Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Field Blewit: The King of Autumn Mushrooms

As summer moves on into Autumn the late-summer foraging of fruit and greens recedes into more of a specialised mushrooming time. Yeah, there are some apples left on the trees, but the blackberries are way past their best now and we've enough greens on the allotment and in the garden such that we don't need to be gathering them wild right now. 

And as we move on into Autumn the kind of mushrooms we find changes too - in a typical suburb we get fewer Boletus and Suillus, and the assorted Agaricus and the like slowly tail off. By October, providing we've had enough rain to make the ground soggy on occasion, my main mushroom of choice is the blewit.

Specifically, I mean the field blewit, Lepista saeva. This one here...

This mushroom is, just sometimes, rudiculously plentiful in the UK. I've found it from the Scottish borders down to the South Coast. And in my opinion it is one of the finest wild mushrooms we have - its got an intense flavour, a meaty texture, its filling, and it is easy to identify.

Mostly it grows in rings, on grass, and its one of the many organic matter degraders that isn't just tolerant of mowing but seems to thrive where grass clippings are continuously reapplied to the ground. And as we mow the grass progressively less as the days get shorter and cooler, you can often find great rings of it after rain from late September onwards. Sometimes you find it frozen in place in December, no worse off for it.

Its ridiculously easy to identify. The cap is smooth, sort of buttery and brown, and the underside has quite crowded gills that make a pink spore print if you need to do so. They aren't quite attached to the stem, and they're pale brown with maybe a touch of pinkishness sometimes. The stem is fibrous and has a purple tinge to it, which is a giveaway. And the smell is floral-mushroomy, intense and pleasant.

Here's a closer look at one...

There are a couple of rather more purple Cortinarius species you could maybe mistake for it, if you were an idiot, but it would be hard. This really is one of the easiest shrooms to ID. 

It has a long history of use wherever it grows, which is why it has so many common names. Bluey, blue leg, bluebutton etc. all referring to the distinctive purple stem. It is especially popular in the East Midlands, and I've seen crates of it for sale in greengrocers in Nottingham, Beeston and Long Eaton. I was once stopped by a copper in Nottingham who wanted to know what I was doing under the trees in a park with a knife in my hand, and when I showed him what I was picking he was delighted to relate how his mum used to cook 'blueys' for him as a kid.

The only down-side to blewits is that they've a tendency to get water-logged. They soak up water like a sponge, which you need to be aware of when cooking them. Maybe you'll need to cook them a bit longer to get the water out of them if you need them drier in a dish, or just add less wine or stock in a stew.

The ways of cooking it are many and varied, and I don't intend to bore you with loads of recipes needlessly repeating what you can find elsewhere. So I'll restrict myself to a few ideas that might wet your appetite.

BlewBird Stew

1 pigeon (or partridge, or half a pheasant) per person
Enough field blewits to cover the top of the stew pot
Stock (chicken or game)
Red Wine
Onion, carrot, celery
About a dessertspoon full of juniper berries
Salt, pepper, flour

Chop a couple of celery sticks, an onion, and a carrot fine and brown them slowly in a stew pot. Take them out, and coat the birds in well seasoned flour. Brown them in the same pan, add in enough wine and stock to half cover them and put the sauteed veg and crushed garlic clove back in. Squash the juniper berries and drop them in, along with the mushrooms. Bring it to the boil and pop it in the oven for about an hour at 180C, turning the birds over half way through. Serve it with mashed spuds and steamed greens, its a delicious seasonal stew.

Blewit Pate

Salt and pepper
Cream cheese

This recipe makes the most of the intense flavour of this mushroom. Chop the mushrooms, sautee them off with a bit of butter, and when they're cooked and starting to dry up just a but add in the garlic and parsley, just until they're soft. Season with salt and pepper and let it cool down.

Put the cooked shrooms with a scoop of cream cheese (Philadephia is fine) in a blender, and zuzz them about until they're a pate consistency. Taste and season further if you need to, flatten it in a dish, and chill it until its set. Serve it with crackers or toast.

Blewits and Pasta

Salt and pepper

This is based on the traditional way of cooking blewits in Nottingham, but I think its a bit better to serve with pasta than with mashed potato.

Chop and sautee the blewit stems with a chopped onion. Mix in a couple of spoons of flour, and slowly add milk to form a thick sauce. Season with salt and pepper, and handfull of chopped parsley, and add the mushroom caps (sliced) and cook for ten minutes or so. Keep it on the heat until the flour is fully cooked out. Mix it in with cooked pasta, and serve. 

If you were doing this in Nottingham in the 1930s you'd serve it in a well in the middle of a plate of mashed spuds, and you'd have cooked it for an hour. I like it a little less over-cooked, and seasoned with lots of pepper, tossed into pasta.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Suburban Peasants Guide to Road Kill

Foragers tend to be good at finding fruit, vegetables, nuts and mushrooms. Those lucky enough to live close to the sea can supplement that with shell-fish (and sea-weed), but if you don't then the best animal protein you can find is usually the form of garden snails - a tasty (but fiddly) morsel that isn't to everyone's taste. There's another option though.

The thing about the Suburbs is they're almost, but not quite, out of town. And that means that when you get out on your bike or in a car, you'll very often be out on rural roads very quickly - which means you've opportunity to obtain a heck of a lot of free protein.

You've most likely taken on a demeanor of disgust now. The idea of scraping a dead animal up off the road and eating it sounds, well, gross. So your nose has wrinkled up and your eyes narrowed, the classic defence we all have against things we think may make us ill. But I think, unless you don't like meat, you should reconsider.

Ok. I'm Listening. Why Would I Eat Road Kill?

