Be careful not to damage or trample other vegetation when picking.
  • Information on plants in danger of extinction nationally or locally are published in national Red Data Books and County Rare Plant Registers.
  • If a plant can be named in the field take the field guide to it, not vice versa.
  • Be careful not to trespass when picking plants and never take material from a nature reserve or protected site without permission.
  • The Botanical Society of the British Isles publishes a ‘Code of Conduct’ for the collecting of plant matter. This can be found here.
  • Un-kempt road verges and public rights of way are often good sources of wild plants, but look out for traffic and remember pollution!
  • Don’t worry if you forage only a little – they can be just one ingredient to give a normal dish an interesting twist or unique decoration. Remember – many things can be cooked, preserved for later use.
  • Take someone along to forage who knows much more than you!

Essential Kit

  • Field guide
  • Camera (with macro)
  • Specimen bag
  • Magnifying glass
  • Gloves
  • UK legal-carry pocket-knife (non-locking folder, with a cutting edge less than 3 inches)

Foraging Courses

Wild Food books & resources

  • One of the most useful resources on the uses and edibility of plants is: Plants For A Future ( – it has a database of over 7,000 useful plants. Please support this site so it is a resource for future generations.
  • Roger Phillips: Wild Food – ISBN-13: 978-0330280693
  • Miles Irving: The Forager Handbook – ISBN-13: 978-0091913632
  • Robin Harford: Eatweeds Wild Food Recipes

Disclaimer – This article is NOT telling you to go out and eat wild plants without proper instruction! DO NOT use this article as a guide as to what is safe for you or others to eat. Learn from other sources and know absolutely (110%) what you are picking and consuming and what affect it might have on you and others – before you go off and test your knowledge! The author accepts no responsibility for any errors or omissions in this article. Eating wild plants is entirely at your own risk. Just because I have eaten them and/or they are mentioned in this article does not mean that they are safe for anyone to eat. Do not feed wild plants to other people without taking the necessary precautions. Link to generic disclaimer here.

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