Though I have long been a fan of farmers' markets and local awesomeness when it comes to food, it's only in the last few years that I have come to see, learn about and eat the amazing abundance of wild foods that are growing all around us.
Now, if you ask me, a food qualifies as wild when the seeds plant themselves and a new edible plant grows. So while it's true that day lilies appear in my front yard here in Toronto, these were planted. That being said, they aren't really any different from the ones that grow along the dirt roadside up in Northern Ontario where my cottage is. The main difference is that I would eat one and not the other (more details on why below).
So yes, some connoisseurs of wild food may strongly differentiate between the wilds that actually grow wild and those that we plant as decorative but are actually edible.
In the past, I have written extensively about my favourite wild foraged foods, including:
- Blackberries + raspberries
- Chaga mushroom
- Reishi mushroom
- Stinging nettle
- Wild medicinal herbs
Now when you start foraging, there are a few key guidelines you want to follow to ensure you protect your health and ensure the wild foods continue to propagate year after year.
10 Important Guidelines When Harvesting Wild Foods
- Open your eyes. Start to pay attention to the weeds, herbs and other plants that grow in your neighbourhood. You might even want to ask around at your local farmers' market to see if anyone is offering tours. This is a great kickstart to the process so that you can head out with confidence.
- Get some resources. Pick up two or three books on your local ecosystem's wild foods. This is a great starting place. It's ideal to have a book with pictures that show you close up details of different parts of the plant -- the stem, leaves, fruit and/or bloom. These will help you positively identify what you're looking at.
- Make friends with the plants. Once you identify a plant, get to know it! What other plants does it form communities with (like what other plants are often found nearby)? Is it native or invasive? Does it give nutrients to the earth or take from it?
- Identify with confidence. Learn to identify the poisonous plants you are likely to encounter. This is important! It's also important to take note of the plants that have edible or medicinal versions and poisonous versions. Do not eat anything you cannot 150% identify as safe (see point 5). Non-edible look-alikes can fool you. Shapes of leaves can be a helpful guide.
- And then double check. Ensure that you can positively identify the plant in at least 2 different resources.
- Don't be greedy! Be sure you check what plants are endangered in your area. It's not just bad for the environment, it's also illegal. Don't get locked up for harvesting wild leeks! Something super cool you can do with endangered plants is to start sowing their seeds, helping the plant regenerate itself.
- Take only what you need. A lesson for life, really! Only pick as much as you need and never take ALL the plants of any one kind in a given patch.
- Move around. As you are harvesting, don't ever pick an area bare. Pick a small amount from a few different patches and give the areas you have picked a few seasons to recover. Be very careful when harvesting roots as you are taking the whole shebang, which means the death of that plant.
- Stay away from roadsides and public parks. Wild harvesting in parks is not just illegal, but also potentially toxic. Same goes for most food in cities and beside major roads. One of the best things about wild foods is how nutrient packed they are. Don't let that dose of medicine be tainted by pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.
- Say a prayer and toss some seeds! You know how it goes, we must give in order to receive. Make it a fair exchange and once in a while, collect from wild seeds of native plants and cast them to the winds with love and kind words. You'll be amazed at flies back in your direction!
When To Harvest
The best time to harvest wild food depends on the part of the plant you will be using.
- Leaves: Harvest the foliage before they flower. This is how you will maximize the nutritional benefit.
- Flowers: You want to harvest the flowers (like dandelion, chamomile or day lilies) just before they reach their maximum size.
- Roots: Harvest roots such as burdock, chicory or goldenseal in the autumn after the foliage fades.
As for the day lilies that are growing like weeds (wait, are they?) across this fair province, I plucked some unopened day lily buds and set up to preserve them.
Day lilies are just beautiful and like all wild foods, these have some pretty rock star health benefits, too!
Day lily flowers are said to be rich in protein and the closed buds high in vitamin C and beta carotene.
To preserve the buds, I simply washed them and placed them in a 250ml mason jar. I then filled the jar with apple cider vinegar. I will leave them in here for 2-3 months, and then enjoy. Easy as that!
As much as I love when you send me photos of the foods you find, I am not an expert on wild foods. A book is likely your best first step.
What I'd like to know is what you're finding! Share in the comments below your favourite wild foods growing in your neighbourhood!