In the 18th and 19th centuries, Islanders were a dab hand at foraging, with an incredibly detailed knowledge of local wild plants, where they grew and what to do with them.
Even in the making of drinks alone, numerous wild plants were put to numerous different uses, with cowslips from the Downs being made into wine, hedgerow sloes used to flavour gin or brandy and wild hops from the woods being gathered to make beer.
Some of the wild plants prized by Islanders hundreds of years ago are still recognised and used today. For example, wild garlic, popular amongst modern foragers, was also a firm favourite two hundred years ago – but not with all types of Islanders. It was actually the local Romani gypsy minority who most favoured this fragrant plant – a fact that led to it becoming known locally as ‘gipsy onion’ as well as by the older name ‘ramsons’.
Similarly, the samphire found in UK supermarkets today also grew on Isle of Wight riverbanks – although it wasn’t as popular as the prestigious rock samphire that grew on cliff faces at Freshwater and the Needles. Known to Islanders as ‘samper’ it was collected by driving a crowbar into the edge of a cliff, attaching a rope and lowering yourself down to the crevices where the rock samphire grew. Once collected it was often turned into a warm and aromatic samphire pickle or minced up with melted butter and served with fish.
Less familiar to us these days are the wild plants that Islanders used as substitutes for spinach. Sea beet could be found on a number of rocky shorelines – such as Seaview and Yarmouth – and was often boiled and served with pork or bacon, likewise ‘assmirt’ the hot leaves of the water pepper plant were considered a type of ‘wild spinage’ and used in the same way too.
In terms of salad leaves, wild watercress was highly prized but not always easy to get, so ‘bank cress’ was used as a good second best. Better known today as ‘American land cress’ it was common across the Island and could be found growing in fields, woodlands and verges. As the modern name suggests, it’s thought land cress originated from North America, however, as botanist William Arnold Bromfield noted: “in no part of Britain perhaps does it abound more than in this island”.
Other interesting species growing wild on the Island included gooseberries, black mustard, horseradish, wild fennel and sea kale. We’ll probably never know exactly what Islanders did with each type of plant they foraged for but it’s clear they valued the landscape around them, finding uses for hundreds of different plants and gathering them in a natural and sustainable way. Today, in the face of a climate emergency and growing pressures on the natural environment, there’s certainly a thing or two we can learn from our Isle of Wight ancestors.
To find out more about rock samphire, land cress and other lost Isle of Wight foods, see James Rayner’s latest book Historic Isle of Wight Food, available from shops across the Island including Caffe Isola, Island Traders and Waterstone’s in Newport, Babushka Books in Shanklin and Medina Books in Cowes, as well as online from wightoriginals.com
Always forage sustainably. Before eating any wild plants check you’ve identified them correctly and are aware of any effects they may have on your health.