Wildcrafting the Shrub: Osoberry Delight

Ripening now in the Pacific Northwest – the Osoberry. Like a cross between cherry, cantaloupe and cucumber, its flavour is unique. Here is a recipe for Osoberry” shrub,” a kind of vinegary cordial popular with the cocktail set. I ended up using it more like a syrupy balsamic vinegar in salads, marinades and glazes. Not to be missed!

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This year our warm and early summer not only brought us an abundance of Osoberry but unusually luscious ones. Trailing branches over every roadside, every forest path, and every park trail, were hung so fat with plump blue-black clusters that they practically begged to be picked. But the big question – how to preserve the bounty?

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I had sampled but never harvested the “Oso” before. I knew there wasn’t a lot of meat on the pit, but I also knew that at the height of ripeness popping one into your mouth, still warm from the sun, well it’s a little piece of heaven. Living up to its species name (meaning “cherry like”) it fills the mouth with dark cerise intensity before settling at the back of the tongue with the sultry velvet of melon. And it’s all permeated by a fresh crisp cucumber flavour. So how could I best highlight…

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Eating Wild: The Missing Link to Optimum Health

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love that wild foods are the most nutritious, natural and sustainable of all foods – which is why they are a daily part of my diet. But because I still have to pay for the bulk of my sustenance, I’m ever so grateful to food journalist Jo Robinson and her wonderful book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health”. And while I do have one small reservation (more on that later) her book provided me with a practical and empowering guide to the most nutritious foods that money can buy – the fruits and vegetables closest to their wildest relatives.

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Touted as “the next stage in the food revolution—a radical way to select fruits and vegetables and reclaim the flavour and nutrients we’ve lost” her book drives home the point that whether its tomatoes, kale, lettuce, apples, berries, wheat and grains – all our foods descend from wild foods. The problem? “Ever since farmers first planted seeds 10,000 years ago, humans have been destroying the nutritional value of their fruits and vegetables. Unwittingly, we’ve been selecting plants that are high in starch and sugar and low in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants for more than 400 generations”. 

In other words, we bred a wealth of nutrients out of the human diet. For example, our pale overbred iceberg lettuce (descended from wild greens) contains only a fraction of the nutrients found in wild lettuce, dandelion, nettles, chickweed, garlic mustard, sheep sorrel, yarrow, garlic mustard and many other herbs and plants which have been consumed by our ancestors since prehistoric times.

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Her book shows us “how to regain these lost nutrients by choosing modern varieties that approach the nutritional content of wild plants.” From lettuce, potatoes, onions, berries and apples, she categorizes over-domesticated foods to avoid and provides lists of foods are closest to their original  “natural” state like green apples, green onions, black concord grapes, artichokes and many other varieties. 

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All of which begs the question – why not just eat wild foods in the first place? This doesn’t mean giving up the sweet starchy pleasures of the modern diet to scratch in the dirt for leaves, seeds and roots. To me it just makes sense to go back to the source and add back as many lost nutrients as we possibly can.

Which brings me to my small bone of contention. While I agree with Robinson that living on wild plants is no longer feasible – “there are too many of of us and not enough wilderness” her book fails to mention that wild foods are a viable, nutritious, freely available food source that can supplement modern diets, enhance our health and increase the security of local food systems. And we don’t need to shell out for pricey superfoods either – it’s as simple as stepping out our front door, picking some dandelions and making a soup.  

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Cream of Dandelion Soup

Fact is, eating wild doesn’t require wading deep into the backwoods, or trampling endangered ecological areas. Wild plants grow in abundance as “weeds” in our backyards, our neighbourhoods, our city parks and urban green spaces. Many of these plants are so plentiful they are classified as “invasive” by our government and are eliminated at great effort and cost (often with carcinogenic pesticides) in our regional parks and local municipalities.

And in this time of rising food costs, climate change and food insecurity, does it really make sense to eliminate foods that require no work or resources to plant, grow or water? After all many of these plants and herbs like chickweed, thistle, burdock, dandelion, gorse, lambs-quarters, garlic mustard, blackberry and hawthorn, were once part of a beloved seasonal and medicinal cuisine eaten for thousands of years. 

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Of course we can’t just step outside and start picking everything we see. Some wild plants are poisonous. But the truth of the matter is that edible plants far outweigh deadly ones. And once we learn to identify and avoid harmful plants, a vast cornucopia of nourishing food abundance begins to offer itself; fresh greens, berries, nuts and herbs. And they are growing all around us – for free.

I realize that for many the idea of eating “weeds” is still, well, a little strange. But wild foods are part of a growing ecological and culinary movement grounded in the virtues of local sustainable eating – and they’ve been enjoying 5 star ratings in the worlds top restaurants for years!

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Wild Food Dishes by Noma

That said,  it’s important to remember that wild foods are more a return to tradition than a trend.  Not always the sole provenance of “back to nature” hippie dippy types, big-bearded hipsters, top chefs or ethnobotanists – they were the food of the people. Knowing which plants to pick and when, how to prepare them, and how to use them medicinally, was part of body of traditional knowledge passed on through the generations. Both my grandmother and husband’s mother remember being taught by their mothers and grandmothers how to forage for such seasonal delights as wild berries, nettles and mushrooms.

