Foraging for Food and Herbs
I have been foraging since I was child, so I was delighted to be invited to lead some local foraging activities this year. Many of the participants have been avid outdoor enthusiasts who had not really considered the plants that lined their paths. I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce them to this bountiful side show.
As you stand in front of rows of supermarket shelves, it is easy to forget that many of the foods available to us today have wild ancestors still flourishing in the hedgerows, forests and meadows somewhere - possibly close by. Almost inevitably, those wild ancestors will be smaller and often less tasty.
Our food supply has become somewhat disconnected from the labour and the soil that produced them, unless you are meeting your farmer face-to-face at a Farmers' Market. We assume an ongoing endless supply of these tasty crops. However, we don’t have to look far back into history to glimpse examples of severe shortages of foods and medicines caused by supply chain disruption.
A Brief History
During both of the World Wars, there was a severe shortage of food and medicines in Europe and North America. European governments introduced emergency measures and provided instructions to citizens on identifying and harvesting wild foods and medicines. American pilots were taught how to recognise common foods in the wild should they be shot down. In the UK, school children, girl guides, boy scouts and church groups were paid to collect bags of medicinal plants such as foxglove, willow bark, deadly nightshade, nettle, rosehips and sphagnum moss.
Canada sent huge amounts of food to the UK and to their soldiers abroad. To support this generous commitment to the war effort in Europe, food on Canadian tables changed significantly. With food imports impossible due to wartime blockades, food was rationed and hoarding it was considered no better than a criminal act. Canadians were encouraged to start ‘Victory Gardens’ to support their families and to contribute to the war effort. These were mainly urban endeavours in which parks and sports fields were turned over to citizens for the purpose of growing vegetables and fruit.
The First Canada Food Guide
The first Canada Food Guide, or “Food Rules’ as it was then named, was introduced in 1942 with the specific intent of prescribing food to prevent malnutrition, especially in pregnant women and children, during a time of scarcity. Interestingly, rural Canadians who, on the whole, were less wealthy than city dwellers, fared better nutritionally. They had access to gardens, wild edibles, eggs, dairy and wild meat and fish. They were also less reliant on more expensive imports and accustomed to ‘making do’ with local foods.
My grandmother lived through World War II in the Highlands of Scotland and knew her edible, medicinal and poisonous plants well. I grew up absorbing this information and assumed it was general knowledge, common to everyone. Not so. In fact, I now realise, like many other people of her generation, my grandmother was a product of her time, and her knowledge was gained through scarcity and necessity.
In 2015, Peter Ayres published a book entitled Britain’s Green Allies that chronicles the use of wild plant medicines to replace pharmaceuticals during both World Wars. It outlines the various initiatives and resources utilised to ensure and secure the plants as medicinal resources through that period of history.
Safely identifying and recognising wild foods and medicines may be a gift to future generations, beyond what it brings to our own lives. This knowledge was harnessed over thousands of years and it has been largely lost over three generations. Beyond just the practical skills of identification and the enjoyment of a free meal, foraging can bring us into nature in ways that are healing, encouraging of connectivity, and which ground us in real and tangible experiences. Children, supervised of course, are thrilled to pick and eat even the small and often sour wild raspberries in hedgerows.
As if a free meal and some mental rest wasn’t enough…..
As you harvest among the trees, breathe deeply. In Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s documentary ‘ Call of the Forest’, she introduces the viewer to some of the science behind the benefits of forest bathing. Just 30 minutes in a forest environment significantly reduces cortisol levels (our stress hormone), reduces our heart rate, and blood pressure. We are also breathing in chemicals in the air that are produced by the trees. These tree aerosols may be improving our immune health by increasing natural killer cells, which are immune system cells responsible for eliminating viruses and detecting cancer cells. We know we feel a benefit after being in the woods and in nature, and now science is exploring some of the underlying interconnectedness between our cells and biochemistry and the natural world.
So walk in the woods, learn a new plant and feel well- we have a buffet of wild edibles around us.
