Tag Archives: Rural living

Top 5 Edible Wild Plants to Forage in the Boreal Forest

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.

1. Berries!

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.

Cautions

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.

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) encompasses a variety of species with clusters of small berries that range in color from powder blue to red-black. One species or another can be found almost anywhere. Note that the berries can be safely consumed if cooked.
American pokewood (Phytolacca americana) has a range extending into Ontario and Quebec.

2. Fiddleheads

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.

Fiddleheads are young ferns, harvested and eaten before they unfurl.

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!

Ostrich fern
Mature ostrich ferns (Matteucia struthiopteris) are much easier to spot than the juvenile fiddleheads. Mark the location of the adult plants in late spring or early summer. The fiddleheads are considerably easier to find in early spring when you already know where to look!

Cautions

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!

Brackenfern can be differentiated from the ostrich fern by its extra leaf division, and from the lady fern by its overall triangular shape.

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.

Often overly-abundant and capable of causing nasty skin burns, stinging nettle is usually considered to be a pest species.

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.

Easy to spot and easy to harvest – just pull the petals off of a Prickly Wild Rose flower and add to salad!

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.

Caution

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.

Cattail plant with distinctive seed head
Cattail can be identified by its tall, upright leaves and distinctive seed head.

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.

Happy Foraging!

That should be enough to get any new forager started! What have you been finding in the woods this summer?

Trappings of Rural Life

My FIRE strategy is predicated on rural living, which means cheap housing on a parcel of productive land. Moving out of the city was an easy decision for me. Crowds, traffic, and expensive housing are not things that hold a lot of appeal. Similarly, going back to the suburbs of my childhood wasn’t really a consideration either, since the additional expenses of a house and yard coupled with a long commute hardly seems worth having a little bit of outdoor space of my own. A truly rural community, on the other hand, offers everything I want. I am very grateful for the quiet and privacy of my lovely little plot of land that I enjoy for a very reasonable price tag. I have learned, however, that there is a lot of work and expense that goes into maintaining a rural property. So I have to ask – is living rural really that different from being a home-owner in the suburbs? Is a rural property just a money pit, or can it be maintained on an early retirement extreme budget?

During my years as a student, I managed to maintain a pretty minimalist lifestyle in various cities around Canada. I had the romantic notion that my low-impact apartment life would transfer over very naturally into a similarly non-materialistic life on a cozy little homestead. Turns out living in a house in the country actually does require more stuff than living in an apartment in the city. It started innocently enough when I first rented a house in my new tiny town. A snow shovel here, a longer extension cord there. No biggie.

Then I finally bought a place of my own and suddenly found myself with nearly two acres of land, a rather long driveway, far too much lawn, and logs that definitely were not going to fit in my wood stove as is. I realized very quickly that I was missing most of the toys and tools that the majority of my neighbours had. Snow blowers. Riding mowers. Power tools. Tractors. Trucks. And here I thought I had managed to avoid the suburbs with its ostentatious cycle of buying large lawn accessories and paying them off. Had I made a mistake? Not really. I had to spend some money, but I managed to avoid going overboard. Here’s how I’ve handled some of the main regular tasks on my property so far:

Keeping the House Warm

I am sold on the whole heating with wood thing. The wood stove takes a significant chunk out of my winter electric bill, creates a warm and pleasant living space, and makes my lifestyle a little more self-sufficient. Additionally, with little more than a good annual cleaning, the wood stove will likely last a lifetime without requiring replacement or major repair.

I started last winter with a full woodshed courtesy of the previous homeowners, but this year I had to source my own supply. There are three big ticket items that would have made this a much easier proposition: a truck, a chainsaw, and a log-splitter. My other option was to buy firewood for $250 CAD / cord, split and delivered. (I need about a cord and a half to get through winter.)

I opted for none of the above. I still had some wood left over from last year as a start and went to work procuring the rest. It took a good part of my summer and fall, but I managed to fill my woodshed for next to nothing. Here’s how that looked:

  • Firewood from own property. This included some that was already split and stacked, as well as fresh deadfall and blowdown that I chopped up by hand. ~25% of this year’s total.
  • Scored a large amount from a friend’s yard clean-up. This was a one-off event which I was very grateful for. I even got some birch and balsam fir. ~50% of this year’s total.
  • Coupling plant-foraging hikes with wood-gathering excursions. There is a lot of deadfull and cut-down along non-motorized recreation trails. I’m not sure if grabbing this is legal so I tried to stay a bit surreptitious. Everything I took was at least a year old and it didn’t look like anyone was coming back for it anyway. ~25% of this year’s total, and by far the most labour-intensive. I think I’d have a pretty hard time getting my whole supply this way.

All firewood brought back to my property was transported in my little car. Fuel costs were quite minimal since I was able to combine my wood gathering activities with outings I’d be doing anyway. No truck needed.

There were definitely times when I could have used a log-splitter. Double that on the chainsaw (though I admit I find the thought of actually using one intimidating). Fortunately I didn’t have too many big logs that required sawing this year. Sawing by hand the few that I did have was time consuming but doable.

I spent even more time splitting wood. The good news is that if this skinny little city girl can split logs, odds are you can too. A splitting awl is the most popular method but a sledge hammer and metal wedge requires less skill. I managed to score the latter tools second-hand and I’m very happy with the combination.

