When you’re walking in the woods have you ever wondered which trees you could eat? Of course, I mean the tree’s berries, nuts, leaves and fruit. Chewing on wood is strictly for beavers only. Trees are a great source of wild food and in this article we’re going to take a look at ten of the best native and common British trees which you can forage from as well as giving you some inspiring recipe ideas using these natural ingredients.
Before we get going with the list, if you’re someone who loves trees but struggles to know what you’re looking at on your country walk, you could start building your tree identification skills today by signing up to our free online course, titled Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. You’d be joining thousands of other students who want to know more about the trees around them. You can enroll for free right here.
Now, on with the top ten list, starting in no particular order with…
1. Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)
Sweet chestnuts are something you typically associate with Christmas (cue Bing Crosby singing here) but in the UK you can forage for your own chestnuts around the middle of October. These really are a top nut and I don’t think we utilise them enough outside of the festive season, there are so many tasty recipes you can use them in. Our home-grown wild nuts tend to be on the smaller side compared to other parts of Europe, as in this country they are at the edge of their natural range. Shop-bought chestnuts tend to be grown in warmer climes such as Italy, Spain, and Croatia.
The casing of the sweet chestnut is easily recognisable by the long, densely packed spikes, and if you’ve ever been curious enough to pick one up you know how delicately they need to be handled to avoid being speared. You can tell when the chestnuts are ripe because the casing will be large and green, heading towards a lighter brown colour. They will also begin to split open as they ripen, and you can often see the shell of the chestnut through the cracks in the casing. The nuts grow in threes inside the spiked case. The shells are, as you would expect, a chestnut brown colour, topped with a white tuft of hairs. When foraging for these nuts make sure you use thick gloves to pry them open.
Taking a step back to look at the whole tree; another indicator you’re looking at sweet chestnut is the trunk itself. On mature trees deep fissures develop that tend to twist and spiral up the trunk. This is a more obvious distinction going into autumn when the tree begins to lose its leaves.
When it comes to cooking with sweet chestnuts the most traditional use is roasting. Firstly, pierce the shell with a knife to prevent them popping and roast them in an oven at 200°c for 30 minutes. My favourite way to cook them is more simple, and connects us with our ancestors; roasting the nut (in their shells) directly in the embers of a campfire. Once cooked, leave to cool for a few minutes then peel the shells off and eat. Other tasty uses for chestnuts are in stuffing, added into brownies or cheesecakes. They add a fantastic sweet nutty taste to anything you add them to, so alternatively you could try pairing them with something salty like a soy sauce glaze, as well as to supplement your sweet dishes.
2. Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
Often called the “queen of British trees” Beech are one of our most magnificent trees. They can grow up to, and sometimes exceed 40 meters height. There’s a beech tree in my village that’s so large you can see it from about a mile away, it’s loved by everyone and has such a magnificent canopy, it’s not hard to see why. You often find these trees on very chalky areas, and they can be identified by their grey-brown bark and iconic nuts that grow in October, with spiky basing that splits open to reveal the smooth pyramid shaped nuts.
As well as being beautiful beech trees have two seasons in the year when parts can be harvested for food. Firstly, around May when new leaves emerge they can be eaten straight off the twig or put into salads or sandwiches. They have a tangy, almost acidic flavour. You’re looking for the lighter green slightly hairy leaves, before they darken in colour and develop an unpalatable, waxy surface.
In October, it’s the beech nuts which drop to the ground and can be collected for our table. The casing (called mast) splits open and will often drop off the tree with the nuts inside meaning it’s relatively easy to collect them, although you may have to rummage around on the ground a little to find the nuts under the leaf litter. Inside the mast can be up to 3 nuts each in their own triangular brown shell.
Beech nuts are a good source of protein, contain lots of healthy oils and taste a little like hazelnuts making them amazing for both sweet and savoury dishes. It’s advised that you don’t eat too many raw as they contains tannins which can cause an upset stomach, although not everyone has a negative reaction to raw beech nuts but it’s best to be cautious. They’re small though, so collecting that many would be quite a feat. Cooking or soaking removes this toxin and makes them safe to eat en masse, so try toasting them to add to salads or using as a cake topping as an alternative to hazelnuts. I like them best as a snack on the go whilst walking.
3. Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
Blackthorns are a favourite of many as they give us the fruit used to make sloe gin. Around autumn there’s excitement in the foraging community as everyone rushes to make their annual batch of sloe gin ready to replace the previous years which will inevitably be either drunk or given as a Christmas present. A friend proudly declared that this Christmas he’ll be opening a bottle he made five years ago!
The blackthorn tree can be identified by their almost black branches (hence the name) and large thorns which can cause a nasty infection if spiked so be very careful when harvesting your sloes, some thick gloves are recommended! In March the blackthorn is the first tree to make its presence known as it erupts en masse in our hedgerows with a show of white blossom. The flowers make for an incredibly beautiful contrast to the black spines. Blackthorn is a tough old tree with a habit of spreading quickly into open space, making it an unwelcome guest with landowners who like things tidy. It follows that with this tough, thorny tree, that seems to be telling us to “look but don’t touch” it would bear such sour fruits that when eaten raw don’t exactly endear themselves to us. They are worth collecting though as alcohol transforms their flavour.
The blackthorn is part of the plum family so this gives us a clue that there’s some good stuff to be had from the fruits. From September onward the sloes take on a dark blue colour as they ripen. The classic recipe, sloe gin, is made using fresh sloes, pricked with a fork, packed into a jar with gin and sugar. Shake this every day to help the sugar dissolve and then after at least a month (longer is better) strain off the berries and bottle the liquid, ready for a Christmas gift or to go on the sdhelf and left for a year before drinking. Also, did you know that the leaves can also be infused with alcohol and are at their best around June and July.
Interestingly sloe stones have been found at many archaeological sites which suggests our ancestors valued this fruit highly as well; it’s lovely to think that the blackthorn has connected us to our ancestors for thousands of years. Try boiling your sloes down to turn them into a jam or syrup, they’re naturally a little tart so it’s best to have a sweet aspect to each recipe such as reducing with sugar or treacle to make a delicious tart filling. If making sloe gin or other alcohol infusion is something you want to give a go, remember this top tip; try saving your soaked sloes to coat in chocolate. This makes for a perfect present for friends and family at Christmas time.
4. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
I don’t know about you, but I always see the arrival of Hawthorns as the official start of autumn. The iconic red berry a sight you’re likely familiar with as they grow in abundance along roadsides and in hedgerows. Hawthorn trees are one of our most common trees as they can thrive almost anywhere and are popular in hedges as they make a thorny stock-proof barrier which has vigorous regrowth when cut back. Head out to your local green space, you might be surprised by how many hawthorn trees you can find.
Hawthorns in Autumn are easy to identify, with large bunches of deep red oval berries, known as haws. They can be seen from September onward and can persist on the tree right through winter after the leaves have fallen. One of the earliest identifiers for this tree in our calendar year can be seen in early spring when the bright green leaves with between 3-5 jagged lobes, looking somewhat similar to parsley, explode in our hedgerows after the white blossom of blackthorn. In April and May look for a show of beautiful flowers blooming from this tree. They resemble cherry blossom, with a strong scent of almonds, 5 small white petals and pink stamens.
Back in autumn with the berries; you could eat a single haw and be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about as there’s not much taste to them. But that couldn’t be more wrong, this is such a versatile food source that not enough people know about. Where the haws shine is as an ingredient rather than a food on its own. Haws contain a single stone which needs to be removed before they can be eaten. This can be a time consuming process, but the reward is worth it. These berries can be used to make everything from jam, ketchup, relish and even wine; boiling and straining can be a quicker way of removing the stones than individually de-stoning each fruit. Although they’re fairly plain in flavour they have a similar texture to avocados, making them an eco-friendly substitute to use in guacamole.
As well as making some delicious foods, the haws are incredibly good for you. They can increase the blood flow to the heart, helping prevent heart attacks as well as reducing irregular heartbeats. This isn’t a new discovery either, haws have been used to treat heart conditions as early as the 17th century. If you are on heart medication, seek advice form a professional herbalist before eating them.
5. Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Sea buckthorn is incredibly beautiful when the tree is fruiting; with gorgeous bunches of bright orange berries surrounded by silvery green leaves that heavily resemble rosemary. The fruit of this tree is citrusy but does require some sweetening as it has a naturally sharp almost bitter flavour, similar to the acidity of a grapefruit. In terms of flavour, this is about as tropical as it gets for native tree foraging. If you don’t mind a bit of work and being spiked by thorns, then you’re in for a treat that packs a mighty punch.
Unfortunately, the sea buckthorn isn’t very common and is normally only found near the coastline or in very gravely areas. However, you might find it along roadsides and in retail parks or industrial estates, where it can be planted as cover. If you discover one of these trees locally make a note of it and be sure to give it a visit when it’s fruiting! These beautiful berries come into fruit around September to early October and are best picked after all the berries on the tree turn from green to orange as it’s when they’re at their most ripe. The tricky part of collecting the berries of the sea buckthorn is how prone they are to bursting when picking, meaning you could get juice on your clothes so make sure you’re not wearing your favourite white shirt when collecting these.
There are two main ways you can collect the berries; if you’re not too bothered about the whole berry and are happy with just the juice, which is the best part in my opinion, you can use some very thick rubber gloves to squeeze down a branch to collect the juice into a bucket. This will need straining once you get home to remove any bits of leaf or debris that you’ll also find in your bucket. This is the fastest way to collect the juice, but works best when the berries are a little softer later in the season. Another method is to snip off twigs that have berry clusters. Take them home and leave them outside on a towel or some tissue to allow any creepy crawlies to escape before putting them in a bin liner and bunging them in the freezer overnight. Once the berries are frozen beat the bag to dislodge them from the branch and then pick out the branches and leaves. This is my preferred method.
You can strain the berries to make a nutritious fruit juice, although some sweetening is recommended, try adding honey as a healthier alternative to sugar. To make a cordial, reduce the juice by simmering and add sugar. Dilute with water and serve with ice, or use neat added to sparkling wine to make a sea bucks fizz! As well as being delicious, sea buckthorn hailed as a superfood, being packed with vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A, B and C and is proven to preventing tumours, ulcers and detoxify the liver.
6. Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Whenever I think of summer elderflower cordial always springs to mind. Its subtle sweetness reminds me of hot breezy days. The elder tree has got to be in the top ten wild foods of the UK as it provides two delicacies for us to enjoy. The flowers which bloom in June and the berries which ripen around August to September. If you have a shrub in your garden I would recommend not taking all the flowers as you’ll then be stuck without any berries later on. Leave some to mature and you get to enjoy both harvests.
Whilst elderberries are easily recognisable, the spray of creamy-white summer flowers are easy to mistake for other similar looking trees. Make sure you’re not accidentally picking flowers from a Rowan or Wayfaring tree as they look similar when in bloom. Get to know the whole tree. The leaves of the elder are jagged around the edge and typically have five large leaflets on each leaf. The flowers themselves are very small and grow in dense bunches that tend to grow upwards in fairly uniform, flat formation. The stems will droop down when the flowers turn into the berries.
Elderflower cordial is an obvious classic recipe for the elder but there are so many more ways you can use the flowers. Try infusing them into Turkish delight or sorbets for a sweet treat or using them to flavour panna cotta or yoghurt. Don’t feel limited by traditional uses for elderflower cordial either, use the cordial to flavour cakes and tray bakes or add to sparkling wine.
Come the autumn, the berries are well worth your attention. Not only does their juice taste great but they’re good for our health too, making an excellent immune system booster. Be sure to use any freshly picked berries quickly as they don’t tend to last for very long once they’ve been picked. Try cooking them to make jam, using them to make a coulis for a pudding topping, or mixing with honey and spices to make a warming elderberry elixir – this is our personal favourite. The deep purple syrup is very striking when drizzled on cheesecake. Some more unusual uses for elderberries are to make vinegar and fruit leather.
Do be aware that the seeds in the berries contain a small amount of cyanide, so you don’t want to eat the berries raw, they must be cooked. We remove the seeds and flesh by straining the cooked berries through a muslin cloth.
7. Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Hazel, as you can probably guess, gives us the hazelnut; something so commonly used in modern processed foods you may forget that you can forage for them yourself. How does the idea of making your own hazelnut chocolate spread sound? When identifying a hazel, you’re more likely to find one in shrub form rather than a full tree, with several stems sprouting from the base rather than one single trunk. In summer the leaves are large and round with a serrated edge. At the tips of the yellow-brown branches you’ll also see large green buds. When searching for a hazelnuts the best place to look is hedgerows and woodland edges. The nuts tend not to grow as well in deeper woodland as they get shaded out by taller trees.
