Seaweeds are the most generous wild food
Seaweeds are among the most generous wild food sources in the world. If you’ve been on one of my foraging walks you’ve heard me worshipping them. This article will give you the tools you need to start exploring seaweeds as a source of food.
The reason I say seaweed is generous is because it's the only wild food family where there are NO TOXIC members, as long as you follow the two seaweed foraging rules. As with everything in foraging there are rules to follow, but these easy rules that will soon become second nature to you as soon as you step foot on the beach.
Rule One - The seaweed must be alive
Living seaweeds are generally attached with a holdfast (seaweed rootlike structure), so giving them a very gentle pull will show you if it’s attached or not. Dead seaweeds gather in large piles at the strand line at the very top of the beach, this stuff is not food. It’s decomposing so we don’t want to eat any of this. It is an excellent fertiliser, but not good for lunch!
Rule Two - You have to be at the coast
There are toxic seaweeds further out into the sea. So if you find yourself gathering seaweed from a seaplane or while out scuba diving, not all seaweeds you’ll find are safe to eat. The places you can reach with two feet on the ground are safe to eat seaweed from.
Seaweeds can be found between the high tide line and the low tide line. As the tide goes out, different habitats and different seaweeds are revealed. This means the very best time to go seaweed foraging is at low tide. This is when the fullest range of seaweed is exposed, depending on the level of the low tide.
Understanding the tide is the trickiest part of seaweed foraging. The lowest tides of the year are known as the Spring Tides and occur around the equinoxes when the moon is closest to the earth. The new moon and the full moon both affect the tide level, so you get Spring Tides usually at the full moon closest to the equinox. This only happens twice a year, so when the Spring Tides roll around it’s prime seaweed foraging time.
There is a low tide twice in each 24 hour period, and they get approximately 25 minutes later each day. Some beaches have more drastic tides than others. I’ve found Blackwaterfoot Beach to be really good for extreme tides.
I must admit I don’t know any fancy bushcraft way to predict the tides. I use a website, but I’m sure there’s an ancient skill almost lost to modernity that would help without the use of my phone, but for now check out ‘tide times blackwaterfoot’ on Google for a start.
You will often see seaweed described as a famine food. I guess this is because it has always been available, which would have been especially important during the potato famine, for example. This being said, seaweed has always been eaten in Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland regardless of famines or not. Seaweed consumption has drastically declined in recent generations, but up until relatively recently it was a staple food of coastal communities.
Several seaweed species are abundant, fast growing, incredibly nutritious and pretty tasty. Our ancestors knew this, as do the many people who still carry these traditions today.
Our tastes have changed drastically over the last 100 years and seaweed has fallen out of favour, but some seaweed is creeping back in. With the popularity of East Asian food and some health foods we are seeing more and more seaweed available to eat. You might have heard of nori, the sheet seaweed eaten with sushi, but I bet you’ve never heard of sloke, the British name for it. Both are porphyra or laver, as I call it at home. Another example is kombu, this is also known as kelp. Both kelp and laver are very common species of seaweed that grow all over the British and Irish coastlines.
The Environmental Impact of Seaweed Foraging
Forest kelp forms huge underwater forest ecosystems that are vitally important for biodiversity. They are one of the only undisturbed ecosystems in the British Isles. They form vast bands around the land. You can see the very tip of the kelp forest during the Spring Tides. These watery wildernesses have been found to protect the land from violent storm surges and are believed to play an important role in preventing flooding and coastal erosion, especially important during the era of climate change.
Although seaweeds are generous to us as sources of food we absolutely must consider them to be vital ecosystems first and foremost. As foragers we are envoys of the wild, it is our job to honour and protect these plants and their ecosystems. This is certainly true for seaweeds too. They are not disposable endless sources of food or seaweed manure, they need to be respected in order to ensure our collective survival well into the future. I talk alot about reciprocity on my foraging walks. This is a fancy way of saying that ‘we give back’ to the ecosystems we forage in.
When it comes to seaweed, the key foraging etiquette to consider is
Snip don’t rip. Use scissors to snip the fronds of seaweed, don’t rip out entire areas of it. This allows the plants to recover and grow back.
Vary your gathering location. A little from here and a little from there.
Observe the ecosystem. Is it growing or is it declining. Gather from only abundant sources not from places where the plants are struggling to reproduce.
Pick litter as you go. Not just your own litter, but other people’s. This is an excellent and powerful way to give back to nature.
If you want to take reciprocity a step further you can. Find your own way of giving back that suits your observations and the specific needs of your local ecosystems.
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