So what happened? How did we lose this knowledge in the space of a few generations? One reason could be the emergence of food experts (funded by agribusiness) whose food pyramid charts told us the “right” way to eat. A way to eat that put profits in pockets by convincing us that “real food” was the food we buy at the store. And slowly those foods not mass-produced by industry, became just plain forgotten.

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But today, as the nutrient levels of domestic foods dwindles (and prices skyrocket) it’s become more important than ever to learn how to eat wild once again. As a wild food educator and activist, I believe its time we recognize that wild foods are a valuable food resource for local communities. And as such, I advocate they deserve a place at the table alongside food security initiatives such as community and boulevard gardens, urban farms, urban orchards and food forests. Because by finding a way to give “weeds” a little space of their own to grow in our community green spaces (free from toxic chemicals) we can once again make their nourishing sustenance accessible to all.

So while I urge you to pick Robinson’s book and spend your food dollars on the wildest foods possible – let’s also remember there are other options available beyond the supermarket aisle. With just a little investment in community education, wild foods could be transformed from pests and weeds into vital food resources, part of an evolving “agri-hood” in which communities, in harmony with their local environments, can feed themselves.  So let’s begin to take wild food seriously and recognize as Robinson does, that they constitute the missing link to our optimum well-being .

Note: If you live in Victoria you can hear Jo Robinson speak at the upcoming Sustainable Health and Wellness Festival. Link here.

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Ending The Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War On Invasive Plants: Who Does The War Serve?

This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good? To see my introduction to this series click here.

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In Part One and Two I explored evidence suggesting that, in the long run, invasive plants may be doing more good than harm. In this post I’ll ask – how big a role has the chemical industry played in shaping our idea that invasive plants must be eradicated – no matter the cost?

It is the official position of the US and Canadian government, that “invasive alien species pose one of the most serious threats to our environment.” And it means that, all told, billions of dollars are budgeted for the use of herbicides like glyphosate and other poisons.

Recommended targets for herbicides found in chemical industry publications include a slew of nutritious and medicinal plants such as: Hawthorn, Himalayan Blackberry, Gorse, Fennel, Cottonwood, Elderberry, Wild Rose, Milk Thistle, St. Johns Wort, Burdock, Chicory, Garlic Mustard, Curly dock, Dandelion, Lambs quarters, Plantain, Cleavers and Wild lettuce – and this is only a partial list. What will be left when they’re through? Native plants that have been potentially poisoned by the application of herbicides and pesticides on their neighbors? As well as the ecosystem itself?

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Timothy Scott, Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives, reminds us that a “war — either real or imagined — must be waged in order to gather together public support and funding from the government.” And like any war it requires propaganda. And he wants us to note that emotionally charged words such as alien, noxious, invasive, aggressive, harmful, disruptive, choking, are brought to us by the same companies whose products are being used to wage war on humans and the everyday war on pests – Monsanto, DuPont and the Dow Chemical Company. “These war factories are good at only two things: death and destruction.”

To this point, Toby Hemenway, author of The Permaculture City writes on his website “Quickly we see that unlike most scientific reports, papers in even academic journals such as Conservation Biology and Restoration and Management Notes bristle with xenophobic rhetoric: “all [species] should be treated as threats . . . unless proven otherwise.” Species are labeled “nefarious,” “stealing,” “stormtrooper plants,” and “intruders” that should be “weeded out” to “prevent their escape.” Hardly the language of objective science.”

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Loosely described, Invasion Biology is the study of invasive plants and the processes of species invasion. And according to authors Timothy Lee Scott,  Andrew Cockburn and David Theodoropoulos, it’s history is inextricably intertwined with the pesticide industry. Theodoropoulos is the author of Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience and he is blunt. “Every time you hear the word invasive species – think Monsanto.”

Theodoropoulos’s book charts how in the past two decades a new notion arose to keep environmentalists busy, “the notion that plants and animals have a “natural” habitat, from which outsiders must be expelled”. And he presents evidence how this view was actively supported and promoted by the financial might of Monsanto, Dow and Dupont. Theodoropoulos states “Thirty years ago the greatest threats to nature were chain saws, bulldozers, and poisons. Now the greatest threats are wild plants and animals. And what do we use to fight them? Chain saws, bulldozers, and poisons. Who does this serve?”  

Recently Theodoropoulo’s claims that chemical company executives were founding members of many invasive species councils and organizations have been taken up by journalist Andrew Cockburn. In his article Weed Whackers: Monstanto, glyphosate and the war on invasive species in Harpers Magazine he writes, “During the Reagan era, when environmentalists were still imbued with the spirit of Earth Day, nobody worried about invasive species. Instead, well-organized, militant groups were busy fighting chemical pollution, nuclear power, shale-oil drilling, logging devastation, and other corporate onslaughts.”

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But in the 1990’s Clinton signed Executive Order 13112, creating the National Invasive Species Council “to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.” And a new environmental cause was born.

“Among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson, a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for “habitat-restoration markets” — that is, for eradicating invasives.” Jackson represented Monsanto on the Invasive Species Advisory Committee from 2000 to 2006 and co-edited some of the council’s founding reports.