Next year I may have to buy a cord, but expect I’ll be able to get at least half a cord from my own property and foraging elsewhere again. I don’t intend to buy a truck, log-splitter, or chainsaw anytime in the foreseeable future.

Snow Clearing

Gone are the easy days of apartment-living where snow removal was someone else’s problem. Now I have a driveway and a big one at that. I think you know where I’m going with this one – that shovel I bought back in the rental house is getting a bit more use now. It’s good exercise. And if enough people around you have tractors and plows, someone may be willing to help you out. I’m very lucky to have a neighbour down the road who’s plowed me out after a couple of major storms both this year and last. Homemade baking is always good way to say thank you.

So no snow-blower purchased this year, and I have no intention of getting one. During major storms, my road is often not plowed for a couple of days, so I’m not getting out even when my driveway is clear. That’s enough time to shovel it myself if I have to.

Keeping the Grass from Taking Over

I may have a rural property, but there is still almost an acre of good old lawn. The more rural you are, the further you are from the societal pressures of having a perfectly manicured sea of green around your house. Phew! The ridiculousness of North America’s obsession with lawns is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say the last thing I want to put time and money into an environmentally-deleterious status symbol.

That being said, letting the whole yard go back to nature isn’t ideal for a couple of reasons. First, I want to eventually turn a good chunk of the present lawn into a vegetable garden. The only thing harder than digging up clay soil with short grass is trying to dig up clay soil with waist-high grass. Building raised beds on top of tall grass doesn’t work so well either. Secondly, wildfire is a very real risk in summer, and having a ring of short, watered grass around the house is a wise firebreak.

The only thing harder than digging up clay soil with short grass is trying to dig up clay soil with waist-high grass. Building raised beds on top of tall grass doesn’t work so well either. Secondly, wildfire is a very real risk in summer, and having a ring of short, watered grass around the house is a wise firebreak.

So I knew I’d have to have some lawn, but first off I needed to decrease the size of it. I’m letting a fair amount of previously-manicured lawn grow wild and that seemed to work fine last summer. I’m also focusing my efforts on turning as much lawn as I can into garden. What could be more important than producing my own food? So last summer when I wasn’t splitting firewood, I was digging up lawn to make room for potatoes and pumpkins. I don’t feel like I’ve made much of a dent in the area that requires mowing so far, but it’s a start. Every year I will have a little more land dedicated to growing vegetables.

And the remaining ~0.75 acres that I still have to mow? I thought about livestock or taking a chance on a second-hand mower. I’d love to be able to say that I got a flock of sheep, or managed to barter my way into free lawn care, but I admit I went the conventional route on this one. I spent $500 on new self-propelled push mower, and I don’t regret it. The self-propulsion is a luxury that I am very thankful for in the heat of summer. (Also l’d much rather save my energy for expanding and tending the garden!)

Conclusions

So there you have it. This is what I learned:

  1. Do stuff by hand. Exercise keeps you healthy, and you can also save money on a gym membership, as well as on labour-saving tools. If physical work outdoors is not something you enjoy, this style of early retirement extreme is probably not for you.
  2. Get creative – scavenging and using social capital are always options, as are any other ideas you might come up with to avoid buying something.
  3. When you do have to make a purchase, buy as low down on the food chain as you can (e.g. car over truck, push mower over riding mower).

When I look around, I sometimes feel that there is a very fine line between suburban and rural lifestyles. Having a larger property can become a gateway for lifestyle inflation and an excuse to buy bigger versions of all the home and lawn toys found in the ‘burbs. If both FIRE and living rural is what you want, you have to find your own path to having a functional and economical homesteading set-up, and not just another suburban house and yard that ends up costing reams of money.

Rural or suburban, homeownership is expensive. There is a great argument for renting. Your house costs you money each month in the form of insurance, property taxes, routine maintenance, and larger repairs and upgrades. Then again, where I live, all of the above plus a monthly mortgage payment (assuming you put 20% down) is less than renting an equivalent property (and both options are cheap). If you can carve out a livelihood in a place like this – and want to stay once you achieve financial independence – buying can be justified.

What about all the time spent actually doing the maintenance? By the conventional argument of specialization (i.e. get a lot of education and make a lot of money doing the one thing you’ve been trained to do), it would make a lot more sense for me to work more hours and use that money to pay someone else a lower hourly rate to do the other stuff for me. But oddly enough, I actually like looking after my property. And I definitely find it more rewarding than the hours I spend at my job. Actually, most days I’d rather clean my bathroom than go to work. You will have to put your own dollar value on time not spent at your day job vs time not spent working on house and property to determine if it’s better to consider trading more time for more money. (And if your answer is “Not being at work is always better!” then you are probably on the right track with early retirement extreme.)

I believe that FIRE is about finding the balance between using brains, muscle, and social capital to avoid unnecessary spending, while buying what you need to maintain a reasonable quality of life. My first year and a half on my home sweet home has been good and I have no regrets so far.

What do you need to keep your property running? Are there any expensive tools you absolutely have to have? What are you able to get by without? Or are you taking a pass on homeownership in order to avoid these sort of questions?