With a good eye, and just a few precautions, you can glean a free meal from a creature that has quite needlessly died. It has probably lived a better life than a farmed animal, and its otherwise going to go to waste. We've lots of wild game (and tasty vermin) in the UK, and it is typically very healthy, low fat, versatile meat. But it can be strangely awkward to source - few supermarkets even have fresh rabbit or pheasant these days, so you'll have to go to a butcher, farmers market or game dealer. You are, literally, going right past a tasty dinner that is going to go to waste - why would you eat it is the wrong question. Why wouldn't you eat it? Its low impact, free, tasty, healthy food. 

What Kind of Meat do you Get?

We're mowing down animals by the thousand on our roads - but that doesn't mean they're all likely to be tasty. Its sadly rare for a rabbit or a squirrel to be in a useful state after a road accident. It'll probably be a furry, blood-stained pan-cake. Most commonly what I get from the roadside is pheasant or pigeon - they're often hit by car bumpers rather than tires, so they're usually intact and in good condition. But I've had the occasional rabbit and squirrel where they've had a bang on the head from a passing car, and while my own bike rides don't usually take me anywhere I'll find a deer, there are a heck of a lot them killed on the roads - but a deer is rather more difficult to handle, for various reasons I'll mention later.

OK. I've got out of the car/off the bike to look at a dead animal. Now what?

Firstly, have a look to see how intact it is. A rabbit with a tire track down the middle of it isn't much use to you. But if there isn't much exterior damage, if it looks more or less intact, then you're off to a good start.

Turn it over to see that its intact on the other side - use a stick if you like. You might well find its full of maggots at that point, but it may not me. If it still seems intact at this point, pick it up and have a feel. If its still warm (like, body temperature warm) then its obviously fresh. If its got rigor mortis then its not very old (hours), that's a good sign too. Inspect the rear end and the front end to make sure its not all mangled (you don't want the goop from top or bottom infecting the meat), and take a deep-lung full of clean air topped off with a tentative sniff of your potential meal at the end. Does it smell like an animal rather than a rotting carcass? If it smells ok and has passed your visual examination, you're good to go. This advice works for rabbit, pheasant, pigeon, partridge... Most of the smaller animals you see. If you think you might see a deer, you need to do a but more reading. The word you're looking to google is 'gralloching' - if you think you can do that, and you think the carcass is in a good enough state such that this will still be relevant, then have a go. Venison can taint very badly if the guts are damaged, you need to take a bit more care (and do a little more reading) if road-kill deer are your quarry.

Right, I've taken this damn thing home, now what?

People have an odd idea that game should be hung for weeks on end, and it simply isn't true. Rabbit and pheasant are rarely hung for long. and hare is only really hung for a few days. Don't feel an urge to hang the animal for days, just until you're ready to process it (and at least until rigor-mortis has worn off). You'll find no end of information for how to process basically any wild meat, and once you've got it home you've plenty of time to consider how you're going to do this part.

In brief, its meat. Pheasant roasts well, or stews magnificently. Pigeon breast is amazing fried hot and fast and served bloody. Rabbit oughtn't need any introduction but has sadly fallen out of favour - can I suggest portioning it and deep frying it like chicken, or currying it. Its as versatile as chicken and even tastier.

So next time you're out for a nice ride out on country roads, keep your eyes open for freeby dinner. 


Monday, 14 August 2017

Ants nesting in a mushroom?

Doesn't show up perfectly on film, but I could see little ant larvae being carried about when I pulled the mushroom open. Never seen this before - ants incorporating the void in a mushroom perhaps created by little maggots therein as part of their own nest?

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Recent mushroom harvests...

Spring and the beginning of summer as awfully dry, but that has been followed first by a short wet spell that allowed all the plants to grow, another dry patch so lots of new growth died back, and then a deluge of rain that seems to have been going on for weeks. That means the soil is topped by plenty of fresh organic matter for fungi to degrade, and from a foraging perspective that has been great. 

I've been out most weekends but otherwise I've been gathering what I've seen on various detours to and from work. I'm seeing lots of species that always do well here (parasols, horse mushrooms, fairy ring mushrooms and inedible mushrooms like yellow stainers and roll rims) but also species like lurid and pink cracking boletes that rarely thrive here. And loads of russulas too. Here's my basket from the weekend gone... 

But of course alongside all the tasties are many that you maybe oughtn't be eating. Death caps and other amanitas have been around in surprising numbers, for example. And the profusion of yellow stainers could almost be infuriating...

Years line this aren't frequent here in Cambridge so I've filled up my dried mushroom stocks, and we'll make the most of this while it lasts. If you ARE going to have a go at mushrooming and you haven't done so before please find someone locally who's enthusiastic about the subject, someone who knows their stuff, and see if they'll take you on a walk. Its well worth it.

How to cope with 'normies' and those hostile to foraging.

Many of us who have foraged for a very long time will have come across people out in the woods or fields who are curious about what we're doing - sometimes they just want to know, sometimes (for various reasons) they want to stop us. I had a rather hostile reaction recently, which has prompted this. I think its worth sharing a few thoughts on how to handle each kind of challenge. Sometimes people will just want a chat, sometimes they're worried, sometimes they're hostile - I've divided these events into their most common types, given some thoughts on how I handle each...

Scenario 1: They're curious

This is the best one. If they want to know what you're doing, or what you're picking, tell them. Its not very likely that they'll come back and take all the goodies themselves, but if they do get in to foraging thats another voice to speak up in defence of our green spaces. Be enthusiastic and answer their questions - and yes, if there's a lookalike for something you're picking that'll do them harm, tell them - thats all part of foraging. Be happy to share knowledge and enthusiasm for what is, we all know, a kick ass hobby.