My favourite book on the subject is Northeast Foraging by Leda Meredith. Petersen Filed Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James Duke.
When to Harvest
We harvest young tender leaves and sap in spring.
As plants grow and age, their leaves become more bitter and their stems more fibrous. This makes them less edible and appealing.
The sap begins to rise in spring to bring nutrients to the leaf buds. Of course in Canada, we are familiar with the tradition of maple syrup where the clear sap is boiled to its familiar caramelised brown colour, ready to adorn our plates full of pancakes. Birch bark is another Canadian sap that is beginning to gain some popularity.
We harvest flowers and some berries.
We harvest berries, fruits and roots.
Plants store a lot of nutrients in their root systems to sustain the plant over the long winter months. This is the ideal time to harvest. Taking up the root removes the plant so is not sustainable unless the plant is plentiful. Plants such as dandelion and burdock are abundant so can be harvested in abundance.
Berries are usually rich in vitamin C (rosehips, elderberries), a nutrient that was not plentiful in winter prior to mass importation of produce. Syrups would be made to preserve the goodness of the berry and provide immune-supporting vitamin C throughout the winter.
Below are some General Thoughts on Foraging or Harvesting Wild Plants
Be 100% sure that you know what you are picking. Some plants share very similar appearances, especially at the leaf stage before the differentiating flowers arrive, and one of them may be poisonous.
I would caution against even tasting something that you are unsure of.
Learning some basic botany helps the process of plant identification. For example, the shapes of leaves, how the leaf clasps the stem, the arrangement of the leaves on the stem. These are important identifiers, especially if you are new to plant identification.
Which part are you harvesting? This is important as one part of a plant may be edible while another part may be toxic. For example, some seeds and berries are toxic whereas the leaves are harmless.
Leave some for next year
Consider sustainability - how many plants are in the area, and will there be enough left for self-propagation?
Will harvesting kill the plant - as with roots – and is the plant abundant enough that it will not have an impact? For example burdock and dandelion roots are abundant and will not suffer from harvesting. On the other hand goldenseal is a threatened plant due to overharvesting. The root is used, and goldenseal is mainly wild crafted rather than commercially grown. In the 1990s, Medical Herbalists decided to use alternatives to goldenseal to reduce the stress on the supply and prevent the loss of this important plant. However, since that time, the commercial sale of herbal medicines has increased exponentially and ironically, where we as practitioners would mindfully reconsider prescribing goldenseal, it is available on retail shelves in abundance. It is a wonderful herb, but not to the extent that it needs to be over harvested, as there are viable alternatives readily available.
Do wildlife rely on this plant and is there enough for everyone?
Could the plant have been exposed to pollutants or herbicides/pesticides?
Whose land are you on? Be careful to seek permission on public and private land. Municipalities and provinces have different by-laws regarding the harvesting of plants
Check with the Provincial and National Parks if you are allowed to pick plants on their land.
Get to know several plants really well. Start with one plant.
Five Suggested Starter Plants to get you Going:
Nettle is a plant that is nutritive as well as medicinal. Full of minerals and vitamins, it is at its tastiest in early spring when it is less than 2 feet tall. It can be eaten after that time, it is just a little more bitter and fibrous. The plant has acids in the leaves that can sting you, leaving small weals. Gardening or rubber gloves are thus needed to pick it. Fill your basket up- you want a good bagful of the plants. Some people say that 2 hours after picking nettle, its sting is gone. I have never experimented with that. I always use gloves until the leaves are safely in the boiling water or have completely dried out. This is definitely not a salad herb. It can be dried and later used for teas, or made into a nutritious and hearty soup. Click here for a recipe.
Most people are familiar with dandelion once the bright yellow flower has blossomed. The dandelion leaf is the darling of the early summer salad. Rich in potassium and beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and a bit of a diuretic (it’ll make you pee), it is very nutritious and crosses that divide between edible and medicinal. The leaves can be thrown into a salad and are best raw. In late spring and summer they are very bitter which is a great medicinal quality but a little less friendly to the taste buds.