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Cockburn’s article alleges another leader in the science of invasion biology Peter Raven had close ties to Monsanto. He chaired the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel, which considered the issue of invasive species and reported recommendations at the end of the year.  His company, Cockburn notes, The Missouri Botanical Garden “owed much of its explosive growth to the beneficence of the corporation, which was in the process of changing its public identity from a chemical manufacturer and purveyor of Agent Orange to a “life sciences company” — one heavily invested in GMOs.”

Theodoropoulos and Boyce Thorne Miller (Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance) argue that much of the “scientific” evidence that is typically used to describe ecological harm can be equally interpreted to indicate ecological benefits. They claim that rather than being an environmental problem, many “invaders” like Cordgrass and Purple Loosestrife have been shown to be important for revitalizing damaged ecosystems, repairing depleted soils, cleaning up toxics, and increasing the rate of evolution. Invasion, Bryce Miller and Theodoropoulos claim, is an entirely natural phenomenon, and is essential for creating and maintaining biological diversity.

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So when it comes to the research,Theodoropoulos charges that chemical companies are guilty of scientific misconduct when they misconstrue, make misleading statements and omit material facts – and are guilty of fraud when they profit from those statements.

Today it plain to see – if anyone looks as I did – that the chemical industry generously supplies educational and informational tools for the eradication of invasive species. And their presence, (i.e. instructing us how to “safely” use their products) is a common one at conferences and panels held by invasive species removal organizations here in BC and Canada.

Such as the upcoming North American Invasives Management Association in Vancouver BC. Its sponsors include Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Bayer and other chemical interests. So is it any coincidence that the keynote address “Toxicity and Pesticides. Weeding through new information about glyphosate and 2,4-D.” will be given by Dr. Len Ritter, Professor of Toxicology, School of Environmental Science, University of Guelph? Especially considering Ritter’s voice is one that cautions us not to get carried away with anti-pesticide hysteria?

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Dr. Len Ritter, professor of toxicology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, displays graphs contained in the Canadian Cancer Society’s latest report that show new cases and age-standardized incidence cancer rates in men are declining in Canada and staying about the same for women. Ritter was speaking to growers, field workers and industry partners in the P.E.I. potato industry on recently. © HEATHER TAWEEL/THE GUARDIAN

I grant you the jury may be far “from in” as to whether Theodoropoulos’s or Scott ’s (and many other scientists, biologists and ecologists) contentions that invasive species are beneficial and part of the healing processes of nature. But so is the jury still out on the potential negative effects these noxious chemicals could be having on our environment.

Whether we want to debate whether the glyphosate in Round-up is an actual or “probable carcinogen”, new evidence is surfacing that Monsanto and the US Environmental Protection Agency knew glyphosate was a “probable carcinogen” thirty years ago.  And since that time it has been indicated in countless studies to be implicated in ADHD, Alzheimers, Autism, Brain Cancer, Breast Cancer, Celiac and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Kidney Disease, Depression, Heart isease, Parkinsons, Lou Gehrigs, Multiple Sclerosis, Reproductive issues, Miscarriages, Birth Defects, Obesity, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Liver disease, and Respiratory illnesses – and the list goes on. Diseases which have personally touched my family and friends.

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And remember too, this is only the estimated human impacts. What effect is the “controlled application” of products that “kill target alien species on contact or indirectly kill them or their offspring by damaging their essential life processes or ability to reproduce” —doing to the soil, the ground waters, the flora and fauna of the ecosystems in which it is being directly applied?

From what I understand, glyphosate works by disrupting an enzyme pathway essential to plants. And we’ve been told by the many chemical companies who use it – that since this pathway does not exist in animals, glyphosate is considered relatively safe for humans and wildlife. But even this too is being contested as this California lawsuit charges; that Monsanto is guilty of deliberate falsification and is concealing the fact that glyphosate is harmful to humans and animals.

Granted this all sounds conspiratorial and confusing to the extreme. And I’m certainly NOT implying that the whole field of invasion biology is without merit – but it’s pretty clear any research in which chemical companies like Monsanto have had a hand (either directly or indirectly) cannot be called neutral. I realize that while Theodoropoulos’s book is regarded by many as a “heroic expose on the corporate hijacking of an academic discipline”, there are many who point out that his theories are highly controversial, and that his research has yet to be published in credentialed scientific journals. 

But nonetheless I resonate with his contention that the misperception surrounding invasive plants “arises from fear born out of our disconnection to the cycles of nature.” This, Theodoropoulos believes,” is being exploited by corporations and governments and is leading to widespread herbicide use in wildlands.”

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So is it really so conspiratorial to suggest that the chemical industry is foisting anti-invasive propaganda on us that fattens their pockets? Perhaps here is good time to note, as journalist Cockburn did, that last year in the US alone, “the federal government spent more than $2 billion to fight the alien invasion, up to half of which was budgeted for glyphosate and other poisons.” Seems pretty profitable to me.

In the next post l’ll examine how pervasive the use of their toxic poisons in our city and provincial parks actually is. We’ll explore how and why their use is increasing – and where we as citizens are willing to draw the line between safety and risk.

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Ending the Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War on Invasive Plants. Now.

This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good?

