Think Outside

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Think Outside

Nature's calling

Ask Amber Westfall of The Wild Garden what her relationship is with the wild plants she gathers for food and medicine and she will describe herself as a steward of her environment. Her goal is to harvest plants in such a way that is not only ethical but has a beneficial impact over time.

The Wild Garden is a small business Amber started over 4 years ago, borne out of passion for wild edible and medicinal plants. Her own interest began when she started supplementing her diet with wild foods in an effort to stretch the availability of local produce in the short growing season. Dandelion, nettles, plantain, lamb’s quarters and amaranth are some of the first plants to appear in early spring and the last to die before the frost.

Amber spent over a decade studying and working with wild edible and healing plants before turning it into her livelihood. Today, The Wild Garden offers educational programs for children and adults, workshops and plant walks that introduce people to common weedy plants that grow everywhere and can be used for food and medicine. On a half-acre of certified organic land at the Just Food farm in Blackburn Hamlet, Amber grows and gathers plants to create useful products that are sold in monthly herbal boxes and mailed to her clients.

Amber Westfall explains her approach to harvesting wild plants
The Young Herbalists Club preparing dandelion flowers for syrup

The Young Herbalists Club preparing dandelion flowers for syrup

Depending on what’s in season she can be out gathering any of dozens of plants such as red clover, daisies, elderflower or raspberry leaves.  After gathering, the plants need to be processed or dried and turned into such finished products as lotions, bath salts or teas to name a few possibilities.

During her plant walks and workshops Amber educates about the ethics surrounding wild foods. She advocates for focusing on non-native, weedy species that grow abundantly such as dandelion and garlic mustard instead of those that may be threatened or at-risk. When not harvested sustainably even a small amount taken can have significant long-term consequences for plants that take many years to mature and set seed. For instance over-harvesting is a very real concern for native wild leeks and she encourages asking where they came from and if they were harvested sustainably before purchasing.

Foraging has become trendy and some people will profit from this renewed interest in local, wild foods. Others are simply searching to re-connect with nature or looking for ways to add diversity and more nutrition to their diets. Wild foods typically have more nutrients, anti-oxidants and minerals than cultivated food as discussed in this New York Times article.

Milkweed pod fritters

Milkweed pod fritters

For those interested in foraging and wild crafting Amber teaches identification, ethics and safe harvesting. It comes as a surprise to many to learn that it is illegal to pick on NCC property or to remove anything from the city parks which surround so much of Ottawa. The city also has an industrial history and foragers could unwittingly be picking on sites of contaminated soil. The best way to avoid these dangers is to know your environment. “It’s really important to spend time outside in the places where they might be interested in gathering food and visit those places over and over again” says Amber. “Observing and getting to know the land is really important, talking to the elders who’ve lived in the community”. 

With a pesticide ban in place since 2009 there is significantly less danger of harvesting in contaminated areas than in the past. However noxious weeds such as poison ivy and wild parsnip are still sprayed regularly with pesticides which can spread to nearby vegetation. When in doubt it is a good rule to limit oneself to harvesting from fruit bearing trees, which have biological barriers in place that protect the fruit from toxins.

Amber foraging

Amber foraging
 

What Amber sees as the best takeaway from her workshops is the sense of empowerment people get when they learn to identify and gather their own food and medicine, no longer passive but active participants in the natural spaces around them.

Plants are resilient and persistent - you can learn to identify plants growing in the most hostile of urban environments. Purslane, Japanese knotweed and dandelion are coming out of the cracks of sidewalks and bursting through concrete. Even if you wouldn’t harvest from them you can learn to identify them.

Among many there is a growing sense of disillusionment with industrial agriculture that raises many questions about unethical labour practices or safe and hygienic processing.  Being a part of your own food chain leaves no doubt.

The underappreciated value of forest foods.

Credits

Photographs

  • Courtesy of The Wild Garden

Music

Video

  • Government of Ontario