We need to rethink our attitude to weeds. Wild greens are high in phytonutrients, the chemical compounds that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories in human health. Many are deep-rooted and bring minerals and micronutrients into their leaves and flowers. Their dark berries and medicinal properties offer a compendium of nutritional or healing benefits cast aside with the advent of industrial agriculture and profit-oriented pharmaceuticals. Cretan cuisine, on which the Mediterranean Diet was modeled, features freshly gathered wild greens, which may have as much to do with the heart-protective effect of the diet as the olive oil, fresh produce and seafood. Having once experienced a wild greens forage in Crete, I was charmed to have the chance to experience an urban Victoria version.
Gather Victoria is the clever and creative partnership of two aspiring herbalists, Jennifer Aikman and Danielle Prohom Olson, whose mission is to share what they know about the wild edibles growing on our doorstep. To this end they offer periodic tours and tastings in Victoria.
So, last weekend, in the company of a dozen or so like-minded others, I braved a chilly damp afternoon picking weeds from lawns and alleyways.
We started off with the easiest to identify – dandelion. Its leaves, in spring, before the flower buds, make excellent salad greens. Its roots, peeled and roasted, are a well known coffee substitute. But also, as Jennifer observed, the roasted root can add a boost to baking (we had dandelion-enhanced brownies later), and bitter leaves – added to smoothies or stir fries? – are helpful for the liver (stimulating bile production). She takes a daily tincture of dandelion root to this end. Danielle showed us cat’s ear, commonly confused with dandelion. Its (young) leaves are also edible, though a bit hairy, in salads, stir-fries or pesto, and its flower buds make good capers. The root can also be roasted.
We moved on to violets – like dandelion, introduced by colonists and now running rampant. Their flowers are versatile: handsome additions to salads that can also be crystallized into candies, infused and made into jellies and syrups. The mucilaginous leaves too can be cooked or added to salads. Yarrow, frequently confused with wild carrot, can be identified by its white (or pink) flower. Its leaves have many medicinal properties and as an herb it pairs well with meat and soups. German chamomile is well known as a tea (dried flowers and leaves); its leaves can be used in salads, and its flower centres pickled.
Mallow (Malva parviflora, “cheeseweed”) root can be infused as a remedy for joint pain; its greens are edible and somewhat mucilaginous, ideal for holding together veggie burgers. The fruiting heads (“cheese wheels“) are crisp and slightly gummy pea-like morsels. Mahonia (Oregon grape) has tart, edible yellow flowers and very tart blue-black fruit, which makes excellent jellies and syrups. We found an ornamental variety in full bloom; Mahonia Nervosa (wild variety) root has valuable medicinal properties.
Plantain is known by First Nations people as “White man’s footsteps” so merrily has it spread in the wake of colonists. Its leaves can serve as a spinach substitute or salad green, and the plant has an ancient history as a medicinal cure-all. We all know holly berries are toxic (a powerful purgative, in fact) but its leaves make a fine, astringent tea. Jennifer chops the leaves and steeps them overnight. Nettles are probably one of the best known wild foods, a popular tea, boasting its own springtime festivals, pesto and soup recipes. Jennifer recommends harvesting only the top buds, preferably in the spring, and never when the plant is going to seed; at that point, harvest the seeds which are adaptogens, and high in protein.
Chickweed is a fairly well known salad green, a little like a particularly flavoursome baby spinach; and Miner’s Lettuce seems to change its shape later in the season – lilypad shaped over the summer, surrounding its tiny white flower, it looks simply heart-shaped in fall. It’s been adopted by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste as one of Canada’s defining regional foods, so you are likely to find it on the menus of locavore restaurants. White clover, a legume which benefits our lawns by fixing nitrogen, is an edible flower which can be dried and ground into a high-protein pea flour with, yes, medicinal properties.
Curly or yellow dock seed is another source of flour: this wild buckwheat can be ground, chaff and seeds; its leaves used as pot herbs in soups and stews. The leaves do contain oxalic acid so should be consumed raw in limited quantities for those prone to calcium oxalate kidney stones, but cooking renders them a bit safer in this regard.
There was more, much more: daisy buds can be pickled for capers; milk thistle, shorn of spines, can be cooked as a green or used in soups and stews, its seeds a long-valued liver treatment; grand fir, its flavour like grapefruit, makes a tea or custard flavouring; elderberries, most famous for wine, make an excellent syrup to ward off colds, their flowers made into cordials; borage flowers can be candied, and leaves dried for tea; licorice fern root-infused honey can be used for coughs and the root dried for candy; sumac buds, soaked overnight make ‘sumac lemonade’; shepherd’s purse is a delicious salad or cooked green; and Hawthorn, which can be used (without seeds) as a tincture for cardiovascular health and blood pressure regulation, and as a fruit for jams and ketchups.
And at last we headed indoors, out of the chill, to warm ourselves on herbal teas and a magnificent spread of wild comestibles. My particular favourites were the hung cheeses (made from strained Greek Yogurt and flavoured with wild herbs) on fennel crackers with black hawthorn ketchup. An excellent afternoon’s work, and I’m much looking forward to the next gathering.