With lockdown measures finally lifting, there has never been a more important time to look after our mental wellbeing. Being outdoors and in nature is known to help alleviate stress and Belinda Blake, a registered nutritional therapist and clinic tutor for the Institute for Optimum Nutrition recommends foraging as the perfect hobby and antidote to stress.
Motivated to study nutrition in response to her own health problems, Belinda has become a keen forager and greatly believes in the power of natural immunity to re-balance and re-focus mind and body. She believes there are many benefits to foraging for our mental health and wellbeing:
- A calming influence – Simply being outdoors, crunching through red and gold autumn leaves in the fresh air calms down our stress response. After so much time living in our own heads and indoor spaces, foraging is an incredibly grounding and calming hobby.
- Natural aromatherapy – Nature provides its own aromatherapy with the phytoncides (essential oils) produced by evergreen trees and the oak which has been shown to decrease stress hormones and increase NK cells, which are crucial for immune support.
- Positive vibes – Foraging helps to engage more with the environment and seasons and at this time of year nature really puts on a show for all the senses, helping us to transition from the heat and energy of the summer, into the calm of the colder months.
- Nature’s pantry – Foraging provides access to really fresh (and free!) food, which is full of nutrients and vitality to help support both immune and mental health.
For Autumn, it’s really all about the fruits. If you’re new to foraging and not sure what to look out for, Belinda has six top recommendations for Autumn:
Blackberries will start appearing from mid-summer, so be on the lookout in hedgerows and along roadsides. Familiar and easily recognisable, these juicy berries are rich in fibre and nutrients. Their dark purple colour comes from anthocyanidins; plant chemicals, which have been shown to help reduce inflammation and support a healthy immune system. Delicious made into warming crumbles or jams, whizzed into smoothies or just enjoyed straight from the bush!
It is said that the fragrant, creamy-white flowers of the elder tree mark the beginning of summer, whilst the arrival of its berries herald its end. Elderberries are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants and can be made into a delicious syrup which, with the addition of warming spices like clove and ginger, may help protect against colds and viruses as we transition into the colder months. It is fascinating to observe that nature provides just what we need at the right time.
- Crab apples
These tiny, sour apples are commonly found growing on trees lining our streets or on common land. Inedible raw, these apples make a fantastic base for jams, and chutneys or can be pureed with other autumn fruits and dried into fruit leathers.
- Rose hips
In autumn you are likely to see the hedgerows dotted with the vermillion hips of the dog rose. The flesh is fruity and has a tartness that is explained by the large amount of vitamin C it contains. Take care however, as in the centre of the fruit are tiny seeds and hairs that can be an irritant to the throat (and have been traditionally used to make itching powder!). Rose hips can be dried to make a tasty tea or, like the elderberries, can also be cooked into a delicious syrup to help support the immune system throughout the winter months. The syrup is irresistible drizzled over ice cream or yoghurt, or enjoyed as a drink, diluted with sparkling water or kefir (or indeed some sparkling wine or added to a G&T!).
- Hawthorn berries
Haws are the fruits of the hawthorn tree which is commonly found in hedgerows and common land. The bright red berries may look similar to the rose hips when you first glance at them (although they may also come in shades of orange and even yellow), but the distinctive leaf shape of the hawthorn will help you to identify this fruit. The hawthorn has an affinity with the heart and herbalists use both hawthorn berries and leaves to support cardiovascular health. Once again, it’s the colourful chemicals in the hawthorn berry that provides the benefit. Like elderberries, these need to be cooked and the pip in the middle removed, however they do make a wonderful addition to a hedgerow jelly or an autumn fruit leather.
- Sweet chestnuts
The sweet chestnut is another tree that is commonly found in parks and common land. Take care however, the fruits can look similar to conkers from the horse chestnut tree and which are inedible, so be sure to check you have the right tree!
It can be a race against time to beat the squirrels to these tasty nuts, but it is worth the effort. Sweet chestnuts can be eaten raw although they are much tastier roasted (and this makes it easier to remove their shells).
Belinda says, “Autumn is a beautiful time of year to forage. It is a time of abundance, but also marks the transition and gradual slowing down of nature, which can have a calming effect on our mind and body. Whatever the time of year, we will all feel the benefits of being out in the great outdoors and feeling the positive benefits of nature and foraging on our health and wellbeing. As always, forage responsibly and always make sure you are 100% of what you are picking. Why not see if there are any foraging classes near where you live or, alternatively, invest in a good wild plant identification guide to help get you going and pick safely?”
Always check the Foraging Code for full details on safe foraging and to ensure you comply with the law