Wild Edibles in Your Own Backyard

Blair Richards-Koeslag

Blair Richards-Koeslag speaking to the GrassRoots Growers this fall. (Photo by Richard Saxe)
[This article appears in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of The SCOOP.]

Learning about wild edibles is an exciting and fun way to relate to the wilderness around you. My fall presentation, hosted by the GrassRoots Growers, was about just that, wild edibles in your own backyard. I talked about plants that are probably growing in your yard and have generally been weeded out. The primary focus of the talk was to encourage the attendees to respect and care for the community that the plants are being harvested from. The talk on October 1 was well attended despite the terrible weather.

Here is a summary of three of the many plants I discussed.

Mallow (Malva neglecta), is popular with little people and big people too. Their seed heads have been nicknamed “fairy cheese.” Mallow can be used as a mild-tasting salad contribution, or a gardener’s snack, as I explained that my favourite way to consume wild edibles is as a grazer, nibbling along the way. The little white flowers can also be added to salads or as a plate garnish, adding a simple beauty to any dish.

Pigweed or wild amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) is a plant sacred to the ancient Aztecs for its energy-giving seeds but has been demoted to a weed in our gardens. Not anymore. Pigweed has replaced spinach in my diet, because of its abundance and frankly, I prefer the flavour. Full of minerals and calcium, it rivals any cultivated green in nutrient value. I fill my freezer up for the winter with these steamed greens. The tiny seeds are used in baking and porridge, are known for their high protein content, and health food stores sell the cultivated varieties at a healthy price. They can be gathered by shaking the seed heads into a brown paper bag.

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica), is our local superfood. Nutrient-dense and easy to identify, if you touch it and it stings you, you've found the right plant. Stinging Nettles are great for tea all winter and if the greens are dried, they can be used in soup or stir-fries and are also great steamed. It is a host plant for many of our local butterflies, so I use it early in the season and then leave it for them to enjoy after I notice the telltale holes of their activity on the leaves.

General guidelines for harvesting wild plants for food or medicine:

  • Make sure you have a positive ID; if you don't, then DON'T HARVEST! Ask your local plant geek (my email is at the bottom) or check a field guide and then double-check with a different field guide. 
  • Make sure you are not in a polluted area or close to a road, factory, or where there has been dumping of toxic chemicals or other contaminants.  
  • Show respect to the plants; remember they are living beings and their main reason for existence is not only for you to have a wild food experience. Find a way to say thank-you that feels good to you.  
  • Leave the location that you harvested from in better condition than you found it. Pick up garbage and if you are digging a root put a new seed from that plant in the hole (if available) you made and cover it up again, neatly. Make sure you ask permission of the landowner before you harvest, or that you are not in a protected eco-system. 
  • The Rule of 7; if there are fewer than seven of the plant do not harvest any, if there are seven you may take one... unless they are endangered or rare then you may take none! If they are an invasive species, you may take them all! Harvest nothing unless you understand their role in the environment and their status under the Endangered Species Act. 
  • Harvest at your own risk. Start with small amounts to make sure you don't have any allergies. Do more research on your own! Always check multiple sources.

Please email Blair with your plant questions at blair.richards.koeslag@gmail.com.

Audience members inspect the array of plants brought to the presentation. (Photo by Richard Saxe)