Come and let me take you on a journey into nature’s grocery store. You don’t have to be in the woods to forage for artisanal produce. It’s abundant here in the city of St. John’s!
Foraging: The word conjures up images of summer days spent picking blueberries, eating one for every berry that makes it into the bucket. There was a time, not too long ago, where many of the things we eat and use on a regular basis needed to be searched out, collected, and processed for out-of-season use. The good news is that these plants and edibles are all still out there, and for every new subdivision of houses there is an abandoned property in the city limits overflowing with old apple trees and other delights.
I leave my house with a spare bag or two and walk along the sidewalk. I look down, and in the cracks of the sidewalk grow chamomile. I spend a few minutes collecting tea. A little further down the street, I pass an apple tree that drops its fruit every year with almost nobody noticing. Although it’s not quite time to collect the apples, I can see them growing above me, waiting, and I make a mental note to return. I skip along a little farther, passing a grove of maple trees that we collect sap from in the spring. A field of those tiny strawberries grow on the hill just above those trees, and in between lay a bramble of raspberry bushes. I collect the tender leaves of the raspberry plant for tea and hustle along; the berries will be ripe soon. Fireweed comes up in this same spot, just along the main road. Its petals taste peppery and offer a splash of colour to a salad.
As I walk along the bridge I look down at the river and see patches of comfrey growing. Several varieties of mint grow along the Waterford River, as well as Japanese knotweed. I go past the Native Friendship Centre and stop to enjoy the flowers blooming from the horse chestnut trees above; in the fall I collect them for Christmas crafting. At my feet are dandelions, plantain and sorrel. I am not going somewhere glorious–just out for a 10-minute walk from my house on the Southside of the St. John’s harbour to the Timmy’s on Water Street and back – yet there is a bounty of foraged local food to collect.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but the following things are all regularly and easily found throughout St John’s:
Herbs, spices and edible flowers: Chamomile, Labrador Tea, apple mint & heart mint can all be found along our wonderful riverbanks. Fireweed flowers and young shoots sprout up alongside even the busiest of roadsides. Roses, rosehip, dandelion, coltsfoot, and Juniper berries are a great substitute for pepper and grow here, too. Scotch Lovage, a highly prized cooking herb used in many Ancient Roman recipes, grows here extensively. The leaves are delicious and they taste like parsley, while the seed can be kept and used as a spice in the same manner as celery seed. Demand for Lovage in the ancient world was so high that its presence in Europe is a positive indicator for identifying Roman archaeological sites!
Trees: You can tap the maple trees for maple syrup. The maple syrup we make every March lasts us the whole year, and has many daily uses, from drizzling over salmon to sweetening coffee or tea, to topping our pancakes. Fresh maple water (unprocessed sap) from the trees is delicious in season, and it contains many minerals and nutrients not present in water. We use it in place of water to poach salmon, make tea or coffee, or even to enjoy it plain. It tastes like slightly sweetened water and quenches thirst like nothing else. Wild cherry can be found (real wild cherries, as well as pincherry & chokecherry), as well as apple, plum, & beaked hazelnut.
Fruit: Blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, Arctic raspberry (also called ‘hairy plumboys’), strawberry, cranberry, squashberry, crowberry, currants and bristly (swamp) currants, wild raisin, crackerberry, marsh cranberry, dogberry, gooseberry, partridgeberry (lingonberry), bakeapples (also called cloudberries), rhubarb, and Saskatoon berries—or “chuckleypears,” as they are sometimes called—literally cover the Southside Hills. They make excellent juice.
Vegetables: Beach peas are abundant along coastal areas. We forage for them along hiking trails heading out to Cape Spear. Also curled dock, red clover (leaves and flower heads). Cresses—namely pennycress, watercress, and wintercress—also grow abundantly around town, large patches can be found along the Waterford River.
Grain: This section is a little tricky. Our rocky soil isn’t very hospitable to traditional grain plants such as wheat and corn. Plantain is a local source for grain seed. Seaside plantain has larger heads, which make for easier collecting and harvesting, but the weedy “broadleaf plantain” grows in just about every parking lot and park in town — these also produce an edible grain seed, harvestable in late summertime.
