A Foraged Feast

I’m yawning and watching the door as faces from the neighbourhood drift in for morning coffee at the Spiral Café in Vic West. It’s Monday, sunny, and the colours outside hint at spring – although my windows were faintly frost-touched when I left the house earlier. A couple of my classmates arrive, smiling through the window on the way in, jackets now slung on the backs of their chairs. As we sit, the door opens and thuds shut rhythmically.

We’re in the city today for some impromptu urban foraging. We were scheduled for class at the farm, but Hannah, our instructor, has decided to bring us along on a hunt for spring greens in the city. For a moment I’m surprised that she would divulge her spots to us – surely foragers all have their closely guarded secret ‘spot’? Or maybe that’s just a fishing thing. Anyway, Hannah deals in abundance.

Once everyone arrives, we head outside and across the street. We stop. Hannah has spotted at least three plants of interest amongst these first blades of grass, even though we’re barely off the sidewalk and still near enough the road that passing cars threaten to drown out her words. It’s definitely spring.

(L-R: Purple dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), a member of the mint family whose aerial parts are edible both raw or cooked, and a medicinal powerhouse high in antioxidants and vitamin C; Hannah in a patch of chickweed (Stellaria media), a good salad green which is commonly used to treat stomach and blood disorders; a milk thistle plant (Silybum marianum), whose leaves are liver-supporting and can be used in the treatment of diabetes.

The “doctrine of signatures” provides an unusual lens through which to view this vernal landscape. Or maybe ‘unusual’ is the wrong word here – some version of this thinking has been ubiquitous in most parts of the world for much of human history. In the West, it dates back at least to the time of Pliny the Elder. It holds, in part, that the colour, shape, and habitat of a plant can help to determine its uses. Other plant “signatures” include taste, smell, and texture. So bright, sun-loving St. John’s Wort can be linked intuitively to its specific supportive properties; nettle, which thrives in wet areas, acts on the human “waterways” as a blood purifier and remedy for urinary tract problems.

With the rise of more linear, mechanistic approaches to science, the doctrine of signatures fell out of favour, sometimes caricatured as a theory positing simply that plants should resemble the body parts or organs they’re thought to treat. And so modern medicine has often preferred to isolate individual plant constituents for pharmaceutical use, rather than viewing plants as chemical messengers.

(L-R: Young horsetail shoots (Equisetum arvense), discovered by Nikki; foraged stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) being prepared for lunch; calendula blossoms infused in oil.

And though we’re here today foraging for plants as food, not specifically as medicine, when Hannah mentions the doctrine of signatures I can’t help but see these spring blooms as medicines sprouting from the ground. I know that in Traditional Chinese Medicine, spring is associated with the “wood” element, which in turn is conceptually related to the liver and gallbladder. The first yellow dandelion florets are now just emerging; and the doctrine of signatures holds that yellow flowers are often associated with liver support. In recent years, there’s been something of a resurgence of interest in the tenants of the doctrine, as quantitative approaches begin to acknowledge that isolated constituents act differently than whole plants – that, in essence, we strip away some of the value of the plant when we try to reduce or compartmentalize its functions in this way.

We walk on and find some cleavers (Galium aparine) and western dock (Rumex occidentalis) sprouting nearby. Cleavers is also known as bedstraw, as its fragrant leaves and stems were used as mattress and pillow stuffing in bygone times. It’s also edible, and an excellent blood cleanser, and so we pick some of the velcro-like shoots for lunch. Dock, also known as “Haida rhubarb” – xàadas tł’aaq’ujaa in the Haida language – has edible leaves and seeds, and Hannah tells us that the stems are delicious when pickled.

A licorice fern root (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), cleaned and ready to be chopped and steeped for tea. The tea has been traditionally used to ease sore throats, and its consumption is encouraged before singing!

Walking down nearer the Gorge Waterway, we find a vibrant patch of chickweed (Stellaria media), a diuretic that is excellent for skin healing. Peering at it up close, we see tiny hairs running along its stem in a perfect ridge, like a punk’s mohawk. It’s also a nice addition to salad, and so we pick some to take along. On this swampier ground near the water we find the remnants of last year’s horsetails, now segmented papery husks with traces of leaves circling their nodal sheaths. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is an ancient plant that reproduces by spore, rather than seed, and we look around fruitlessly for a while for new growth before concluding that it must still be too early in the season. As we’re about to move on, sharp-eyed Nikki spots some tiny edible shoots, small and stout, protruding from the wet earth.

After a few more discoveries – dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), sorrel (Rumex acetosa), miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliate), the first salmonberry blossom of the year – we walk down to Hannah’s place for our foraged lunch. Here’s the menu (picture it in long, elegant font in front of a trendy bistro, because it warrants it): to start, a sorrel soup, rich and nuanced, with a lingering, provocative sourness; a chickweed, dandelion, and fennel salad, drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette; nettle pesto, vibrant and velutinous, served with bread; and decadent salal and salmonberry fruit leather to finish.

Salal and salmonberry fruit leather on the table for dessert. Some fruit leather is made by sun drying; this was made with a dehydrator. To the right is a bowl of chopped licorice fern root from which we made tea.

It’s striking to realize how much food grows practically under my nose in the city – that we’ve just enjoyed an exceptional meal with spring greens gathered from a public space just across the road. It makes me think how much closer to a kind of food sovereignty one might come by fostering a relationship with the ‘wild’ and learning what is edible.

We head outside and finish the afternoon by stripping the bark from some red alder branches that were dropped off at Hannah’s place a few days earlier. The red alder (Alnus rubra) grows abundantly here on Vancouver Island, and its mottled, whitish bark is familiar to me. Less familiar is the rich, rusty-crimson colour that flushes across the exposed wood a few minutes after we peel it, as the tannins rise and react to the air. We’ll each take some of these strips of bark home with us, to boil in water and use as a natural dye. I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to dye with it, but for now I’m happy to marvel at the spreading bloom of colour on the alder bark, a reminder of sunsets and the long summer days ahead.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.