Being out in the woods is one of my favourite things in the world. Naturally, being able to source food at the same time makes it even better!
In terms of meeting your energy needs, foraging is a hard sell. The activity itself requires a fair investment of calories. Yields vary depending on when and where you forage, but as a general rule, wild plants have very little in the way of fats and proteins. Good luck meeting your daily calorie requirements on salad greens. In terms of vitamins and minerals, however, foraged foods are a great addition to the diet.
As a bonus for those of us living in northern latitudes, many young forest greens are at their best in early spring, before the short-season vegetable garden has much to offer.
Today I’d like to share my five favorite edible wild plants. I’ve tried to pick things that are relatively ubiquitous across Canada (and into the US) and not too difficult to find.
Berries are first on the list, because they are arguably the most inviting and accessible way to get started with foraging. Possibilities include strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, huckleberries, saskatoons, thimbleberries, and cloudberries depending on your location. My personal favourites are blueberries and saskatoons for their abundance, ease of harvest (compared to the tiny wild strawberries, for example) and ability to store fresh for a bit without getting too mushy.
What and How
The sky is the limit when it comes to using and storing berries. I eat them fresh, use them in muffins and pies, and incorporate them into other recipes whenever I can. As for long-term storage, berries can be dried or canned, but I find popping them in the freezer whole to be easiest. Avoid having the berries freeze into solid clumps by first freezing as a single layer on a cookie sheet before transferring to Ziploc bags.
When and Where
Berries love disturbed sites, which makes them easy to find along trails, in clear-cuts, and along rural roads. The different types of berries are generally ready to harvest sequentially: wild strawberries in late spring, then blueberries and saskatoons, and finally raspberries and thimbleberries later in the summer.
The first rule of foraging is to know what you’re harvesting. Don’t eat something unless you are 100% sure what it is. Local research is essential for safe foraging. Here are a couple examples of toxic berries you may encounter in Canada.
A favourite at many farmers markets in spring, fiddleheads are a tender delicacy reminiscent of asparagus. They are basically just very young ferns that haven’t unfurled yet. The Ostrich Fern (Matteucia sp.) is probably the most popular species to look for. The Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is another good choice.
When and Where
The fiddlehead season is a short window of only a few weeks in mid-spring. In my area, it is usually a few weeks after the snow melts, and just before the onset of mosquito season. Look for fiddleheads in swamps, near creeks, and other wet areas. My best sites require rubber boots.
HINT: It is considerably easier to find adult ferns than it is to locate the immature fiddleheads. Go out in summer, identify ostrich ferns, and mark the spots for the following spring. Once you know what to look for, you’ll likely stumble across more sites than you need!
To avoid a nasty case of gastroenteritis, fiddleheads need to be cooked carefully. Boil for 15 minutes, as per Health Canada’s guidelines for safe fiddlehead consumption. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinu) is a species best avoided, as an increased risk of stomach cancer is associated with frequent consumption!
3. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Despite its reputation for nasty skin burns, stinging nettle can be rendered safe to consume and delicious simply by boiling it. It’s good for you too. For those interested in the details on stinging nettle’s nutrition and potential health benefits, this article is worth a read.
When and Where
Stinging nettle is at its best in early spring, when the plants have only a few sets of leaves. Identify it by its oval to lance-shaped and deeply-ridged leaves with toothed edges. It is common in wet soil, in open forests, and near disturbed sites.
How to Use Safely
You will be certain of stinging nettle’s identity if you accidentally graze a leaf with bare skin. The plant is covered in sharp hollow spines called trichomes, which release formic acid and histamine when broken. Good gloves are a must for harvesting without getting stung.
Stinging nettle is ideal for soups and stirfries, since its spines necessitate boiling before it can be consumed anyway. Boiling for only a few seconds is sufficient to nuke the spines, but I tend to boil for 10 minutes to eliminate bacteria and other nasties, as as recommended with the fiddleheads. Although I was unable to find definitive evidence, stinging nettle is also reputed to potentially cause uterine contractions. To be safe, I’d avoid consuming this plant if pregnant.
4. Prickly Wild Rose (Rosa acicularis)
Wild roses are the source of rosehips, those distinctive little bitter berries that survive into winter and can be made into a Vitamin C-rich tea at any time. There’s nothing better than plants with multiple uses, so today I want to let you in on the secret that the flowers are a real delicacy too! They do a lot to lighten up a wild greens salad that may be on the bitter side otherwise.
When and Where
I remember wild roses from my childhood in the suburbs – when I started seeing them in bloom in my neighbourhood, the last day of school was only a few weeks away! They can be found anywhere there’s greenery – along roadsides or deeper in the forest – and they favour locations with good sun exposure and well-drained soil. The flowers bloom for several weeks in late spring and early summer.
5. Cattail (Typha latifolia)
Last but certainly not least, cattail is another plant with multiple uses. The taste of the tender stems is somewhere between pasta and asparagus. Starch can be extracted from the roots, the leaves can be used to weave mats and baskets, and the pollen can even be eaten as a flour-like source of protein. I have yet to try all of these at this point!
When and Where
Look for cattails on the shores of lakes and slow-moving rivers. They are a very common plant; the challenge is finding a body of water that is free from motor boats, away from roads, and not downstream of a septic field, mine, landfill, or anything else unsavoury.
This brings us to our biggest caution. Cattails are great for polluted environments, as they sop up toxins from the water they’re growing in. While avoiding contaminated sites is obviously smart no matter what you’re foraging for, extra care should be taken to only eat cattails growing in clean water.
In some areas, people may also worry about confusing cattails with Blue Flag iris (Iris versicolor), but once the plant’s namesake seed head forms, identifying the cattail is easy. If you’re looking for tender stalks earlier in the season, check out the leaves to be certain.
How to Harvest and Use
I saved this section for last because all the uses of cattails would be a whole post (or two!) unto itself. Because this is meant to be a primer to whet your appetite for foraging, I want to share my favourite, super simple way to use cattails.
First, I simply pull out the stalk. This leaves the root in place to grow a new plant. I strip away all the leaves and foamy outer layers until all that’s left is the edible inner core. The bottom 10-15 cm can be fried in butter or oil and eaten as as, or as a pasta substitute.
That should be enough to get any new forager started! What have you been finding in the woods this summer?