If you have not had sumac, you will be delighted to discover its tart, lemony flavour. Staghorn sumac is everywhere, and looks like a giant raspberry turned upside down with lot of little berries/fruits. The red upright cones, are ready for harvest from the end of July into early fall. If you touch the inside of the flowers and your finger is a bit tacky to touch, then it is ready to be picked.
Sumac is used in Mediterranean countries such those of southern Europe and the Middle East. It is part of Za’atar, a blend that combines sumac, sesame seeds, salt and thyme and is used to spice up a variety of different dishes. It is worth getting to know this plant.
Staghorn sumac can be made into a drink. Heavy rain will wash away the tart covering of the sumac berries so be sure to harvest the berries before rain. Taste a berry for the lemony flavour. I have several recipes for sumac.
For those who prefer a sumac syrup
1.5 cups sugar (or to taste)
2 cups water
4-5 tablespoons ground sumac berries
Bring water and sugar to the boil till sugar dissolves. Let it cool for about 30 minutes and add ground sumac berries. Steep for 20-30mins and strain twice through a sieve to get rid of the little hairs from the sumac. Put in a bottle/jar and keep it in the fridge. Enjoy with sparkling water, lemon and ice.
For a cold refreshing drink
You can take several of the berry heads (the whole staghorn) and cover these with cold water. Crush them with a masher and leave to steep for several hours, strain twice through a cheesecloth/sieve and drink.
Hot sumac infusion
To enjoy one cup - steep one tablespoon of berries (removed from the stem) in one cup boiling water. Sieve after 10 minutes and drink.
Note: There is a poisonous ‘sumac’, that is member of a different family and is similar to staghorn sumac but it has white flowers. It would be difficult to mix them up, but it has happened.
St John’s Wort
This is one of my favourite wild plants. Once you think you’ve identified it, take one of the flowers and rub it between your fingers. It should leave a purple/red stain on your fingers. Hold one of the leaves up to the light. You should see what looks like little holes in the leaf- these are little oil sacks. The latin name Hypericum perforatum refers to the little ‘perforations’ on the leaf.
Used traditionally for mild to moderate depression, or as it was traditionally called, a nervine tonic, this would be taken as a tea or a tincture using the flowers and the leaves. A lovely oil can also be made from it. Pick the flowers and place them into a small jar, fairly tightly packed. Add some oil of your choice such as safflower, sunflower, almond oil, or grapeseed and place in the sun for about 2 weeks or until the oil turns a bright crimson red. It would mainly be applied directly to the skin for nerve pain, especially for post shingles pain. It can be used on minor cuts and scrapes. A tea of the leaves and flowers can be made to improve the spirits.
Yarrow – Achillea millefolium
Yarrow is a staple of the herbalist’s apothecary. It seems to grow anywhere and everywhere in Canada. The feathery leaves on the stem are topped by a cluster of tiny white flowers. The feathery leaves are what gives it the name millefolium - ‘thousands of leaves’. Not to be confused with wild carrot – Queen Anne’s lace – although not poisonous, Queens Anne’s lace forms an umbel of flowers and usually has a little dark dot at the centre, where Queen Anne reputedly pricked her finger and a drop of blood landed on the plant.
Rub the yarrow leaves and/or flowers between your fingers, to inhale the camphorous, medicinal scent. The plant has many uses. At the start of a cold or flu, an infusion of yarrow, combined with peppermint, elderflowers, ginger and honey, is an immediate ‘go-to’ remedy. Among other actions, yarrow has a diaphoretic action, that is, it makes you sweat.
It has a reputation for staunching bleeding and indeed the name, Achillea, is associated with Achilles, who is said to have used it to stop the bleeding of wounded soldiers on the battlefield. It is traditionally indicated for heavy menstrual bleeding associated with menopause and where other causes for the bleeding have been ruled out. In this case, a herbalist would combine yarrow with other herbs.
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