I have a fantasy that when the end of the world comes, my husband and I grab our dog, an axe, fishing rods, sleeping bags and a huge box of matches and head for the wilds — but not without Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon’s Plants of Coastal British Columbia . This of course presupposes that “the end” means the meltdown of human contrivances, not the entire planet.
I was lucky enough to grow up with parents and grandparents who knew it was not only possible but in some instances preferable to make your own way in the wilds. Fish for trout. Take down a squirrel, deer, or even a moose. Dig up some roots for roasting. Pick saskatoons, blueberries, young dandelion leaves. Raid birds’ nests for eggs.
Admittedly, it sounds a bit romantic and summer camp-ish. But the thing that sticks in the back of my mind is that it is possible. As aboriginal people who live around here will tell you, this corner of B.C. is a garden.
And as every person who knows how to forage in nature will tell you, know what you’re doing. Beyond grabbing Pojar/MacKinnon (which can be had at Armchair Books), remember that it takes time and experience to know wild edibles, so best to be patient and learn from an expert or three.
In a nutshell — is that an edible beaked hazelnut shell? — the biggest mistakes people make are:
1. Thinking the entire plant is edible. Usually only certain parts are edible, as in the case of the blue elderberry ( Sambucus cerulea ) , which grows near the coast and on Vancouver Island. The flowers and the ripe fruit are edible, but the rest of the plant is deadly poisonous with cyanide. This isn’t so weird. We only eat certain parts of domesticated plants like rhubarb, whose leaves are poisonous, and tomatoes, in which everything but the fruit is poisonous.
2. Not gathering the plant at the right stage. Case in point: Milkweed pods gathered before they go to seed are good to cook and eat. But gather them after the seeds mature, and look out.
3. Not preparing the plant properly. Eating wild things is not the time to get lazy or sloppy. If you’re advised to peel the root before using, peel it; if the book says to remove the seeds before eating, remove them. Sometimes all it takes is heating the plant part to the right temperature and/or leaching undesirable water-soluble substances out (don’t forget to toss the water) and you have a tasty wild snack where once there was none.