The best time of year for hazelnuts is the back end of August and into September. When you find them they might appear fairly green. These are unripe but can still be eaten. They are best when the shells have turned nut brown. They tend to grow in clusters and the nuts will have a frilly green bract around them, almost making them look like they’re wearing hats. Ripe nuts will fall from the tree but make sure you crack open the casing of a few nuts before you collect loads as often the tree will discard any nuts that haven’t been successful to focus on growing others. Nobody wants to go home to find they’ve actually been carrying empty shells.
The other issue to content with is the Grey Squirrel who will harvest all the nuts from your favourite hazel tree before they ripen. Aside from the obvious solution to this problem (squirrel pie anyone?) you could try netting a small tree (easier said than done) or look for a tree in an urban space where squirrels aren’t present. This is where I’ve had the most success myself.
Hazelnuts give us so many possibilities. They make a nutritious addition to cakes and bakes. They compliment chocolate really nicely so you could try incorporating them into a batch of cookies which are sure to go down a treat. For something more low-key you could always sprinkle chopped hazelnuts onto a bowl of muesli or porridge for a healthy breakfast to kickstart your day with plenty of energy. Possibly a more unusual way of using the nuts would be to blend them into some homemade green pesto for extra crunch and depth of flavour, you could even try toasting them first.
The good news is that these delicious nuts are really good for you as well, supporting a healthy heart and helping to reduce cholesterol. They’re also full of vitamin E which helps maintain a healthy immune system, so there’s no need to feel bad about snacking on this treat.
8. Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
Otherwise known as Mountain Ash, this tree grows not only in high places, as it’s name suggests, but can also be found in hedgerows, scrubland and urban spaces. When flowering, rowan is easily mistaken for the elderflower as they have similar sized white flowers sitting on a flat bed, called an umbel. Once these flowers mature to fruit though the difference becomes very obvious. Rowan produces striking red berries instead of the purple-black of elder. The berries are also larger and persist on the tree long after the elderberries have dried up. Another similar feature are the leaves. Rowan has more leaflets per leaf than elder. Anywhere between 11 – 17 leaflets, opposed to elder typical 5-7.
It’s these juicy red berries that we’re looking to forage. You can find them on the tree as early as late July. September onwards is the main season though. Don’t be tempted to eat these berries right off the tree as they need to be cooked before they’re edible, otherwise they can cause severe indigestion due to the ascorbic acid they contain. The most traditional recipe for this unusual berry is rowan berry jelly, often paired here with crab apples as the pectin tends to thicken the jelly and make sure it sets properly.The crabs are also sweetening the jelly.
To make a jelly add equal quantities of chopped apple and rowan to a pan and simmer in water for 20 minutes. Strain in a muslin cloth over a bowl for at least 4 hours, allowing the juice to drip into the bowl, if you squeeze the mix then the jam will be cloudy. Harvest the liquid and for every 600ml of fluid, add 450g sugar and the juice of one lemon and boil again for 10 minutes. You can test when it’s ready by putting a spoonful on a chilled plate; if the jelly wrinkles when you squidge it with your finger its ready to be put into a sterilised jar. This jelly is perfect to accompany meats or even something like cheesecake to add a tart splash of colour to your pate.
Interestingly, rowan berry flour is used in Russian baking, which gives bread a slight tang and adds a lot of nutrition. Rowan berries can also be added into chutneys, soups, and ketchups to add a depth of flavour, although it is worth adding a source of sweetness to counteract the tartness they naturally have. This is one berry that I’ve not actually gotten round to cooking with myself at the time of writing, but the jelly recipe is one that has persisted through time so it must be worthwhile. Let me know how you get on.
9. Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)
Crab apples are a bit tricky, as the sourness of these wild fruits tends to catch people off guard. I still remember the shock of biting into one and finding out just how sour they were for the first time! Fortunately, there are still numerous ways you can use the crab apple and sweeten it to make it more digestible.
