Food in the wild

by Dr. Chelsea Cole BSc ND

Foraging for wild plants not only introduces new and interesting flavours to your food, but is also an opportunity to connect with nature.

Some of my most salient and delightful childhood memories involve picking wild blueberries behind my grandparent’s house in Newfoundland. I would wait all summer, watching the plants grow green leaves, small pink and white blossoms, and finally the little green berries that would eventually turn deep blue in the sun. My siblings, cousins and I would spend hours searching for the best berry bushes, and then enjoy the sweet, warm berries by the handful. I loved the fresh berries better than any blueberry dessert they ended up in. With that said, homemade blueberry muffins are delicious, and I really enjoyed those too.

I never considered this foraging. It was just how myself and most other Newfoundlanders ate blueberries. My family never bought them, so unless we picked enough to freeze, which involves a lot of self-restraint, I only enjoyed blueberries in the summer. Looking back, I can see how natural it felt to be connected to blueberry season. While I miss the taste of Newfoundland blueberries all year long, it feels normal to have to wait and then work for it. Enjoying food in this way meant that I spent days exploring outside, and learning to pay attention to how plants grow. My pop taught me that the best and biggest blueberries grow underneath the visible branches, and that you should never pick a berry bush clean; you have to leave some for the birds. At the time, these lessons didn’t seem significant, but I now realize that they formed a relationship of respect and wonder with nature, which is particularly important when foraging wild plants.

In her lovely book, “The Boreal Herbal,” Beverly Gray writes, “wild harvesting—also known as wildcrafting, gathering, or foraging for plants—is the practice of respectfully harvesting and gathering plants that grow in the wild.” 1 Sarah and I felt inspired by the many wild edible plants and fruits that grow on Vancouver Island. Dandelion greens, nettles, elderflowers, wild violets, and blackberries are just a few of the delicious options available for those interested in foraging. We decided that we wanted to share information about foraging, because these wild plants are readily available to anyone who wants to pick them, they are nutritious, and it encourages people to spend more time outdoors. In fact, the health benefits of spending time in nature are well documented in research. One study found that increased time in nature was associated with lower stress hormone (cortisol) production, lowered heart rate and blood pressure, and increased self-reports of wellbeing.2 Another study explored whether people who feel more connected to nature are happier, and found that those who are more connected to nature tend to experience more happiness, vitality, and life satisfaction when compared to those who were less connected to nature.3 Foraging for wild plants not only makes you go outside, but through the process of identifying plants, gathering them, and then creating something delicious, you are directly connecting with nature. With that said, there are things to consider before deciding to go foraging, and it is wise to go with someone who is experienced at plant identification and willing to share their knowledge.

Foraging for wild plants not only makes you go outside, but through the process of identifying plants, gathering them, and then creating something delicious, you are directly connecting with nature.

In, “The Boreal Herbal,” Gray outlines some basic tips for wild harvesting plants: gather in unpolluted areas, only gather from areas where plants are growing in abundance, know how to identify what you are collecting, be respectful and aware, only forage healthy plants, harvest only what you can process, do not overharvest and leave enough of the plant that it can continue to grow.1 She also discusses what supplies you might need, and while you don’t need much, it is useful to have paper bags to hold what you collect and a basket to carry those, a sharp knife, hand pruner, scissors, gardening gloves, and an accurate field guide. We recommend, “The Boreal Herbal,” by Beverly Gray and “Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada,” by MacKinnon. I think it is wise to have an idea of what you want to make before you begin to gather plants because you will have a better sense of the amount you need, and also how much preparation is involved, so that you can plan accordingly.  

Sarah and I were hoping to capture the first tastes of spring by foraging nettles, and the blossoms of cherry trees, maple trees, and red flowering currant, and were delighted that Carmelle LeMaistre, a registered acupuncturist in Victoria, was willing to teach us about plant identification and foraging, and share some recipes. It was a lovely experience, wandering near a lake, paying attention to what was growing. We took small amounts of each blossom, careful not to pick branches bare, or take much more than the blossom itself. When we found a stinging nettle patch, we made sure to carefully cut the leaves from the stem with a hand pruner so that we did not get stung. It is worth noting that heating, drying, or soaking in water destroys the formic acid that causes the sting.1 In addition, the best time to pick nettle leaves is in the spring, as older plants develop crystals that make them gritty, and may cause urinary tract problems when consumed. While all of these plants can be used as food, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has a long history of use as a botanical medicine, and is commonly used for seasonal allergies and as a source of iron. With our bounty, we planned on making fermented honey with the cherry and red flowering currant blossoms, herbal infused vinegar with the maple and red flowering currant blossoms, and nettle tea. Throughout this process of gathering wild plants, I felt a sense of gratitude, not only for the treats that nature provides, but also for the people who passed along their knowledge about edible and medicinal plants that grow locally. I feel particularly grateful to be foraging plants on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen people, and appreciate the fact that much of our understanding of medicinal plants comes from Indigenous communities. 

In, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, there is a chapter where she relates her childhood memories of wild strawberry picking to understanding nature as a gift. She wrote, “Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet…Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.”4 On reading this, I was struck by how beautiful it is to understand nature in this way, and how relevant it is in conversations about not only wild foraging, but also about conservation and environmentalism in general. By accepting gifts, like wild blueberries and blossoms, we open ourselves up to a relationship with nature that involves reciprocity. Once we feel the benefit of being outdoors, and taste the jam that we made from wild berries, I think we become more invested in protecting the land that remains so that we can all continue to enjoy nature’s gifts. 

  1. Gray, B. (2011). The boreal herbal: wild food and medicine plants of the north. Whitehorse, Yukon: Aroma Borealis Press.
  2. Twohig-Bennet, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: a systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environ Res, 166: 628-637.
  3. Capaldi, C. A., Dopko, R. L., & Zelenski, J. M. (2014). The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 976. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976.
  4. Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions.

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