The foraging season is now in full force! New edible plants are popping up daily. Many of them are only edible when they are young, so the window for a tasting opportunity is short!
Horsetail, equisetum arvense, is one such example. Horsetail is a relative of a prehistoric plant that grew to over 15 meters high 400 million years ago.
Horsetail is eaten by caribou, moose, sheep and bears and, when young, can be eaten by humans too. The young, male horsetail shoots are edible when the fronds are pointing up. When the fronds start to point outwards or downwards, then they should no longer be eaten as oxalate crystals will be building up inside the stem.
If you catch them early, the young shoots can be eaten raw or steamed as a wild vegetable. Or they can be dried and used as a tea. They are rich in antioxidants and high in minerals including calcium, magnesium.
Of note – long-term regular ingestion or horsetail can deplete thiamine levels (Vitamin B1). Also to be avoided in folks with edema, gout, heart and kidney disease.
If you don’t catch them young, horsetail make good pot scrubbers while camping. Horsetail is high in silica and when dried and steeped in hot water apparently makes a great foot soak or hair rinse.
Look for horsetail in damp open woods, meadows, dry sandy soil and disturbed areas.
Last year’s grass is long, yellow and plentiful in our Whitehorse backyard, and the new green shoots are already showing underneath. It really is time to rake away the old and prepare for the new. But I’m getting ready for a trip overseas, there’s so much to do, and the inevitable looms — I will not get to the raking.
Every year it’s the same — we have great plans for the yard. We’ll build a food forest! Sow some grains! Cause passersby to stare in wonder at the glory of our garden!
And every year, I might manage, latterly, to stuff armfuls of old grass into the compost bucket, fill a few pots with edible flowers, and maybe cut down last year’s stalks of Artemesia tilesii in the otherwise empty garden boxes. Then it’s time for the trip to Scotland, or the long hike, or the paddling trip. And instead of staring in wonder, passersby shake their heads.
My husband offers words of comfort: “We’re not gardeners. We’re gatherers.”
Right. So, we’ll gather.
By the time we get back from Scotland, the dandelions that have colonised the yard will be in flower, smiling brightly between leaves of grass. We’ll have dandelion fritters for dessert. The spruce tips will be young and green in the higher altitudes, and this year we’ll make a special day trip just for picking. I’ll make spruce tip and juniper butter, spread it on freshly baked bread and pile hot-smoked salmon on top.
And, you heard it here, I will roto-till the garden box outside the fence, dig in a whack of compost, and plant the rye I’ve ordered from Salt Spring Seeds. If all goes well, we could be gathering grain in the fall.
Gathering has to be my kind of gardening — for now.
Spruce Tip and Juniper Butter
2 oz (56 gr) butter, softened
1 Tbsp (15 mL) fresh spruce tips, finely chopped
1 tsp (5 mL) juniper berries, crushed
1 Tbsp (15 mL) garlic scapes, finely chopped
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix thoroughly. Spread on fresh bread and top with smoked salmon and sliced red onion.
Despite the fact that it snowed yesterday in Dawson City and there is still ice on the river, Spring has, in fact, arrived. As announced by the blooming of the wild crocus, the first wildflower of Spring!
No, it’s not edible, but it is a harbinger of edible plants to come. In one week the fireweed shoots, nature’s version of asparagus, should begin poking their heads out of the ground.
I marvel at nature. While I have been busy ordering, planting, watering, fertilizing and tending to my fragile seedlings in preparation for transplanting the end of May, nature has been quietly taking care of all this without any human intervention at all — year after year producing successful crops of wild edible plants that help sustain both animals and humans.
Welcome to the wild crocus and all the wonders of Spring that will soon appear!
As the swans return and the Yukon River breaks up, the longed-for foraging season inches ever closer. This waiting-for-spring seems endless now, but we know from experience that once the new plants start to appear it’s all going to happen really fast. First the dandelions and the spruce tips will appear, then the wild roses and the plantain and lamb’s quarters, then the Labrador tea and then the berries, the rapid succession of beautiful berries.
Now, as we lounge in spring’s waiting room, it’s a good time to reflect and prepare for the foraging season ahead. As our love of wild foods grows, there are more and more of us out there, and it becomes crucial to practice ethical harvesting, doing our part to protect and conserve, so we, the animals and the birds can continue to enjoy the wild harvest for generations.