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I’ve had it. On a recent foray into Uplands Park I was horrified to discover the landscape literally dotted with notices of herbicide applications of Glyphosate (think Round-Up) and Garlon. This was an area that I had previously believed was “pesticide free”. Now a herbicide is a pesticide by definition, so I gotta tell you, how can it be that everywhere I go, our local parks, crown forests or city green spaces, edible, nourishing and medicinal plants (otherwise known as invasive weeds) are being “treated” with noxious chemicals?

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In past three years I’ve been seeing more and more of these pesticide and herbicide application notices, so I wasn’t surprised to read in Pesticide Free Future that since 2012 “every BC municipality suddenly had an official plan for removal of invasive plants – specifically with herbicide – which seemed counter to the cosmetic pesticide bylaws being passed.”   Is this true – and if so, why?

Are we being lulled into a false sense of security by the CRD and Vancouver Island municipalities that promote “pesticide free” policies or even ban them for home use, all the while using them in our parks?

Why? What is the rationale? Well, as I’ve discovered it seems these chemicals are being used in a “war” against invasive plants which are deemed by the Canadian government to be one of the greatest “threats” to our environment. And one of the advocated solutions seems to be chemical control which chemical company publications tell us is more “time-efficient and cost-effective” than manual or mechanical removal methods, “especially on large sites”. 

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Now I fully acknowledge I’m no ecological expert. I’m just an ordinary citizen who is not yet sure whether chemicals proven to be harmful to life are actually benefiting our native ecosystems. But as I’ve discovered, questioning the conservationist ideology that invasive plants must be eradicated – at whatever the cost – is as close to modern sacrilege as it gets.

I’ve literally encountered eye widening shock and fist shaking rage when daring to suggest that these “weeds” have an ecological purpose of their own. And I’ve been called everything from a “nitwit” to “dangerous” to a “science denier” and been banned from wild food facebook groups for voicing these views.

But I’m not plucking my ideas from thin air. In the past few years we’ve seen the publication of many books, highlighting growing research in the fields of evolutionary biology, plant and soil ecology, bioremediation, plant pharmacology and climate change. And they suggest that invasive plants are actually healers, helping cleanse and repair damaged soils and waterways. In other words, they’re cleaning up the mess we’ve left behind.  

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The Dreaded Garlic Mustard

This research shows that our fear that invasive plants will choke, overtake and colonize vast areas, killing off endangered native species in the process, may be shortsighted. It suggests that once invasive plants fulfill their ecological function (to heal the landscape) that a natural balance would eventually occur, these plants will naturally die back. (I explore these ideas in following posts)

Today government and large conservationist agencies inform us that “controlled applications” of these chemicals is supposedly safe. Or at least worth the cost and the risk – when it comes to saving our endangered, indigenous species. According to a publication put out by the Nature Conservancy of Canada to stamp out Garlic Mustard “Glyphosate is widely considered the most appropriate herbicide for use on conservation lands”. Yet they also note here “The presence of synthetic chemicals in the environment, especially those designed to control unwanted species (insecticides and herbicides), and the acute and long-term effects of those chemicals on wildlife and humans have been of concern since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1962.”

Boyce Thorne Miller, Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, is deeply concerned. And in this series we’ll discover why she and many other scientists are disturbed at the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides used on invasive species. Thorne Miller states,“Basically, the cure is worse than the disease”.

Because as we’ll learn in a future post, the breadth of their use is, simply put, shocking – well, at least to me. And while we’re willing to tolerate short term death and destruction for long term rewards, fact is, the research just isn’t in. In the long haul, whether our native-ecosystems will benefit from the application of these chemicals – remains to be seen.

But who clearly is benefiting meanwhile is the chemical industry.  Our war on invasive plants is pouring billions of dollars into the pockets of companies who create deadly poisons both for human warfare and for the everyday war on pests: Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical Company.

Caption:Farmers Matt Wiggeim, right, and Cody Gibson mix Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide near a corn field in Kasbeer, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, June 13, 2011. Corn fell to a one-month low and soybeans declined on speculation that favorable weather will boost yields in the U.S., the world's biggest grower and exporter. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Conservationist David Theodoropoulos’s book, Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, conducted an examination of invasive-plant science and reveals a long-standing connection between invasion biology and the pesticide industry. Companies, as Theodoropoulos points out, which have a great deal invested in convincing us that invasive plants are our ‘enemy”. Companies, with the financial might to pay for their own ‘scientific research’ demonstrating why dangerous invasive plants must be eradicated.

And while it might sound conspiratorial, I think it bears asking if the profitable war on invasives might dry up if we woke up and realized that the enemy is really our friend?

In my own wild food community many have been extremely upset by these articles. And while many agree that pesticide use is not the answer – they ask that I stop questioning the very tenets of conservation itself. They feel these posts are undermining the cause that many have dedicated their lives to – restoring threatened native ecosystems.

But how to question the use of noxious chemicals in our wilds – without questioning the rationale that lies behind their use? I’ve already been told – countless times – that while no one “likes” to use them, they are a necessary evil – for the reasons I’ve described.

It is my deeply held conviction that I owe it to the earth and animals I love, to ask these questions. I want a full accounting of the use of pesticides in our city greenspaces and forests by our parks and municipal representatives. I want to know how are they assessing the risk of potential long-term negative effects to the ecosystem, animals and human life? 

It’s not as if there aren’t methods of ‘weed’ control. I’d like to see some the budgets allocated for chemical control be redirected towards alternative non-toxic methods of invasive plant control, as described in Tao Orion’s book: Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration.

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 And so I ask you as environmental activists, conservationists, ecologists, wild crafters, herbalists, permaculturists, biologists and those who committed to the stewardship of the land, to have courage to ask what are often difficult questions. Are we truly sure that noxious compounds – often applied again and again in the same areas, do not eventually accumulate in the soil, run into waterways or end-up consumed by local wildlife? I believe the stakes are high, and I personally want to be sure – that what we are doing is right. 

So the big question is this – are we spending millions of federal, provincial and municipal tax dollars to counteract the remedial efforts of mother nature and poisoning food, medicinal herbs and our local environments in the process?

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In the next post I’ll be delving into the research suggesting that a) invasive plants are fulfilling essential ecological functions, b) that our efforts to remove them is weakening our eco-systems and c) that the toxic war we are waging against invasive plants, is a battle being waged against nature herself.

Here is Part One – Invasive Plants: Noxious Foe or Remedial Friend?

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Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging

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 Most of us equate food security with supporting community gardens and urban farms. But there is a vast cornucopia of nourishing free food already growing abundantly in our parks, neighborhoods and backyards—right now. Food that could be meaningfully and significantly supplementing the dietary needs of community residents and families—vitally enhancing food security.

That’s why we want to encourage Victoria’s mayor and city council to consider adding a new initiative, Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging to Section 8 of the draft Strategic Plan to “Enhance and Steward Public Spaces, Green Spaces and Food Systems”.

The Eating: Wild Community Supported Initiative  (EWSCI) is composed of a coalition of wild food educators, First Nation indigenous food experts, wild food artisans, and chefs, ethnobotanists, ecologists and environmentalists, food security organizations and wild food enthusiasts. The EWSCI has two prongs, a) developing resources for wild food community education and b) forming partnerships between foragers, community groups promoting food security and local government, parks and urban farms.

Our mission is to give wild foods a place at our tables and a place of their own in our emerging local food systems, the “agri-hood” of community gardens, urban farms, boulevard gardens and food forests, that enable community residents and families in their local environments to feed and nourish themselves.

The Eating Wild CSF Initiative seeks to:

  • Support wild food education and community educational events in tandem with local community centers and city parks, to teach residents not only how to safely identify, sustainably harvest wild foods, but to how to prepare, preserve and cook them as well.  This would be accomplished through Wild Food Walks, Wild Food Community Kitchens, Wild Food Dinners, Wild Food Festivals etc. Community Wild Food Guides and Maps could also be developed.
  • Set aside protected spaces in City parks for community food foraging. Currently foraging is not permitted in city parks. The Eating Wild CSF Initiative requests that community foraging pilot projects be set up in local parks and public green spaces.  These areas will be chosen in consultation with city naturalists to minimally impact endangered plants and bio-systems such as Garry Oak ecosystems.  We will also seek to form pilot partnerships with local urban farms, to organize events in which foragers could help farmers cut costs by weeding their fields.
  • Promote the health of wild plants and green spaces by reducing the expensive use of herbicides in our local parks for invasive plant control. We encourage foragers to form partnerships with parks to keep invasive plants under control by harvesting them instead-like this garlic mustard “Pest to Pesto Festival” – and many others popping up across North America.

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Why Wild Foods?

1) Vital Food Supplement

Today more than ever, as the nutrient levels of our food supply plummet and food prices skyrocket—we need wild foods. Through industrial agriculture we have not only stripped our cultivated fruit and vegetables of important nutrients to satisfy our taste for sweeter and starchier foods, our soils have become so over-farmed that they are depleted of the critical nutrients we need to thrive. However, wild foods—brimming with vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, phytonutrients and antioxidants in such short supply in our conventional diet—are the world’s most nutritionally potent superfoods.

Far from a recent food ‘trend’, wild foods once constituted a kind of “medicinal cuisine” enjoyed by our ancestors around the world. Even after agriculture was well-established, wild foods continued to be consumed for centuries for their health-promoting properties. As herbalists have long known, many wild foods are so chock full of healing nutrition they are a veritable medicine. And many will tell you that it is no coincidence that modern diseases have run rampant as wild foods disappear from our diet.

Wild foods are the originators of all fruits, grains and vegetables, and as author of The Green Pharmacy, James Duke, PhD, reminds us, wild foods are the “plants that our ancestors ate—that humans evolved to eat”. By eating wild, we are eating unadulterated, seasonal, nutritionally balanced foods in their original form—as nature intended. And as wild food forager Sunny Savage in her popular TedX Talk urges – consuming just one wild plant a day can go a long way in improving our health.

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 2) Part of New Localized Food Systems

“Foraging skills, coupled with access to land- local parks, community gardens, back yards or vast wilderness- equals food sovereignty.” Dina Falconi Foraging and Feasting.

And yes, there is more than enough to go around. Most “wild foods” are not rare endangered indigenous species, but rather invasive plants(i.e. dandelions, plantain, garlic mustard, hawthorn berries, blackberries) that were introduced here by the early settlers as food. But today the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to eliminate (often with herbicides) these nutrient-rich foods from our lawns, gardens, parks and green spaces. Of course, wild foods will never feed populations en masse, but they have been historically used—and can be again—as a vital food supplement to enrich all of our diets.

