A pandemic-related Canadian story about food security
Laura Reeves is a botanist and advocate of gathering free food especially in cities. The foraging workshops she offers through her company – Prairie Shore Botanicals – are on hold due to pandemic precautions. But she says wild edibles are everywhere and should be part of how we can all prepare for possible food shortages in the months ahead.
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Words and pictures by Bramwell Ryan.
Laura Reeves lives in a remote part of south-eastern Manitoba.
Wild and Free
by Bramwell Ryan
With vulnerable supply chains, hardening borders, fewer farm workers and meat packing plants in crisis, there are worries that food might be scarce in the months ahead. Even if fears of acute shortages are overblown, there’s little doubt that pre-pandemic abundance and the cost of staples are bound to change.
For Laura Reeves, 46, this is a nudge we all need to start looking elsewhere to find portions of what we eat. She’s not advocating hunting trips or wilderness expeditions. She says the larder is closer to home. In fact, it’s in our yards. Reeves is a teacher and practitioner of foraging for wild edibles. Weeds. And this free food is available anywhere across Canada, even in urban centres.
Admittedly, inner-city neighbourhoods girded by concrete are far from where Reeves lives. Her home is an isolated white clapboard house about 120 km south east of Winnipeg, near Tolstoi. It is miles from the nearest neighbour, enfolded by a 24,000 acre wild prairie reserve and bordered by brown, barren, boggy fields. These bare patches of farm land are storehouses that will help feed the world after the fall harvest, but right now they are simply a reflection of the dreary ache of life under the pandemic. Despite this desolate landscape Reeves only sees potential.
It is easy for Reeves to find food in her patch of rural Eden, where social distancing edicts haven’t changed anything. The yard has a neatly stacked two year supply of firewood. Birds provide the theme song for a sunny day with the drum track coming from an industrious woodpecker. The ditch paralleling the one kilometre driveway is filled with spring melt water and a red plastic kayak is nearby for evening paddles. The airy forest of oak and poplar at the edge of the yard is the larder. It provides wood for the lumber mill but is also a source of wonder, discovery and good, free food.
But similar food is available to all, even those in urban areas. Across Manitoba there are at least seven plants anyone can harvest. All that’s needed is the willingness to eat something that didn’t come packaged in plastic. Reeves recommends city dwellers start with these basics to supplement the usual store-bought foods:
Portulaca can be eaten raw in salads and sandwiches and is a plant high in omega 3.
Burdock leaves are too bitter to be eaten but the roots can be pickled or cooked in a sweet and sour broth (with vinegar, honey and soy sauce) and can be added to soups and stir frys.
Dandelions, the scourge of well-tended lawns everywhere, should be whetting the appetite rather than the ire. All parts of the plant are edible. The roots can be used fresh for tea, roasted for a coffee-like drink or used as a cocoa substitute. The leaves are high in iron and can be used in salads. The flowers make great fritters.
Cattail roots, shoots, flower spikes and pollen can be eaten and are very tasty. Reeves cautions that all parts of the plant should be harvested with discretion since cattails are known as water filters. “If you’re going to eat the filter, make sure the water’s not polluted.”
Lambs Quarters is everywhere and Reeves chuckles that home gardeners pull them out as weeds in order to plant spinach. In fact, Lambs Quarters is related to spinach, tastes similar but has twice the calories, 50% more protein and four times the calcium. Less weeding and more nutrition simply makes sense.
Acorns from oak trees can be used to make flour for breads and soups.
Stinging nettles are a staple in Reeves’ home. When cooked or dried, the leaves don’t sting. The plant can be added to soups, sauces or breads. Reeves dries the nettles and powders the plant. It sits on the table alongside the salt and pepper so it can be sprinkled on everything for added nutrition.
An online image search can help just about anyone learn to recognize these plants. For those with a need for a field manual, they can order Reeves’ Guide to Useful Plants – From acorns to zoom sticks on her website. She owns Prairie Shore Botanticals which offers workshops on foraging and wild edibles.
She is more than simply a voice crying in the wilderness. Reeves, who is a vegan, is convinced that foraging can be one of the ways to address possible future food shortages. “We don’t buy any leafy greens, spinach, lettuce and do totally without produce from the store’” she says. “Wild doesn’t have to be out in the wilderness somewhere, it can be just outside your front step in your flower garden. Those weeds that you keep pulling out and throwing to the side are mostly all edible.”
The trained botanist, who just this week blended hazelnuts gathered in her backyard to augment her dwindling supply of peanut butter, says wild food has a perception problem. “I think there’s a stigma about eating weeds because it’s poor man’s food,” she says. “But maybe coming out of this pandemic we’re all going to be poor men so we’ll be eating the weeds anyway! And why not? There’s food all around us, and it’s free.”
Laura Reeves foraging for wild edibles in south eastern Manitoba.