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Eating wild plants is a ‘world that needs to be rediscovered’

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Eating wild plants is a ‘world that needs to be rediscovered’
  • How Italy is protecting a northern glacier
  • Waterton Lakes National Park’s amazing recovery from the 2017 wildfire

Eating wild plants is a ‘world that needs to be rediscovered’

dandelion seeds
(Forij Thrills)

Many of us look forward to sinking our teeth into fresh tomatoes or lettuce from our gardens. But there are lots of edible plants around us that most of us either haven’t noticed or never thought of eating.

Julie Walker thinks we should. She’s the owner and program director of Full Circle Adventures, a company that offers edible plant walks in Calgary parks. She has run foraging outings for local chefs and landowners, and is now involved in wild food gardening.

As a hiking guide and outdoor educator, Walker noticed that people enjoyed the natural landscapes but knew very little about the greenery around them. Many had “no appreciation” of the value of nature “until we start talking about food,” she said.

After an edible plant walk, “what people experience is this greater sense of wow about nature,” Walker said. “There’s this human history connected with this.”

That history includes the local Indigenous people, who developed a deep knowledge of and relationship with edible and medicinal plants over thousands of years, as well as European settlers, who brought many edible plants with them.

Walker’s favourite edible plants include wild versions of onions, chives and mint, along with fireweed, a native plant that she says you can eat like asparagus — steamed, boiled or in omelettes.

At some point in the past, all humans relied on foraging for food, said Katelyn Landry, creative director of Forij Thrills in London, Ont., which puts on events involving food foraged in urban backyards. “There’s just this whole other world that needs to be rediscovered,” she said. “It brings a lot of joy and fulfillment and excitement.”

Landry’s events have included a tea party where the tea was made with cedar and rose petals, as well as workshops where chocolate was infused with wild violets and dandelion seeds were used as sprinkles to decorate cakes.

“There are some extremely delicious plants that we are completely oblivious to literally growing outside of our doorsteps,” she said. Seeing the clovers, dandelions and violets in your lawn as food instead of weeds makes people less inclined to litter or use pesticides, Landry said. “We’re going to be more likely to take care of the nature around us.”

Steve Leckman is director of Coyote Programs in Montreal, which offers nature connection programs, including foraging workshops. Some of the wild foods he recommends include dandelion and burdock — plants brought over by Europeans that are now considered weeds. 

Leckman is also fond of cattail, which has edible roots, shoots and pollen. “Any time of year, there’s always something delicious about it,” he said.

While some edible wild plants risk being overharvested if too many people forage for them, Leckman said that by picking plants like garlic mustard, “you’ll be doing diversity in the forest a favour.” (I can tell you from personal experience that garlic mustard makes delicious pesto.)

Some wild plants have toxic lookalikes, and the differences may be tricky to learn. Leckman recommends getting to know just three plants at a time and getting to know them well.

The risk of picking toxic plants and concerns about overharvesting can be avoided through the approach Walker recommends: growing your own edible plant gardens and wild food forests. 

Compared to traditional vegetables, they have a longer season and are easier to grow, since they’re adapted to the local climate. “It actually creates a food experience from April to September,” she said.

Walker said such gardens and forests also create habitat and a healthy food chain for local wildlife, including insects. 

“We’re feeding nature and we’re feeding ourselves,” she said.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

In response to Elizabeth Chiu’s article last week on turning reclaimed fishing gear into plastic timber, Chris Shibata of Waterloo, Ont., had this to say:

“I hate to break the ‘bad news’ about plastic wood from fishing gear, but back in the dark ages (mid ’70s), my elder daughter received a birthday gift from her grandparents in Japan. The big box that arrived contained a dollhouse built out of plastic ‘wood’ made from fishing gear salvaged from the waters around Japan. It looked just like wood, right down to the wood grain, colour and finish, and proved indestructible despite years of very rough handling by both our daughters and their friends. I’ve often wondered why this lumber never seemed to catch on but perhaps now its time has come.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Slowing glacier melt in Italy

The fact that the world is warming has compelled some people to take drastic — and in some cases ingenious — steps to protect our most precious natural resources. Take the Presena glacier in the Italian Alps, which has lost more than 30 per cent of its mass since 1993. A little over a decade ago, conservationists launched an ambitious gambit — after ski season was over, they would cover a large chunk of the glacier with white tarps to block the sun’s rays. In 2008, they managed to blanket 30,000 square metres. This year, it’s 100,000 square metres. The organizers of this annual undertaking say these measures reduce melting during summer.

presena glacier
(Miguel Medina/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Lockdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic are affecting the environment. One example is that as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, many governments — particularly in Brazil and Indonesia — are having difficulty dealing with illegal deforestation and forest fires. All of this smoke, in turn, is exacerbating respiratory illnesses and making people more susceptible to COVID-19, according to one U.S. public health expert.

  • Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house reopened after its COVID-19 lockdown with a string quartet performance of Puccini’s Crisantemi (Italian for chrysanthemums) in front of an audience of more than 2,000 house plants. The spectacle was meant to remind people of the importance of nature in our lives — and each plant was subsequently donated to a Spanish health-care worker.

‘Nature knows what to do’: Waterton Lakes National Park’s amazing recovery from the 2017 wildfire

waterton lakes national park
(Parks Canada)

This story is part of World on Fire, a five-part CBC podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Listen to it here.

When a wildfire hit Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta in 2017, some conservationists wondered what would become of the picturesque mountain ecosystem. The fire incinerated more than 19,000 hectares of forest and grassland — nearly 40 per cent of the park.

“Some of us were wondering, ‘Gosh, what is going to happen here?'” said Kim Pearson, a Parks Canada ecosystem scientist in Waterton.

It all began when lightning from an intense storm on Aug. 30, 2017, struck Kenow Mountain in B.C., igniting the fire close to the park boundary. The fire moved north at a staggering speed, spreading through the grasslands along the park’s entrance road. While the townsite was saved, park buildings, bridges and trails were destroyed. The flames did not subside until the snow fell.

Large swaths of forest were left smouldering and black. The landscape had evolved with fire, but Pearson said that in three centuries, it had never experienced one this large. 

“The Kenow wildfire was a lot larger than what’s come before,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for there to be fires of that size in this ecosystem, but what was unique about it is that it moved really fast, it moved at night and the behaviour of that fire was [of] a really high intensity.” 

Tree cover over much of the park was destroyed. While some animals died, many survived — even thrived — in the post-fire ecosystem. Trail cameras throughout the park captured bears and cougars on the move in the days following the fire. 

Two years later, the park has undergone extreme ecological changes. Without a dense forest canopy to block the sun, plants and flowers quickly returned, allowing new life to take hold.

Elk, bear and deer are still plentiful and smaller mammals are thriving in the rich new growth. Visitors to the park will see verdant, lush vistas surrounding the park’s glacial lakes.

“Spectacular fields of wildflowers on mountain slopes — that’s been one of the most surprising parts of the post-fire environment,” Pearson said, pointing across a bubbling creek to a slope covered in large tufts of grass. 

“I think a lot of people would be hard-pressed to know that a fire had happened here just a couple years ago and stripped it of all the living vegetation.” 

Researchers within the park continue to monitor the ecological changes. It may take years to fully understand how Waterton’s habitat has been altered. But there is no doubt the park is teeming with life. Destruction has given way to renewal. 

“It might take a little while, but if you look closely, there are a lot of positive things happening. There is still life in those areas. It’s not a dead area,” Pearson said.

“Nature knows what to do. It comes back, and it’s fascinating.” 

— Wallis Snowdon

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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