Unlike cooking apples, the crab apple is small, often only reaching around 3cm in diameter. This may be why they are so tart, as the flavour is concentrated in a smaller fruit. Crab apple trees are often found in hedgerows, woodland clearings and around farmland. The leaves are ovular with a finely toothed margin. The apples can be stored for several months before they become unusable, keep them somewhere cool and dry and you can always come back to them when your other foraging projects are done.
Like the rowan, crab apple is often used in jellies to offset the sharpness of flavour and I would follow a similar recipe to the rowan berry jelly above. There are many more ways to use them though. They can be sliced and dehydrated in an oven to make dried apple slices, which tend to be a lot sweeter and make a delicious snack on walks or part of a healthy breakfast when mixed with yoghurt and nuts. They can also be used as an ingredient in fruit leather which is always very popular with kids. For grown ups, how about this liqueur? Add layers of sliced crab apples to a jar, sprinkling sugar in between each layer and then covering with vodka. Leave for a year before draining; a long time I know but you should have a bottle ready for the following Christmas.
Other ideas for the crab apple include juicing them, crab apple butter, adding them to pickles or chutneys, or in a mixed fruit pie or crumble. Their tartness adds an unexpected bite to sweet puddings, so give it a go.
10. Guelder-Rose (Viburnum opulus)
The guelder-rose was previously known as swamp elder, which to me is a more appropriate name as it describes this shrubby tree much better. Native to the UK the guelder-rose can be identified in the summer by its serrated three lobed leaves, which are similar looking to maple leaves, and are slightly hairy on the underside. Similar again to the elder and rowan the guelder-rose has umbels of white flowers that bloom around May to July. Look closer and you’ll see that a cluster of larger petalled flowers are surrounded by a ring of smaller flowers. Very striking indeed. In autumn these flowers mature to small shiny red berries, similar in appearance to cranberries which sometimes gives it the nickname European cranberry bush.
When searching for this berry look in damp places along riversides, scrubland, and hedgerows; it tends to have a habit of spreading if left unattended. When preparing the berries make sure they’re cooked before eating them as they can be slightly toxic if eaten raw, so don’t eat them straight off the tree. The berries need to be prepared in a similar way to rowan, as they are also fairly bitter. They do work well in jellies and jams. Try adding them with rowan berries and crab apples for a tangy addition to toast and porridge or add a dollop to your Sunday roast. Often it’s best to wait for the first frost of the year before collecting the berries as it tends to sweeten them, but you could always pop them in the freezer for the same effect if you can’t wait. I made jam and although when cooking the aroma wasn’t all that appetising, the resulting jam was very good.
As well as being used as a source of food the bark of the tree has been used for hundreds of years to soothe menstrual cramps as the bark has sedative and antispasmodic properties. This is probably due to the chemical viopudial, a compound that lowers blood pressure relaxes smooth muscle, which also means it’s useful in alleviating hiccups and stomach aches. However, it is worth saying that there have been no medical trials to confirm these properties or in what quantities it should be consumed, so I wouldn’t advise just peeling off bits of bark to use, especially if you’re not confident on your identification. Seek the advice of a professional herbalist if you want to take this further.
Where Can You Find These Trees?
Now this all sounds good on paper but how you do go about recognising these tree species and finding the right habitats where they grow?
I have created a FREE online Tree Identification course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills, which you can enroll on today and start improving your skills so you can find these wild foods for yourself. The course will also show you how to identify trees at other times of the year; winter, spring and summer. Here you will learn about buds, flowers, leaves, bark and other useful identifying signs so you can really get to know our native trees all year round. Sound good to you? Register for free right here.
You can also download a copy of my FREE Autumn Tree Guide which you can view on your phone whilst out and about. It features many of the species in this blog with quality pictures of the fruits, berries and nuts. You can grab your copy of that guide right here.
So, there’s my list, not so much a definitive top ten, as there are a couple of omissions here of native trees which produce some fantastic wild foods at times of the year other than autumn. Perhaps I’ll make that absolute top ten list later down the line. Certainly birch sap syrup, wych elm seeds wild cherries are all worth a mention.
I hope you found this article inspiring and I’d love to hear if you make anything with the wild foods featured. If you want more good stuff from us you could subscribe to our YouTube Channel where we post videos about trees, wild food and nature connection.