I'd say that this kind of encounter is getting ever more common - as the population has got a bit more foody, a bit more food aware, there's ever more of this. And in the days after Hugh FW or someone has been on the tellybox picking mushrooms its almost a certainty that someone will ask me about any mushrooms I'm basketing. I always welcome this.

Scenario 2: They're worried for you

The older I get, the less this happens. At one time I often had people wander up to me in the woods, worried for my welfare. "Are you sure they're safe" Yes, they're cherries. "How do you know they're cherries?" They're on a cherry tree. "How do you know its a cherry tree?" Well it covered in cherries. And as for mushrooms, I got to a point in my late teens when I'd wait for people not to be around before picking any, the level of concern shown was so annoying.

This is certainly more likely if you're picking fungi than anything else - and you should take this at face value, its most likely they're genuinely concerned for your health. Be kind, reassure them, and thank them for their concern. If you get this a lot (as I used to) then it may be some comfort that as you get older people assume, from the look of you, that you know what you're doing. I've rarely hear of this kind of interaction being worse than a few concerned words - when you're grown up!

Scenario 3: They're angry that you're picking something wild

This is a baffling one but I've had it several times. There's a lot of free food out there which is fair game. The Wildlife and Countryside Act covers most of what you need to be aware of legally, but its ambiguous (and I think intentionally so). Basically if its growing wild, in a space you're allowed to be, you can harvest part of the plant/fungus (be it greens, fruit or mushrooms) providing you don't wreck it or dig up the root (unless its a rare species with specific legal protection) - so you can pick some cow parsley leaves and flowers but you can't dig up orchid roots for salep. And yeah, a few parasol mushrooms in a field full of grass where there's a path not so very far from them, thats not a stretch of the law, but bundling over a fence to collect pink gilled grisettes among freshly sown winter wheat is something a farmer will have a legitimate problem with. Likewise there are many 'abandoned' urban and suburban trees, fruit trees planted by council workers and the like, and wildlings grown from fruit seed thrown away, all over the UK  - and they're generally considered ok to pick from. But 'wild' is rather an ambiguous term here, and I've always thought that might have been intentional in the law. Is a self seeded apple tree 'wild'? I'd say yes. Is it still wild if it has been watered, pruned and tended? I'd say probably not. Its a judgement call. 

Once in a while someone will come at you with needless hostility to picking wild food. You're damaging the tree, they'll say, or you're stealing the mushrooms out of the park, they'll tell you. Stay calm, tell them that what you're doing is fine, its legal, and if they don't back down you can either walk away and come back later, or if you think they're going to persist in being a problem tell them you'll be happy to wait for the Police to come and settle this, if they want to call them. Usually they go off in a huff quite quickly, but not always, so I usually favour walking off and coming back again after a few minutes when they're gone. There's one lady lives not far from me goes ballistic if she sees me eyeing up cherries in the trees - I know what her car looks like near her flat, and wait for it to be gone.

Scenario 4: They think you're doing something untoward!

Yes, some people will see you picking something and decide that this is suspicious so they'll investigate. Ignore them and let them see what you're doing, and if they're still giving you the evils then talk to them and see if they want you to explain. Sometimes just doing something different is enough to arouse suspicion, and you are doing something different when you're out foraging. 
Years ago I was picking blewits by the railings of a park in Nottingham, and a copper came up on the outside and wanted to know why I had a knife in my hand. I showed him the mushrooms, his response was "Are they blueys? My mum used to cook me blueys..." and he proceded to relate the traditional East Midlans way of eating blewits. After a cordial chat he was off on his way with pockets full of soggy mushrooms (which I was happy to share) and I was still cutting the base of more mushrooms with a pocket knife. Another time a gaggle of mothers turned up in a park I was gathering parasol mushrooms in, and to their eye I was a strange man skulking in the undergrowth - until I waved a big mushroom and told them thats what I was doing. Somtimes people just don't get it - and a little chat won't hurt.

Scenario 5: They (unreasonably) want you off their patch

Where I grew up the old coal carrying railway lines had become footpaths and bridleways, and they were great for picking blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, and occasionally plums, apples and other fruit from alongside. So I often went along there for good hauls- and I learned quite quickly who (with gardens bordering the old lines) was defensive. People get very clingy to the trees and shrubs right by their gardens. 

As for how to handle this, I'd say 'it depends'. I've been chased off picking blackberries, and frankly thats fine - there are plenty more blackberries. But if its a wildling plum in such a space which someone feels they've more right to than you then hear them out and decide whether or not its worth the grief - it often isn't. Maybe I'm just stubborn, but if they run towards me apoplectic that I'm stealing 'their' fruit I'll ignore them, whereas if they ask me to leave that because its past the bottom of their garden then yeah, I'm way more likely to do so. Once in a while someone is particularly naughty and will guerilla plant fruit trees in a space that isn't theirs - they're rather more invested in the crop of course. What they're doing may or may not be illegal (depending on where it is), but its certainly cheeky - don't feel under any moral constraint in having a cheeky little share yourself.

Usually this all comes down to whether you think its worth the aggro - normally it isn't, but if you feel the person is having a go at you and want to stand your ground because its the right thing to do to confront bullies, thats fine. You do that.

Scenario 6: They (reasonably) want  you off their patch

This is, in my experience, the rarest interaction. I've had this once - but I've talked to other foragers who've had similar experiences.

