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Wild Winnipeg: See the feast of edible weeds growing in the West End

In the back lanes, parking lots and abandoned yards of Winnipeg, a durable and diverse community of edible weeds is thriving.

Warning: Don't assume you can eat everything you find, says forager Joel Penner

Joel Penner is a timelapse filmmaker and interpretive plant walk leader in Winnipeg. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

In the back lanes, parking lots and abandoned yards of Winnipeg, a durable and diverse community of edible weeds is thriving.

To Joel Penner, a timelapse filmmaker and leader of interpretive plant walks, the weeds are beautiful, in a nuanced way. They're tenacious and sometimes tasty, but they're often invasive species. They're a living legacy of waves of immigration, but some are tied up in complicated colonial history.

"It gives you an insight into how humanity is part of the web of life … and how we do our own thing, but intentionally or unintentionally, we spread life around," Penner said.

"For me, that's like a microcosm into how life functions as a whole. When I see weeds, I see big truths about life in general being displayed."

Silverweed is a prolific grower in Winnipeg, said Penner. The plant is named 'silverweed' for the silvery backs of its leaves, but it also sprouts small yellow blossoms. (Aidan Geary/CBC)
The leaves of the silverweed can be made into tea, which has an earthy flavour, Penner said. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Penner has been leading a variety of interpretive plant walks in Winnipeg for the past few years. This year, his theme is edible plants — or, more specifically, edible weeds.

From his starting point at St. Matthews Anglican Church, at the corner of St. Matthews and Maryland, Penner planned an hour-long circuit through the back lanes of the West End.

His route passes roughly 30 different species, but he says what grows varies based on the area, the year and the season.

"You can think that you know about an area of the city that you've done walks in before, but there are always these new things that are surprising and fascinating," he said.

One of his favourites is lamb's quarters, a close relative of quinoa he says was once cultivated on a large scale by Indigenous Peoples on the east coast of North America. Its leaves can be used like any leafy green and have a buttery flavour, he said.

Lamb’s quarters is a close relative of quinoa, Penner says. It was once cultivated on a large scale on the east coast of North America by Indigenous people. (Aidan Geary/CBC)
Common plantain is another of Penner's favourites. The leaves can be prepared like any leafy greens and have a buttery flavour similar to lamb's quarters, he said. (Aidan Geary/CBC)
Penner calls the plant a very 'cosmopolitan' weed because it grows in cities around the world. He's heard it was called 'white man's foot' by Indigenous people because it grew in the compacted earth of settlements. It's easy to identify by the stringy pieces inside its stem. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Penner's tours come with an important disclaimer, he says. Although many edible plants grow in city limits, he warns that inexperienced foragers should be cautious about consuming what they find.

As a rule of thumb, he says you shouldn't eat what you find in the city, due to potential contamination and the fact some plants could be harmful.

Instead, take what you learn and harvest somewhere you know is safe and clean, he said, and consult an experienced forager or reputable resource to learn about safe ways to eat what you find — and then wash everything thoroughly.

The fact that fresh, edible plants grow in the city but potential pollution makes eating them unwise is "incredibly sad," he said.

Field pennycress is in the mustard family and its seeds can be used as a mustard substitute. Penner says the plants don't usually have this yellow tone or droop to their leaves, so he suspects the plants may have been sprayed with pesticide. (Aidan Geary/CBC)
Redroot pigweed, also called wild amaranth, is a cousin of the pseudo-grain amaranth. Like traditional amaranth, its seeds can be harvested and eaten. The leaves can also be prepared as leafy greens. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

It's easy to feel pessimistic when learning about humans' impacts on the planet, he said, including climate change or industrial agriculture.

That's not what his tours are about, though.

"I find that understandably, a great understanding of those issues can often lead to a sense of cynicism or despair, rightly so," he said.

"But I think that learning about the visual beauty of plants and also the concepts associated with foraging … helps to bring a sense of joy, in terms of seeing beauty in the midst of depressing realities."

Siberian elms grow like weeds in Winnipeg, Penner says. The trees have a bushier look than their American cousins but both produce these fluttery, delicate seeds. (Aidan Geary/CBC)
A rabbit sits among dandelion leaves, which Penner says can be made into tea. The roots can also be made into an uncaffeinated coffee substitute. (Aidan Geary/CBC)
Black medic is a member of the pea family, Penner says. Like many members of the family, its roots of small nodules harbour symbiotic bacteria that capture atmospheric nitrogen. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Other plants on his tour include silverweed — a silver-backed leafy plant with blossoms like tiny buttercups — and pineapple weed, a prolific plant that smells uncannily like pineapple if you rub its small yellow flowers between your fingers. The leaves of both plants can be made into tea, he said.

Penner said his interest in plants grew from his long-time passion for film and photography. He started taking photos of garden plants, then weeds, in the West End, where he grew up. Since then, his film work has been shared in festivals and was included in a National Geographic project featuring Will Smith.

He said sharing his love for plants was a natural progression from his love for art.

"For me, photography and film and art — the personal aspect of your own story with those things is important, but to me, it's equally important to share those experiences with other people."

Ground ivy can be recognized by its tiny, delicate flowers. Some of its common names, such as alehoof, refer to its past as an aid in beer brewing, Penner said. Like all plants in the mint family, it has a square stem. (Aidan Geary/CBC)
If you rub the yellow blossom of pineapple weed hard between your fingers, the plant leaves behind the distinct smell of pineapple. Penner says this common plant is a relative of German chamomile, and its leaves can be used to make tea. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Penner says he wants to build appreciation for the diversity and beauty in plants that are usually seen as undesirable.

Even invasive species, which he says can wreak havoc on ecosystems, shouldn't be understood in a simplistic way, he said.

"I want to do these walks to combat the notion that natural beauty can only be found in secluded, pristine areas … and also challenging the human-nature dichotomy, I guess," he said.

"A lot of people think that people are bad, and nature is good, maybe. But I think the reality is a lot more complicated than that."

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