Discouraged, I watch the deer eat the lettuce in my garden and shrew moles peak their heads between my carrots. Gardening in the foothills is a hopeless passion. Between hail, frost, drought and animals – how did our ancestors feed themselves anyway?
I pondered this epicurean question with Julie Walker, naturalist, guide and forager. She looked at me and said “Simple! It is all about working ‘with’ nature not ‘against’ nature.” I sat back, smiling; Walker’s passion shines through as she proceeds to educate me in the ways of the past: the forgotten wisdom of First Nations and resourcefulness of the early settlers.
Alberta’s prairies, foothills and mountainous ecosystems offer incredible arrays of edible plants that are truly delicious and nutritious.
Cattail, that mundane plant that grows in wetlands can be eaten raw, pounded into flour, or its green flower spikes cooked and eaten like corn on cob. Who knew?
First Nations people in Southern Alberta – the Piikani, Blood, Stoney, Tsuu Tina and Siksika followed the seasons, harvesting plants to create
a diet rich in culinary delights. Their knowledge of the flora was vast and mostly held by women. “So, you are telling me I am surrounded by food?” I asked. “Well of course!” Walker replied. For example, Wild Rose (Rosa Arkansana), a native shrub, produces “hips” or berries used for teas and berry mash, just like Saskatoon. Other local plants, such as Arrowhead, Chicory and Cow Parsnip can be mashed, boiled, roasted or pounded to make a variety of foods, teas, and medicines.
As she looked at my garden, Walker continued, “Settlers brought with them plants we consider today wild or undesirable. Some of these “foreigners” like Lamb’s Quarters, (Chenopodium Album) a tasty, full flavour plant, loves to grow in rich healthy soil. Similar to spinach, they grow from May to September and are very productive. Two or three plants can supply a family.” Another “foreigner” is the Plantain leaf (Plantago Major) known to First Nations as “White Man’s footprint”, as wherever the white man went, this plant shot up.
Perhaps the most infamous food plant is the Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Growing almost everywhere, it can be used for a myriad of purposes. According to the University of Maryland Medical Centre, the pesky dandelion is full of vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as many minerals. The plant came over to North America with the first settlers because of its diverse properties; its leaves are delicious in salads and teas, the roots can be made into coffee substitute, and the flowers to make wine. Concoctions can also made to treat several common medical conditions.
I looked at my lawn with all its dandelions. No wonder deer love us – we practically have a 4 star Michelin restaurant in front of the house. I
also have a fleeting thought about mead in the region successfully using dandelions, wild roses or local herbs and berries. Perhaps there is a revival of sort happening.
Visit northernbushcraft.com for an extensive list of Alberta edible plants and their uses.