Incredible Edibles: Tasty Forest Treats

1:59 PM

I am writing this from a family cottage less than an hour north of Huntsville, Ontario. The combination of being in the back woods and having four days off work has my inner plant-hunter revved up and ready to gather.  The Muskokas boast beautiful tree cover, untouched lakes at every turn and a diverse forest floor made of soil and clay, covered in pine needles atop Canadian rock shield, making it the perfect home to many wild edibles and drinkables.

Plant-hunting can be as dangerous as it is rewarding. It is important to properly identify anything you intend on ingesting. This is where an edibles-walk with a professional herbalist may come in handy, especially in the case of mushrooms which can be deadly if poisonous. If a professional is not available there are always locale-specific books available at your library. In a survival situation, when starvation is a greater threat than a mild rash, you can test the safety of any plant by rubbing a tea made of its leaves on the outside of your lip. If no reaction occurs perform the same test with the dried leaves of the plant. If there is still no reaction, this indicates that it may be safe to eat, but begin in small doses.

Plants may be used in many forms. Some produce delicious fruits such as wild raspberries and Saskatoon berries. The leaves of a sumac plant are poisonous, but its berries can be steeped to make a beverage similar to pink lemonade when sweetened. Berries are naturally high in fiber, B vitamins and minerals.
Some wild plants will grow long leaves that can be incorporated into salads. Dandelion greens are slightly bitter but are highly diuretic and supportive to kidney and liver health. Its tea is a suitable substitute for coffee. Yellow oxalis or wood sorrel will give your salad a lemony punch but is quite acidic so less is more. The plant is hardy so harvest away.

The roots and young shoots of cattail are completely edible and make great roof thatching in a survival situation. White trout lilies flower in spring and stand about half a foot high. The tubers can be eaten only when raw. Milkweed was never a hit when I was a young forest wanderer, but culinary experts say it tastes great when battered and deep-fried. Of course if you can perform the easy task of identifying a sugar maple tree, its sap can be boiled down to 1/40th the volume to yield a sweet and uniquely Canadian syrup.

My personal favourite use for wild plants is herbal tea. Use one teaspoon of a dried leaf or two Tablespoons of the fresh leaf for each cup of water. Pour the boiled water over the leaves in a non-metal container and replace the lid. Steep for ten minutes. If tea is ever too bitter add a splash of lemon or a touch of honey, or re-brew using a steeping time of only three minutes. Some fantastic teas include:

Balsam fir and other pines: these produce needles that make a delicious tea. Do not place the needles in boiling water, rather water just off the boil, as bitter compounds will be extracting making the tea unpleasant. The balsam looks very similar to a hemlock which isn’t a problem because hemlock makes an equally tasty brew.

Burdock: The root of this plant can be made into a detoxification elixir. It is one of the herbs used in the Essiac and Floressence cleansing tonics made famous when a Canadian nurse was shown their cancer fighting abilities by an Aboriginal tribe.

St. John’s Wort: Easily identified by its characteristic yellow flowers, it is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. If enough is harvested it will make a pleasant juice.

Sweet gale: The leaves of this Central Ontario native can be made in a dream-inducing tea. It grows at the water’s edge and can be picked in July and early August. The shrubs grow up to six feet tall and have a wonderful scent, often used as a bug repellant. I am off in search of this gem this morning.

Other plants that have pleased me with their tea-making qualities include anise, chamomile and all varieties of mint, with wintergreen being the greatest.

Please note that you, and only you, are responsible for being sure which plants, and what preparation methods, are safe.

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