We went for a walk. Nothing remarkable about that, everyone walks – it’s a healthy exercise. But how many take an honest look around to understand nature. Not only looking and admiring, but eating! Not snacking along the way on peanuts, popcorn or chips, but tasting and learning about the real live indigenous plants growing at our feet. Thus the incredible edible walk began.
Foraging took a decline after the Second World War when the agriculture industry became more sophisticated and stores were filled with frozen foods. Slowly nature has earned a recall, and with healthier eating standards on today’s menu, seeking benefits for what unused land provides has become appealing.
There are two main cautions in foraging for, and eating wild greens – know your weeds, and only harvest 1/3 to ½ half of the plant. Enough leaf material has to be left so the plant can produce more.
While we are all familiar with such things as the dandelion, care must be taken not to confuse Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot) with the poisonous water hemlock. The same holds true for mushrooms as many poisonous ones mimic their edible counterparts.
Learn when to forage for edibles – early spring is for emerging greens like fiddleheads and morels; summer for flowers, stems, roots and berries; fall for fruits, nuts and seeds. Of course the “where to forage” is also important – not roadsides or field edges where spraying has been done, and don’t take watercress from a stream that might be polluted. The common sense rules are simple enough to follow.
Our initial edible walk was arranged by Harriston’s Rodger Hyodo and guided by Anna Sienicka. Anna emigrated from Poland in 1996 and is a holistic practitioner, and founder of Toronto’s Wholistic Care Centre. She also offers public school lessons in wild and edible local plants, sustainability and biodiversity based on her children’s book entitled “Seeds and Weeds”.
Anna had foraged since childhood in her native Poland so she was quite surprised when she came to Ontario to find that seeking wild greens wasn’t as common. She found people regarding her as peculiar when she was out hunting for food. Now, twenty years later, there is a lot of information about wild and edible plants. 90% of what grows around us is edible. Cultivating vegetables only started in the 1600s, before that all food was foraged.
GMO is a concern now – this is different from hybridizing where breeders try to get the best characteristics from several types of plants. All our vegetables are in some way derived from the “wild” source i.e. wild carrot.
Weeds/wild plants are superfoods and outsource all the nutrients required (a handful of leaves of wild carrot has more Vitamin A than a glass of juice). Natural vitamins are much better than supplements. Put leaves, flowers, roots or stems into your salads, stir fries, or smoothies. Wild plants give a different flavor to cooking.
Even though we live in a high agricultural country, 80% of our food is imported. We need to eat what’s growing around us rather than tropicals from another country. So much of what’s growing is perennial while our diet is 90% annual. When we eat things with a long term life it makes us live to the future.
Anna Sienicka enjoys taking groups on her weed walks. She is passionate about introducing both adults and students to the art of foraging and the health benefits to be derived from plants. One of her roles was guiding Fergus High School students on a field trip in High Park, Toronto. She hosted a Harriston area group recently and they discovered lots of edibles along a short part of the Greenway Trail system.
Many were astonished to find that simple greens are not only high in nutrients but can be made into teas or lemonades; seeds can be included in soups; flowers can be fried; roots can be a substitute for potatoes – but best of all, many have external medicinal properties. Sienicka recommended starting slowly with a few basic plants and learn how to use them. Sprouts are a vitamin bomb. All parts of the Mallow are edible either raw or cooked. It has thickening properties so it can be used as a soup base. Makes an excellent tea or can be used in smoothies. Mallow boosts the immune system and (I love this one) – makes hair curly if you put it in and let it dry!
We know of dandelion wine and jellies. However, you can also cook the leaves like spinach, or mix the leaves in a blender with tomato juice and Tabasco sauce for a vitamin rich cool drink.
Garlic Mustard is on the noxious weed list so while on your foraging expedition you can help the environment by pulling it. Make sure to pull the whole plant, not just the top half. If you rub the leaves it really does smell like garlic.
Leaves and flowers, high in vitamins A and K, can be cooked like spinach. This plant grows all winter and produces seeds three times a year (that’s why it’s so invasive). Infuse seeds in olive oil for a tasty dressing.
Sumac berries can be dried and ground into a spice. Soak fresh berries in water to make a pink lemonade. Burdock leaves are tender in the spring. The root can be used like a potato. Seeds can be ground for a spice. Burdock is high in iron and is considered a blood purifier. Wild Carrot flowers and leaves are edible; the root can be dried, ground, and used as a coffee substitute. Purslane has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy plant known on earth. Although the flowers and fuzzy leaves of Mullein are edible, enjoying a cup of tea made from these parts is preferable.
Wild things are nature’s first aid kit. Jewell Weed (Touch-me-nots) can take the sting out of nettles and mosquito bites. Milkweed sap can cover a wound. Strong, sinuous plantation leaves can double as a bandaid. Seeds can be made into a tea to treat sore throats and coughs.
On the flip side, some things are poisonous – rhubarb leaves, buttercup, marsh marigold, and lily-of-the-valley. The general rule of thumb is, if you see bees on the flower, then it’s safe. If the bees don’t want it, neither do you.
Anna Sienicka is a product of using alternative medicine and lives an amazing life. Currently she is on a 3-month trip bicycling across Canada. She wants to lead by example and encourage people to take care of themselves. This ride has been a dream for the past 18 years. (www.acrossmycountry.com ). Her second dream is to integrate alternative and conventional medicine. Her goal is to open 44 Wholistic Care Centers in medical buildings around Ontario and then Canada. Sienicka wants to make a statement that alternative medicine, which really is not alternative at all but a normal way of living, is effective, and it should be a part of our health care system.
So folks, be observant when you’re weeding your gardens – you might be throwing tonight’s salad, cooked vegetable, or tea in the compost pile.