The north is a big place, and sparsely populated, but even so the forager’s effect on the environment, especially sensitive environments, can be devastating. One Dawson resident said recently, “Indiscriminate harvesting concerns me as our population grows and more people are interested in the wild things.” When we’re out in number, our cumulative effect is far greater than we might think.
Stories from the forests of Quebec provide a cautionary tale. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum, also known as ramps, wild onion or wild garlic), once abundant in the wild, was so over-harvested for commercial and personal use that it became endangered. Urban sprawl and habitat destruction also played a part. Since 1995, by Quebec law, the only wild leek harvest permitted is 50 bulbs or plants for personal use. Today, though commercial harvesting and sales of wild leeks have been banned, the species is still listed as endangered.
Chef Nancy Hinton and her partner, the legendary Quebec forager Francois Brouillard, own Les Jardins Sauvages, a restaurant and small wild-food condiment business in Saint-Roch de l’Achigan just outside Montreal. Brouillard grew up spending summers in the woods near his grandmother’s cottage, now the restaurant, and was foraging for wild foods long before they became de rigueur on restaurant menus and at farmer’s market stalls.
Now, says Hinton, though she and Brouillard are very happy people have learned about wild foods, the downside is the woods are becoming overcrowded and habitat is threatened. “There’s a lot of people going out, and they’re going too fast, they don’t have the knowledge and the patience or the experience necessary, even if they care about sustainability.”
Worse, continues Hinton, the demand for wild food is so great it has spawned a flourishing black market. “There’s tons of people, and they sell to chefs, or to other people that sell.” This causes a number of concerns. “First, there’s no traceability, so if there’s a problem you don’t know where it came from or how it was picked. Second, these people are not people who are so concerned about sustainability.”
Hinton and Brouillard now sit on a committee that’s trying to develop guidelines for this burgeoning industry, but it’s complicated. How do you monitor compliance? How do you monitor the woods? In the case of wild ginseng, an endangered species in Ontario that brings high prices on the black market, Environment Canada is using video surveillance cameras on known patches.
In the meantime, wild ginger and crinkle root, plants that Brouillard has been gathering for years, and which still thrive on his family’s property because of careful harvesting, are listed as “at risk” in Quebec and their harvest subject to regulation. Hinton says that while she doesn’t want to dampen enthusiasm for beginners interested in wild harvesting, and understands that mistakes are made innocently, it’s frustrating to be denied access to much-loved plants because of others’ ignorance or willful negligence.
We might think it can’t happen in the Yukon. But in Whitehorse low bush cranberry pickers have already noticed that they have to go farther and farther afield to find berries, even in a good berry year. There are simply more of us out there. The way foraging works, one friend brings another, who then goes back to the same place with a new friend, who then returns with one of her friends, and so on, until the small patch of wild berries that might once have supported one person’s family with a few cups of berries for the winter is now under an enormous amount of pressure.
Last year at an area in BC famous for its wild watercress and its beautiful, extremely sensitive Karst landscape, my husband and I came across a Whitehorse family in the midst of harvesting wild watercress. They already had three large garbage bags full, and they were filling a fourth. “We do it for all of our family,” they said.
Well, okay. But surely we have to think beyond our own families. What if we all filled several large garbage bags every spring?
Amber Westfall, herbalist and wild food educator from the Ottawa area, has compiled a short list of helpful reminders on how to forage with care. It’s not a bad idea to review her guidelines while the season is not yet upon us.
Guidelines for Ethical Foraging
Composed by Amber Westfall, herbalist and proprietor of The Wild Garden, in Ottawa, Ontario. Amber says, “Please practice good stewardship and take care of the plants that take care of us!”
Make sure you have a one hundred percent positive ID. Ideally, reference more than one field guide, or go out with an experienced forager or wildcrafter.
Do not over-harvest. Be mindful of how many remaining plants are needed to ensure the stand will continue to flourish and thrive. Learn about how the plant reproduces. By seed? Rhizomes? Slow growing bulbs? Think about what other animals, insects and people might be using those plants.
Know the poisonous plants in your area and what to avoid.
Be aware that anyone can have an allergic reaction to any plant. Eat a small amount and wait 24 hour to see if you have a reaction.
Harvest away from busy roads and rail lines. Avoid contaminated areas and areas that have been sprayed with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The edges of farm fields, unless organic, are not appropriate for harvesting for this reason.
