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How to Forage in Ontario

With consumers having an increased awareness of health and sustainability, foraging has had a bit of a resurgence as an alternative form of procuring food. Foraging is simply gathering wild plants and fungi to eat. It is, of course, one of the most basic ways to get food and sustenance, but it has become a lost art ever since humans moved on to farming, supermarkets, and GMOs.

According to Jordan Whitehouse, who writes for TVO, “Euell Gibbons is often credited with sparking the modern foraging movement with his 1962 book Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” In his seminal guide, Gibbons distills a lifetime of knowledge about edible flora and fungi across North America and provides instructions on how to cook and eat the vast bounty of the land. He encourages people to appreciate new flavours and debunks the myth that farmed food is better than wild.

But before you start heading for the nearest forest, having an understanding of sustainability is important for foraging. Whitehouse mentions “novice foragers should research before they venture out. All of that picking, digging, and plucking might put plants at risk and decrease biodiversity.” Take only what you intend to eat. Don’t be greedy about a shared resource. Overharvesting will negatively impact the wildlife and result in fewer resources in the future. 

Another thing to be aware of is what is safe and legal to pick. “Foraging is prohibited in provincial parks without proper authorization and also in conservation reserves, unless the forager is harvesting for personal consumption. Some municipalities, such as the City of Toronto, ban foraging in city-run parks, forests, and ravines. The province prohibits the harvesting of any plant listed as endangered, threatened, or extirpated,” Whitehouse explains. Foragers should also avoid private property or areas that may be treated with pesticides. It is also important to research any poisonous or toxic plants that may look similar to an edible plant.

Below, you will find a list of ten plants and fungi in Ontario that are safe to eat and easy to find, plus additional notes on how to eat and avoid overharvesting them. A more comprehensive list can be found via Ontario Nature.

Plant/FungusAppearanceLocation and Time of YearHow to EatWarnings and Other Notes
Black trumpet mushroomsFunnel-like, black or dark greyNear oak trees and moss; September to NovemberDry and grind them up to use as seasoningHard to find but do not have poisonous lookalikes
BurdockHairy green leaves with white undersides and spiky pink/purple flowersRoadsides; August to OctoberYoung leaves can be eaten raw or boiled thoroughly Do not eat if pregnant or diabetic
CattailsTall, stiff, slender leaves and brown, cylindrical flower clustersMarshes, lakes, and calm streams; fall to springStem cores can be eaten raw or cooked; green flower heads can be cooked with stalk and outer layer removedDo not eat brown flower heads; avoid cattails in stagnant water; do not confuse with wild iris, which are poisonous
Cedar Scaly, bushy, green fronds with rough barkIn forests near water and in swamps; year-roundLeaves can be steeped into a fragrant and soothing teaIngesting too much can be toxic
ChanterellesYellow to dark yellow caps with wavy edges and long gills leading down to paler stemsMoist, shady areas; spring to summerUse fresh or boil in salt water then freeze (drying them makes them tough)Do not confuse with false chanterelles, which are poisonous and more orange than yellow
DandelionsBright yellow flowers and long stalksRoadsides, gardens, meadows; May to August Leaves can be eaten raw or cooked; flowers can be eaten raw; stems can be boiled and used as a pasta substituteAvoid plucking from maintained lawns that may be using pesticides; older plants in sunnier areas tend to be more bitter than young ones in shady areas
FiddleheadsPremature ferns curled into a snail-like spiral near the forest floorIn forests near water; mid-spring before fully grownWash thoroughly and remove brown casing, then boil, steam, or sauté like asparagusDo not over pick; each plant produces six to ten fronds so only take a couple
MorelsUnique, sponge-like heads with hollow stems and capsDisturbed forests or meadows (usually appears after a fire); springWash and cook thoroughly (best when sautéd with butter)Do not confuse with false morels, which are poisonous; do not eat raw
Stinging nettlesTall, leafy plants covered in stinging hairsHillsides and forests near water; spring to early summerLeaves can be soaked, cooked, or dried to remove hairs and make safe to eat; use like spinachDo not eat if pregnant or diabetic; wear thick gloves when harvesting; abundant and resilient, not at risk of being overharvested

Rose Ho | Contributing Writer

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