By Anne DesBrisay
Walking in the weeds inWindsor Park
Amber Westfall is a weed eater. An hour in her instructive company and I was too — now unable to amble through an urban greenspace without salivating at the prospect of all those edibles underfoot.
Armed with a Hori Hori, a very cool Japanese knife/digging tool, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the urban backyard’s bounty, Westfall led a “Jane’s Walk” last week through Windsor Park. We were a group of maybe 20, keen to hear about urban foraging — what are the weeds we walk on daily that can be used as food and medicine. It was very cool.
Here’s what I learned. Garlic mustard with its kidney shaped leaves is entirely edible and can’t be overharvested. It’s an invasive species with a chemical in its roots that discourages native plants. So with this one, you can go wild harvesting with the Hori Hori. Best taken in early spring, when the plant is young and tender, you can eat it raw, or lightly sautéed or you can make a garlic mustard pesto with it as Amber does.
In amongst the garlic mustard if we looked closely, were fiddleheads. From the ostrich ferns, discernible due to the deep groove in their celery shaped stalk, fiddleheads are the tightly curled sprouts of very early ferns — the smaller the better — typically found right now in deep shady forests.
Respectful harvesting is required to protect next year’s population. Best to boil them – never eat them raw – and then fry them up with lots of butter and salt.
In the same patch of shaded green were raspberry bushes. Most of us wait another month or two for the berries to come. Amber loves the leaves harvested before flowering in early June. Raspberry leaf is high in magnesium, potassium, iron, and b-vitamins and makes a marvellous tea. Long recognized as of benefit to women in pregnancy, birth, and beyond, you can use the leaves freshly plucked, or dry them out completely for a cuppa later on.
Fifty feet away was a patch of stinging nettles. We learned how to “grasp the nettle” before the nettle grasps you: its formic acid can produce a rash, welts, and a nasty prickly burning sensation. Amber went right in, crushing the hairs before they did any damage. Cooked or dried, it loses its sting. Great in soups, loaded with iron, nettles are a non native weed you can pick pretty freely. And if it does get you before you get it, no worries. Growing nearby, you will find likely find the ridged, bell shaped plantain leaf. Pick it, crush it, spit on it and rub it on the sting. Gone.
And I’m sorry to have to tell you that you are probably too late for this tip. The flower of the young budding maple tree is entirely edible. Plucked and put into salads they are not just terribly pretty, but filled with sweet nectar. Who knew? The great Canadian tree that keeps on giving…
If you’re keen to learn more, Amber Westfall offers lots of green walks.
You can find her here: www.thewildgarden.ca.