Five-a-day for free

The end of the Indian summer and the quick tumble into wind-whipped autumn has left golden leaves trapped in the surface of melted tarmac and sticky piles of berries under street trees. The sun is low, the mornings misty and the sunsets soupy.

It’s beautiful in the city at this time of year, but is it fruitful?  Can someone like me – who doesn’t necessarily know what’s tasty and what’s toxic – harvest enough fruit from London’s parks, gardens and streets to get my five-a-day?  And which methods are most fruitful?  This article was originally written for City Planter.

I visit a friend who lives next door to a pear tree, which sits in the garden of an empty house.  The tree is huge and most of the fruit is out of reach, so we stir up the branches with a large stick and collect the pears that fall.  They’re hard and will need to sit somewhere sunny to ripen, but my haul is ten-strong and I’m off to a great start.  On the cycle home, my new fruit-seeking eyes spot a street tree that looks like it’s full of cherries.  I decide to revisit it later, after consulting a tree book.

Lessons learned – wear old shoes when roaming wild patches and beware dog poo.

Verdict – friends with fruit trees are an excellent source of food that may otherwise go to waste.

Fruitfulness rating – ★★★★★

While it seems odd to spend part of my fruit-finding mission staring deep into a laptop, it proves useful.  I sign up to, where fruit sharers are matched up with local fruit seekers.  I find three people offering surplus garden apples in London and send them all messages. I also contact Sharon Hockenhull who founded the site.  “As a gardener, I see so much garden fruit going to waste each year” says Sharon.  “People often have a glut of fruit and much of it inevitably ends up on the compost heap. Fruitshare is my answer to this problem.  The initiative is still extremely young but eventually it will have many benefits for local communities and the environment.  Supermarkets still import over 70% of apples each year, which just doesn’t make sense.”

Lessons learned – patience, as there are currently far more seekers than sharers.

Verdict – I didn’t source any fruit this way – it’s a great idea but needs time to develop, plus timing is everything.

Fruitfulness rating – ★

I revisit the cherry tree, which is actually a sweet American crab apple (the fruit looks like glacé cherries from afar). Standing on a low wall to reach, I suddenly feel self-conscious.  It’s ridiculous to feel like I’m doing something wrong, but I can see why people hesitate before picking.  Maybe edible street trees could come with reassuring signs saying ‘Pick me, I’m yours’.  I realise I’d much rather source street fruit with company.  I arrange to meet Penny Greenhough, the Peckham Pickler, who is an urban forager extraordinaire and very generous with her knowledge.  I find her up a ladder near Peckham High Street.  As we wander the streets, she spies a goji berry bush and a sweet chestnut.  A couple of passers-by stop and ask what we’re doing, and seem genuinely pleased when they find out we’re picking nuts.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have felt so worried picking those crab apples.

Lessons learned – wear gloves when picking chestnuts.

Verdict – London streets are full of free fruit if you’re brave enough to harvest it.

Fruitfulness rating – ★★★

Penny takes me to a tiny public park to pick medlars, an unusual fruit that can be turned into a delicious amber-coloured jelly.  We harvest loads from one pretty little tree.  The park also has crab apples, huge rosemary bushes and lots of purple sage.  We even find a fennel plant, with umbrella-shaped spikes of aniseed-tasting seeds.  Within the space of a few square metres, I’ve got my most impressive haul of free food yet.  Perhaps parks are the answer to sourcing my five-a-day.  I’ve seen apple trees on Wimbledon Common and pears on Walthamstow Marshes, and endless blackberries on both.  Hampstead Heath is also great for berries at the right time of year.

Lessons learned – foraging is better with a friend, especially one who knows about edible plants.

Verdict – parks are full of free food, from cultivated fruit trees to wild hedgerow fruits.

Fruitfulness rating – ★★★★★

I take a look at a couple of online fruit maps.  Fruit City is ambitiously trying to map trees across London.  I look for trees in Islington and discover there’s a distinct lack of data for my borough.  There’s apparently a fig at a school on Amwell Street, cherries at a school in Finsbury Park and lots of rowan and crab apple trees on the Hackney border.  Hackney fruit trees are well catalogued and the Hackney Harvest map shows both public and private ones.  Many that are listed are found in people’s gardens.  There are a couple of public apple trees listed – on Palatine Road and Shacklewell Lane – so I head out to see if I can find them. The Palatine tree is another crab apple but the Shacklewell tree is heavy with what look like russets.  They’re in a private-looking garden though, attached to a funeral directors.  I lose my nerve and leave the fruit on the tree.

Lessons learned – some trees feel out of bounds.

Verdict – Hackney Harvest runs group fruit picks, which might be better for nervous novice pickers.

Fruitfulness rating – ★★

My ability to find and harvest fruit beyond the back garden was greatly enhanced after spending some time with an expert.  If you’re serious about sourcing seasonal fruit and nuts for free, it’s worth seeking out special events or joining a group.  Have a look at London Orchard Project, Project Dirt and Invisible Food for ideas.

My final haul included 10 pears; lots of crab apples (two varieties); 10 medlars; a handful of chestnuts; a large sprig of rosemary; a large sprig of purple sage; and half a handful of fennel seeds.  The week of foraging has been fun, with stressful moments.  I was surprised and frustrated at how awkward I felt about picking street fruit until I had company.  I could certainly have harvested more crab apples, pears and medlars, but didn’t want to pick more than I could chew.  The best thing about the week has been acquiring new fruit-finding eyes and spending more time than usual outside, staring at trees.  I think the more I pick – and pick more I will – the more my confidence will grow.

Helen Babbs is a writer with a particular interest in the arts, the urban, the wild and London.  Her first book – My Garden, the City and Me: Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London – was published in the summer.  It’s about the glory of growing things and urban nature.

One comment

  1. breadfortheboys

    Love it, so great to show people you can forage well even in urban areas (sometimes I suspect better). I only had a few medlars from a tree near my house so I made a medlar mont blanc!

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