If you were to walk along one of Edmonton’s river valley trails for three minutes, how many plant species do you think you would find? Would you be able to name any of them, or know which berries you can eat? Could you imagine how they were used (and continue to be used) by First Nations, or settlers of Fort Edmonton?
While I wouldn’t call myself an expert at answering any of these questions, I can say that I have a new appreciation for the history and benefits of the plant life nestled within Edmonton’s rich parkland ecosystem, thanks to the eye-opening river valley medicinal plant walk with Robert Rogers.
During the three-hour event in Mill Creek Ravine, Robert led our group just 300 metres down a river valley path. Despite being a popular, well-travelled and paved trail (a third of which paralleled a parking lot) we still found more than 30 different plant species with medicinal, edible and other useful properties.
While some plants have well-known benefits, like the delicious fruits of Saskatoon and raspberry bushes, others require a little extra know-how. For example, the berries of mountain ash, high bush cranberry and chokecherry can also be used in jams, jellies and marmalades, although they need to be cooked first.
While you wouldn’t want to eat them, the berries from red osier dogwood can be turned into a paste and used as a hair conditioning treatment — which I did try, and was enjoyably surprised by its efficacy! Other “beauty essentials” include a skin care product made from the oil of rose hip seeds, to keep your complexion healthy and help heal recent scars, and the white powder (which is actually a type of yeast) coating the outer bark of trembling aspen can be used as a light sunscreen.
In addition to enjoying natural flavours and making fun hair- and skin-care products, many of our river valley plants contain medicinal properties which can benefit our bodies from the inside. Some of my favourite discoveries Robert introduced us to during the plant walk included wild sarsaparilla, responsible for the flavour of root beer, but can also be turned into a tea which helps to normalize a person’s response to stress; golden rod, which helps to relieve congested sinuses or symptoms of hay fever when drank as a tea or poured through a neti pot; fireweed can be turned into a hydrosol which ironically helps burns heal; and drinking a tea made from the roots of dog (or coach) grass clears “sand and gravel” from our urinary systems, preventing the formation of kidney stones.
Robert also explained that many of the invasive (or non-native) species we identify as being “noxious” can actually be used in several different ways. For example, the flowers and leaves of the ever-unpopular dandelion are edible, and promote good liver, spleen and kidney health, while the roots help keep our gut bacteria happy. So targeting these species as harvest plants not only benefits the user, but could also help control weed populations (as long as you harvest properly), which I’m sure would make the City of Edmonton happy too!
The list of species and their potential uses goes on and on, so the best way to dive into learning about them yourself is to go on your own plant walk and forage! Here’s what you’ll need to do:
- Find a good field guide to edible plants (Robert even has some that are Edmonton-specific for sale online). You’ll want a book that has descriptions you can understand (i.e., simple terminology, not botanical definitions) and big, clear photos.
- Make some labels. This will be especially helpful when you’re just starting out, as leaves and berries may be harder for you to identify when they’re no longer attached to the plant. It’s also a good idea to take photos before you harvest so you can refer back to them later.
- Learn how to prepare or preserve the plants you’re interested in before you pick them. It’s a good idea to understand how much time and effort will be required of you before you pick the plants, as you may change your mind, and it will help to avoid unnecessary waste.
- Choose a location where you are allowed to forage and where it’s safe. You are not allowed to harvest plants or fruits from private property without permission, and you don’t want to harvest where chemical pesticides or insecticides may have been sprayed. The Alberta Conservation Association has many properties which are accessible to the public, and they even have an interactive online map which shows you which sites are especially good for berry picking!
Remember to double-check your identifications before ingesting any plant parts. After all, “there are old foragers, there are bold foragers, but there are no old, bold foragers.”