Thursday, 25 October 2012

Free food

This post was written 2 month ago, so some of the seasonal info is out of date - but the message is the same

Who doesn’t like free food?  This is a particularly great time of the year for it, at least where I live.  I don’t need to extol the nutritional virtues of berries here.  They’re a real superfood, full of antioxidants and beneficial phytochemicals. I find them to be about the most satisfying dessert out there.  No guilt at all, and they go a long way towards satisfying any sweet tooth type cravings for worse things to eat.  But the other great thing about them is that they’re everywhere, if you know where to look.  I’m all for planting your own, if you have the space and resources – my yard currently has raspberries, gooseberries, serviceberries, currants, grapes and strawberries.  However, it’s often the case as well that you can find them growing wild, or at least semi-‘wild’.  Today, I stopped off to harvest my favourite supply of ‘wild’ currants from a strip of about 8 or 9 bushes growing along a traffic median in the middle of a suburban, box store parking lot.  

These bushes are planted for their ornamental value, I suppose, but this time of year they are just laden with huge, purple currants, free for the taking.  Like I said, I also grow my own, but my one bush can’t compete with these in terms of fruit size or quantity.  I’ll be checking back over the next week or so to get another few batches as well.
I’ve been coming back for the currants for about 3 years now, but this year I discovered another bonus. Just a stone’s throw away, at a mall parking lot across the street from the currant bushes, I came across two huge serviceberry trees.  I was able to get a good harvest of serviceberries today as well which, in case you’ve never tried them, taste like a slightly more bland blueberry.  I only filled one Tupperware container, but the trees were so loaded that I could easily fill a larger container tomorrow and likely for days after. 

I’m sure hundreds of people walk by these trees each day (on their way to the mall’s grocery store no doubt) and never stop to try these delicious little berries.  Of course, it’s not just berries…there are a plethora of wild plants out there.  You don’t need to be out in the wilderness to find them, as many grow in urban parks, empty lots, pathways, borders, etc.  In fact, a lot of very good wild, edible plants seem to prefer disturbed soils and ‘waste’ areas.  My advice would be to get a good field guide (these are two of my favourites) and go out for a walk around.   

Make sure to only sample stuff you’re sure of the identity!  In addition to this, even if I’m 99% sure of something, my policy is to only have a very small bite (maybe equivalent of one or two berries or one leaf) of any new plant, wait 24 hours to be sure, and then come back for more if it turns out fine.  You’ll be surprised at how quickly you begin to identify plants and bring them into your repertoire of knowledge.  I probably add about 5 new useable species a year, and that number was much higher when I was just starting out.

The advantage is that many wild plants are even more nutritious than cultivated equivalents or substitutes.  Dandelion greens are everywhere in the spring and have more Vitamin A than any other store-bought green.  Wild Garlic Mustard is also everywhere, adds a garlicky flavour to salads, and is an invasive species…so you’re doing a good deed by picking and eating it.  Lamb’s Quarters, or Goosefoot as it’s also called, is very abundant, and beats out spinach in most nutritional categories.  

Make sure not to harvest stuff where pesticide use is apparent.  However, my intuition is that most of these wild plants see far less chemical usage than the store-bought equivalents.  I can’t imagine anyone taking the time to spray pesticides on the currants or serviceberries I collected today, because they’re not trying to increase yields or make a profit from the fruits.
So there you go.  Free, nutritious food, ripe for the picking.  Pay attention the next time you’re out for a run or walk

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