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Eating native plants with Lorraine Johnson

I drove down to North York recently to hear author Lorraine Johnson speak on the topic of edible native plants and was not disappointed. She touched on plants both familiar and unexpected and has prompted me to plan a whole new dimension for my garden this year.

Johnson, whose 1999 book 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants is a classic, began by cautioning against foraging (gathering food from the wild), which is what first comes to mind when we think of eating native plants. There are too many of us and too few areas left with healthy native plant populations for us to count on foraging for a serious portion of our diet.

(Let me digress and make an exception for weeds, which are introduced, either wildflowers, like dandelions, or invasive species, like garlic mustard. The leaves of both, picked fresh in spring, are good to eat in salads or cooked and there are countless more weeds that are similarly palatable when young. I’ve also been told the early shoots of Japanese knotweed, another invasive, can be steamed like asparagus so I plan to give that a try as soon as they pop up in their annoying way.)

Johnson draws inspiration from permaculture, where the intent is for plants to have more than one function. If we grow native edibles, they provide all the useful ecosystem functions of supporting insects, birds etc. that have co-evolved with these plant species over the ages, and they can feed us. However, she added, while it may not be realistic to expect to derive a complete diet from a native garden, it certainly can add interest to the meal.

Here’s a partial list of the plants she mentioned (I’m not including ones that aren’t hardy here in Huronia, which is a climate zone colder than Toronto’s).

-Groundnut (Apios americana), a vigorous vine that has fragrant red, purple or pink flowers, followed by edible seeds and pods, and a tuber that’s said to be delicious raw or cooked, with three times the amount of protein found in a potato. Rich moist loam, some shade. 

-Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), a low-growing vine that Johnson said makes a great ground cover. Edible pods and tubers (which are actually buried seeds). Sun to partial shade in good soil.

-Wild Hyacinth (Camassia colloides). This is the eastern version of this very beautiful ornamental, which has lavender blue flowers and bright yellow anthers. There are other species of Camas from the west coast. All have a bulb that is edible boiled or roasted, and was a staple of the diet of indigenous peoples.  Sun to partial shade, in moist conditions.

-Broadleaf Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Duck Potato. This is a pond plant with a pretty white flower. The tubers, much appreciated by ducks and muskrat and other marsh inhabitants, are edible and nutritious.

-Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), a groundcover that Johnson said is a good alternative to lawn and has fruit that are more flavourful than any cultivated strawberry. Sun or shade, but you need to plant in sun for good fruiting.

-Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Johnson said the immature pod can be cooked and pickled, and there are a number of online recipes for different ways of preparing it. I eat the small round flower buds raw when they first appear in spring, they have a lovely nutty flavour and can be added to salads. But only the Common Milkweed is palatable. The other asclepiases are bitter.

-Wild Leek (Allium tricocum), also known as Ramps. Bulbs and leaves are delicious steamed. Be very sparing if you harvest from the wild, take no more than 5 per cent of a patch, preferably less, as this is a very slow-growing member of the onion family. If you grow it yourself, you need the right conditions or as close to them as you can get - mature deciduous woodland (eg dappled shade), good soil, a depth of leaf litter… and patience.

-Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), an ornamental ground cover for shade. The rhizomes (roots) can be candied, and Johnson raved about a dish involving fresh garden peas and candied ginger root. There are online warnings that the leaves are toxic, apparently some people have skin reactions after touching them.

-Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), known for the fiddleheads its spring shoots resemble as they emerge, circling, from the ground. Johnson noted that they need cooking in at least two waters to get rid of a funny taste and I find three waters is best (bring to boil, discard and repeat twice). This fern is easy to grow in most conditions and spreads readily.

-Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) is a shade plant with pretty white or blue flowers in spring, that can spread prolifically – so it’s a good candidate for consumption. The leaves can be eaten cooked or raw.

This is just the beginning of the list Johnson took us through. There were many trees bearing nuts, shrubs carrying berries and plants with aromatic leaves used for teas. If you want to listen to the full talk, it was videotaped and will be posted on the North American Native Plant Society website. Well worth taking in.

One nutritious plant I was surprised that she left off the list is the Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), a perennial member of the sunflower family with tasty tubers, so after the talk was over, I asked her about it. I thought she might have omitted it because it does spread vigorously and can be hard to keep within bounds. She said that was not the reason, it was that she was trying to be strict with herself and only listing those plants truly native to Ontario, as determined by the Ministry of Natural Resources. (There’s an issue with many plants that are sold as native, they may be native to our continent, but if they come from Texas or Alberta or B.C. they are completely alien to ecosystems here in Ontario.) Later, after consulting a Peterson guide and finding it listed for Ontario, she declared herself not fully convinced, but indicated that she might include the tuber in future talks nevertheless.

I might have raised the issue of Black Walnuts. I think they are worth more than a passing mention. There are two things to know about these delicious nuts – first, you must allow them to season for at least three months (a year is better) because the meat is really hard to pry out if they’re too fresh, and second, as they have very hard shells, you do need a serious nutcracker. I got mine from Grimo Nut Nursery, it wasn't cheap and has gone up in price. But it will last my lifetime and probably a few generations down the road. Johnson noted some eccentrics drive their cars over these nuts. And indeed, that’s what I do, the car is a useful tool, not for cracking them, but for removing the husks. Then I scrub them and set them out to dry in the sun. As nuts, rich in protein, unsaturated fats and vitamins, should be part of any a healthy diet, better to eat those that are locally grown rather than imports from Europe or California.
Lorraine Johnson
- 13 September 2015 at 11:10am

Loved hearing your thoughts on the talk, Kate! And I'll certainly make some additions to the talk in future, based on your comments. Very helpful. All the best, Lorraine
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