Urban forager eats shoots and leaves

Many people dismiss burdock as a weed and ruthlessly cull it from the edges of their property, but it turns out its stalk is a delicacy, at least according to Bryan Dowkes.

Ottawa man combs through urban undergrowth to find his veggies

Is the price of celery getting you down? Why not head out to your own backyard or nearby green space to seek out fresh, free veggies growing in the wild?

Urban forager Bryan Dowkes is helping people in Ottawa learn how to appreciate edible weeds, and he's not just talking about brewing up dandelion roots as a coffee substitute.

Dowkes heads a group called Foraged Ottawa and offers guided walks and seminars about how to recognize, root out and safely prepare edible wild plants.

He recently took Hallie Cotnam of CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning out for a stroll and pointed out a large-leafed burdock, which kind of resembles rhubarb.

Bryan Dowkes grew up in the suburbs but spent a lot of time with his grandfather in Algonquin Park. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"You've probably been fighting it as a pest weed … for years. Anybody who's ever walked a dog or had a kid get burrs in their hair has probably had an introduction to this plant," Dowkes said.

Once peeled, its flower spike — also described as its stalk — is edible raw or cooked.

"Abosolutely delicious," is how Dowkes describes it. "I can't overplay it. I think it deserves and probably has space on high quality restaurant menus." 

Listen to Dowkes describe what he tastes in detail as he samples raw burdock in the audio below.

A few metres away stood a blue spruce with bright green tips of fresh growth all over.

"They're soft and they're full of vitamin C, and they have a surprisingly lemon-like quality to them," said Dowkes, who uses them to make syrups, sugars, salts and spices. He also infuses them into oils, and even pickles them.

Peel back the woody exterior of a flowering stalk of burdock, and the light-coloured stuff inside is edible raw or cooked with oil and garlic. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"Think of them like mint. You wouldn't sit down and just eat a leaf of sage or a big handful of mint, but you can still do wonderful things with them. It's all in the preparation."  

Dowkes grew up in the suburbs, but spent time in Algonquin Park with his grandfather and developed a love of the land and wilderness. He attended Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., and had a mycology professor who took him on guided walks.

Bright green tips of fresh spruce are edible either straight up, or minced and dried and added to sugar to make woodsy flavoured cookies, among other things. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

So when he sees people in community gardens ripping out ubiquitous lamb's quarters — an annual wild weed — what does he think?

"I think wild spinach. I think spanakopita. I think omelettes," he said.

Dowkes encourages people to "taste the flavour of the woods and … capture the feel of eating a space."

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning


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