Grains for flour are one of the weak spots in the food security chain here in Newfoundland. We are looking to experiment this year with a pre-modern technique, one used by indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of Europeans to the continent: harvesting seed-pods from the yellow pond lily (also known as spatterdock). Yellow pond lilies (lutea nuphar) can be harvested for both their onion-like tuber, which grows in the mucky floor of the pond. More importantly, the the seedheads, which float on the surface of the water in late summer, can be harvested and ground down to create your own wild flour. The seeds can also be toasted – they pop like popcorn! Pond lilies are a very abundant resource here, considering how many ponds are just carpets of yellow in August.
Seaside: Capelin (roman garum), seaweed (for composting). Sea salt can be easily made by collecting clear seawater, filtering it, and then evaporating the water. When the water concentrates through boiling or sunlight evaporation, pure salt crystals form on the surface; collect these to enjoy your own natural seasalt. We make salt twice a year by collecting a few gallons at a time and rendering it down. One pound of salt can be made from roughly five gallons of seawater.
Mushrooms: Boletus mushrooms are easy to spot – instead of long “gills” radiating out from the center stalk, a boletus mushroom has countless tiny little circular holes. Boletus mushrooms are edible and some types can grow quite large. They are usually yellow or brown. Boletus mushrooms and chanterelles can be hunted with minimal expertise, but for other types of edible mushrooms you’ll probably need a guidebook. We find boletus mushrooms throughout the city and the hiking trails. Chanterelles are a bit trickier to find in the city. There are secret spots, but we’ve been hard-pressed to find them so far.
Miscellaneous: Honeysuckle is pervasive in some areas. Dry the canes for basket weaving, and even dye the rods yourself using foraged ingredients. Blueberries and blackberries can be rendered to make a natural dye.
One of the best parts about foraging to build food security is when you incorporate some homestead animals into the mix. A cat or dog might require bags of food from the store, but a pet goat, chicken, duck, or rabbit, on the other hand, can not only be a producer of food around the house, they can also be the recipients of your forage, saving money that would otherwise be spent on pet food! Our rabbits, ducks and goats enjoy in-season foods such as blueberries, raspberries, dandelion leaves and our ducks just love foraged capelin! We bring our goats along with us when we go on forage hikes.They graze happily on grasses, leaves, fallen apples, and rosehips. The goats use their noses and have led us to apple trees and fruit patches we might have otherwise overlooked.
Fruit and apples can be blended, rolled out, and baked in the oven at 200 degrees Farenheit (low setting) to make dried fruit leather. Blueberries, cranberries and partridgeberries can be easily dehydrated to make ‘raisins’. Dried partridgeberries are terrific. We make many different types of jam, and many of the berries end up in the freezer for scones and pies throughout the year. Fruit juices and apple ciders can be made using a food processor or screw press. We concentrate berry juices and freeze them to use throughout the year.
Apple cider easily ferments left open on its own (the yeast and enzymes are present in the apple skins and will remain in the juice unless it’s pasteurized). This makes for delicious alcohol-based cider. Leave the fermented cider exposed to air after brewing and it turns into apple cider vinegar (ACV) one of the most useful homestead products of all! The haul from a single apple tree gave us a two-year supply (24 litres) of apple cider vinegar (Bragg’s costs $10 a bottle). ACV is useful for many things. We use it to clean the countertops, put it in many recipes, and use it as hair conditioner. At first I was hesitant to use ACV in my hair, but after giving it a try there’s no going back! We also make delicious fruit vinegars with blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, which go on to make things like handmade salad dressings and sushi vinegar. Blueberry marinade is now a staple for many marinades.
We make many of our own herbal teas: mint and chamomile can be laid out to dry and then used whole. Mint grows all over the place along Rennie’s River and the Waterford River. Mint tea is very soothing in midwinter. It also has many culinary uses! We also pick early season strawberry, raspberry and blackberry leaves and dry them out for tea.
So the next time you are on your way out the door, bring a bag or two with you; you might just end up with your groceries before you even get to the store. In the off-season it is a wonderful treat to be able to crack a bottle of your own homemade maple syrup or favorite summertime jam to enjoy. A freezer full of berries will make your winter as sweet as the pie baking in the oven. Handcrafted delights such as sea salt, fish sauce and vinaigrette will help reduce your grocery bill year round.
For an ongoing dialogue in all topics of foraging and food sustainability in Newfoundland, visit our Facebook group: Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL. You might also find the following books—our primary resource guides used for foraging in Newfoundland—useful: