This week we’ve been putting in some time around the various plots on campus, trying to manage those pesky invading plants which seem to be establishing their presence at a faster rate than we’d like. Weeds can be a nightmare for gardeners, since their aggressive tendencies help them crowd out the crops you want and hog the water and nutrients that all plants need to thrive. By enriching your soil with compost, manure, and giving it regular, plentiful doses of water, you can make your plants healthy enough to assert themselves in the garden space, but you will also be making your plot more inviting to crowding invaders. Although the ancient, ongoing battle between gardeners and weeds makes it difficult to see them as anything more than a mortal enemy, with some understanding of what these plants are and how to work with them, it is possible to strategically use them as an ally.
Many of the weeds that pop up in our gardens and around the city are actually edible plants that were introduced to North America by earlier generations of settlers. Some of them were used as medicinal herbs, others as vegetables with healthful nutritive properties. By learning a little bit more about the plants that grow out of the crags and cracks around your neighbourhood or on campus, you might end up discovering your favorite new ingredient in a salad or smoothie. Furthermore, the very trait that makes us consider certain plants to be “weeds” (their adaptability to new environments and climates), might also make them useful plants for food security in the face of climate change. As the Transcendentalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “a weed is a plant whose virtues have not been discovered.”
Emerson’s quote was brought to our attention by Carolynne Crawley, a holistic nutritionist and educator for a food security organization, who is also an active forager of wild foods. We spoke with Carolynne about the more common edible wild plants that grow in Toronto, and why it is important to recover knowledge that has been lost to time.
RYERSON HOMEGROWN: What got you interested in learning about edible weeds?
CAROLYNNE CRAWLEY: Because I work in a food security organization, I thought: what better way to secure food than to recognize that there is food growing all around us? My interest in wild foods was partly for nutritional purposes, but also to reconnect with nature and to acknowledge my ancestral appreciation. Our ancestors were able to go into the woods and forage for their foods and medicine, and went through many challenges to gain that knowledge. Much of that knowledge has been lost over time. For me it was out of respect and appreciation for those who walked before me.
RY: How have attitudes towards wild foods changed over time?
CC: When you look at our society today, a lot of knowledge has been lost due to a dependence on agriculture. There is nothing wrong with that, but its similar to how fifty years ago most people knew how to fix their own cars, and now most people take their car to a mechanic. In recent years there has almost become a stigma against wild foods because you were considered poor if you foraged for food. Historically, on the East coast, where I am from, if you went to school with lobster in your lunch, you were considered someone who was living in poverty. Now we can see that lobster is a delicacy. I think when people start gardening and planting annuals, because we have become accustomed to certain vegetables that we see in grocery store, we place a higher value on those particular plants. The plants that we grow in our garden are not necessarily as strong and resilient as those plants which we would consider weeds. So we are typically yanking out them out or seeing them as foreign invaders. A lot of so-called weeds that you see poking out of cracks, such as dandelion and purslane, came from Europe and are considered daily meals in that sense, but for whatever reason there is that stigma against them here.
RY: What are some of the most common and easily identifiable edible wild plants in Toronto?
CC: The dandelion is probably the most common. 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 are actually have to 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, 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 the garlic mustard, 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 since they are overharvested and it takes many years for a colony to reproduce.
RY: What kind of tips and pointers do people need to be aware of before starting to harvest wild foods?
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. 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 can 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. Even sidewalks can be tricky. There are also bylaws about harvesting in the city, you cannot legally go out into a park and harvest. What I usually teach people is learn the plants that are growing in your own backyard.
Wild Recipes for Homegrown Weeds:
Want to save money on groceries? Here are some things you can do with the weeds that grow on campus. Come to one of our volunteer sessions and if you help weed the gardens, we’ll help you identify edible wild plants and let you take them home with you.
Purslane tacos with chickweed pesto:
First off, remember to wash any wild plant you harvest very well!
For the chickweed pesto, place the following ingredients in a food processor:
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup hempseed oil (or extra virgin olive oil)
2-3 cups young chickweed leaves
¼ cup walnuts
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (optional)
sea salt to taste
lemon zest (optional)
For the purslane tacos:
1-2 cups purslane
1 hot chile pepper
1 clove of garlic
1/4 white onion
salt and pepper to taste
Blend the tomatillos, hot pepper, onion, and garlic, with a splash of water to give it the consistency of a salsa.
Cut off and discard the purslane roots. Chop the greens and boil them until tender. Once tender, heat a bit of oil in a small pan, and cook the hot sauce and drained purslane on low-medium heat until enough water evaporates that they can be easily put inside of the tortillas. Serve in a warmed tortilla with the chickweed pesto, cooked diced potatoes, cheese, and washed dandelion greens (for a really wild experience).
Mint-lemon balm iced tea:
3 tablespoons fresh mint leaves
3 tablespoons fresh lemon balm leaves
1 cup boiling water
1 ½ cups ice
2-4 bags black tea (optional)
Local honey to taste
In a teapot, pour boiling water over the herbs. Let steep for 5-10 minutes. Add steeped tea to a pitcher filled with ice, add honey and let sit in the refrigerator until cold.