We all have to eat; we might as well eat well.
Eating well can be more than a strict fixation on carbs, sugars, gluten, or whatever else it is we’re supposed to be extra-worried about this year. It can be a way to get to know the physical place you live in, to connect with the landscape around you. Being able to get even a small amount of food from the plants growing wild around you is a wonderful expression of the difference between living in a place and dwelling in that place.
Harvesting wild plants is a rewarding experience. Not only does it result in unusual edibles (often much higher in nutrients than domesticated plants), but it forges a real connection with the ecosystem around you.
To know the use of something is to know its possibilities, to assign it a possible future. Knowing that the plants around you, in addition to being beautiful and a habitat for animals, are a source for food makes you more connected to them. It’s a connection we could all do with a little more of.
What follows are some of my favourite edible plants native to Manitoba. They can all be found growing wild within the city (there’s more wilderness in the bigger parks than most people realize), are safe (have few lookalikes), and are also all eminently suitable for planting in your (or your parents’) home garden. If you’re going to plant, you may as well plant things that are a source of food.
When harvesting wild plants, always be careful to select from plants that haven’t been covered in herbicides or pesticides and to avoid plants that are growing in old industrial sites or along rail lines. Be respectful of others who might be looking to use them after you (including wildlife), and avoid harvesting all of the plants at a given location.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
You’ve probably heard it before, but I’ll repeat it here – dandelions are totally edible. Every single part of the plant is edible, and they grow everywhere. Apart from the omnipresent threat of them being covered in herbicides, you could spend days harvesting them from around the city.
The leaves (youngest are best) make a great salad green, or they can be boiled like spinach. They’re high in iron and vitamin A. The roots can also be used to make a cocoa substitute. For this, medium-sized roots work best. The flowers make a good base for fritters, or can be eaten plain.
Dandelions are very hardy plants, and if you start harvesting leaves or flowers early in the season, you could come back to the same plant several times.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
If you’ve ever passed a stand of tall green plants growing in a ditch or other wet place and thought to yourself “that looks like a bunch of weed,” chances are it wasn’t weed, but stinging nettle. Probably our most abundant local plant for herbal teas, stinging nettle is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as iron and protein.
The leaves from the plants are best harvested when the plants are young (or if the plants are older, pick only the youngest, most tender leaves). Wear gloves to avoid getting “stung” by the barbs covering the stalk of the plant. The leaves can be used for tea, or chopped up to make a good addition to soups. They make a good addition to pretty much anything, actually – healthy, abundant, and easily recognizable, stinging nettle is the poster-child for local plants.
Caragana (Caragana spp.)
Not native, but naturalized, Caragana was once very popular as a hedge plant. You can find lots of it in older residential neighbourhoods. In the form of a large shrub, Caragana will be found covered in yellow flowers in early summer. These flowers are edible, and make a colourful addition to salads. If unsure of the identification, keep in mind that the flowers look exactly like pea-flowers, which isn’t surprising, as they come from the same family. The pods that the flowers turn into are not edible.
Caragana was the first plant I learned to eat from. As a child walking home from school I would pick the flowers off a local hedge, bite off the tips, and suck the nectar out. There isn’t much of this sweet nectar (which is why the flowers are best accompanied by dressing in salads), but it’s a lovely treat on a hot day.
Wild Rose (Rosa spp.)
Wild rose petals are edible all on their own, having a soft, delicate perfume unlike anything we’re accustomed to in a modern diet. They also make a good addition to salads, or as garnish for deserts. Rose hips are a distinctively shaped fruit best harvested in fall, which can be collected and dried. Just add five to 10 to boiling water for a refreshing tea. This tea tastes very distinctly of apple, and is a source of vitamin C.
The plants can grow into a respectable hedge, and are a favourite nesting place for songbirds.
Milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca, A. speciosa, A. ovalifolia)
Apart from being an excellent plant to attract butterflies (swamp milkweed is the only food source for monarch butterflies), milkweed is a very hardy native perennial. If you plant it in your garden, you can expect it to form almost pure stands.
The buds, flowers, seed pods, and new shoots are all edible. The flowers can be used to make fritters, and the rest of the plant can be cooked in water and then added to stir-fries. The milky white sap can also be applied as a treatment for warts.
If you’re interested in learning more about native plants, local author and first-rate plant lover Laura Reeves has written a book called Laura Reeves’ Guide to Useful Plants – From Acorns to Zoom Sticks.