Every so often, somebody starts a campaign to run some non-native plant out of Britain. With a few, that makes sense–when they got loose in this new climate they turned hazardous, choking out native growth, growing through the foundations of houses, running for parliament so they can run other non-native plants out of the country. But setting those few aside, the rest of it, I suspect, is about returning Britain to some imagined state of purity.
But what really is native? For the sake of simplicity, let’s stick with food.
This comes with a warning: The further back in time we go, the sketchier the notes people left behind. So I can’t guarantee 600% accuracy. Take it–as is appropriate for food–with a grain of salt.
The first chicken bones show up in the Bronze Age–around 800 B.C.E. That makes them–not to mention their eggs–foreigners.
The Romans (start counting in 43 C.E.) brought rabbits, pheasants, and brown hare (not to be confused with brown hair, which was already present). Also cabbages, leeks, onions, garlic, basil, thyme, turnips, walnuts, and grapes. And alexanders, which went wild. Foragers still eat them and everyone else pretty much ignores them. They’re sometimes called wild celery.
Incomers, the lot of them.
As an aside, by the time we get to the medieval era, cabbage was peasants’ food and not fit for the upper classes. It was thought to cause melancholy and nightmares but also to cure drunkenness.
According to one source the Saxon word for February was Sprout Kale–the month when the cabbages sprout. If you’re not a fan of kale, you can blame it on the Saxons. It won’t be fair, but it’ll keep your mind off worse things. (Another source says it was April, but it’s outvoted. Let’s go with February. It’s shorter, and I’m not a big fan of kale.)
You won’t find sugar until 1099–or at least you won’t find it mentioned until then–and for a long time it was the wildest of luxuries. From the 12th century through the 15th, you’ll find monasteries cultivating apples and pears. Or you’d find them if you could get back there. They would’ve been luxuries.
Turkeys and rice showed up in the Tudor period, and potatoes, corn, and tomatoes didn’t arrive until Europeans started bothering the New World.
Beets–or as the British call them, beetroot–probably came from the Mediterranean. Broccoli showed up around 1700, chocolate bars around 1847, and baked beans in 1886.
Yes, I did switch from raw ingredients to processed food. You’ve got to keep an eye on me every minute. I’ll pull a fast one on you every time.
Wild carrots do grow in Britain and as far as I can untangle things they’re native, but a foraging guide describes them as tough and stringy. You’d want to put these in stews, not eat them raw. The plant they come from is also called Queen Anne’s lace and looks a lot like hemlock, which is toxic, so I wouldn’t recommend munching your way through the hedgerows hoping to figure out which is which.
Cultivated carrots seem to have wandered into England in Elizabethan times, so they’re not exactly native. Emphasis on seems. I got that from a site whose information appears to be solid but whose writing is murky.
Peas? Probably native, although some people argue that the Romans brought them.
Of course, someone out there would surely argue that the Romans brought Nintendo. I’d make the argument myself, but I’m trying to keep this brief.
Cultivated peas are related to vetches, a category of wildflower that does well in Britain without human interference. The early ones would’ve been smaller than the peas we know, and probably bitterer. And if we’re to judge from that last adjective, harder to pronounce. The best thing to do with them would’ve been to put them in pottage–something eaten widely in medieval Britain and varied enough that if you think of it as anything that can be tossed in a pot and cooked with liquid, you won’t go too far wrong.
It’s not until you get into Tudor times that peas become sweeter and the elite start eating them as a delicacy.
Oats, rye, wheat, and barley are all native. As is brewing alcohol from at least some of them and getting shitfaced.
Native fruits would’ve been small purple plums, sloes, wild currants, brambles (that means blackberries), raspberries, wood strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, redberries (no idea what this is; they’re probably red), heather berries (Lord Google tells me they’re edible but nasty), elderberries, rowan berries (edible if cooked; toxic when raw), haws, and hips (that’s probably rose hips). To summarize, the native fruits ran the gamut from delicious to nasty.
The wild apple, crabapple, and cherry would might have been rare or absent, although the British apple seems to have predated the Romans. You notice how much of a workout the word probably is getting? Not as much as it should’, I expect.
We haven’t talked about the nuts and leaves, but let’s skip them, okay?