Land ownership and utilisation are not always well labelled. You can find an apple tree in a hedge that you think has been long abandoned, but it still might belong to someone - and while the poorly defined 'wild' in the Countryside Act is some defence, its not ok to swipe someones stuff if you find out thats what you're doing. Verges by roadsides adopted for management by local authorities are normally managed by the local transport authority, and what you find growing there is (within the legal framework of what and how you can forage) fair game. But thats not universal, and you can find yourself on the wrong end of someone who's got a valid point that you've crossed a line.

If that happens, stop picking and offer them whatever you've picked back - if you know it already has a legal owner, you really do have to offer to give it back. If they refuse, of course, keep it. Don't aggravate them, but at the same time you're not obligated to take abuse from them for having made an understandable mistake. But if when you're challenged it transpires you've made a mistake and the person challenging you is being reasonable then accept it, apologise and move on.

There's a damson tree I've regularly ridden past on a road verge for years, and every year the fruit rots on the ground (making quite a mess of the pavement I'll add). This year I went and picked about a pound of damsons, enough for a small crumble, and a guy came up to me and gave me a right telling off. Among his points were 'people like you' and 'you're a Northerner aren't you?' (which appeared to be his clinching point - yes, he was the kind of chap for whom his own disdain is enough to prove a point). I was at the wrong end of a shouted, expletive laden rant delivered right into my face. Apparently the residents association owns that verge and while he doesn't want the fruit thats not the point, there's a principle (which I think means he wants it to rot on the ground). How precisely one is meant to ascertain that ownership I don't know, but I also don't care - I don't have to put up with such threatening behaviour for any reason, his frightening response was massively out of proportion to what he'd perceived I'd done wrong. I'd actually got my phone out and was dialing the Police when this chap backed down - which was a relief. 

When you're faced with loud, moral indignation or threats like that, its usually best to let them have their little rant and walk away. You don't need the aggro. You can't get 'em all right, nor should you feel bad about getting ones like this wrong. But if they're reasonable about it and they're genuinely correcting you, of course the right thing to do is be decent in return.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Foraging Apps. A good idea or not?

There's been a little bit of nonsense in my twitter timeline about this app here. A mushroom identification app, where you allegedly point your phone at a mushroom and the phone tells you what the mushroom is. Now thats a great idea and I love it. I don't for a heartbeat think it'll work, but just because something can't be done (yet) doesn't mean I don't love the concept. But will it work? Well, no, as things stand this actually unnerves me a bit.

There is in fairness some advice on the page about this app - get a nice, big picture of the mushroom without any fingers in it. But I am a little worried that when I click on 'support' I'm sent to a tumblr. The three reviews I can see are damning.

Mushrooming is great fun and a marvellous way to get superb ingredients for free, and if you step into it bit by bit, species by species, taking advice where you need it and consulting the books where thats handy, its not as hard as all that. But it isn't just a visual thing - yes, there are species where a keen-eyed forager will tell you what something is likely to be from a car going past at 40mph (although on one occasion that wasn't a giant puffball, it was an actual football), but actually to confirm an identification can be more challenging. Those of us who've been foraging for a while have all had fuzzy photos of a mushroom from above sent to us, and had to reply that yeah, it might be (x) but we can't tell from that image. We need to see the top, the underside and the stipe (stem), we might want to know where it was growing, how big it is, what it smells like, what it feels like, whether it changes colour when you cut it, etc. One picture? That will rarely be enough.

Take the yellow stainer mushroom. Quite a varied appearance, but generally very like a horse mushroom - there are samples you'll find which are essentially indistinguishable until you pick one and bruise it, or give it a good sniff. A picture isn't enough. Take the whole Russula genus - there are single species that can be four different colours, and after a rainstorm many different species represent a serious challenge to identify, requiring chemical tests (or, sometimes, a taste test). I promise you, you're not fully differentiating them from any photograph.

There are assorted other apps and sites  that purportedly share sites and info, and I guess thats cool if its your kind of thing. Its been done various ways - there are GPS related apps where you share sites of wild food, there are shared online maps. And yeah, ok, if thsts your thing. Fine. It isn't mine though - and many experienced foragers will, I'm sure, share the same reserve (which is why I think the Cambridge map I've linked to there is so hilariously incomplete).

When you spend years looking up at trees, down at the ground, into hedges etc. you get a depth of knowledge and understanding of your local habitats few others appreciate - you learn whats good one year won't be good the next, you end up with a depth and breadth of knowledge that can't be simply replicated. And yes, the time and effort taken to achieve this does make us rather jealously guard our foraging spots - not out of fear someone else will pick, but out of fear that those who haven't put the effort in to learn won't have the same respect for our sites. The learning, the hard graft to gain knowledge, breeds respect and love for the resource. We don't fear others using the resource - we fear them ruining it. I'll share locations with other foragers who I know have the same attitude but not, ever, with a newbie who may not. I want more people who'll respect our local habitats and stand up for them, as foragers will - I don't want people who'll trample down rare orchids to get to common fairy ring mushrooms. There's a real need for understanding here.

We've a long way to go before the already incredibly powerful pocket super-computers we laughably refer to as 'phones' are able to distinguish sufficient information to safely identify mushrooms on our behalf. That in itself would be quite something. But I do worry that if foraging a wide range of species becomes too easy, we may see it done far less responsibly and sustainably. Time will tell, I suppose. But a negative impact of careless technology use on our environment? Who'd be surprised?

Monday, 24 July 2017

Musings on a Forage

We've finally had some rain here the last week or two, which is great - not only for the allotment but for shrooming.

We've had very few mushrooms this year so far - the St. Georges mushroom harvest failed entirely due to a really dry Spring, and the brackets that usually see us through Summer (dryads saddles, chicken of the woods) have been thin on the ground. Well, thin on the tree stumps. But we've had things a bit better for the last couple of weeks and finally we're getting a few shrooms.

