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Feed yourself for free: the 12 'Survival Plants' Part 1

Feed yourself for free: the 12 'Survival Plants' Part 1

John Yeoman | Friday, 15th February 2013

While there are hundreds of edible foods to be found in the wild, just 12 plants will provide enough sustenance for you to live on

Out of the many hundred edible British foods detailed in the best 'wild plant' guides, just these 12 will provide all you truly need, and more, for a continual fresh food supply.

The advantage these 12 have over their 400 edible wild cousins is abundance, resilience, versatility and ease of recognition.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Compared with an equal weight of lettuce, dandelion has three times the vitamin C, four times the protein, carbohydrate, fat, calcium, iron and vitamin B, five times the phosphorous - and an astounding 12 times the vitamin A. After that shopping list, it's almost surprising to hear it's good to eat as well.

Its leaves and roots are available the year round although, like all greens, the young leaves gathered in the spring make the best eating.

You can spur its leaf production, by cutting off the flower heads before they unfurl and, in winter, by covering the plant with a flowerpot and sacking, or otherwise protecting from frost.

Dandelion is one of the few welcome exceptions to the golden rule that... wild plants which exclude a milky sap when cut, are best left alone.

In a gourmet salad, it can be mixed with raisins, pineapple, chopped nuts and other salad variations with a dressing of honey, lemon juice and cider vinegar.


In spring and summer, get out your 'wild food' guide and make your way to a derelict town plot or heath. Here you will probably find just as much food as in your allotment, or even more if your gardening skills (like mine) are more latent than patent.

In autumn and winter, however, things are a little harder. For wild plants you must fall back on the 'survival plants.' At this time, the most inviting are the berries, nuts and seeds. A few weekends' foraging will yield a rich winter food supplement for sprouting, grinding into 'flour', preserving, pickling, or adding to stuffing’s, patties, salads, stews and croustades.

Look out for: Rose hips (Rosa canina) and Hawthorn.

You can make soup, jam and puree with rose hips but the seeds should never be eaten. Their small hairs can dangerously irritate the stomach. Either seed the hips before use, or strain well.

Haws from Hawthorn bushes are edible but need some loving care before they become delectable. When cooked they can be made into a sauce or jelly. Young leaves and unopened buds in spring can be used in salads, sandwiches, and casseroles or in mint sauce.

Seeds and nuts

Most parks and many town avenues are a natural food factory in the autumn. The unlikeliest trees produce edible seeds that contain essential protein, fat, carbohydrate, minerals and B vitamins in a concentrated form more nutritious than nearly any other vegetable food.

Walnuts contain 21% protein - more than lean beef (18%), while pine kernels from many species of conifer contain no less than a third their total weight in protein. And while walnuts are exclusive or expensive for city dwellers, pines grow freely in many municipal gardens.

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior): use the winged ash seeds (or 'keys') in 'mock caper' pickle, which can be used in pizzas and salads.

Birch (Betula alba): In March, you can tap up to 18 gallons (821) of thin 'molasses' from the trunk which, when reduced by boiling, could provide a reddish sugar for making wine then vinegar, or for preserving. Birch leaves in spring are also edible, well cooked, and may be infused with the twigs in to a tea, full of vitamins A, C, E and B1 and B2.

Elder (Sambucus nigra): The berries are rich in vitamin C and ready in autumn. Use in cooked pies, particularly apple pie, or jams, or wine.

In spring, the very young shoots can be steamed or boiled for 20 minutes or until tender as a kind of asparagus, or the buds pickled like ash keys in hot spiced vinegar.

In summer, the flowers can be deep fried in tempura (previously soaked for an hour in sherry or cognac, by preference, then drained) and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. They can also be tossed in salads, made into wine, or infused to serve when chilled and mixed with honey as a refreshing drink. Dry them, without detaching the stalks, to add fragrance to baked dishes or jellies, or to a China tea made from rose hip or other leaves.