Know the history of the area you are harvesting from. Be wary of empty lots and avoid ‘brownfield’ land.
Do not harvest on private property without permission.
Do not harvest on protected land, fragile or at-risk environments or in provincial or national parks.
Learn which plants are threatened or at-risk and do not harvest them.
Learn which plants are prolific and which plants are invasive. These are ideal for harvesting.
Only harvest the appropriate part of the plant at the proper time of day and/or in the proper season.
Use clean, appropriate tools to reduce the spread of disease. Make neat, clean cuts at growing nodes to allow the plant to heal well and continue growing.
Leave some of the best specimens to go to seed and reproduce. If we take all the best plants and leave behind weak or diseased specimens, we are selecting for future plants that will be weak and subject to disease.
Have as little impact on the surrounding area as possible. Fill in any holes, re-cover bare dirt with leaf litter and try to leave the area better than you found it.
Don’t waste the plants that you harvest. Use and process them promptly while still fresh and compost any parts that are not used.
Moments of unscrupulousness sometimes have the redeeming quality of offering insight into one’s behavior. I seem to find or create many such moments in the normal course of my day.
Suzanne and I share the meal preparations so I decided to marinate some moose steaks a couple of nights ago. First, I grab the rhubarb “vinegar” from the fridge, only to be redirected to the rhubarb juice department. The vinegar, I was instructed, had a separate specific purpose.
Then I grab the container of juniper berries, take a liberal portion, and proceed to crush them, adding them to the lovely evolving marinade. This was duly noted.
Suzanne suggested that the flavor could be enhanced if they were ground in the now repurposed coffee grinder. When I did not respond to this suggestion enthusiastically, she tried once again, stating that the supply of juniper berries was perilously scant, and that grinding them would make them last longer. But by this time, the deed was done, berries stubbornly crushed and added.
In the time it took for the unmoved grinder to gather an infinitesimal modicum of dust, I was offered a generous portion of humility. The visibly upset Suzanne delivered a composed and articulate commentary on the scarceness of juniper berries this year, which I had clearly not appreciated. She outlined the cold and prickles she endured, and reminded me that she bore the lone responsibility for gathering those berries. As I said earlier, the only redeeming aspect of the moment was the personal insight I acquired.
Clearly, this was about more than juniper berries. This was about respect and appreciated effort and shared commitment to a course. It was about meaningful communication and the need to understand potential ramifications before acting. It was about the value we place on personal involvement in the acquisition of security, and how even the simplest of tactile tasks can foster feelings of tremendous individual engagement and ownership.
So, the things we grow, gather or build have more personal value than their monetary value would suggest. Might this explain the disproportionate satisfaction we enjoy with a shed full of firewood? Or a freezer full of moose, or berries, or blanched broccoli? Might it explain why we build our own boats, or shelves or sheds? Why we crochet, knit or needlepoint?
Given that, then why has our society increasingly moved away from the joy we could acquire through manual tasks? What will be the price for this evolution? And what would it say, if the juniper berry could speak?
Juniper is a coniferous shrub that produces berries. In Old Crow, Yukon it is sometimes known as ‘sharp tree’ thanks to its very prickly needles which are very familiar to all who pick juniper berries. Juniper berries should be picked with great respect as it takes 3 full years for a berry to ripen! When ripe they turn from green to a dark blue. The ripe berries can be picked any time of the year, but you may have to dig to find them under the snow in the winter, as juniper is a low lying shrub.
Eaten raw, juniper berries have a distinct aromatic spicy flavour reminiscent of gin. Juniper berries make an excellent spice — especially once ground into a powder. A coffee grinder works very well for this. A small amount of ground juniper berry goes a long way. It can be used in marinades or dusted on wild game including moose, caribou and grouse. It can even be lightly dusted on salmon. A small amount can also be added to soups or stews. According to Boreal Herbal, in Sweden a conserve is made out of juniper berries and used as a condiment for meats.
Juniper berries have a few extra qualities as well. They help digest gas-producing foods such as cabbage. Also, because juniper berries have a light coating of yeast on their skin, a few berries are often added to ferments to help out the lacto-fermenting process. So adding a few juniper berries when making sauerkraut has a triple effect: flavour, aiding the fermentation, and less gas when you eat the kraut! The yeast coating on the berries also makes them a useful ingredient in creating sourdough starter (which is another form of fermentation). Mix some flour and water and add a few juniper berries. Once it becomes bubbly and smells yeasty, you can remove the berries and the sourdough starter will be well on its way! In Old Crow, juniper berries are also boiled as a tea, which the Vuntut Gwitchin say also helps ease colds and cough symptoms.