Not a lot as yet though, but enough to be worthwhile. Last weekend was annoying, lots of cycling around for a small number of field mushrooms, horse mushrooms, wine caps and some dryads saddle - with the most prolific mushrooms being the yellow stainer. Thats not unusual in our part of Cambridge, its infuriatingly common (you can't eat it). But this weekend conditions were just right for horse mushrooms and, very pleasingly, the prince (Agaricus augustus), one of the finest wild species. Almond scented, richly flavoured, one I'll never tire of - great with pasta, wonderful with eggs, splendid accompaniment to meat. 

Princes, horse mushrooms, parasols...
We'd been out on Thurdsay for a ride around, and there were some horse mushrooms growing nicely near home. We left them to get a bit of size but when we went back on Sunday all we found was cut stumps - and a chap under some other trees plundering another of our regular patches. Fair enough, I suppose. We went over to see him but he didn't speak a word of English, and I'm left with the concern as to whether he'll pick responsibly. I'll always leave some, he didn't. I just hope he's light footed and doesn't trample things down too badly if he's going to become a regular. I'm also wondering whether in future leaving mushrooms to plump up on that patch is a good idea.

Among our quarry were some specimens of Boletus luridus - a new one for Cambridge (well, for ME in Cambridge). Common as muck some places I've lived but a first for my foraging here.

Also gathered just a few cherry plums for munching on, and noted there's loads of blackberries around already. Not a bad forage.

We had mushroom risotto last night. The dehydrator is running for some of the mushrooms, we've got a collander full in the fridge for the week ahead, and a pan cooked down for pasta sauce tonight. 

So not a bad forage. Not the best we've had at this time of year, but worth a trip out.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Roadside Trees

I've touched on the politics of roadside trees elsewhere, and I've talked about urban trees for the future here. Any of those trees make good roadside choices, depending on location. Obviously, I'm willing to defend my own choices for what trees should be planted in urban spaces (go look at that blog post), but I also wanted to discuss tree selection based on principles that ought to be applied. Yes, this is in part about City Deal in Cambridge - but I hope these thoughts might be of wider interest too.

If we're looking at roadsides, there are for me 7 key principles we need to bear in mind.

1. Pollution resistance - if it'll die in traffic fumes its no good here.
2. Salt, flooding, and drying out - in restricted soil space on a road thats gritted this is all important
3. Root damage - if the tree will rip up the road lets not plant it
4. Appearance - lets plant trees that are beautiful!
5. Growth and shade - the right tree for the right place
6. Ecology and habitat - we should at all times foster a better environment.
7. Durability - lets not plant a tree that'll die of a disease months after it goes in

Now of course every tree is good or bad for some of those points - there is no perfect urban tree. But I think we can pick out a few species that are all-rounders and we should discuss those. And yes, I'm leaving out some lovely trees that are currently not doing so well due to disease in the UK (ash and horse chestnut in particular). And some that are great urban trees but rather less suitable to roadsides.

I should stress again that these are my 'likes' - there are many other options, but I'm aiming to get a discussion going on suitable trees for planting. And I'm not ashamed to put my own views forward to do so - these choices (and the ones in the earlier post) are personal, but I think defensible. Please, join in with your own views - but have a think about whether your preferences make good choices for the location you're discussing. I'll follow this post up with something about the specific locations we're looking at in Cambridge (although that might be on the Cambridge Cubed blog).

London Plane

We all know this tree. While its typical of London streets its also planted across much of the UK, especially cities in Southern England. It puts on a lot of growth in the first few years after planting and can become a massive, spreading beast of a tree. Its famous for being disease and pollution resistant, and its entirely happy being pollarded hard (so you can cut it back and extend its lifespan massively in doing so). Thats all great.

But its really rather spreading - if you've got lots of space its good, so you want wide bits of earth with room for roots to go down and out. And it provides loads of shade - if you don't want that, don't plant it. 

Its not amazing for wildlife either - nothing particularly to eat and its not one to foster the growth of a wide range of fungi. Its not awful for insects, but not superb either. I like this tree but for my money its over-used, too big for many places, and therefore perhaps best used sparingly now.


I quite like hornbeams, and they thrive on roadsides in London. There's a fastigiate (sticky up rather than spready out) form thats very popular on roadsides - that makes it a great choice if you're looking for a mid to large growing tree that doesn't shade too many things out. It has quite spreading roots but I haven't seen damage caused by this. Its great for insects and encourages fungi in the soil, and it has great autumn colour. The only word of caution would be that it rather seems to struggle in full light - its great for tightly shaded urban canyons, never seems as happy establishing itself in brighter light.


Or, lime trees. Tilia. Again, great urban trees capable of surviving in hostile environments, and which can be cut back again and again and still thrive. The commonly planted hybrid forms are near ubiquitous in England, and we all know them. They're great for insects and fungi - the only issue is perhaps they're a little TOO good for them. People complain like mad when they've parked their car under one of these in summer to come back to find sap all over the windscreen. There was a time when at Camridge Station the railway responded to that by putting the bike parking under the lime trees. Thanks guys!

They're big though - or at least have the capacity to get big. Shady, cooling, and lovely - but not for a narrow gap.

Rowan and other Sorbus

Loads of cultivars of this genus do well by roads, if they can get established. Some do well on clay (rowan), some seem happy in wetter conditions (some of the whitebeams), others are resonant of older periods in our history (wild service) - they're all middling to small trees, with blossom followed by heads of red (or orange, even green) berries. Fantastic for bids, of interest to foragers, not particularly messy, they're great for tighter spots - but they do still form a canopy. I'd like to see more varieties of Sorbus planted, they're all great fun.


