Emma Gunn

10 mins with...expert forager, Emma Gunn

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The seasons are changing and there is a whole host of Autumnal fare to find on your doorstep. With that in mind, one of our very first Warwick Masterclass workshops is Foraging for Beginners, which will be run by expert forager, Emma Gunn, who has worked at the Eden Project for more than 16 years and who has been foraging since she was 11.
We caught up with Emma in our ’10 minutes with…’ interview to get some top tips on what can be found in the garden and out and about.

1) When did you first discover your passion for plants?

I first discovered I had a passion for plants when I was probably about 2 or 3 years old. I was born in Canada and one of my first experiences was seeing maple syrup being tapped. We moved to Surrey when I was about 2 1/2 years old and we lived in a hotel briefly where I had a fascination with the hotel kitchen garden, where they were growing carrots and lemon balm. When we moved in to our house my Dad gave me a patch of land and I grew tulips, daffodils and hyacinths.

2) Foraging has become increasingly popular recently, gaining profile through various cookery shows, have you felt an increased interest from the public too?

I have noticed a steady increase in popularity over the last twenty years. Recently I have noticed more and more people wanting to know about seaweeds, or the health benefits of eating certain foraged foods, for example nettle seeds. I think more and more people are interested in their surroundings and what is available for them to forage for.

3) Where might people be surprised they can forage in their local area?

I always think it is incredible how much plant-life grows in disturbed ground, so for example where new builds are happening or on the edge of car parks. With disturbed soil, you often get plants growing such as black mustard and plants in the goosefoot family, like fat hen. I often imagine how diverse plant life must be in urban areas, especially cities with a melting pot of different cultures. The variety of unusual fruit and veg available for sale in markets is fantastically broad and the odd seed, kernel or pip must find its way into a crevice of soil to then grow an unusual edible plant. In time gone by we have had plants introduced to the UK with invasive contributes such as Japanese knotweed but this can, and probably will, happen again in the future. I wonder if we need to look at these things from a different angle, for example with Japanese knotweed if we pick and eat the shoots, this will help reduce and maybe keep their spreading at bay.

4) You now live and work in Cornwall – how does that region’s bounty differ to that of the Midlands?

I think region to region there aren’t major differences except in Cornwall (or any coastal areas) we have a massive variety of salt tolerant plants such as saltbush, goji berries and sea buckthorn and barely have any frost so more tender plants can survive. We also have a lot of estuaries where we have plenty of plums, sea arrowgrass, marsh samphire, sea spurrey, etc. From county to county I believe there are different strains or cultivars (or varieties) of certain plants, for example blackberries. In some regions they will be small but flavoursome, others plump and seaside-salty or fat and flavourless. I guess the main differences depend hugely on the lay of the land, the aspect, the ‘terroir’.

5) We’re told as kids that dock leaves are great for nettle stings, are there any other common plants out there with surprising healing properties?

Elderberries make an excellent syrup for soothing sore throats, Echinacea is pretty well known for knocking a cold on its head and a lot of Alliums such as garlic and leeks make a good antiseptic. One fairly common, and very overlooked, plant is hedge woundwort – particularly stinky when crushed but it really does help with healing wounds especially horse fly bites. Meadowsweet is a fairly common perennial, which grows in hedgerows with clouds of creamy flowers and contains salicylic acid so a perfect remedy for colds. One last one is yarrow which staunches cuts and works well shoved up the nose to stop a nose bleed!

6) What can we learn about the health of a particular location by foraging through its vegetation?

When it comes to looking at the health of a location through plants, if you are looking at edible plants you need to look at the quality just as you would with any food. If the plant is chloritic (yellowing), distorted, fasciated or dying off, there could be many reasons such as contaminated soil or sprayed with herbicides. Certain plants are happy to grow on contaminated soils, for example nettles aren’t fussy and rosebay willow herb, a.k.a. fireweed or bombweed which grew on bombsites during WW2.

7) As part of our series of Masterclasses you’re going to lead Foraging For Beginners, what can people expect to find within the grounds of the University of Warwick?

What I expect to find on the campus are sweet chestnuts, hawthorn, rose hips, oak, nettles, sorrel, rowan and dock. If the grounds are landscaped then I might find guelder rose, dogwood… I guess I’ll have to wait and see!

Forgaging for Beginners – Warwick Masterclass – takes place on Sunday 23rd Oct 10am – 5pm and is £70 per person. For more information, click here.
More information on foraging can be found on Emma’s Website.

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