Our edible wild friends

🕔Jun 02, 2010

For photos, please refer to Northword’s print edition—June/July 2010

Over millennia the First Peoples of this region cultivated a broad, complex and diverse knowledge of edible plants. Although few of us will ever return to living off the land, harvesting wild plants in modern times is a great way to develop an appreciation for those who have come before us, not to mention the ecosystems that comprise the areas where we live. Cultivating a respect for and connection to the natural world also provides a necessary antidote to over-urbanization and isolation, not to mention being a rewarding pastime during long summer evenings.

Like any mother, nature has her sharp-tongued side, so take care: practice caution and be certain of identification: you don’t want to learn the poisonous look-alike first (at least not if you were expecting its innocuous but tasty cousin). Consideration should also be given to the harvesting and preservation of the resource. See the books following this article for ample information, and keep your eye peeled at the local college or backpacker’s club for nature tours and classes. (Alternately, befriend a bio-geek at the pub Friday night.)

Spring has sprung
Many of these spring plants are ready for harvest long before nibbles from our northern gardens are ready and will provide a much needed vitamin load to blast those winter blues. Set out to explore the low elevation valleys for edibles before the bugs come out and while you are waiting for the mountain snows to melt and/or the river floods to subside.

Even I (a latecomer to appreciating phylum plantae) can recognize fiddleheads. Lady fern and ostrich ferns’ coiled tips, which resemble the carved scroll at the end of a violin’s neck, can be cooked up in many ways. Tempura, or cream of fiddlehead soup? Both, please.
Stinging nettle (wear gloves!) was once revered as a sacred herb, and still provides a cornucopia of uses both edible and otherwise. The simplest is to steam the young shoots and eat like spinach. Mix dried into bread, or with other vegetables for a soup. Depending on the season, leaves, roots and seeds can all be eaten.

False Solomon’s seal’s young spring shoots are plentiful and delicious when steamed like asparagus.

Birch sap involves a bit more work to turn into syrup, as it runs thinner than maple, but is delectable nonetheless especially if you tapped the tree and brought it home yourself.

Fireweed can be eaten in a variety of ways, but pickling stronger-flavoured shoots for a winter hit of vitamin A and C would bolster our northern immunity. But don’t take just fireweed tea on a winter camping trip—it may send you squatting in the snow more than you’d desire. Or perhaps it would be the perfect solution to trying to get the job done in 15-below conditions? You decide.

Young dandelion leaves (that’s right—if water pollution from domestic herbicides isn’t enough of a reason to stop weed-and-feeding your lawn) are delectable as a salad green. Romaine lettuce trucked up from California? No way: just walk outside. The leaves are packed with vitamins A, C, E, K and a hard-hitting bunch of minerals. The petals are edible too, and the roots, dried and roasted, make a healthful coffee substitute. Chickweed and lamb’s quarter are two other oft-vilified plants that provide yummy, healthy greens.

One advantage of living in mountain country is that you can follow some of the succulent spring vegetation to higher elevations once the valley bottom has moved on to summer.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Chances are that green-thumbed folk are harvesting lettuce and the like from cold frames and gardens by now; nevertheless, a little wander outdoors still pays.

Violet leaves are high in vitamin C (just two leaves covers your daily vitamin C needs), and added to thicken any soup or stew they work wonders.

Elder flowers can be battered, floured and fried resulting in a delicious fritter, or added to pancakes, waffles or cakes to infuse lightness and increase flavour, and also provide the basis for many a beautification. (I remember receiving an elderflower tonic astringent as a teenager from The Body Shop. I had asked for passionflower bodywash, but Mom said I wasn’t old enough.)

Nodding onion is a wild relative of our common garlic, leeks and chives. Harvest bulbs before flowering, or the greens any time, and eat raw, roasted, steamed, boiled, or add as a flavouring agent to other foods. If it smells like an onion, it’s not the similar-looking death-camass, which is an important distinction to make, for obvious reasons. What’s in a name? A big fat stop sign in some cases. So please pay attention and exercise caution.

An appetite for autumn accents
Whereas early northern frosts signal the end of some harvests, some are improved by the drop in mercury.

In the case of Labrador tea, which grows abundantly in the north, the jury is out as to whether spring leaves or summer flowers outperform the brownish leaves of harvest-time. Go picking and try all three.

Highbush cranberry (which belongs to the honeysuckle family rather than being an actual relative of the Thanksgiving favourite) can still be utilized as one would a traditional cranberry; or jam, or as a sauce—or even as ketchup! Just be sure to strain out the large flat seeds. As per the elder tree, cranberry blossoms can be prepared and eaten as fritters. Although frost softens and slightly sweetens this fruit, a sweet-sour odour accompanies it that puts some gatherers off.

Roses are as useful as they are beautiful: the petals (barring the white base) are a great snack (just pick and nibble), and they can be used to frou-frou up some honey (“Ahem‚...some rose honey in your tea, dahling?”). A small amount of rosehips match an orange for vitamin C and are available year-round (they soften over the winter but the nutrient content holds steady). Rosehip tea is a staple on the tea shelves and lends itself well to a little hybridization. Mix and match with other herbs and spices and see what trendy concoction you can brew up for the next knitting night.

Silverweed roots can be found seaside, on stream banks and at pond margins and can be harvested from fall through to early spring. Older plants have more “meat” so steer clear of the young ‘uns. High in calcium, magnesium, iron and sulphur, these roots can be chopped and added to a variety of cooked dishes.

Juniper is another superstar; if you are angling to use it as a seasoning, pick the mature (blue-black) fruits (gin’s taste comes from the high essential-oil content of immature juniper berries). Burnt branches effectively fumigate and disinfect, so are used to smudge a room (or house) after illness. Aromatherapy has made much of juniper’s clarifying properties. Don’t go buy the cleansing spray—just use what’s in your backyard. A tiny piece will go a long way.

Modern society tends not to recognize the knowledge base of a people or peoples until it’s made its way through a lab and out into a plastic bottle or bag, but I say buck the trend and learn an edible plant or two to bring home to your table. Keep in mind the real experts are the elders and First Peoples who lived here before we came; a nod to them certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

For more information:
Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest by Janice J. Schofield; Alaska Northwest Books

Plants of Northern British Columbia, edited by Andy MacKinnon, Jim Pojar, Ray Coupé; Lone Pine Publishing