Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Edible Wild Foods and Medicinal Plants in the Oliver Area

After reading the July 6th post "In the Weeds", I wondered if I could identify 10 wild plants from the South Okanagan. The article had me wandering through childhood memories and reminiscing about the wild plant harvests I have done over the last few years. I don't know if I can come up with 10 plants,but, I do know of a few plants that are local,wild and edible.

When I was a little girl, I remember my Italian grandmother foraging in our back yards and lanes. Very few fancy sprays and pesticides were used around here then,so, I would imagine that everything she found was perfectly safe and usable.

The staple item that Grandma collected was dandelions. The tender,young leaves were made into salads, and the slightly larger ones were wilted in a pan with olive oil and garlic. Delicious...just as good as chard, and available before the chard was. We never grew spinach here then, Grandma said that it was just too hot here to grow spinach. So, we planted chard and beets, but picked the dandelions while we were waiting for the garden to grow! Later on in the season, dandelion flowers could be harvested to make wine. I remember one of my aunts deciding that since the prices they were getting for their fruit was so low; she might as well leave the fruit on the trees and go pick the dandelions growing profusely beneath the trees! I think she figured that jugs of homemade wine would help them get over the pain of very little profit on the orchard! OH..and yes, she made a very fine wine.

Grandma also collected the wild chamomile that grew EVERYWHERE here in those days (I haven't seen any here in a long time now). She made a tea with it and used it in the same way you would used domesticated chamomile. she also collected a wild plant that she called Malvia (Italian?). The correct name is Malva parviflora, or cheeseweed. I have heard it called many different names, none of which really made sense (bread and butter weed,being one), but, it is called cheeseweed became the fruit,when mature, looks like miniature wheels of cheese. Malva can be steamed, or saute├ęd in the Italian way, or even eaten raw in salads. I don't remember my grandmother cooking it, although she very well could have. She used it in a tea for sore throats, coughs AND constipation..a cure for everything it seems.

Oh, another memory just came to me..Grandma pinching the tendrils off of the grape plants in her backyard arbour, and telling me to chew them..they were slightly tart and astringent and I remember that my mouth would dry out after chewing them for a bit. She said that it was good for sore throats and colds. Speaking of grapes, not only did we eat the grapes, make jelly, chew the tendrils,but,we used the leaves as well. Grandma always put one or two leaves in the bottom of the quart sealers when she made dill pickles. She said they were for flavouring as well as keeping the dills crisp. I still use leaves when making pickles.

My Canadian grandmother was NOT impressed with the local Saskatoon berries. She was from the prairies were the GOOD ones grew! I remember my father and Grandma being very happy when the prairie relatives arrived with quarts of canned Saskatoons! grandma said that the local ones were only good for jelly as they were small, extremely seedy and rather dry. She made jelly from the local ones years ago, when the orchards were young, and fruit was hard to come by.

Both of my grandmothers waited for late summer and autumn in the early years. They would harvest rosehips from the wild roses that grew everywhere. The hips are picked in the early fall when they are a brilliant red and still plump and shiny. They make a very good, tart jelly and are extremely high in Vitamin C. Grandma once told me that in the early years here, she was very grateful that the roses grew so well. The orchards were still not much more than sticks in the ground and she was desperate for fruit to preserve for winter..she made many,many batches of rosehip jelly then.

Another treat in late summer or early fall is the local elderberries. They are NOT edible raw (not poisonous, just taste terrible), but when juiced make a jelly that cannot be beat for flavour. Wait until the berries are black, with a good bluish bloom, still plump and juicy. Cut off as much of the stems that can be removed (stems and leaves can be dangerous in large quantities), then juice and preserve for use later on. Venison steak with pan juices mixed with a dollop of elderberry jelly is quite incredible. I have used the jelly with wild grouse or quail as well..but, my favourite is just slathered on buttered toast. The juice with sugar added makes a terrific drink as well. Earlier in the year, the elderflowers can be harvested, dipped in batter and deep fried. Don't take them all though, save some to grow! And don't forget elderberry wine...

My father used to tell me that the earliest pioneers ate the fruit of the Mahonia aquifolium or Oregon Grape as we call it. It looks like grapes and grows on a cluster-like stem. They are not palatable raw, but make a jelly with a really wonderful, strong grape flavour. Pick them in late August, while they are still plump.

Local pincherries or chokecherries grow everywhere in the hills around Oliver. They ripen in later summer...don't pick too early, very ripe is better for flavour, as the jelly made sets very well. It has an interesting flavour.

I'm sitting on my front porch right now. Across the road, on the mountain side, I see Red Sumac, Sagebrush, Greasewood, Prickly Pear Cactus, Saskatoon bushes, and Mullein to name just a few. Every one of those plants are either edible, have a medicinal value or are jut usable in some way!

Red Sumac berries are edible,can be made into jelly,catsup, or a refreshing drink..steep berries in cold water for several hours, it has acitrus flavour.

Sage is not edible but makes a terrific insect repellant when burned.

If you can find them, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus is tasty!

Greasewood (Antelope Bush) is mostly used for tinder, but has many medicinal values as well.

Saskatoon Berries..jelly...

Mullein has dozens of uses. All parts(except seeds...) can be used, root, leaf and flowers. This plant is used mostly for medicinal purposes. But, in pioneer days and earlier, the leaves were used to line boots to keep the feet warm, (hence, the name, flannel weed), the flower stalk was dried, dipped in tallow and used as a torch or candle. The only part of the plant that is poisonous is the seed. The leaves were also used (smoked) to aid lung congestion and the flowers steeped in olive oil for earaches, when beeswax was added, it was used as a balm for irritated skin.

There you go...I have made a list of 10 items that are edible, and more that ae usable in many ways....what else can we find?


  1. a wealth of knowledge. I feel shame for my lack of foraging, I will do better.

  2. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
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  3. I refer to this blog post every year for the past three, thank you for such clear information

  4. I refer to this blog post every year for the past three, thank you for such clear information