Juniper berries should be used in moderation and avoided in people with kidney disease and in pregnant women.
Each year I wait for the late summer to start hunting wild mushrooms. I have been an amateur mycologist (“fungiphile”) for about 30 years. The Dawson City region is generally abundant with many different species of mushrooms over the months of July to October, and occasionally November, if it is a warm fall. What sets this region apart from much of Canada and even the lower portions of the Yukon Territory is that it escaped glaciation in the last ice age. Dawson City actually has topsoil, which holds not only fungal spores but also mammoth bones and all sorts of curiosities from the Pleistocene era.
I use the field guides for the Northwest Pacific American States as I find the mushrooms in our region key-out most closely — not exactly, but pretty darn close — to the winter species listed there. I use a combination of fruiting body appearance with spore prints and, because I geek out on this sort of thing, microscopic spore examination. The remnants of the mammoths have long since stopped adapting to the local environment but our mushrooms have continued their own path of adaptation over the intervening tens of thousands of years since those glaciers scraped off all the topsoil between the Tintina Trench and Spokane.
But this year has been a bust. I cannot recall a year so devoid of mushrooms in my time living up north. Not even the usually prolific, hardy and poisonous Cortinarius has appeared. Yesterday I found a portion of a deer mushroom (Pluteus cervinus) which a nervous squirrel dropped as I walked by on a trail. After a good rainfall over the last couple days a pathetic cluster of maggoty puffballs (Bovista plumbea) appeared beyond my doorstep. A week ago I found a couple mummified Lactarius deliciosus or delicious milk cap (not always delicious but always pretty). And that has been it.
My hunch is that it has been too dry this summer to promote decay of the substrates (dead wood, forest floor duff) along with the growth of the fungal mycelia which are the “roots” of a mushroom but actually the largest component of the organism that live for days to hundreds of years. Perhaps if we get more rain and some warm days, we could still see a decent crop of mushrooms. Fingers crossed!
Arora, David. (1991) All that the Rain Promises and More… Berkley, California: Ten Speed Press
Ward, Brent & D. Bond, Jeffrey & Gosse, John. (2007). Evidence for a 55–50 ka (early Wisconsin) glaciation of the Cordilleran ice sheet, Yukon Territory, Canada. Quaternary Research. 68. 141-150. 10.1016/j.yqres.2007.04.002. (Specifically reference to the diagram)
Dwarf dogwood is a common wild flower found around Dawson and throughout many parts of the North. It is also known as bunchberry. In the summer there is a single white flower in the middle of this low-laying plant. Around mid-August the flower disappears and is replaced by a cluster of small orange berries.
The berries are not unpleasant, and have a small seed that is easily chewed, but the taste overall is rather bland. However, they are very high in pectin and can be used as a thickener if added to low-pectin fruits when making jam. Suzanne is gathering the berries and freezing them, and will test them out in preserves this winter.
Here in Dawson City it’s the height of berry season!
This has even more significance for Suzanne and her family, as berries will be their main fruit supply for the next year, while they eat only local foods.
Suzanne recently did a calculation that has her rather nervous. If she and her family each ate 1 cup of berries each per day (which seems reasonable considering it will be their main fruit source for the year), and since one cup of berries weighs about 1/4 lb., she would need 456 pounds of berries for the year! This seems impossible. Currently she has 170 pounds of berries in the freezer (which seemed like quite a lot until she did her fateful calculation). Regardless, she will continue to collect and purchase as much as she possibly can and the family will just have to ration them accordingly.
Thankfully, Suzanne has help in her berry-gathering endeavour. Local producers Emu Farms and Tundarose Garden are helping her out tremendously. (If it were all up to her family picking wild berries, they would be in serious trouble.) Emu Farms supplies Dawson restaurants with delicious local berries. Maryanne from Tundarose Garden sells her scrumptous local berry jam every other Saturday at the Dawson Farmers’ Market.