Wild foods grow everywhere in our urban and suburban neighborhoods yet they remain a mostly untapped resource. Scottish forager Mark Williams  calls these plants “superabundant”. Meaning, “if everybody within walking distance gathered enough for their personal consumption each year, under 1% of a species would actually be harvested.” Add to this bounty, the fruit produced by tree’s on city streets and boulevards, and feral fruit trees in parks, especially those that were once farmland like the fields surrounding Beaver Lake Park.

Cities like Los Angeles and Seattle are currently considering ways in which ways to allow food harvesting on public land. Some Seattle parks not only tolerate foraging, they actually teach foraging classes. In California, The Berkley Food Institute has launched Forage Berkley which maps the availability of wild and feral edible plants in urban neighborhoods and provides community education – and they confirm that “there are mountains of wild edible plants in urban food deserts in the Bay Area.”

These initiatives are part of a shift in cities which are preparing for climate changes and rising fuel prices, leading many local food security activists to look to foraging to increase the resilience of their food supply

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3) Bring Us Into Harmony with Nature

As foragers, our relationship within nature- our complete interdependence- becomes crystal clear…With this comes the rewarding responsibility of caretaking the land and the plants that feed us.”Dina Falconi Foraging and Feasting.

Foraging promotes community health and well-being through more than just nutrition. Countless studies show that spending time in nature reduces blood pressure, anxiety and stress levels. And as David Suzuki points out (see here) – “with more than 80 per cent of Canadians now living in urban settings, many of us lack a meaningful, regular connection with the natural environment that sustains us. Getting in touch with the outdoors has another great benefit: those who know and love nature work harder to protect it.”

Foraging means learning to harvest what nature gives us in time, it teaches us to observe the cycles of the seasons, the changing foliage, the flora and fauna. We begin to gain a deeper ecological understanding of our local environment – and we believe this motivates us to become better stewards of nature  – especially the nature that lies just outside our front door.

And as Melissa Poe, an environmental anthropologist  states “the more people understand about how the ecosystems work, the more respectful they will be of our parks.” Poe’s research demonstrates that educated foragers help protect urban land, they “enjoy greater connection with their local environment, and as a part of the gathering process, share and maintain significant local environmental knowledge.”

This element (the connections between nature and people) is among the most deeply significant motivations for people to engage in the practice of foraging…It’s an intimate connection. You can go out and you can appreciate [urban nature] and say “oh, my isn’t it pretty,” but when you interact on this level, when it becomes part of your pantry, when it’s part of what you eat, now you have a relationship. You’re not an outsider observer. It’s not this ‘other’ thing. It’s part of you and you are part of it.” (Seattle Forager)

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In Conclusion

That is why Gather is launching The Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging Initiative because it paves a path towards a future, as Poe suggests, “in which foragers assert their rights to the natural resources that support their wild food and health practices”. We believe foraging supports a sustainable connection between people, land and food that nourishes us and brings us into “right relationship” with nature.  We envision a future in which wild plants are valued as an important community resource in localized food systems.

Gather is launching The Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging Initiative because we believe foraging supports a sustainable connection between people, land and food that nourishes us and brings us into right relationship with nature.  We envision a future in which wild plants are valued as an important community resource in localized food systems. We teach Victoria residents not only to safely identify the many nourishing foods that grow in their neighbourhoods, city streets and backyards, but how to sustainably harvest, cook, prepare, preserve—and eat them as well. Reviving health-promoting wild food culinary traditions (as well as creating delicious new ones!) Gather explores the local terroir, season by season.

Gather wants to bring wild food education to each neighborhood in the Greater Victoria area. So please join us! If you are interested in participating in the EWCFI please contact us and let us know. We also ask that you consider emailing a link of this post to City Councillors before March 31st, urging the City support to the Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging Initiative (councillors@victoria.ca.) Or email a link of this post to Ben Isitt bisitt@victoria.ca  and Jeremy Loveday jloveday@victoria.ca directly. Thank-you!

The Abundance of Wildfood Cuisine!

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I’ve been busy in my kitchen preparing for a series of wild food walks and tasting buffets that Gather will be hosting next year in local neighborhoods.  Guided by recipes from old world culinary traditions, pioneer foods and foraging blogs, I’ve brought back a plethora of foraged edibles for experimentation. So far this fall I’ve made Acorn flour, Wild Buckwheat muffins, Nettle seed sea salt, Cat’s Ear capers, Hawthorn and Nootka Rose Turkish delight, Hawthorn ketchup, mounds of Dandelion pesto, wild green chips and Kim chi, a slew of forest teas, and medicinal honey bombs. And all this gathered a stones throw (or short bike ride) from my back door – for free!

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The sheer abundance of wild food is truly amazing. What I prepared only scratches the surface of what grows freely available all around us. Two years ago I took an amazing journey with ethnobotanist Abe Lloyd through the autumn and spring edibles of Southern Vancouver Island. I had already been foraging a while but Abe shifted my perception of the forests and fields forever. Nature wasn’t dotted here and there with a few a wild foods amongst the poisonous ones – it was a garden of edible delight. Nearly everything the eye could see was food – not the other way around. It was no wonder, as Abe pointed out, that the Coast Salish enjoyed such a well fed, prosperous and leisurely lifestyle until we came around.

