Edible forest: Guided walks teach Calgarians which weeds and wild greens you can eat

Many of the plants many people consider pesky could be a delicious addition to a dinner salad, or even used to treat cuts and colds.

From dandelions to silverberry, southern Alberta's fields and forests are full of food

Edible plants in Alberta

4 years ago
Duration 2:11
Edible plants in Alberta

This story was originally published on June 27.

It's the time of year when many Calgarians go to war with the weeds popping up in otherwise pristine lawns.

But there's a good chance many of the plants people consider pesky could be a delicious addition to a dinner salad, or even used to treat cuts and colds.

"A lot of weeds were actually brought here because of their uses as food and medicine," says Julie Walker, an edible plant educator and the owner of Full Circle Adventures, a group that leads educational nature walks.

From well-known weeds like the dandelion to ubiquitous plants like pennycress and cow parsnip — which many Calgarians might know by sight, if not by name — Walker says we're surrounded by edible species in the spring, summer and fall.

Native species like juniper, on the left, have survived despite the onslaught of non-native ground cover like bromegrass, on the right, says edible plant educator Julie Walker. Juniper berries and leaves have a natural antiseptic quality that can be used to fight illness. (Julie Debeljak)

Most of us, however, have been taught to stay away from wild greens, either out of fear of the unknown or the stigma our society has attached to certain plants. 

"Like dandelion … it's a liver-cleanser, it's a blood cleanser, you can get rid of your warts, you can make wine," Walker says. "It's a poor man's medicine, and maybe that's why we have a disagreeable relationship with it."

Through Full Circle Adventures, Walker is working to change the relationship many of us have with these plants by teaching people about the medicinal and edible properties of native and non-native species. She also leads foraging walks with chefs, distillers and even beer-makers looking for something special — and uniquely Albertan — to add to their food or brews. 

Foraging isn't a free-for-all

However, Walker cautions that even once you do learn to identify plants like silverberry, which was used by Indigenous people to thicken soups, or juniper, which Walker calls "nature's Cold-FX," that doesn't mean nature's bounty is up for grabs.

In fact, foraging in city, provincial and national parks is illegal.

"All of these things are food for insects, for birds, for bears, deer, elk and moose, and if we compromise that by our foraging … it won't be long before these things are no longer here," she said.

Walker recommends people plant some of these species in their backyard gardens — or at least stop the war on weeds and let and nature take its course. Many native species have qualities that can benefit a home garden, like requiring little to no maintenance and being drought-resistant, she added.

People can also forage on public lands, as long as they learn to recognize healthy populations of wild plant species.

"The key to harvesting these wild edibles is knowing: if I have 10 plants, is that a healthy population? If I harvest five per cent, is that OK? Or does that plant need to have 50 plants before it's OK for me to harvest?"

Common edible plants in Calgary

Cow Parsnip

Cow parsnip is widely found in the Calgary area and can be eaten in early spring. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

Identified by its hollow, hairy stems and broad leaves, cow parsnip is "a delicious stalk with the texture of celery and the flavour of a parsnip," says Walker. Look for it in early spring and harvest at about knee height. To eat: peel the hairs off the stem, stuff with feta cheese and sautee with chives, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and tomatoes.


Pennycress has long been considered a weed, but this edible flower makes a great addition to salads, soups or spice mixes. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

Another common sight for Calgarians, pennycress came to Alberta with the European settlers as a stowaway in grain stores, says Walker. While many people spend a lot of time pulling them out of their vegetable gardens, they might be better off to let them be. The penny-shaped seed pods at the bass of the flower have a peppery, radish-like flavour that's a good addition to salads and soups, and it can be used to spice up meat dishes.

Achilles millefolium or common yarrow

Achillea millefoleum, or common yarrow, is a native species that can be used to stop wounds from bleeding. (Julie Debeljak /CBC)

Often found mixed in with your lawn or other ground cover, this native plant species is recognized by its "thousand leaves." This plant takes its name from Greek mythology. It's said that Achilles used it to heal soldiers in the battle of Troy, says Walker, because it contains a chemical compound that acts as a blood coagulant and a healing agent for wounds.

With files from CBC's Julie Debeljak