Important safety note: An essential part of foraging is knowing that every delicious, nutrient-rich edible plant species usually has a toxic lookalike, which is why rule one of foraging is “don’t die!” In other words: leave foraging to the pros. But if you want to learn more, it’s worth signing up for a foraging walk, field cooking experience or foraging workshop to discover just how beautiful—and edible—the land can be.
Foraging for food is the ultimate game of hide-and-seek, a delicious treasure hunt that keeps you guessing. When I jumped across the pond from England in 2008, exploring Canada’s foodways with experienced foragers from across the country has helped me build a deeper connection to the land—and a more appreciative one at that.
As ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph of the Skwxwú7mesh First Nation puts it: “Harvesting is an act of mindfulness. When I close my eyes to introduce myself to the plant [and] share my intentions in how I will utilize it for food or medicine, I feel both grounded in the present moment and connected to the continuum of my Squamish ancestors and future generations.”
From British Columbia to Nova Scotia, urban city landscapes to lush forests, these are the wild edibles seven experienced foragers are all sparkly-eyed about this spring—and what ingredients to look for at seasonally inspired restaurants or farmers’ markets.
Spruce Tips (Picea mariana, P. glauca and P. sitchensis.) / Leigh Joseph, founder of Sḵwálwen Botanicals
“I absolutely love spruce tip season,” says Joseph, founder of Sḵwálwen Botanicals–a wellness brand rooted in plant medicine for skin and spirit. Packed with vitamin C, spruce tips are the soft, super green new growth found at the end of spruce branches (including black, white and Sitka). Aromatic with a delicious citrusy punch, the scent of spruce tips immediately takes her back to harvesting under Yukon’s surreal late-night daylight. Spruce tips eaten straight off the tree, dried to blend with sea salt, infused into cooking oil or candied with maple or birch syrup are some ways Joseph brings a touch of the wilderness into her home kitchen. Knowing animals and wildlife need snacks too, Joseph mindfully spreads out her harvests every time she forages.
Magnolia flowers (Magnolia spp.) / Sarah d’Apollonia, professional forager with East Coast Wild Foods
With a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture and a decade of wild food experience, Sarah d’Apollonia has been running East Coast Wild Foods since 2016. “Magnolia trees are one of the first trees to bloom in the spring here [in Nova Scotia],” she says. Abundant in urban settings, easy to spot—and harvest—the petals are “somewhat floral with mild notes of ginger, cloves or black pepper,” says d’Apollonia. You can eat them raw, but they are better pickled as a condiment for everything from rice bowls to burger toppings. (D’Apollonia typically blanches them to remove some of the bitterness.)
Stinging nettle (Urtica Dioica) / Shane M. Chartrand, author of tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine (an award-winning cookbook about personal and culinary identity).
“There were nettles in the woods behind my [parents’] place in central Alberta. [Growing up], I used to be scared of them,” recalls chef Shane Chartrand of Enoch Cree Nation, Treaty 6 Territory. Nettle is a jagged-edged wild plant that grows in clusters with a thick stem covered in prickly, fine hairs that will irritate your skin by stinging you. (Experienced foragers wear long pants, long sleeves, and gloves when picking and handling them.) The leaves are a goldmine for nutrients like iron, potassium, magnesium and calcium. When cooked, they lose their sting and taste a bit like spinach (but earthier). “One of my favourite [ways to eat them] is to make a quick nettle pesto to slather onto freshly baked bannock or galette,” he adds. “I like to pick them in early spring when they are tender.”
Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) / Tariq Ahmed, founder of Ontario craft cidery Revel Cider
Dandelion is one of the most approachable—and easy to identify—edible weeds you can find. After all those cold, dark, wintry nights, they’re one of the first bitter greens to pop up (most likely in your garden). But Tariq Ahmed of Revel Cider in Guelph, Ont, is obsessed with wild fermenting the plant’s bright yellow flowers every year for his Ostara Dandelion small-batch cider release. Post-fermentation, the sweetness from the pollen balances the acidity of the apple—the dandelion gives it “a pillowy soft, pollen-y vibe that I can’t get enough of,” says Ahmed. “Dandelions are the first food source for bees, so we like to make sure that other flowers [and trees] are blooming before we take our share,” he adds.
Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus Ostreatus) / Nicole Gomes, chef and chief chicken officer at Calgary’s Cluck N Cleaver take-out joint
Top Chef Canada All-Stars winner Nicole Gomes has been foraging for mushrooms for a decade now. Spotting a cluster of pearl white (or pale brown) oyster mushrooms in British Columbia’s forests is a magical experience. The mushrooms have an almost anise-like flavour—”I love their delicate, chewy texture,” the chef says. “I like to sauté them in stir-fries, Cantonese hot pot or simply simmered in any sort of miso or udon soup.” Best cooked, they can also go from subtle and dainty to soaking up flavours just like that.
Important safety note: Identifying mushrooms correctly can be tricky, so visit a knowledgeable forager at your local farmers’ market to purchase wild oyster mushrooms.
Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) / Melissa Finn, Toronto-based bartender
Melissa Finn is known for crafting cocktails in the bush using foraged ingredients. She uses the young shoots of Japanese knotweed—a prolific, invasive weed much like rhubarb. (Both plants are pleasantly tart with mouthwatering feels.) “I love to chop it up, sprinkle it with sugar to macerate and draw out all of the bright flavourful pink syrup to make cocktails,” says Finn, including a margarita.
Ramps (Allium Tricoccum) / Nick Chindamo, forager-chef-farmer, Prince Edward Island
Nick Chindamo has been foraging since he was a kid. For him, springtime is all about ramps–the wild onion native to North America. In the allium family, every part of the plant—from its roots to its leaves—is edible. Ramps have a similar taste to leeks, but with a mild lingering sweetness. Pickle the bulbs; dry and powder the leaves to make a banging salt; eat raw or add to salsa verde. To tell it apart from its toxic friends, its leaves—when cut—have a potent oniony smell (yes, there’s a sniff test). But leave ramp gathering to experienced foragers, Chindamo says. “Ramps are endangered in many parts of the country,” he adds. “Without knowledge of how to responsibly harvest from a patch can easily decimate an area’s population.”
Get Chatelaine in your inbox!
Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered every weekday morning.