Jane’s Walk is a festival of free walking tours happening in cities all over the world including Ottawa-Gatineau on May 5 and 6. For the first in a series of previews, Apt613 spoke with Amber Westfall, who will be leading a walk and talk about urban foraging.
There is growing interest in local food. Farmers’ markets are popping up all over the city, and restaurants and grocery stores are now seeking products grown nearby. It has become more accessible—and even trendy—to eat local.
Even still, the diversity of foods that we eat is often quite limited. Tomatoes, carrots, maybe a beet or some beans. What if we could supplement our diets by consuming the plants we find in our neighbourhood green spaces? At first, it’s a strange concept… yet it is possible through proper identification.
Amber Westfall is an herbalist, forager, and teacher. Her business, The Wild Garden, has a few components. She puts together a monthly subscription box, delivering medicinal herbs and wild foods that she grows or gathers herself. She offers plant walks and workshops for everyone, and has a young herbalist apprenticeship program for children.
Amber spoke of early memories picking wild red clover flowers and enjoying the sweet nectar, and learning from her father how to eat the tender white milkweed inside the pod. She would walk with her grandmother, taking elderflowers from the bush and learning to make fritters with them.
We don’t have to go back many generations to see that it was very common to incorporate wild food into our diets on a regular basis.
“We don’t have to go back many generations to see that it was very common to incorporate wild food into our diets on a regular basis,” said Westfall.
“In the depression, people returned to wild food to supplement their diets. Even in the 2008 financial crisis, I read a story about a family that ate the weeds in their backyard. It’s how we lived for most of our time as humans.”
She was immersed into the local food movement in 2008, following a New Year’s Resolution not to buy anything new for a whole year. This was to learn more about issues she was becoming aware of—climate change, pollution, and resource depletion.
“I realized that wild foods are a way of increasing the diversity of local plants in my diet. A lot of times, the wild weedy plants start growing right when the snow melts, and you can harvest their roots late into the season,” said Amber. “[Foraging] was a way of accessing local foods when it wasn’t otherwise available.”
Wild food in the city
Gathering your own food sounds interesting, but how and where can you do it? Now in her sixth year participating in Jane’s Walk, Amber will be leading a walk about foraging in urban environments on Saturday, May 5 in Old Ottawa South.
Amber speaks highly of the festival. “I love the mission of Jane’s Walk and the variety of walks that take place throughout the city,” said Westfall. “It’s a nice way to kick off the season as a forager, and to connect people with their green space in a unique way.”
She will provide practical advice and ideas of where to access wild foods, and will share some things to keep in mind when beginning your own journey into local food.
One piece of advice: accurate identification is critically important, since some safe, edible plants resemble plants that are toxic. You have to know with absolute certainty what you are picking.
“People who want to get started and are really keen—I recommend they start with a couple common and abundant weedy plants that taste really good, can’t be confused with toxic plants, and that aren’t endangered,” says Amber. “Plants like stinging nettle, lamb’s quarters, and chickweed.”
Fitting foraging into your lifestyle
Foraging isn’t necessarily as glamorous as it sounds. Often, you’re getting your hands and clothes dirty, it might be really hot outside, or you’re getting eaten by mosquitoes. Then, once you’ve harvested the thing, you still have to prepare it! Why bother, when you could instead waltz into a grocery store and get everything you need?
“Everyone’s idea of fun is a little bit different,” explains Amber. “I love being outside, I love exploring and learning… I love that it connects me directly with the source of the food and the nourishment that I’m taking in.
[Jane’s Walk] is a nice way to kick off the season as a forager, and to connect people with their green space.
“Also, wild foods tend to be significantly higher in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants—so there are nutritional benefits to incorporating wild foods into your diet. To me, it’s worth the effort.
“People ask me: How much wild food do you eat? What percentage? In reality, it’s a very small percentage. It’s higher in the growing season than in the winter… but I do try to eat something wild every day! It might be brewing a foraged tea, or using an herbal seasoning or spice. I don’t always sit down to a full meal of just wild food.”
Our societies may have originated in a hunter-gatherer model, but Amber admitted that it isn’t really practical to subsist on wild food alone—there were entire villages undertaking this work, and our society today isn’t really set up that way. One individual person could not realistically feed themselves, and still have a job, a life, family obligations, et cetera.
Learn more on a Jane’s Walk
Is this something you’d like to learn more about? Check out the following walks:
Wild Food in the City: Urban Foraging by Amber Westfall
- Saturday, May 5 at 1pm. Begins in Windsor Park at the parking lot.
- Register here: http://janeswalk.herokuapp.com/walks/19739
Medicinal and Edible Plant Walk by Corrie Rabbe
- Sunday, May 6 at 10am. Begins at the Adàwe Crossing near the Rideau Sports Centre.
- Register here: http://janeswalk.herokuapp.com/walks/19741