A berry prolific bounty. Clockwise from upper left: high bush cranberries, low bush cranberries, saskatoon berries, soap berries, raspberries, haskaps. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
For Dawsonites, berries abound throughout the short summer. Although the wacky weather this summer has, so far, resulted in lower than average harvests of wild berries. Wild strawberries started in mid-July and were over in early August. Soapberries also started mid-July and are now falling off the bushes. Wild raspberries began appearing towards the end of July. Wild blueberries are in season now — if you are lucky enough to find any this year. High bush cranberries are starting and low bush cranberries and rosehips will follow shortly.
Domestic Berries Haskaps were the first domestic berries to appear, back in early July. Saskatoons started late July and into August. Black currents and domestic raspberries are ripe now. Unfortunately domestic strawberries did not fare well this year in the Dawson area because of the weather.
Soapberries (Shepherdia canadensis), also known as Buffalo Berries, are a culturally important food and medicine to many Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The berries have been an important trade item for many generations and this practice still continues today. In places where soapberry does not grow people still trade for these highly valued berries.
The berries are bitter in flavor due to the presence of a chemical compound called saponins which causes the soapy consistency of the crushed berries. Saponins have many potential health benefits to humans. They can help to reduce cholesterol, reduce the likelihood of certain cancers, they are high in antioxidants and help to boost immunity.
Food Uses: The berries are edible fresh but are quite bitter and get sweeter after a frost. The saponins contained in the berries cause them to foam up when whipped with water. Preparing the berries in this way and adding sugar makes a desert that is often called “Indian Ice Cream” that aids in digestion and has a unique flavor. Soapberries can be made into a medicinal jelly as well. Traditionally the whipped berries would be sweetened with other sweeter berries.
Medicinal Preparations: The berries, juice, leaves and stems can be used medicinally. The berries can help lower blood pressure and juice from the berries can be used to treat digestive ailments. A decoction of the stems and leaves can be prepared by simmering them in water and drinking. This decoction can then be taken as a stomach tonic or for treatment for constipation or high blood pressure. Elders have also shared that there is a soothing property to the juice when applied to eczema and other skin irritations.
Harvest Time: Mid-late summer/early autumn. The berries are sweeter after the first frost.
Storage: Soapberries can be frozen, canned (hot water bath), dried or smoked. They can also be juiced the juice can be canned (hot water bath) or frozen.
Recipe for Soapberry Whip
2 Cups soapberries
2 Cups water
Optional sweetener (sugar or other sweet berries)
Using a clean metal bowl, crush the berries up and add water (and sweetener) then whisk the mixture until it froths up and becomes pink and fluffy like whipped cream. Enjoy!
** Using an oily bowl will prevent frothing of soapberries.
With no local source of salt for spicing up and preserving her food, Suzanne is looking for a natural, local substitute. One possible alternative that has surfaced is coltsfoot.
Coltsfoot is a wild plant that is often found in boggy terrain and disturbed areas. Its flowers open on leafless stems in early spring before the leaves come out. The leaves, which resemble a colt’s foot in outline and have angular teeth along the edges, appear after the flowers die in the early summer.
According the The Boreal Herbal by Bev Gray, in the past, coltsfoot ash was used by indigenous people as a salt substitute. The large coltsfoot leaves and stems were rolled into balls, dried, and then placed on top of a small fire rock and burned. The ash was then used in cooking.
Suzanne has been gathering coltsfoot and drying it, and will test out this possible salt substitute. Stay tuned to see how it turns out.
I read a quote the other day, which fairly represents the current state of things in our house:
“She wanted a puppy. But I didn’t want a puppy. So we compromised and got a puppy.”
So, last night, after Suzanne prepared a delicious supper of local everything, we were instructed that there was no time to relax. Why, ripe blueberries have been spotted in the hills! All hands on deck! Man your posts!
Fortunately, part of the preparation for this year involved gorging ourselves with “store-bought” ice-cream, so there are no shortage of plastic tubs in the house. Empty tubs. Tubs that are supposed to be filled. By us. Oh, joy upon joy!
So, off we go. Lovely evening. Beautiful on the hill. No wind, few mosquitos. And there were berries, yes. Patchy. Small. But, berries undeniably. We set to work with dreams of bounty that would supplant any winter cravings for oranges or grapefruit or pineapple or grapes. Why, we would imminently be rich in produce, capable of spending a winter of movie-watching with blueberries as our popcorn substitute.
