We've been intrigued by Pickling Peckham's fun-but-erudite Facebook postings for several years now. And we really don't know our lupins from our lobelia. So we decided to walk out with its creator one mid-Summer morning. Penny 'Pickle' Greenhough is a passionate and well-informed forager with intimate knowledge of SE15's pockets of nature. Stuffy botanist she is not: Penny's a down-to-earth single mother who does all of her foragey stuff in her spare time. But she can throw out the Latin names for green stuff as well as the next plant prof, and delights in the writings of ancient herbalists and apothecaries.
We expected a special camouflage outfit, a secret handshake and a 6am start: instead we set off at 9am on a Monday morning dressed in civvies and armed with nothing more than some plastic bags for collecting stuff. Foraging is of course pretty mainstream now, and as one of the photos above clearly illustrates some councils actively encourage the business of edible freebies, and plant accordingly. Different communities in London graduate towards different produce: the Chinese are very active foragers, both for food and medicinal herbs, as too are the Polish. There is a confederacy among these plucky pluckers, as well as a code of foraging conduct. Penny tells us that regulars know never to:
- take too much from one source
- to remove fruit and leaves with care so as not to damage the plant
- to respect the needs of other wildlife sharing the same habitat
- always to ask before picking stuff from private land/gardens
With regard to the latter point, many organisations and individuals are a) unaware of what treasures are growing in their plots, and b) happy to share produce that is otherwise going to go to waste. So if you do see a tree or plant with fruit that is clearly not being used by its owners, it is indeed worth summoning the courage to ask. Now that petrol is mostly unleaded, wayside plants can be considered, but generally the less exposed the plant, the safer it will be to eat. Obviously one should always try to pick stuff above the, um, dog-wee line...
On our little urban adventure we traversed a public garden, peeked over the fences of some private ones, and meandered along Peckham's Surrey Canal Walk towards Burgess Park. We saw cardoons, wild carrots, plums, damsons, fennel, crab apples, sweet chestnuts, filberts and medlars growing: Penny also told us of quince, barberry, raspberries, cherry and loquats all in the vicinity. Herbs and leaves? We picked hedge garlic leaves, fat hen (nope, we'd never heard of it either), dandelion and rocket, together with sage and rosemary. Of the non-edibile-but-still-very-useful stuff that we picked, we were most impressed by the plentiful banks of catnip (bunch of goofy cat-lovers that we are at Londonist Towers), and the Artemisia, which is one of nature's most potent moth repellents.
You know what? We had one of the best mornings. London is full of surprises, and we came away brimming with enthusiasm for all this wild stuff hidden right under our eyes. There are foraging walks and groups all over London, so there is no excuse not to give it a whirl. In the meantime, Penny Pickle is an absolute treasure. Somebody give that lady a book deal or a TV show.
You can have a browse through other bits of Nature-ist London here.