Foraging in Perthshire
When the good folks at Perth City Centre asked me to do a “foraging” walk along the edge of the River Tay, from Rodney Gardens to the new Willowgate Activity Centre, I was intrigued. One – I’d get the chance to find out more about our native edible plants in their natural setting, and two – I’d get a tour of the exciting new Activity Centre. I couldn’t miss the chance!
My guides for the foraging walk are Margaret and Andrew Lear, founders of Plants with Purpose & Appletreeman, a family business that has been supplying edible and wildlife-friendly plants for over 16 years. As well as guided foraging walks they also offer workshops, talks and courses on sustainable horticulture, orchard management, forest gardening and beekeeping.
They can even supply many wild edibles for garden cultivation, including rare and special pear trees, all home-grown without chemicals or artificial fertilisers, so you wouldn’t have to forage too far to find something tasty for dinner!
Start – Rodney Gardens
We start at Rodney Gardens, part of the lovely Riverside Park. Margaret and Andrew have brought their foraging basket, along with some useful books: Food for Free by Richard Mabey, Wild Food by Roger Phillips and A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests, an invaluable guide that Margaret helped to write.
(That brings me to a really important point, which is – please don’t forage unless you’re in the hands of an expert, or you’ve gained plenty of knowledge in the subject. We came across a few plants that would be poisonous if eaten.)
Our first foraging find
We’ve barely left the car park when Andrew spots a walnut tree. I must’ve passed this tree dozens of times without giving it much thought, but to my surprise he points out little edible green fruits on the leaves.
Our next finds
About 30 seconds into our walk, Margaret stops with delight. She’s spotted at least five edible species within one patch of ordinary-looking greenery. She points out:
- campanula – purple flower whose roots and leaves are edible
- ground elder – also edible
- comfrey – leaves are delicious in spring (especially deep-fried), but avoid the roots. It’s also called “knit-bone” for its alleged bone-healing qualities!
- nettle – great for soups and stews
- plantain – also edible
Not much further on, we stop at a cherry tree and pick a couple of juicy-looking little cherries. Margaret offers me one – it’s a little sour, but I would definitely eat some if I’d forgotten my picnic!
Mushrooms and comedy props
Then, to my disbelief, Margaret picks up what looks like a giant piece of polystyrene from the undergrowth and declares it to be a giant puffball mushroom. For some reason I’ve always assumed they’re poisonous but Margaret says: “You can slice it up, fry it, and it’s delicious – like steak for vegetarians.” It goes into their foraging basket to take home.
A little further on, she picks up something I’m familiar with. Sticky willow, sticky willie, or “cleavers” – call it what you like, I’ve only ever used it for sticking to the back of an unsuspecting family member’s back as a comedy prank. Margaret says that it can be used for making tea, for putting in stir-fries (get it young before it goes sticky), and for putting in a jug of water overnight to make a fresh drink.
A plethora of plants
It’s only about five minutes into our walk and I’ve learned so much already. Margaret’s knowledge of plants is like nothing I’ve heard before: the kind of knowledge that’s built through years of study and a passion for her subject.
I won’t go into detail on all of the plants, because we spotted over 40 on our hour-long walk, which took us on a lovely meandering path along the river, through forested and open areas, past ponds, under bridges and into the open river plain.
But just to give you a “flavour”, here are some highlights:
- Burdock – the leaf stems, stripped down, are “delicious sautéed”
- Coltsfoot – leaves can be made into tea
- Brambles and raspberries – the kids’ favourite foraging food
- Mugwort – an aromatic plant useful instead of hops for brewing porter
- St John’s Wort – used as a herbal remedy for low mood and anxiety
- Oregano – delicious herb, great for cooking
- Valerian – for aiding restful sleep
- Himalayan balsam – the pretty pink flowers are lovely in salads or tea
- Meadowsweet – plunge a bunch into a jug of wine and leave overnight to add a delicious taste
- Wild garlic – fantastic for soups, stir-fries, pesto and stews
- Wild rose flowers – lovely to munch on as you walk, or in salads
Just as importantly, Margaret tells me which plants to stay away from, such as ragwort (keep dogs and horses away from this), giant hogweed – a well-known plant that can cause burns if you touch it. It’s so useful to know all the “don’t eats” as well as the “do eats”.
Apples and Pears
As we move along beside the widening river, the path also widens, and we come across some pear trees. This is Andrew’s area of expertise and he explains that there was once a huge orchard stretching from here up to Kinnoull Hill.
A one-of-a-kind pear
He points out a beautiful, healthy pear tree with dark green leaves and reveals that he was involved in getting the tree DNA-tested. And… wait for it… the tree’s DNA has been found nowhere else in the world. Where did it come from? Andrew says monks may have brought it from France, but no one knows for sure. So Andrew and Margaret have taken the chance to name it informally as the “Willowgate sausage pear”, due to its sausage-shaped fruits!
How to get your own apple or pear tree
Andrew tells me that he propagates rare varieties (as well as common ones) of apple and pear trees, and he and Margaret manage an orchard from which they sell the trees. If you’re interested in buying these or any of their “wild plants for your garden”, you can contact them through their website.
We’ve arrived at the Willowgate Ponds area, so it’s time for our fascinating walk to end. I say thanks and goodbye to the Lears and, walking (carefully!) past some anglers who are fishing in the ponds, I stroll under the Friarton Bridge and on to the Activity Centre.
Finish at – Willowgate Activity Centre
If you were at Perth’s Fun Day in 2017, you’d have been forgiven for thinking our city had drifted over to the coast. There were deck chairs, painted wooden huts, a Punch & Judy show, boat trips and a sandy beach. It was all thanks to the Willowgate Activity Centre who were having a fantastic Fun Day, both on Tay Street and at the centre itself, where over 1,200 visitors were able to try all the different activities throughout the day.
Funded by the Tay and Earn Trust, the Willowgate Activity Centre is opening up a large stretch of the Tay to the public for fun, recreation and sport.
At the centre I’ve arranged to meet Jim Findlay, Head of Development at the Tay & Earn Trust, who tells me all about this exciting new place:
“Our main aim is the physical regeneration of the Tay, improving access, putting in footpaths and the River Tay Pontoons, putting in the Activity Centre and the Riverside Café. It’s really designed to bring people down onto the river, make it more accessible. We call the river ‘the lost jewel in the crown for Perth’, as it has been underused until now, and we want to help to get more people using it.”
What can you do at Willowgate Activity Centre?
There’s so much to do here – you can try paddle-boarding, kayaking, canoeing, archery, bushcraft, aqua-zorbing, coracle-making and boat trips.
There are summer camps for kids that are booking up quickly (book yours here!) and any group can try out a new activity or skill. Schools, community groups and businesses can book the facilities or have whole activity days out.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s also an indoor classroom, outdoor classroom, training room, toilets, changing room with showers, and a seating area for picnics.
Find out more about the Willowgate Activity Centre
Check out the Willowgate Activity Centre website and the Tay and Earn Trust website for more information on the centre and all the other exciting projects funded by the Trust, or visit the Willowgate Activity Centre Facebook page.
Book a boat trip on the Tay
You can book a variety of boat trips from now until the end of October, through the Perth City website. See you there!
Find out more about Plants With Purpose & Appletreeman
Join us at the ActiviTay weekend
There’s even more outdoor fun to be had at the ActiviTay weekend on 8th – 9th July at the North Inch and in Perth City Centre – find out more here.