Pear trees. Yes, I know. Go on, click on the link there and tell me you don't want to see that narrow, tallish, flowered and fruited tree by your roadsides. It can drop a bit of fruit - not like a wet mess of horrid like those ornamental crab apple trees, but some. And can struggle to get established in the driest of conditions - but its a grand tree and worth considering.

Field Maple

A native tree that does support wildlife, its not as big as its cousin the sycamore, nor is it quite as invasive. The helicopter seeds are almost as much fun as sycamore too. And it seems to survive nearly anything hurled against it. Great choice for roadsides, but, again, does need some spreading space.

Cherry/Cherry Plum etc.

You already know cherry trees. Flowers perhaps followed by fruit (and always plant a fruiting cultivar - why ever wouldn't you want beautiful berries for birds?) But have you spotted those lovely dark red leaved trees that have a fairly similar form, with red flowers and then dark red fruits? Thats a cherry plum. They're usually green leaved, with either green, yellow, red or even purple fruit following a white flower. Gorgeous trees that the birds go mad for. Then there are assorted varieties of almond and apricot worth looking at too - choosing a variety of types to add colour and interest to a planting scheme seems obviously a good idea to me.

You'll always find one of these trees that will fit in a reasonable space, and none of them are that massive. I'd urge some caution though - they're fast growing, but few really old specimens are around. They're not the very longest lived of trees - if you're wanting a treescape for your children then cherry and its cousins is a component of that but not the dominant type.

Sophora japonica

A tree that does well in a warmer climate - and as our climate warms this might be a winner. Lovely tree, and there are specimens thriving in London. Gorgeous, big flowering tree used by roadsides in some parts of the US and the far East - well worth investigating. But, again, not one for a very small space.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Tories and Fox Hunting (and me and meat)

This is a fox. Accuse me of being a scare monger if you want, but I'd like you to look at the fox here and tell me you want it hunted by a pack of slow moving hounds until its lost the energy to continue running, and then be ripped apart in the teeth of those hounds.

I'm not about to demand that wild animals should never be killed. I'm an omnivore, and I'm a fan of game. And vermin. Seriously, rabbit, pigeon, muntjac deer, these creatures are killed as agricultural pests - if you're a veggie these creatures are dying for your dinner whether you eat them or not. So I'm not going to say 'blood sports are wrong, mkay?'. That would make me a hypocrite. Grow crops and you deprive wild animals of resources, and their young will die. That is reality. We're stuck with it. The same is true of fish, crustacea and molluscs - I've gathered winkles, cockles, mussels, I've trapped crabs and caught shimp in nets. And eaten them all. I've eaten no end of line caught wild fish too. 

My point here is that killing and eating wild animals isn't a bad thing - its just a thing. It has to be done sustainably and responsibly of course, and the way we've over-exploited many fish stocks makes that a minefield for the ethical omnivore. But if you're looking for low environmental impact, low fat, high protein, high quality food at a reasonable price the critters I've listed up above are ideal. 

Life ins't quite that simple though, and just like if you're buying farmed meat you really ought to be looking into the detail of how the animals were reared (if you care at all for animal welfare or the environment we're all in), you've got to look more closely at wild game. So when I'm buying venison, pigeon etc. I'm looking closely at the carcass, (I'll buy a whole carcass for that very purpose) and yes, I'll ask searching questions of a game dealer or hunter to make sure we're on the same page - if they're responsible in their work they'll welcome this and, probably, enthuse at you about the whole thing.

So, if you're killing an animal as cleanly as you can, taking pains not to wreck the ecosystem its in, sustainably and responsibly, thats awesome. I'm OK with that. And unless you can, hand on heart' say you're taking quite extraordinary pains to ensure your food habits and lifestyle kill no animals, you should be ok with that too.

Now back to fox hunting.

Is it cruel? Yes. I mean lets not wrap this up with cliches, the beagle is bred for stamina rather than speed, its a slow creature that'll pick up and follow a scent all day, running the fox until the brink of exhaustion. The fox is a faster animal, but it can't run forever. Add to that the fact that the beagles are fed, watered, given all the advantages of modern veterinary science whereas the fox is scavenging and hunting in a harsh environment and rarely at peak health, and what we're looking at is an immensely unequal confrontation. Even a fox who survives has been subjected to an horrific chase and will have expended significant resources just in surviving massively un-natural predation, its a dangerous and unpleasant way of handling a wild animal hunt.

Is it sustainable? Well... No, not really. Sustainability isn't some magical thing that happens when you can do the same thing next year, its also about whats going on around the event. Fox hunts have a terrible habit of trespassing on other peoples land, stretching over and damaging farm fields, and the chase isn't just a few people on horse back - there are usually scores of 'foot followers' and frequently no end of vehicles following. The chase does damage to the countryside, and the idea that feeding high quality factory farmed protein to a mass of dogs to take out a small number of foxes is in some way a sustainable solution to dealing with the occasional problem animal is a complete absurdity. The overall footprint of the practice is massive.

Is it necessary and is it a good way of dealing with pest control? No. It really isn't. The total number of foxes killed by this practice was always small - the issue isn't the number, its the fact that running an intelligent wild animal to the point of exhaustion and then ripping it apart with beying hounds is a particularly cruel form of killing. Its not a good way of targetting a problem animal worrying livestock - you've no way of getting the 'right' fox thats attacking someones chickens. Its a terrible, terrible means of pest control.

