(What is hopefully) stinging nettle at the Rosedale Ravine
A few weeks back I posted excerpts from an interview with Elliott Katz, author of Great Country Walks Around Toronto, where I asked him to describe a few of his favorite, well, great country walks around Toronto. Ever the adventurer, I promised myself I’d go on each of his suggested strolls, performing a little scavenger hunt while doing so. On my last walk I ventured out to the Humber Arboretum and watched a few young deer feasting on tree shoots. This time, I took to the Rosedale Ravine, the place that initially inspired Elliott to write his book:
“When I first came to Toronto I was looking for a job, and one day I decided I would go for a walk, just to take a break. Someone had told me about the Rosedale Ravine. The route started just right in the center of Toronto, Yonge and St-Clair. [I went] down this staircase into this ravine, and suddenly I was walking along a stream through a forest, and I felt transported miles out of the city.”
In addition to the fruit trees that we have growing in people’s backyards, Toronto also has a wide variety of edible wild plants growing through the sidewalk cracks and through the city’s many natural spaces. For this week’s scavenger hunt, I decided I’d try to pinpoint as many edible wild plants as I could in the Rosedale Ravine and by the nearby Don River. Since I am no expert, I also decided to speak with someone who was. Carolynne Crawley is a holistic nutritionist and an educator for a food security organization, who is also an active urban forager.
What to forage:
Carolynne Crawley: In Toronto there are lots of trees that grow fruit. There is an abundance of berries throughout the city. People have a lot of trees for ornamental purposes that are actually producing fruits that are edible, like serviceberries or mulberries, or even sumac. I am part of Not Far From The Tree, so I did a lot of fruit picking last year and in previous years, which was a great way to access Toronto’s fruit.
Right now I have been harvesting basswood or leaves from the linden tree. When the leaves are coming out and are young and fresh and green, they actually are quite tasty and taste like romaine lettuce.You can make teas that are really high in Vitamin C from pine needles, which was a remedy that First Nations peoples introduced to Europeans to prevent scurvy.
The dandelion is probably the most common [edible wild plant]. The leaves are edible, you can eat them raw in salads or smoothies, they are good for your kidneys. The roots can be harvested from autumn until early spring. The roots are good to eat, they are really strong and help strengthen your liver. The flowers are also edible, but you just want to make sure that you do not eat the green part underneath, so you have to actually pull out the pedals. Those pedals have a good source of Vitamin C. Plantain is also very common, growing out of those cracks in the sidewalks.
Others would be purslane, chickweed, lamb’s quarters, red clover, thistle, milkweed, stinging nettle, violas (a purple flower that is up right now), burdock, wild grape, and garlic mustard. Garlic mustard is something that people see as quite invasive. I know there are programs around the city in parks where people are eradicating it, but if they knew that while they are pulling out that garlic mustard they can actually make a pesto or add it to their salads then you have actually taken that plant and shown gratitude towards it instead of just tossing it away. There are even wild leeks that grow in the city, but there are ethics around harvesting that.
(What is hopefully) Garlic mustard at the Rosedale Ravine
There are lots of wild mushrooms that grow throughout the city, you will see them on people’s lawns, like shaggy mane, bolete, fried chicken mushrooms.
Where to forage:
Carolynne: Use judgment when harvesting. General rules for foraging will be that you should only harvest so many metres away from roads. When we look at the city, that is pretty much everywhere. I would avoid harvesting anything near railroad tracks especially, just because of the residue on whatever it is that you are harvesting. Refrain from harvesting near polluted waters (streams, rivers) because these plants have root systems that go up to 200 feet deep, and so if it is close to that water then that is something to be concerned about. I know there are people that do forage in parks, but there are bylaws which can be problematic because you cannot legally go out into a park and harvest.
What I usually teach people is to learn the plants that are growing in your own backyard. Of all of the plants I mentioned, quite a few of them will pop up in the garden. If you feel OK growing food in your backyard then you should be OK with something else growing there. If you are growing tomatoes, why not harvest those plants that are considered so-called weeds?
Community gardens are great place to be harvesting wild plants, so it is helpful to find community gardens where people are weeding. You can harvest from your neighbour, or if you have friends with backyard space. I have even approached people if I see something growing on their front lawn; sometimes I will knock on someone’s door and ask if I can harvest something (and also ask them if they have sprayed anything on their lawn). Generally people do not want the weeds on the front lawn, so they are like: go for it. You can even make arrangements where you say something like “I don’t mind coming in your backyard doing some weeding if you let me take it home”. You can also do this with farms and farmers, but they are outside of the city.
Unidentified aromatic wild plant along the Don River. Can you identify it?
How to forage:
Carolynne: Proper identification is really key. Learn how to identify, because it is really important to look at significant details when harvesting. Ideally you want to know what the toxic berries are in the area. Some of the most common poisonous plants that are growing in this area would be nightshades. Nightshades tend to look quite different from edibles, but one plant, virginia creeper, can be mistaken for wild grape. If you look closely at the fruit, leaf, branching, then you won’t mistaken a poisonous plant for something edible.
Don’t overharvest. Take into consideration that there may be other species that have to rely on that plant for food. A lot of times people say not to take more than ten percent. That can be tricky, because if I am taking ten percent, and then someone else comes after me and takes ten percent, and then someone after that, all of a sudden we could wipe out a plant. For example, wild leeks grow in the city and they are overharvested, and it takes many years to grow a colony to reproduce. Take only what you need. Sometimes people get really excited, harvest a lot, and it goes into their fridge where gets forgotten and starts to mold or rot.
Make sure you have the right plants for identification, that you are harvesting the right part of the plant at the right time. Some plants have to be prepared very specifically, like milkweed, which is growing all around the city. Have gratitude. When people from First Nations communities would harvest, they would ask permission before harvesting a plant, and also offer tobacco and give thanks. Have fun with it, really connect with nature. Foraging is a great opportunity to slow down and to experience the whole picture when you are picking that plant, look around and listen to the bird language, notice the insect, notice that web of life and really have that deep appreciation for it.