Why does that plant taste disgusting?

A week or so ago I mentioned that I was pondering what to do with hawthorn berries.

Something a little different to the usual sweet dishes that they are used in usually.

At the weekend while out with the grand-urchins I gathered a small bag of hawthorn berries. I was wanting to experiment.

If you’ve never tried hawthorn berries raw then do so, as they taste a little like small apples.

“Small apples Robin, are you sure?”

I often get this response from folk attending one of my foraging courses, and I totally get it.

Chances are you have nibbled on a hawthorn berry, turned your nose up, and posited the universal question “that’s awful, what the bloody ‘ell is it doing in the wild food books!”.

It’s a common reaction, which I too had in the early days, yet it led me to an understanding that “the wild is not monoculture”.

You see in our industrial food systems we have to grow plants that look and taste the same whether they are in the north, south, east or west of these isles.

Food that is uniform (and on the whole bland), so most of the 65 million souls in this country will want to eat it.

In the wild this doesn’t happen. In the wild a plant can taste very different to the same species you find a few yards away.

It’s terroir at a granular level.

And hawthorn is a brilliant example of this.

In the beginning when I returned to foraging… actually I prefer the word gathering, I was going around my grazing grounds nibbling on everything I could find.

To clarify… I only nibbled on what I was 100% certain was edible. I didn’t simply nibble on EVERYTHING! That would be dumb.

And hawthorn had me foxed for quite awhile.

I was going to give up on said plant, until fortunately I chanced upon a hawthorn tree laden with fruit, that as soon as I nibbled on it I realised why it was in the wild food books… it tasted amazing, and not the usual dry, tasteless bad mouth experience other hawthorns had given me.

One of my aphorisms is “the plant is not the problem, you are”.

So when you have a bad taste experience, don’t give up on the plant.

Chances are you have just gathered it at the wrong time in its life cycle, or maybe it was growing in depleted soil.

There could be a number of reasons, however just keep playing with it until you find the perfect time to gather its gifts.

And this will vary depending on where you live in the country as well as a whole range of other reasons, as I’ve just mentioned.

Currently the hawthorns I collected at the weekend are sitting fermenting (not alcohol) on a shelf in my bathroom. It’s nice and warm in there.

What am I creating?

Ah, well all will be revealed within the week, but suffice to say so far my little creation is coming along rather well.

In the meantime while you’re waiting for me to send over the recipe, why not go out and find the tastiest hawthorn tree around your landbase.

See it is an exercise in “tasting terroir”, becoming more intimate with the place where you find your feet.

Further Reading


  1. I remember you explaining this on a walk you led a couple of yesrs ago, and this year I’ve finally found some of the most delicious Hawthorn berries.

    I also discovered that in Spring, when the Hawthorn blossom is out, the leaves of the Hawthorn make a very satisfying snack. The flavour is slightly nutty, and just a few leaves are enough to settle any hunger pangs when out on long walks.

  2. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing. I had no idea Hawthorns were edible raw! I made some jelly and it was great but I will definitely try our local ones raw. We have so many and they are beautiful. Love your posts!

  3. Another issue I’ve discovered over here across the pond is that we have so many varieties of hawthorn, and each tastes different. I finally identified our wild hawthorn as a crataegus macrosperma (fanleaf). The berries are juicy and delicious. Best, the bush pretty much tells me when to eat them–just as they are ready to drop around mid-October.

  4. Love this post! In the northeast, we were inundated with invasive garlic mustard, and most of the foraging books said you only could gather it early in the spring, because later in the year it would be too bitter and tough.

    But I loved late year growth–if the plant was in deep shade, in rich soil. Otherwise, the books were right, but they were only getting half the story

  5. In your article you noted that the berries on a tree can taste very different from another. That would explain the jars of excruciating rowan jelly I created. I’ve noticed that occasionally migrating birds will eat from only one side of a rowan of a tree. Could it be that one side will have a different flavor from the other?

    • Jan – First off, never assume that because a bird can eat a berry that humans can. Sorry, I need to make that clear to any future readers.

      OK, what I have found by observing berries that humans CAN eat, and the birds start pilfering them, is that is the best time to gather those berries.

      I have a crab apple tree outside my house. The fruit is hard as nails usually, and not that pleasant. However if I wait until the birds start to eat them, then I know they are ready to gather. So maybe in your situation, it’s just that the side of the tree the birds feed from gets more sunlight, thereby ripening the fruits quicker on that side?

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