The problem with gathering is the concept of value for time. My time. Is this a real problem or merely a personal misconception? Or could it perhaps be familial? After an hour I found one of the children sitting on the moss, dreamily listening to her audio-book while petting the dog. I found another sprawled out on a sunny bank, the telltale sonorous breathing explaining all. Meanwhile, I had taken a preference to looking for the mother-load of berries, hiking and exploring, being lured by the adventure, actually doing something. As for berries? Needless to say, we will be returning to the hills.
Chickweed, another common garden invader, is also an edible wild plant. Before you pull it from your garden, take some scissors and harvest as much as you can. Cooked chickweed tastes just like swiss chard!
Suzanne learned the hard way that it is better to harvest it for eating by cutting it with scissors, so you don’t have to painstakingly wash out the garden soil that gets trapped in the roots. After you harvest it, then go ahead and pull the roots from your garden.
Cooked, chickweed can be eaten on its own or added to stews, soups, or pastas, or used as a replacement for spinach in other recipes. It can also be used to supplement basil in pesto.
Chickweed can also be eaten fresh as a salad green, or instead of sprouts in a sandwich or in dips. And it can be juiced (like nettle) and frozen in ice cube trays or it can be blanched and frozen (like nettle) for a shot of green vitamins in smoothies, soups, and stews during the winter.
Chickweed is rich in vitamins C and A as well as the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Not that you will, but apparently, if eaten in excess, it can lead to diarrhea, and pregnant women should avoid the juice and just eat small amounts.
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Victor Henry has taught Suzanne to see with new eyes.
Victor generously agreed to show Suzanne and ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph how to harvest wild rhubarb around Dawson. It seems like Victor can spot wild rhubarb a mile away! In the process, Suzanne also learned to look at her environment in a new way. She can now spot these plants easily (maybe not quite a mile away) and since has noticed wild rhubarb in many of her foraging locations — even in her own yard!
When Victor was a kid living at Moosehide (just down river from Dawson) he and his friends used to pick wild rhubarb and then sneak some sugar from the house to dip it in.
Victor suggests picking wild rhubarb before it flowers, when the stalks are young (late May to early June around Dawson), not hollow, and when they are juicy when cut and squeezed. Peel back the leaves and eat wild rhubarb fresh, or chop it and freeze it for later.
You can use wild rhubarb the same way you use domestic rhubarb. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Angie Joseph-Rear, especially loves wild rhubarb relish with moose meat. You can find some great recipes for rhubarb stalks (wild or domestic) at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks website.
The young leaves can be eaten as well, either raw or cooked. (Note: only wild rhubarb leaves should be eaten, as domestic rhubarb leaves contain too much oxalic acid and are not edible.) To store the leaves, blanche and freeze them using a similar technique as with stinging nettle.
Wild rose flowers are out in abundance around Dawson City. Suzanne and Tess have been gently grazing as they walk through the forest. Two delicacies are wild rose petals and lungwort (blue bell) flowers, which are lightly perfumed with a touch of sweet. Spruce tips (late May) provided the citrus candy of the forest.
Blue bells (lungwort flowers) and Wild Rose petals are two edible delicacies for foragers. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
Wild rose petals can be eaten fresh, used as a garnish, steeped as a tea, or sun-steeped for rose-flavoured water. They can also be dried for storage through the year. Recently Suzanne has learned they can also be frozen. Remember to leave a few petals on each flower you pick so that they continue to attract bees.
If you know of any tips/recipes for eating rose petals that only include ingredients local to Dawson, let Suzanne know through email@example.com
Spruce tips will become one of Suzanne and family’s candy during their year of eating local. Miche Genest has a wonderful recipe for making Candied Spruce Tips using homemade Spruce Tip Syrup in The Boreal Feast, A Culinary Journey Through the North by Harbour Publishing. And Miche has generously allowed us to share her recipe.
However, Suzanne probably will not have access to sugar to make the syrup, so Suzanne has adapted Miche’s recipe and combined coniferous with deciduous trees to make Candied Spruce Tips in Birch Syrup. They are more ‘birchy’ than the original recipe, but still quite delicious. (And, according to 11-year-old Tess, addictive!) Before you worry about using precious birch syrup to candy spruce tips, remember, you can keep re-using the birch syrup for batch after batch. The birch syrup gradually takes on a more sprucey taste with every batch.
Your foraging adventures not only can help you stock your pantry with wild goodies, but they could also get you a delicious free lunch!