So what is it for? Well fox hunting is traditional. Bluntly. The only argument in its favour is that for some in the UK (and its a tiny minority) its a traditional practice that they enjoy. They could compare that tradition to one of, say, the Inuit hunting whales (which is in some areas protected). I've heard that comparison made - and that comparison is vacuous crap. There is no need, no cultural necessity, no strong historic link between the practice and survival of the people doing it, it was a passtime for a few. And, more importantly, the rest of us from inside the same (British) culture recognise that and mostly oppose the practice.

You can, and really should, oppose bringing fox hunting back. It isn't effective, it isn't humane, it isn't sustainable, and it isn't OK. The drive to bring it back isn't a sign of the Tories being a modern, forward looking party - its a sign that they're putting the pleasure of a very few above the quality of humanity. To bring back the obscenity of fox hunting cheapens not only the Tories, but all of us. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Blackbird Brood in the Front Hedge

So I could talk about how our little front garden is a productive little space constructed on permaculture principles to give us multiple crops of greens, berries, nuts and other produce. I'd be sort of telling the truth too. What I'd be missing is that I also designed it to be a little oasis of interesting wildlife habitat in an otherwise mown-to-oblivion suburban landscape. Its usually got hedgehogs wombling around in it all summer, and the bird feeders and sheltered nesting spaces (with spiky, cat repelling plants making up much of the planting and wild garlic on the floor that cats hate the smell of) make it a frequent nesting site. Once in a while we even get someone nesting right under our bedroom window, giving us a superb view of the baby birds. And yes, we lose plenty of fruit to the beasties, but its totally worth it.

In about a fortnight from hatching, the first blackbird brood of the year has gone from blind pink things to fluffy little fledgelings.

Its almost 'blink and you'll miss it' with blackbirds. They hatch and grow so quickly. But totally worth planting a garden with nesting birds in mind.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Urban Trees of the Future

I got talking to a guy at the City Council about their tree strategy recently, and I've got to say I was impressed - Cambridge is a fabulously green city, and the city council does want to keep it that way in what may be a rapidly changing world. They're aware that a diverse range of urban trees is far more robust against various diseases - such as the one that wiped out most of our elms, and another which is taking such a heavy toll of ash trees now. When you look at the urban trees across a lot of cities in the UK, there are certain trends that are worrying, such as the prevalence of relatively few species of often closely related trees, which might mean that the our urban tree stocks could be vulnerable to diseases or climate change in the future.

So I thought that maybe I could contribute a few thoughts on this subject. I started out with a list of suggestions for urban trees I think could do well, and after half an hour of writing and dozens of listed cultivars I decided to cut things back a bit and just list a few I'd like planted in and around our cities based on four goals.

(1) Being uncommonly planted in towns and cities in the UK now - it isn't that linden or plane are bad, but broadening out what we're planting is a good idea
(2) Provide good cover/shade/aesthetics and being maintainable in this context (including resilience to polution or a warmer climate)
(3) Be in some way of use, producing fruit, nuts, leaves or something else of practial value
(4) Support wildlife - whether by being a rarely used native tree or in some other way

Yes, I know, they aren't independent goals, indeed every tree will do all of these things to some extent or another. But its a way of looking at things that might be useful. None of the suggestions I'm making do all of these things perfectly, but they all do some of them.

One last thing - at heart I'm a forager. I love the idea of planting as diverse a range of food producing trees as we can. I tend to think if we can plant a beautiful tree, or plant a beautiful tree that at some stage might be worth someone scrumping fruit from, the latter is obviously better. I accept my choices may be skewed thus, but I'd defend the selection of fruit producing trees as better for people and for wildlife.

So here we go with my list...

'Exotic' Prunus trees

I know, 'exotic' depends on context. But what I mean here is trees of Prunus genus that aren't commonly used in urban planting schemes in the UK. That means trees other than plum, cherry plum, cherry, blackthorn and damson.

There's a variety of peach that I believe would make a great park/city tree, a cultivar called Avalon Pride. I've had one in my garden for years, and unlike every other variety of peach tree that withers under the attack of peach leaf curl when we get one of our typical humid UK summers, Avalon Pride is largely resistant to this. So as our summers get ever warmer and our season for fruit becomes shorter as cherries, plums and damsons get earlier, broadening that season with other stone fruit seems sensible. Likewise, apricot trees (Prunus armeniaca) can do well, especially in the South of England, and I see no obvious reason not to plant them where there's space for a good sized tree. Not maybe for next to the busiest of roads (they can shed a lot of fruit), but a beautiful tree in flower, leaf and fruit.

Loquat and Medlar

I do like trees that look good through different seasons, so I'm of the opinion that trees that start off with great flowers and follow up with beautiful looking fruit are among the best options - something for bees, something for birds and other animals. And generally speaking our councils plant a lot of these - depending where you are there are certainly plenty of whitebeam and rowan trees in most cities.

One that I've seen far too rarely is the loquat, Eriobotrya japonica. Not a big tree ususally, rarely more than 4m tall, but the spikes of white flowers it has in Spring are followed by distinctive yellow fruit later in the year. Great looking thing. 

Another thats planted just occasionally is the medlar, Mespilus germanica. This one has an old, old heritage in the UK and across Northern europe because the fruit stay on the tree into the dead of winter, only becoming good to eat when they go soft (or 'blet' - not as weird as it sounds, several tree fruit benefit from this). As a fruit crop it has long since been superceded - but its another tree that provides a point of interest in any planting scheme, with flowers followed by fruit that don't look like anything else you'll ever find.


