One of the most wonderful things about living out in the country in a large village is the abundance of wildlife all around me. I love seeing the birds every day as the coal tits come to my bird feeder followed by the ravens, who usually grab some of the pest bugs from my vegetable garden while they’re here.
I get excited when the blackberries appear, green at first, then red, before turning that barely-black shade that means it’s time to pick them. And I always smile when I see the rose hips starting to form at this time of year, looking like dewy pink rosebuds again, as nature gets ready for the transition into Autumn.
August is the month that many berries are ripe for picking. These are usually full of vitamins (especially vitamin C which boosts your immune system among other things) and preserving these berries through making jams, jellies, wines or cordials is a traditional way to ensure you have a healthy winter.
The earliest of the nuts appear at the end of August, too, although most taste best when harvested next month or even October. If you can find hazelnuts to pick, you’ve hit the nutritional jackpot this month!
Here are my top 5 foods to forage in August if you live in Ireland:
These are native and you’ll find their distinctive brambles all over the place.
My grandma used to say never to pick blackberries from by the road because the toxins from petrol cars would get into the berries and make you ill. She was a district nurse/midwife so probably knew what she was talking about. She lived in an era where car fuel contained lead, but she also grew up in rural Ireland at a time when there were significantly fewer cars on the roads, so I’d still heed her advice because we know a lot more about the toxicity of other petrol fumes these days.
I wanted a reliable source of blackberries as I adore blackberry jam, so since April I have been growing my own blackberry bush in a container (to stop it taking over the garden… it’s already trying haha). If you’ve a blackberry bush, it should fruit in the second year.
Ironically, it turns out there are also blackberry brambles in the little spinney at the bottom of my garden, and they have grown through the fence, so it looks like we’ll be inundated with my favourite berries next year! I always had a great crop of wild blackberries growing in the hedge at our old house in York, England (despite my mother in law’s attempts to remove the bramble “weed” when she visited), so I can’t wait to have them in my garden again.
Choose ripe blackberries which are a dark purple (almost black), and avoid ones which have been pecked at by birds or eaten by insects. If they have brown damage to the berries, leave them for the birds, too. Absolutely never pick mouldy ones (these will have green fuzz on them).
Remember, it’s better to leave some behind than to pick everything then throw it away, because other animals depend on naturally-growing fruits for their survival.
The best thing to do with blackberries you’ve foraged is to make my grandma’s blackberry jam recipe. If you don’t have time to do it immediately, freeze your blackberries until you can make them into jam.
My other grandma was Scottish. She lived near an abandoned railway line where canes of raspberries grew in late summer and her freezer always had a little supply of them ready to be made into her delicious pies with homemade pastry. Aside from the berries, raspberry leaves can be harvested, dried and made into tea which tones the uterus and helps stimulate labour contractions for pregnant women (avoid when pregnant until the end of your pregnancy).
To harvest the berries: Pick them when they are a pinky-red colour. The berries are delicate so store in Tupperware-type containers. You can either eat them as-is (or as an ice cream topping), freeze them, or make them into pies or jam. Avoid fruit that is damaged or looks like old lady skin, or has gone a strange colour. Also avoid unripe fruits.
To harvest the leaves: Pick them when they are green. Avoid ones with holes in them or ones which have aphids or other insects living on the back (or front, but usually insects colonize the backs of leaves). At home, wash them thoroughly then put on an oven tray. Bake at 65 degrees Celsius (150F) for 4 hours to dry them and put them into small muslin bags or tea filters when you want to make raspberry leaf tea.
Elderberries are a versatile natural fruit berry growing in Ireland in August. The berries are small and round, a deep purple that looks black, with a shiny surface.
There are a few other plants that have berries that look similar, including deadly nightshade (not a tree, but it can be parasitic around trees and I’ve seen it reach heights of 10 metres or more when entangled around a tree), so if you’ve never picked elderberries before, do consult a plant or tree identification guide to be sure you’re picking elderberries.
Elderberries can be used to make jam, cordial, or wine, depending on what you prefer.
Finally, a source of protein! Hazelnuts are supposedly native to Ireland in some areas, although I’ve never seen any myself. I’d keep an eye out because they’re the jackpot when it comes to foraged nutrition.
They’re hiding in little papery structures on hazel bushes, and they’re reddish-brown when they’re ripe (don’t pick green ones)
You can roast them and salt them, or even pickle them to preserve them!
Crab apples are a lot smaller than regular apples. They look a bit like rose hips, and are a similar size, except crab apples are perfectly round, not rosebud shaped. If you’re familiar with the plant where you’re picking them, you should know if, earlier in the year, it had dog rose/wild rose flowers (either white or purple with a yellow centre) or whether it didn’t, and that’s a good clue, too. Don’t worry at all if you get them confused. Both are edible.
Crab apples are best used to make crab apple jelly to be served alongside chicken as a condiment (like cranberry sauce for turkeys, but more European).