Leafy wonders of spring foraging

Photo: istockphoto/xjben
A delicious look at wild edibles

The snow is gone and spring greens are popping up! Your body has been through a long, long winter with probably fewer fresh foods and less exercise than it would have liked. There is a beautiful synergy within the natural world which we are fully a part of; Mother Earth seems to know that our bodies need cleansing in the spring, so those first wild edibles that appear are perfect at doing just that for us. They are sometimes stronger flavoured and more bitter than the cultivated foods we are used to, but that is because they are more nutritionally dense. Wild foods are good to incorporate into our diets at any time of year – but the spring is especially important.

Dandelion, garlic mustard, chickweed, henbit, and violets can be found almost anywhere in Ontario in April and May. They can all be eaten raw mixed with other greens in a salad, or used as substitutes for spinach or other leafy greens in any cooked recipe. A quick search online will turn up several recipes specific to each one of these that will really bring out their individual flavours. Pick the new leafy greens and shoots when they are a few inches long and before they get too strongly flavoured and tough. Violet flowers and leaves can be eaten at any time. Start by introducing a small amount into your diet and increase it over a few weeks so your body can adjust, as chowing down on a whole salad of violets would have you running to the washroom pretty fast if that was its first taste of them! A good field guide and the internet can help you ensure proper identification.

Yes, all of the plants I mentioned, except violets, are considered weeds, but in other parts of the world they are spring delicacies. Dandelion was actually brought to the New World expressly as a food source and medicine by the pioneers. If you have a yard you will likely have at least one of these plants growing in it somewhere. If you live in an apartment or condominium I guarantee there will be a park or wild spaces not far from you with several of these species growing in it. And because they are ‘weeds’ you don’t have to worry about overharvesting or getting in trouble for removing them from an area – in fact, it may be considered a favour. Garlic mustard has been deemed invasive in Canada so there are groups of native plant enthusiasts that gather to have garlic mustard removal days in communities across Ontario every spring to try and keep this opportunist in check. You could even tag along on one and invite everyone back to your place for pasta with garlic mustard pesto afterward. Pull the whole plant out, root and all, to help with eradication efforts. Don’t worry, there will most likely be more to be found next year.

Foraging is the most popular of the workshops I teach on being more self-sufficient. It’s a fun activity that the whole family (even the dog!) can partake in. My daughter was picking autumn olives with me at 1 year old in the fall and two of our dogs harvest raspberries and mulberries. You will get to know your community’s wild spaces (or your backyard) more intimately, get some exercise and fresh air, and provide your body with some grade A food at no cost. So get those boots on, grab a basket for your loot, and get out there!

Jessica RobertsonJessica Robertson operates her company, Wild Craft Permaculture, out of her home in London, Ontario. A new mom herself, she helps people grow healthy, low-maintenance food for themselves and their families by mimicking the patterns found in natural ecosystems. She believes in empowering people to be more self-reliant so that communities become more resilient.