The North Woods Cookshop and Lunchbox, a Dawson City based catering company, is looking for generous foragers to share a bit of their spruce tip loot with them. For every four cups of spruce tips you bring them, they will treat you to a free lunch at their amazing new food truck, located in the lot next to the Westminster Hotel.
They have great plans for those spruce tips, including delicious syrups for their homemade sodas, as well as the spice mixes, rubs and gourmet salts they are known for.
Hurry up before the picking season ends, and remember to spread your harvest out over many trees to keep them healthy and strong. Georgia and Allie will thank you!
Spruce tips are a versatile ingredient in a variety of dishes and can be frozen for use throughout the year.
Photos by Cathie Archbould.
At this time of year throughout the North the spruce trees are starting to put on their new growth. The dark green of the existing branches is highlighted by the bright green of new tips. These emerging spruce tips are a delicious and versatile wild food.
Spruce tips have a distinct taste. It’s light and citrusy and with slight resin-like flavour. You can just eat them as they are or add them to smoothies and salads. Dried tips can be used for a soothing tea, or add chopped tips to drinking water and let it sit for an hour or so while the water absorbs all the goodness. They’re also great for seasoning dishes like soups or stews, and work well with both sweet and savoury recipes. They can be pickled, candied, turned into oils, vinegars, jellies and syrups, and used as a herb. Craft brewers also often use spruce tips for flavour in their beers.
Dry them off and store them in the freezer for use throughout the year. Spruce tips are high in Vitamin C — another reason to store them for use during wintertime. They also contain carotenoids, and are rich in minerals such as potassium and magnesium.
You’ll know the spruce tips are ready to pick when they are bright green with a small brown husk at the end. Knock off the husk before using. Remember that this is the tree’s new growth, so pick sparingly from any single tree before moving on. It’s a good idea to pick a good distance from any roadway to make sure they’re free of airborne toxins.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a nutritious spring green that has many uses, and once identified, may become a staple for your spring foraging. This plant is a perennial and grows as tall as 5-8 feet at maturity. The stem is usually less than 1 cm in diameter and the coarsely saw-toothed leaves are lance shaped to oval and have a pointed tip and a heart shaped base. The leaves are found growing in opposite pairs along the stalk. Stinging nettle is found growing in rich, moist soil along streams, rivers, meadows and open forest. This plant thrives in disturbed habitats such as village sites, roadsides and barnyards.
The leaves and stem have hairs that contain formic acid and can cause a stinging reaction when they come in contact with the skin — hence its name; many people opt to wear gloves when harvesting. Cooking or drying destroys the stinging properties, including drying nettles for tea, sautéeing, steaming, or baking.
Stinging nettles are best harvested for eating when the young shoots are less than a foot tall and still have a purple tinge to the leaves. They are at their most tender then. They can continue to be harvested beyond this height but they do get more fibrous as they grow and eventually will be too tough to eat. Do not harvest nettles after they have flowered as they develop gritty particles that irritate the urinary tract.
These nettles are rich in vitamins A and C as well as in minerals including calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. They are a delicious alternative to any recipe that calls for spinach and can be added to soups and stir-fry’s for added nutrition and vibrant color. The leaves can also be dried and used to make a healthy and hearty tea. Stinging nettle can be used as a bath to help with rheumatism and the mature plant can be processed to make strong cordage. Many coastal First Nations, including Squamish, used this cordage to make strong fish nets and fishing line.
Lungwort (commonly known as blue bell) appears around Dawson City in mid-May. The young leaves and flower buds can be eaten raw or added to salad or even steamed or added to soups and stews. The buds are quite tasty (although Suzanne always feels a bit guilty eating them before they have a chance to flower).
Important rule of thumb: In general, blue and purple flowering plants are NOT edible. Lungwort is the exception. Don’t eat lupine or delphinium or Jacob’s ladder which are also starting to appear around the same time (but the leaves look very different from lupin).
Those of us craving fresh local greens at the end of the long winter need look no further than our own backyards. The dandelions are coming up, folks! They’re fresh and tender now, before the flowers come into bloom; a good time to enjoy them in salads. Later the leaves increase in bitterness, and are best in cooked dishes—try sautéing dandelion leaves with morel mushrooms and garlic scapes. Throw in a few flowers as well!
