It may be right in the heart of Victoria, B.C., but for Nancy Turner and her two young daughters, the woody patch in Cedar Hill Golf Course may be the source of their next meal. She and other aficionados of wild spring legumes can already be seen scouring woods and streams around the city in search of miner’s-lettuce, cattail shoots and other potential salad makings. “It really makes us feel good,” says Turner, “to find miner’s-lettuce when the lettuce in the stores is 99 cents a head and old and wilted.” Before the season is out, Turner’s family will have savored creamed stinging nettles, barnyard grass muffins and thistle stew. “I nearly made a violet salad the other day,” adds Turner, “but I couldn’t bring myself to eat those nice-smelling flowers.”
With snows melting across the country, other avid pickers are also girding for the spring harvest. Foraging for edible wild plants has attracted many urban dwellers, particularly young families eager to combine love of the outdoors with gourmet pursuits. Fuelling the trend is a recent crop of books distinguishing edible plants from poisonous look-alikes more clearly than ever and suggesting palatable nutritious recipes. Some authors maintain that with a little butter and salt, cattail flower spikes can rival the taste of corn on the cob, while steamed lamb’s-quarters leaves may contain three times more calcium than spinach. Among the more popular recipe books, with sales of more than 10,000, is Edible Garden Weeds of
Canada (1978), coauthored by Nancy Turner and published as part of a series by the National Museum of Natural Sciences. In response to the growing interest, universities are now scheduling extension courses taught by botanists such as Turner and often timed to complement seasonal pickings.
Less delighted by this surge in interest are environmentalists, who fear that overpicking may endanger several rare native species worthy of protection. “In many of these living-off-theland books there’s no distinction made between rare native species and regenerating weeds,” says Ottawa environmentalist Paul Catling. Parties of fiddlehead hunters picking the plants’ young leaves have been known to demolish entire populations of ostrich ferns—and in the process disturb much of the spring forest floor. Catling him-
self has seen a carpet of flowering spring beauty vanish in a few days because pickers gathered the “fairy spuds,” potato-like corms, for food. Spring beauty, found only in southern Ontario and Quebec, is only one of 111 plant species considered in need of protection in Ontario, according to a list of depleted and exploited wild plants published last year by the Toronto Field Naturalists (TFN). According to TFN President Helen Juhola, marsh marigolds, fiddleheads and watercress have suffered devastating incursions in the Toronto area—often, she says, from Oriental and European families who are “used to harvesting” in their country of origin.
Among the vegetables hardest hit is the wild leek, a native variety of wild onion found in damp soil throughout Canada. In 1980, commercial harvesters and individual pickers unearthed more than a tonne of the leeks from Gatineau Park near Hull, Que., and carted them to Ottawa markets or pickled them to sell from street-corner booths in Hull. Last year, in an effort to curb the onslaught, park officials announced that people caught removing plants could face maximum fines of $500. As a result, in 1981 only 16 pickers were found harvesting, reports the park’s court liaison officer, Jean-Pierre Rochon, and all had gathered only small quantities: “A lot of older people offered the excuse that the leek had curative properties.”
It is no surprise, given such abuses, that laws governing the protection of wild edible plants are practically nonexistent. Provincial endangered species acts name one or two “token” plants, none of them edible, according to George Argus, a botanist with the National Museum of Natural Sciences. With David White, Argus has prepared “the nearest thing there is to a national list of rare and endangered plant species,’’but bans on picking are unheard of. Pilfering of wild ginseng in Ontario, for example, receives no attention until someone applies for a permit to export—and even then provincial permission is rarely withheld.
Some heavily picked plants will survive, despite the lack of adequate controls. In British Columbia, wild ginger, although rare in places, tends to take over where it does grow. Aggressive, weedy species such as chicory and dandelion, both used as coffee substitutes, will also rebound quickly, even if uprooted. But even they may be thinned out by intrepid herbivores as the rape of the forest catches on. Turner, while preaching moderation, acknowledges the hobby becomes addictive. “It’s the foraging instinct that’s present in all of us—getting something for free.”
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