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I love eating wild food grown on the land I actually inhabit, the land I walk, work, and sleep on, the land of which I am actually a part. Food doesn’t need to come from a farm far away or at the supermarket shipped to us by thousands of anonymous miles. It makes sense to trust the nutritional wisdom of the landscape to give us the sustenance we need season to season.

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After all, our local flora are veritable powerhouses of the vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants, bioflavonoids and minerals in such supply in our industrialized modern diet, putting many so-called super greens like Kale, to shame. So why pay for super-foods that come from far-flung corners of the globe when the nutrient packed wild plants, tree’s berries, mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest are right here under our nose?

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Granted, a wild food palate can take time to develop. Our domesticated tongues are accustomed to bland modified berries and vegetables bred to take bitter flavours out. But is it a coincidence that in our gut troubled society, a little dose of bitter could go a long way in helping calm our tummies and aid digestion? Perhaps we should take a cue from the old European custom of sipping ‘digestives’ made from bitter or aromatic wild herbs after a generous meal?

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Consuming wild edibles may seem a hipster phenomenon but it was once part of culinary traditions across the old world.  For hundreds of years each spring country cooks from Britain, Germany, Italy to Greece waited for the appearance of the first wild greens like dandelion, chickweed, miner’s lettuce, wild mustard and nettles. Served up in fresh salads or cooked up into delicious pies and sautéed dishes, they were eaten to cleanse and revitalize the body after heavy starchy diets of winter.

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Today Greek Grannies continue to forage the hills for spring greens known as Horta (the over 80 different green plants and herbs found in a patch of grass) but the rest of us have clearly lost touch with the food underfoot. The vast majority of these ‘super-greens’ grow by the ton in suburban neighborhoods but are either ignored, pulled out, or sprayed with herbicides that accumulate in our ecosystems and regional bio-sphere.

So at Gather we’re women with a mission – to return wild edibles to their rightful place of respect.That’s why, beginning this spring Gather will be out there inviting community residents to discover the wild foods that grow outside their front door. Our Urban Wild Food Walks will identify local edible plants, leaves, berries and mushrooms and learn safe and sustainable methods of harvest. Then, (the best part!) we’ll explore a little wild food cuisine with a tasting menu featuring the sweet and savory seasonal flavors of the local landscape.

Last fall we held a test run (see here) generously hosted by the local restaurant Part and Parcel. We explored the urban wilds and city streets of the Quadra/Hillside neighborhood and then enjoyed a buffet of wild crafted goodies including botanical jellies and wild berry jams dandelion pesto and wild green chips. I even made Acorn cake. And it went great!

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So this spring we’re planning to move ahead with a regular program of Urban Wild Food Walks beginning in March and running through to October -so stay tuned for details. Meanwhile I’ll be in the fields and in the kitchen, preparing and testing, getting my recipes right. We’ll see you in the spring!

Stewards or Profiteers: Selling The Wild

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I’ve only been foraging for about eight years but lately I’ve noticed a growing number of newly enthused “wildcrafting” entrepreneurs (with considerably less experience) selling their wares. So imagine my surprise when a local wildcrafter recently insinuated I had succumbed to forager’s greed because I had picked a pound of Salal berries (I wanted to freeze some for winter). And when another wildcrafter stated that he and his ilk had a more enlightened approach to stewardship of the land – as opposed to the forager’s clear-cutting ways and take, take, take mentality – I was further taken aback. Because both seemed oblivious to the irony that by wildcrafting (for money) they were taking considerably more than their fair share.

I’m not sure how foraging got such a bad name. Once cat tail luvin’ dandelion eatin’ foragers like Euell Gibbons were considered to be the very epitome of a natural conservationist. And all the self called foragers I have had the pleasure to meet were sober, conscientious nature loving people – and the first to emphasize to me the importance of stewarding the land. Confusing what I do (foraging for myself and my loved ones) with commercial foraging is part of the problem.  Foraging is about free food – not commerce. Because once you take what the earth provides us for free and sell it for profit – that’s business, that’s agriculture.

And for those who want to keep wild food out of the industrialized food system, this is no small point. Because it is agriculture (as it is currently practiced) that is responsible for our food crisis, the destruction of natural habitats, the poisoning of our land and water, not foragers. Sound extreme?

Consider that once all our ancestors were foragers, they roamed over the land gathering food freely provided by mother nature. But with agriculture came a new idea, staying in one place to ‘work’ the land. And food went from being a ‘gift’ of the earth – to a ‘product’ of human knowledge, craft and labor. A commodity to be bought, sold and earned by the sweat of our brow. (For more on this see The Why of Spring Nettle Pie.)

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Foraging was a good lifestyle compared to early farming, which according to Jacob L. Weisdorf of the Institute of Economics, University of Copenhagen “was back breaking, time consuming, and labor intensive.” Hunter gatherer societies were healthier, had more leisure time than their farming counterparts – and more food. In fact a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated farming produced only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging.

