Discovering Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants

by Charlotte Walker
Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants

Studying & documenting local wild edible plants throughout the changing seasons is a great way to to advance both your foraging and your gardening skills.

For most people you don’t have to wander far to find these wild treasures. Many common garden “weeds” such as dandelion, chickweed, and purslane are nutritious edibles. Our ancestors knew this, in fact, a lot of the plants that we call weeds were introduced by early settlers.

They treasured these plants for food & medicine for good reason. Wild greens are packed with nutrition at levels that you won’t find in the store bought varieties. If you want healthy greens for free, you usually don’t need to look very far. A lot of weeds are simply wild food that has gone out of favor as modern convenience and cultivation of milder less nutritious varieties have become mainstream.

Foraging skills are timeless and infinitely useful. I love sharing this story about my husband’s grandmother Elsie. She is in her late 80’s and learned about foraging from her parents.  Last year she stealthily climbed into a ditch to harvest  wild sorrel which she proudly served to us when we were visiting. We certainly owe her our gratitude for teaching us to appreciate wild food.

If you want to know what is growing in your back garden and if it is safe to consume, the best way to begin is by studying these plants.

Asking elders in your area, joining foraging groups and picking up local field guides, wild food and medicine books (if available) are all helpful when starting out. Take notes and keep updating those pages as you discover more about each plant.

Each month plants change and display new characteristics.

Some are early, others late and some transform radically over the seasons. Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)is a great example of this. It will appear as a fuzzy leaved rosette in the first year and in the second it sends up tall flowering stalks. When you capture plants throughout their growth you’ll be able to make note of what stage they are in and the most suitable time to harvest.

Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are a good example. They are already unfurled for the season. The window of time to get a harvest is quite small and if you miss it, then you have to wait until next year. We are eagerly waiting for the spruce tips to open up and based on our notes from last year, they are a little bit late. I wonder what this means for the gardening season?

Observe the growing conditions of wild plants to help you garden

Some wild plants thrive in damp areas, others dry. Some like shade, others prefer acidic soil. As a forager and/or gardener it is valuable to ask questions, & make these observations. Knowing where to look for certain plants will help you in your foraging endeavours. In the garden, this knowledge can help you choose the best place to plant.  If a wild crop loves acidic soil, perhaps that’s a good place for blueberries?

As you study Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants ask plenty of questions

Are they edible and/or medicinal? Do they thrive in a certain type of  soil? What are their preferred growing conditions? Boggy, wet, loamy, rocky, dry, shaded, full sun, acidic and so forth.

If you photograph, take notes and study these plants then over time you’ll develop a great sense of the story behind what grows underfoot. You might just find yourself rejoicing in an abundance of dandelions.

Here’s a Late May snapshot of some of the special edible/medicinal wild plants growing within 100FT of my door.

There are many others, some of them I know nothing at all about and a few I have not successfully identified yet, but that’s part of the fun, when you get into studying plants.

When looking for wild edibles never eat anything until you are completely confident that you have properly identified and even then, start with a small amount to make sure it agrees with you. Please don’t be intimidated by this warning, it is in our nature to learn and understand plants, just be cautious and take the time to study and learn the correct methods before consuming.

Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris)

Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris)

 Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

Garden Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Garden Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Garden Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) Early Perennial Greens

Violets, Viola spp.

Violets, Viola spp.

Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum)

Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum)

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris

Foraging for Fiddleheads: How To Find, Harvest & Prepare Them.

Common Burdock (Arctium Minus)

Common Burdock (Arctium Minus)

Spruce TipsSpruce Tips

Colts Foot (Tussilago Farfara) 

Colts Foot (Tussilago Farfara) 

 

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Wild edible and medicinal plants: Plantain (Plantago major)

Plantain (Plantago major)

What edible and/or medicinal plants do you have nearby? Do you use them?

My Resources

These are some of the resources that I refer to often when studying and learning to work with the wild plants around us.

Wildflowers of New Brunswick

Edible Plants of Atlantic Canada

The Boreal Herbal

The Backyard Herbal Apothecary

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