A walk on the Cornish cliffs yielded a wealth of treasure this week; not the kind they used to smuggle in under cover of darkness, but lying around in broad daylight for anyone to enjoy.
The stout stems of wild carrots (Daucus carota) are everywhere, and if you dug one up – which is not allowed – you’d see how our domesticated carrots started out; thin, tough, greenish-brown and bitter, good at promoting diuresis but without much food value.
Threaded through them are the late crops of bedstraw, goosegrass and nettles, and underneath, almost invisible except on the exposed rocks, are the tiny purple jewels of wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum) flowers. And in between are the pink stars of centaury, the yellow spikes of agrimony, and the elegant serrated leaves of wood betony.
Harvest time isn’t just about fruits and seeds
Wild herbs, growing in challenging conditions – on poor soil, at high altitudes, buffeted by wind and exposed to the sun, are often the richest in the volatile oils and alkaloids which we prize for our medicines. The plants produce these compounds in response to stress, and it’s a sad paradox that when we domesticate them, giving them protection from pests, plenty of water and food and light, they become blander, less interesting.
Wild carrots are an extreme example; think of the taste of wild strawberries as compared to the ones you buy in shops, or the tang of blackberries and whortleberries gathered from heath and hedgerow, as opposed to the big, beautiful and slightly boring ones that are farmed for mass consumption.
And that’s the issue
We can’t all be hunter-gatherers nowadays. We are tame humans, but for our health’s sake, we need to be challenged, by our food as well as in other ways. And a little goes a long way. A few wild berries or mushrooms in season, a few herbs and spices in and alongside your daily diet, will keep your system awake and on its toes.