The yellow flowering mullein lies in a meadow

Walking a wild herb trail

A taste of where the elves live

Our author walked a wild herb trail along the Isar river in Munich, tasting dewberries, ground ivy and meadowsweet along the way.

When you think of wild herbs, you most likely conjure images of devoted hobby gardeners and uncultivated meadows – a traditional farmer wearing a feathered cap and combing the landscape with his plant knife, knowing exactly what to eat and what is poisonous. People associate wild herbs with self-sufficiency and woodland – nothing to do with urban dwellers and the Isar river. In fact, I’ve lived in Munich for many years, but before today I never knew that wild cherries, wild strawberries, and hazelnuts grow on my doorstep in Untergiesing.

Before today I never knew that wild cherries, wild strawberries, and hazelnuts grow on my doorstep.

One summer morning we head to the meeting point on Candidplatz to join a guided walk with Caroline Deiß. This wild herb expert has been interested in plants since childhood, and much of her extensive knowledge has since been distilled into a book titled “Die Magie der Wildkräuter” (The Magic of Wild Herbs). She invites others to explore the subject through the walks and cooking courses she organises. Caroline also gives talks in which she not only shares a great deal of fascinating information about edible plants, but recounts a wealth of related stories from mythology and the world of fairytales. As she guides us on the wild herb trail she explains why Cinderella planted a tree on her mother’s grave and why the elder tree is named, in German, after Mrs Holle.

And with wild herbs as the subject at hand, it’s perhaps inevitable that we also cover more spiritual aspects. Caroline explains to us that elves and fairies live in flowers, and that it’s particularly beneficial to eat plants when they’re freshly harvested because they still contain lots of the sun’s energy. This seems a good moment to ask what’s more out of touch with reality: the fact that I am not able to name a single plant in my neighbourhood, or that someone would believe in fairies?

This seems a good moment to ask what’s more out of touch with reality: the fact that I am not able to name a single plant in my neighbourhood, or that someone would believe in fairies?

The first thing I find surprising is my fellow walkers. Based on my own clichéd reasoning I expected them to be white-bearded men with feathered hats and plant knives, but in fact the people at the meeting point are mainly young couples and groups of female friends. And rather than hats and plant knives, they are carrying crisp note pads and empty lunchboxes. For the next three hours we will not only be writing down a lot of information, but also doing some collecting so that on future walks we know exactly what each plant looks like.

We are not going for long before I learn about dewberries, at our third stop – on a road that I run along almost every day. This fruit looks like a small blackberry, and it turns out to be really delicious. But while my companions are cheerfully munching on berries, I still have reservations. Have I definitely collected the right ones? Maybe a poisonous sister berry is growing right next to the tasty ones? Is it ok to pick and eat it without washing it first?   

Everyone is amazed – and now I realise why wild herb walks are increasingly popular. It is that need to restore a connection to our environment and nature that has become alien to us.

I grew up in the city and I buy my food from the supermarket, and eating daisies as a child has been the height of my wild culinary experiences. I don’t really have a connection with my food any more because I don’t know where it comes from – and everything I eat is always available in the shops. What does the plant that bears these fruits look like? And where do these herbs grow? I don’t know any of the answers, but Caroline does. So I gather up my courage and try the dewberry. It’s so delicious that I immediately pick another one – and it’s as though I swallow my fear along with that berry, because afterwards I’m willing to taste almost anything we encounter on our route.

Some wild herbs are truly delicious and have a similar flavour to familiar kitchen ingredients: herb robert, for example, tastes like coriander and is sometimes known as “stinking Bob” – crush the leaves to find out why! And then there’s tangy ground ivy which is rather reminiscent of mint. We find out about meadowsweet which tastes of almonds and has the same effect as Aspirin. “Broad-leaved dock makes a great salad when chopped with tomatoes and onions,” our expert guide explains, “and rosehips can be made not only into a jam, but also when made into a mousse are a great accompaniment for pasta, not dissimilar to a tomato sauce.”

The route that Caroline takes us is one I have followed myself hundreds of times before – but today is the first time I appreciate all of the plants growing here.

Everyone is amazed – and now I realise why wild herb walks are increasingly popular. They feed a certain yearning for independence; for “I could also manage if all the supermarkets closed.” It is the kindling of our very natural will to survive, that need to restore a connection to our environment and nature that has become alien to us. At the same time it’s also a type of mindfulness, a practice of taking a second look. The route that Caroline takes us is one I have followed myself hundreds of times before – but today is the first time I appreciate all of the plants growing here. And I don’t look at my smartphone once in the three hours.

We learn that you can make tea from all edible herbs and that tree cones can be infused with vodka or fruit schnapps to make delicious liqueurs; that anyone who likes pinecone liqueurs will also enjoy drinks made from larch; and that hazelnuts, cornelian cherries, raspberries and blackberries grow in all of Munich’s parks and it is explicitly allowed to harvest them in public parks. We also find out about apps such as PlantNet, which help you correctly identify plants when foraging for wild herbs.

A few walkers glance at us uneasily as we explore the meadows of the Isar wetlands for edible plants, but we don’t let it make us feel weird – after all, we know something that other people haven’t discovered yet.

It’s no less fascinating to notice how close we feel as a group after just three hours of walking together: we are like a sworn-in society that is bonded by the secret knowledge we carry around. A few walkers glance at us uneasily as we explore the meadows of the Isar wetlands for edible plants, but we don’t let it make us feel weird – after all, we know something that other people haven’t discovered yet. The other thing that marks us out as a group of kindred spirits is the fact that all of us have blue hands after getting acquainted with a cherry tree around the corner, where I picked cherries that tasted better than any others I’ve eaten – not least because we harvested them ourselves.

After the walk I drive to the lake this Sunday, and I can’t help looking at every tree, every shrub and every meadow to see what edible plants are growing there. I’m still right at the beginning of my knowledge of wild herbs, and there is certainly more for me to learn on another walk or at least a book on the subject; but I am also already fundamentally changed in terms of my perspective on nature.

 

Are you interested in walking a wild herb trail? Here are a few Munich options:

 

Text: Anja Schauberger; Photos: Frank Stolle

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