This spurred Jack R. Harlan, one of the great pioneers of historical ecology to ask what has become a famous question -why farm? “Why give up the 20-hour work week and the fun of hunting in order to toil in the sun? Why work harder, for food less nutritious and a supply more capricious? Why invite famine, plague, pestilence and crowded living conditions?”

Why indeed.

Weisdorf believes the prehistoric shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture was “ultimately necessary to the rise of modern civilization by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialization and sustained economic growth.”

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In other words agriculture led to food surplus which led to the accumulation of material wealth, and as populations and farms got bigger -the control of the food supply (and it’s profits) somehow fell into fewer and fewer hands. And along the way whole bio-regional food systems were destroyed and replaced by a handful of genetically uniform, high-yielding monocrops ( i.e. rice, corn, soy and wheat) owned by a handful of mega-corporations today.

Now I’m not advocating we give up the city and wander the forests. Of course we can’t return to past. Foraging will not feed our populations. But in tandem with community gardens, urban farms, boulevard gardens and food forests – foraging might go a long way in improving our diets and our relationship with nature. And not just pristine nature “out there” in remote national parks, but the immediate nature that exists outside our front door.

Scottish forager Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods reminds us that the vast majority of foraging for plants or fruits isn’t conducted in the wilderness but closer to home, in liminal zones between the wild and the domestic, for what are commonly considered “weeds”. These “superabundant” plants Williams points out “rot by tons” in urban and suburban neighborhoods each year. He defines superabundant as “meaning if everybody within walking distance gathered enough for their personal consumption each year, under 1% of a species would actually be harvested.” He adds, “of course less than 1% of everybody is actually interested in harvesting these species.”

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Which is why I’m working to organize a series of urban foraging walks in my neighborhood. I’m hoping that by getting people enthused about making their own Acorn bread, Dandelion Pesto or Salal Berry Crumble  they might become more concerned about the spraying of our parks and city streets with toxic chemicals. Maybe they’d even begin to have a personal stake in stewarding the nature that surrounds them?

I’m hoping that once we realize we can get enough food from our neighborhood to actually meaningfully supplement the nutritional needs of our neighborhood (meaning there would always be just enough wild chamomile tea to go around) maybe we’d begin to find a way towards a new kind of sustainable agriculture, an “agri-hood” in which communities, in harmony with their local environments, can feed themselves.

But of course, there is a proverbial fly in the ointment. Because what happens when some enterprising individual sees his or her neighborhood bounty not as a communal resource to be shared but as a personal one to be exploited for profit? What if she want to ‘wildcraft’ more than her share of the nettle stalks for her woven baskets? What if he wants harvest all the chanterelles to sell to high priced food markets? Will he or she begin to hire ‘commercial’ foragers to meet economic demand? You get my drift.

Wildcrafters say what they do is about much more than just gathering food. They see themselves as adding value to raw product by weaving together history, art, spirituality, ecology, storytelling, and intentional action. They want to deepen our relationship with the natural world. Sounds good. But I worry (however they choose to go about it) that the selling of wild goods minimizes community self reliance, encourages passive consumption, and boosts consumer demand – and not for the better.

Here in BC wild mushrooms have become big business, supplying markets in China and around the world, and this has resulted in a number of criminal incidents. Quebec banned the harvest of ramps (wild leeks) after hordes of commercial harvesters were discovered to be threatening the species.

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In Quebec, NorCliff Farms Inc. processes about 60,000 tonnes of fiddleheads a day, foraged from forests in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, as well as the northeastern United States. Meaning a fiddlehead picked in New Brunswick, processed in Quebec and sold in Ontario could have journeyed thousands of miles by the time it makes it to your plate.

So is selling wild food truly sustainable? Tim Brigham of the Centre for Non-Timber Resources at Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island, believes so. He states in a Globe and Mail article “You’ve got people who are aware of how to harvest properly and others who just want to make a buck.” Mr. Brigham believes that certified wildcrafters can commercially harvest wild foods in way that preserves ecosystems. He is part of a group working to create wildcrafting guidelines and a national network of sustainable harvesters. “There are some wild foods that you could have everybody in the country eating and it could be sustainable,” he says, such as Saskatoon berries and wild raspberries.

Mr. Brigham may be right – time will tell. I hope so. (See Gathercommunity supported foraging initiative) But as the popularity of wild food grows so will competition for these ‘resources’. What happens if demand for wild raspberries takes off like ramps or fiddleheads  – where will we draw the line? Will morally elevated wildcrafters agree to cap their earnings? To cap their harvests? How will they navigate the gray ethical area between running a business (which is about profit) and care-taking the land?

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If some wildcrafters want to define themselves apart from foragers – fine, but insinuating foragers are guilty of pillaging the land, well, it seems a wee bit like the pot calling the kettle black. Seeing wild food as a communal resource to be freely shared has the potential to reshape the way we eat, farm and interact with the natural world. Making wild food a commodity isn’t going to change anything, much less protect it from exploitation

And if wildcrafters are truly interested in promoting stewardship, is selling off the last remnants of the wild- really the best way to do so? I’m not sure, but as a forager my ethical bottom line is taking only what I need for myself, my loved ones, and my community, no more. And even then I worry I may be taking too much, because finding the sustainable balance is difficult enough without commerce entering the picture.