We're used to the good old varieties of oak trees we find in woodlands in Britain, but many cities seem loathe to plant them. This is a real shame, they can grow to a wonderful size and have a truly extraordinary lifespan, offering a host of sub-habitats for wild animals, fungi and even other plants. If we're going to continue to diversify what is planted in our cities, I'd go for things like Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) and Hungarian oak (Quercus frainetto), being species suited to maybe slightly warmer climates and able to withstand pollarding. Beautiful, shady, majestic trees.


Black (Morus nigra) and white (Morus alba) trees are glorious things - 15-20m high when grown, but slow growing. They're big, shady beasts. Trees of real stature, shedding delicious fruit that birds go mad for, and they're excellent habitat trees for insects and birds. Yet, strangely, they're not planted all that often in our cities. As our climate gets warmer I think this one could be a winner.


I don't really know why these really delightful relatives of elm aren't grown more commonly in the UK. They have lovely dense foliage, they get to a good size, and produce some small, vaguely edible berries that birds seem to love. The species native to Southern Europe is Celtis austraulis and I see no reason it shouldn't do really well in the UK, but Celtis occidentalis is a North American species thats maybe prettier. There are a number of species of this tree though, and for any local authority looking to broaden out the range of species it has I think this is a great bet. Quite a good size, 20m or so, but fast growing too so ought to be good in urban settings where cutting back is part of the management strategy.

Blue Bean Tree

This is a real oddity (Decaisnea fargesii) but where you see it growing in the UK it seems to do well. Only a small tree but one with delicate, alien looking flowers followed by almost metallic blue bean-pod shaped fruit. Again, of only tangential use (the fruit pulp is kind of edible but unexciting), but its a great little tree that has the huge advantage of not being closely related to anything else you're likely to see planted in British cities - if we want to ruggedise our urban tree stocks against future risks, thats got to be a good thing. 

Hardy Orange

Ok, I'm going out in a limb with this, its another really weird one. But thats the point of this article. I present the most darling little tree you'll ever meet, Poncirus trifoliata.

This is presently as close as you can get to a citrus tree happily growing outdoors in the UK. Its a spiky, slow growing, massively aromatic plant. Especially when in bloom, and it can produce the most unlikely looking small, bitter oranges (that as a push could be cooked into marmalade, but its really not worth it). The real reason for wanting to see more of this one planted is for the flowers, which are a brilliant bee-magnet. They love this tree. And its a good option for roadsides and verges where something smaller, slower growing and alltogether shrubbier will grow - I doubt it ever gets to more than a 2.5m in the UK, and it takes years to get that far. I've rarely seen one in the UK that was bigger than a good sized shrub, and its not renowned for being a big tree - surely a plant like this has to be worth a punt in hedges if we're looking to diversify?

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Suburban Peasants guide to the Vegetable Crisis

Allegedly we're really short of vegetables in the UK. Or something. Courgettes are out of stock, iceberg lettuce is melting away, and there's a rude shortage of aubergines.

So we're seeing 'rationing' at supermarkets where they're restricting how many of each you can buy.

I'm a big believer in eating seasonally and locally - so I'm not affected by this. At all. Even a bit. Its February so, pretty much entirely, all of those things are being grown under cover in Southern Europe and even further afield. As the pound weakens and as imports get more expensive we'll be seeing such crops get ever more expensive at this time of year - so I would suggest simply using this as an opportunity to break the habit of relying on produce that'll only get harder to afford.

Now I'll grant you, traditionally February and March are the suckiest part of the year for local produce across most of the UK. Stored stuff is starting to want to go off as the days get longer, and fewer things are left standing in the fields - its had to survive through winter and now it all wants to run to seed and be ready to produce baby plants for Spring. If you go back a few hundred years people would actually be at risk of starvation. But we're not in the 15th century any more, and we have ample varieties of good, resilient vegetables to please anyone, before even we consider whats growing wild at this time of year.

Vegetables in season to buy

Brassicas are the stalwarts of winter vegetables - savoy cabbage, hard white and red cabbages, kale (cavolo nero, red kale, green curly kale...), Brussels sprouts, and of course sprouting broccoli and winter cauliflowers are all excellent now. Thin sliced white cabbage is a super basis for a salad. Leeks are still good and will be for another month or two, and you can get freshly dug parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, and if you've a really good greengrocer maybe even salsify or scorzonera. Onions store well through winter, as do potatoes, squashes and pumpkins and its quite likely your local farm shop or market will have local ones of those. I also spotted some excellent local carrots, chard, beetroot, turnips and swedes. Oh, and the forced rhubarb is just starting. Do we really have to resort to air freighted shopping when such goodies are available? 

Cambridge Market, today.

Foraged Vegetables

The thing about February, the most amazing thing about this month, is that if you look really closely you'll see the rejuvenating shoots of Spring appearing all over the place. As the day gets longer, there are more and more green vegetables growing wild every single day - and they're young, tender, sweet and tasty, and the perfect basis for salad (I'll upload photos next time I pick some during daylight hours).

I'm gathering plenty of chickwed, three cornered leek, cow parsley, dandelions, crow garlic and Alexanders. I can go out and get a good green salad in minutes - its faster to walk down the hedgerow by the park on the way to the supermarket than it is to go to the actual supermarket. Why wouldn't I pick a salad rather than buy a more expensive one that'll not taste as good?

I'm also finding the occasional velvet shank mushroom, I'm still getting blewits, oyster mushrooms aren't unlikely and its not beyond the realms of possibility to find the odd morel near the end of the month.

I'm not suggesting here, for an instant, that you've all got to start growing all your own veg and foraging for every meal - but have we, as a nation, really got to a point where a shortage of imported lettuce holds back our eating habits? Is a lack of courgettes actually a problem? Britain, we're better than that. Can we you not all just do a bit better? Consider yourselves challenged...