Photo: Centre image: Dame's Rocket, Bottom left clockwise: Lamb's Quarters, Wild Sweet Peas, Mouse-Ear Chickweed, Purslane and Ox-Eye Daisy
BLOG 18: Why are some of us afraid of gathering and eating wild plants? Okay, let’s face it, why are most of us afraid of gathering and eating wild plants? When I try to nudge someone into trying a wild edible from the local woods, the biggest fear is usually ‘ooh, what if it tastes bad or bitter?’ or ‘how do YOU know if it is not a poisonous look-alike!’ or ‘what if I eat this and die?!’.
The fear surrounding your backyard edibles is very disconcerting to me because poisonous plants in Ontario are relatively rare and easy to avoid. Don’t get me wrong as these are very valid questions for beginning foragers. Death is very scary but bad or bitter taste? Have you heard of recipes? Spices? Maybe all you need to know is how bitters are extremely important liver cleansers and the liver in turn cleanses the rest of your organs. Bitter greens are your friends, baby. Embrace them. Spice them up if you must because your health depends on them.
Some of your backyard edible weeds are more nutritious than expensive supermarket vegetables. Fortunately, I wasn’t born disliking bitters or with the ‘fear gene’ and have been eating and nibbling on backyard edibles since I was a pre-schooler. Like a lot of children, I sucked on lilac and bugloss flowers to get a hint of sweetness from them. I chewed on sour wood-sorrel and ate wild strawberries and blueberries every chance I got. Sure, I ate some bad stuff, but my tongue reacted immediately and made me spit it out before actually ingesting the offensive plant. Please, if you let me, I can help you change your fear of wild food and help you become empowered to forage freely for your health. Free nutritious weeds will only cost you exercise and fresh air. How bad can that be? I truly hope this article dispels the myth that foraging is unwise and dangerous because this is far from the truth in our region and the rest of Canada.
Okay, so let me answer the questions about the fear of toxic look-alikes and possible poisonings. Below are some interesting facts you need to know. According to McGill University, there are roughly 5000 species of plants in Canada. This number also includes non-indigenous plants brought intentionally by settlers and some accidentally but doesn’t include coniferous plants or fungi). How many of these plant species are toxic? You can get a list of toxic plants from The Ontario Poison Centre. They list 123 toxic plants in Ontario and only 61 out of the 123 are so worrisome that if ingested you must call them immediately. According to the poison control centre poisonous (toxic) plants can produce reactions from minor discomfort to organ failure and sometimes even death. They break toxic plants down into five categories: those plants that have toxic ingredients, like the alkaloids in nightshade, for example; plants that have allergens, like ragweed; those that cause dermatitis, like poison ivy; plants that cause internal poisoning, like foxglove; and plants that cause injury, like the thorns on a rose bush. As mentioned, they list 61 poisonous plants out of a possible 5000 plants species growing in Canada. I believe we have 3800 out of 5000 species living in Ontario. Therefore, that’s roughly a potential 1.6% of serious toxic plants out of all the plants in our province. Furthermore, we know that plants have specific habitants they can survive in so in any given subarea, (i.e. northern Ontario, southern, central, etc.) there is only a handful of the 61 poisonous plants that you need to avoid in your immediate surroundings. There is no way all 61 live near you but knowing and studying all 61 is encouraged for any Ontario forager.
The question then is why are we so afraid of being poisoned? Knowing the handful of poisonous plants in your area is an easy undertaking and foolproof for one’s safety. Safe foraging practices can be easily enjoyed with a little research or a good ID book. If you do not want to learn and study these plants, you can easily hire a guide to forage with you or train you in plant identification. Foraging is a very important long forgotten practice to most Canadians. Foraging gets us out into Nature, gives us clean oxygen, exercise and improves our mental wellbeing almost instantly! Fear of a handful of recognizable toxic plants is silly in my opinion compared to the benefits of foraging for wild food. More importantly foraging will give us a nutrient dense and diverse diet our body depends on for a healthy immune system and function. With cash crops we have become stuck on a nutritiously limited diet that has been scientifically proven dangerous many times over.
What else is going on? Why did we give up the power to feed ourselves a diverse diet, especially wild greens? Colourful foods hold the key to our health, but green foods have proven to be the most important and an absent colour on many Canadian plates. When and why did we stop remembering the importance of eating flowers? Flowers? Yes, delicious flowers. 4000 plant species of the 5000 that live in Canada are flowering plants. Flowering plants are dependent on bugs, butterflies, bats and birds. Its no wonder flowers are very important to biodiversity and to our diet. Flowers in our diet give us unique phytochemical nutrients found in their different colours.
Imagine the time it would take to try to get all those essential colours in our daily diet with limited hybrid cash crops. Why not just sprinkle a handful of edible flowers in your salad? No need to live in the kitchen. Really, why the heck are we eating the same 20 or so plants over and over and over again anyway? Its seriously not healthy.
Get to know and study the poisonous plants in your area and shake your fears. Be empowered. Become a backyard forager. Study your local wild foods, google time honoured and delicious recipes. We don’t have to invent the wheel here.
Share this information with a child. They will forever remember us for teaching them about our love for our backyard sanctuary, our love for our highlands and ultimately our love for this incredibly beautiful complex place we call Earth.
Incredibly Nutritious backyard ‘Weeds’ to get you started:
Lamb’s Quarters, Dame’s Rocket, Dandelions, Chickweed, Burdock, Stinging Nettle, Purslane, Common Mallow, Wild Mustard, Wild Lettuce, Oxeye Daisy, Pineappleweed and Shepperd’s Purse.
Please start foraging slowly and in small amounts to get your taste buds and stomach used to wild plants.
Key features for edible weeds pictured above (according to Boutenko):
Chlorophyll rich: CL
Traditional Medicinal: TM
Chickweed (Stellaria spp.) F, L, St, R, C, TM, V
Mild and delicious. Eat fresh. Eat raw like sprouts. Eat cooked like spinach.
Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanrhemum vulgare)
F, L, R, C, P, M, Cl, TM
Flowers are bittersweet & leaves slightly spicy like arugula. Try a small amount in an omelette or salad to add oomf.
Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)
F, L, St, Sd, R, C, V, M, P, O3, Sm, V
White or purple dust is edible and healthy. Plant tastes like spinach.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
L, R, C, V, M, O3, Ve, Sm
Sour but pleasing. Thickens smoothies. Add to salads, sandwiches and stir-fries.
Wild Sweet Pea (Lathyrus latifoluus)
F, L, V, TM, Ve
Slightly sweet like pea sprouts. Eat only tender parts and add to salads or sautéed with asian dishes.
Dame’s Rocket (Hesper matronalis)
F, L, R, C, V
Try frying the flower buds in butter! Leaves add oopf to salad like arugula.
(Sources: A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America. Lee Ann Peterson. NY 1977 (wild food Cooking methods)
Wild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging Sergei Boutenko. Berkeley CA. 2013 (recipes galore)
Weeds of Canada and Northern United States. Royer & Dickinson. Alberta. 1999. (written for farmers but indispensable for foragers, pics of every stage of the weed))