My Search for Optimum Health

By Lief Lett Uss

Ever since Euell Gibbons wrote Stalking the Wild Asparagus there has been a popular fascination about foraging for one's food. Current concerns about sustainability, coupled with a growing knowledge of the many health benefits associated with wild plants and herbs, has resulted in an acceleration of this process. A 2011 reissuing of a fully updated and expanded version of Northwest Foraging: the Classic Guide to Edible Plants of the Pacific Northwest, by Doug Benoliel (available at the GVPL), is one such indicator of this spreading interest. Other indicators are the availability of guided educational walks, demonstration gardens and, for the first time, in October 2011, a Herbal Certificate Program at Camosun College.

I recently went on one of these guided walks, following the path from the Mount Work parking lot down to McKenzie Bight, sampling plants and herbs along the way and being enlightened as to their uses. Did you know that the needles of the grand fir (distinguishable by their flat needles at right angles to the stem, and not to be confused with the Douglas fir whose needles radiate all round) are high in Vitamin C and taste like grapefruit? Or that the leaf of the thimbleberry makes very soft toilet paper (not that I used it for that purpose), while the berries are tasty? Or that the pores located on the underside of the sword fern leaf can draw out pain associated with aching muscles? Or that plantain leaf mixed with saliva can draw the sting out of an insect bite? Stinging nettles (watch out for the sting if collecting) and burdock were pointed out for their medicinal benefits. These are just a few of the 27 plants identified on our leisurely 5 hour walk. In order not to be overwhelmed, our guide (Diana Kucharska: wildforager@rocketmail.com) suggested that we "make friends" with one or two plants at a time, and over time gradually add to our repertoire of useful and recognizable plants. With this advice in mind, I have spotted sword ferns in a neighbour's front yard, although I haven't harvested any yet. My search goes on for a grand fir within walking distance of my home.

In Duncan, within a few blocks of the recreation complex, there is a demonstration garden of wild edible plants arranged in pie-shaped sections according to the Ayurvedic tradition of six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter pungent, astringent. During our visit, we were fortunate to be shown, and allowed to taste, the various plants by Roger Fourcher, wild-food enthusiast and garden designer, who explained the beneficial qualities of each. Roger lauded the clarity that comes from the consumption of wild foods, and one could clearly see this quality in his eyes and hear it in his voice. My personal favourite, in terms of taste, was lamb's quarters, a common and prolific - and sweet - weed. Those who like a salad with romaine lettuce would be right at home with lamb's quarters.

The Herbal Certicate Program at Camosun College is new this fall, and those interested are advised to attend an information session, which can be arranged by phoning 250-370-3550. The course is taught by master herbalist Don Ollsin. The program is presented online and in person.

If you have the knowledge, food (and medicine) is there for the picking.

Medical disclaimer: The information contained in this column is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. One should consult one's physician prior to changes in one's health regime.