Dandelions are legendary for their health benefits–the leaves are packed with Vitamins K and A, contain substantial amounts of C and B6, as well as thiamine, riboflavin, calcium and iron, among other nutrients, and are high in fibre. Current research suggests that extract of dandelion root may be helpful in the treatment of leukemia.
Some tips for picking: grasp the leaves where they meet in a crown near the root, pull slightly and cut just underneath the crown, keeping the plant in one piece. Sometimes several plants are packed tightly together; then you’ll need to dig with your fingers to discover where each crown emerges from the root. Sometimes you can free a number of plants with one cut.
Do the first cleaning outside, removing grass and other leaves. Use your knife to scrape away the sticky, dark skin at the base of the stem. Cut the stems off at the ends.
Remember old recipes that direct you to wash something “in several waters”? This is very important with dandelions. A gritty salad is no fun. Wash and wash again, lifting the leaves from the water into the strainer each time, leaving the dirt behind. When the water is clear, you’re good to go.
Remember to pick only in those places you know haven’t been sprayed, and avoid roadside ditches. Now, get out there with your trusty knife and have fun!
I’ve kept this salad as simple as possible, reflecting the scantiness of the spring pantry, but the basic recipe can serve as the starting point for several variations. Feel free to add whatever else you’ve got on hand from last year’s bounty–grated carrots or beets, sautéed potatoes, toasted sunflower seeds. I used new dandelions from my backyard, last year’s onion from my sister’s garden on Vancouver Island, and last year’s garlic from a farmer in Atlin, BC.
Suzanne isn’t going to have a lot of oil in her pantry come May 2018, so here I’ve opted to use ghee instead, because she will have access to a cow. Ghee is a great substitute for olive oil. And, a bonus: somehow this salad needed no added salt.
Wilted Dandelion Salad with Crispy Onions and Garlic
4 cups (1L) of washed dandelion leaves, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 small red onion
3 Tbsp (45 mL) ghee, divided
6 Tbsp (90 mL) rhubarb vinegar
1 tsp (5 mL) Uncle Berwyn’s Pure Yukon Birch Syrup
Have the dandelions ready in a salad bowl. Cut garlic in half lengthwise and slice into thin lengths. Do the same with the onion. Melt 2 tablespoons of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until brown and crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towel and reserve.
Reduce heat to medium low and add garlic to the pan. Watching carefully that it doesn’t burn, cook garlic until golden brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towel and reserve.
Melt the third tablespoon of ghee in the pan. Once it has melted, whisk in the vinegar all at once (stand back, it could spatter a bit), followed by the birch syrup. Allow to bubble for about one minute, remove from heat and pour over the dandelions greens.
Up North, we love it when patches of fireweed take over our landscape, after all, it is The Yukon’s official flower. But did you know you can eat it too? Suzanne is enjoying having this first fresh vegetables of the season in her diet.
Birch sap makes a delicious drink fresh from the trees – refreshing water taste with only a hint of sweetness – but packed full of minerals. Birch sap contains natural carbohydrates, organic acids, fruit acids, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc, sodium, iron and copper, vitamins B (group) and vitamin C. It is said to have diuretic and detoxifying effects on the body, and it has been used as a folk remedy for many ailments in Europe and Asia for hundreds of years.
But birch sap needs to be consumed right away – it doesn’t last more than 24 hours even in the fridge. Sylvia Frisch, however, tried pressure canning the birch sap and storing it in her root cellar and it preserved very well and tastes great!
Also, Sylvia Frisch took advantage of the natural yeasts in birch sap to try and make vinegar. She bottled fresh birch sap last year and added a few raisins or black currents in each bottle and stored them in her root cellar. Suzanne and Sylvia cracked one open last week at Birch Camp and it was a delicious light white vinegar. They have bottled some fresh birch sap with local low bush cranberries this year and will see if they have equal success.
Suzanne’s main sweetener for her year of eating local will be birch syrup from Berwyn Larson and Sylvia Frisch’s birch camp not far from Dawson. The sap has been running well and Suzanne is starting her year with a 12-litre bucket of delicious Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup .
Suzanne recently talked about her experience at the camp on Yu-Kon Grow It on CBC North‘s A New Day with host Sandi Coleman.
On April 18th, Dawson City based ethnobotanist Leigh Josephhosted a community information session at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre . It was a great chance for Dawsonites to learn about the area’s traditional plant foods and medicines, as well as an opportunity to take part in the conversation.