Forager offers solution to the #lettucecrisis
As the price of courgettes rocket, and supermarkets ration your favourite salad leaves, one man believes he has found the solution to our national lettuce crisis.
Foraging teacher Mark Williams reckons we should eat more weeds.
He is urging shoppers to turn their backs on "tasteless imported Spanish lettuce" and instead head into the wild to fill our salad bowls.
Even in February, he says there are dozens of alternatives to shop-bought greens growing in abundance along the coast, in woodland and even in towns and cities.
And he has drawn up a list of six plants - or are they weeds? - which could grace our dinner plates tonight.
Mr Williams, who lives in Dumfries and Galloway and runs foraging courses, said: "None of them are in any way rare, in fact most are considered weeds.
"People expect foraging to be about looking for (possible rare) things, but it's really just about recognising abundance.
"Throughout the year, I can pick well over 300 different edible wild plants, fungi and seaweed within walking distance of my home in Gatehouse.
"Even in towns and cities, the list is huge."
The forager, who also runs a website offering advice on sourcing wild food safely and responsibly, says: "People worry about poisoning themselves by misidentifying something, but it only takes a tiny bit of effort to learn the few things to avoid.
"More people get ill from eating mass produced commodities than from eating the wrong wild plant.
WARNING: Obey the cardinal rule of foraging
Mr Williams says: "Provided you follow the first cardinal rule of foraging, nothing can go wrong: never eat anything that you can't identify with 100% confidence, and know is safe to eat."
If you have ever detected the smell of garlic as you wander through woodland in the springtime, it is likely you passed by a crop of wild garlic.
These fragrant, small green leaves are abundant in open, well-established deciduous woodland and shady hedgerows.
They have been at the forefront of a renaissance in wild food in recent years, according to Mr Williams.
He said: "It isn't hard to work out why: it is easy to find, delicious and fairly straightforward to identify.
"In most areas of the UK, there is absolutely no need for anyone who lives anywhere near a park, woodland or shady riverbank to spend a single penny on spring onions between February and July."
Despite its abundance, he urged foragers to pick wild garlic considerately, not clearing large areas.
In the kitchen, wild garlic works well with cheese - in pesto, for example - and it can be used to make excellent soups of sauces.
A note of caution however: although wild garlic is fairly straightforward to identify as it has a distinct smell of garlic, its leaves can be confused with lily of the valley, autumn crocus, daffodils, snowdrops and lords and ladies - all of which are toxic to humans.
Find more information on how to identify wild garlic here.
"If you come across a plant that reminds you of wild garlic, but has narrower leaves and less of a garlic smell, you may have found wild leeks," said Mr Williams.
"These aren't the hulking great Frankenstein leeks you might expect to find in shops and gardens, but something tender and elegant, much more closely resembling spring onions."
Most common in the west of Scotland and the north of England, they start to grow between November and February
They can carpet vast areas and can be found in parks, hedgerows and woods, often in urban and suburban areas.
Mr Williams added: "Be aware that crocuses, snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells grow around the same time and can be mixed through wild leek colonies.
"They are all toxic, but unlikely to do you much harm. If in doubt, wait for the distinctive flowers to appear."
He said wild leeks can be used in place of spring onions, cooked or raw, and are particularly tasty in pesto, hummus, salads and sauces.
Find more information about wild leeks here.
Not very hairy or bitter, this little weed is loathed by gardeners. But they make a very tasty addition to any salad, according to Mr Williams.
"They have overtones of rocket and watercress and come in lovely little garnish sized rosettes," he said.
"Great in a roast beef sandwich or crab salad, or to spice up any salad."
Found in gardens, field edges, flower beds and even window boxes, it is at its best between March and August.
Find out more about similar plants - all varieties of cardamines - here.
Ideal for a winter salad is pink puslane, an easy-to-come-by plant with an earthy beetroot flavour.
It is quite common in damp, shady wood edges, on riverbanks and hedgerows and it available all year round.
Mr Williams said the distinctive leaves often form extensive mats made of many rosettes - between April and June pale pink or white flowers with five petals can help identify it.
He added: "I love to employ its earthy flavour in winter salads with pickled fish, beetroot and elderberry vinegar, though it works well as a mild "bulker" with sharper-tasting leaves in spring.
"When you find a good patch, harvesting is quick and efficient - simply hold the tops of the rosettes and cut off below. It grows back within a few weeks."
Find more information about pink purslane here.
It's a common weed that can be found growing from cracks in pavements, but Mr Williams says chickweed is a "delight to eat - though you may wish to avoid that which grows in dog-walking areas."
He said its mild flavour means it is perfect for bulking out salads of wild leaves.
It can also be found in grass and beds in parks and gardens, on waste ground and under trees in fields.
Identify it by looking for small, white, star-like flowers made up of five deeply notched petals. If in doubt, close inspection will reveal a single line of hairs running down one side of the stem only.
There's more information about chickweed here.
Watercress can be found in mild coastal areas, in shallow slow-flowing streams and ditches, all year round.
Its peppery leaves are well worth harvesting but Mr Williams warned that it really should be cooked before it's eaten.
The plant is prone to infestation by the cyst stage of a parasite when it grows in land containing livestock.
The forager said: "This means if you eat it uncooked, you are at risk of them hatching into liver flukes inside you - which obviously isn't pleasant.
"Fortunately, it also makes fantastic soup or flan filling (I combine it with parmesan) and cooking destroys the parasite."
Care must also be taken that no lethal hemlock water-dropwort is growing through the plant when it is harvested - anyone planning to forage aquatic greens should learn to recognise it first.
For more about wild watercress, click here.