Overhead view of white, round plate with fried dandelions on a wooden service.

Edible Ontario: Foraging for wild ingredients

If there’s anything the last year has taught us, it’s that resourcefulness, sustainability and thrift are areas we can all improve. Our kitchens and pantries are a good place to start. Food knowledge unlocks the untapped abundance of our province and is the key to growing our appreciation of the food we eat and further elevating the local milk, cheese, meats, fruits and vegetables, legumes and grains we recognize and celebrate.

 

Beyond the blueberries, strawberries and raspberries that grow wild on roadsides and in forest meadows, Ontario is rich with wild, edible plants that can elevate almost any meal, from salads to creamy soups and locally-inspired cheese and charcuterie boards. We walk by many of these species everyday, oblivious to their rich history of use as food and medicine.

 

Here are just a few of the forageable edibles that call Ontario home:

Image of green Wild Ginger plants.

Wild Ginger | Asarum canadense

Try: Making your own wild ginger ice cream from scratch

Harvest Time:

Spring-Fall

Identification:

Low-laying, colony-forming perennial grows to only about 4-8 inches high. Each plant bears a pair of large, velvety, heart-shaped leaves and a single flower at ground level, hidden underneath the leaves.

Location:

Moist, shaded areas near hardwoods across Ontario.

Flavour:

Tastes just like ginger you would find in grocery stores but a little woodier and earthy.

General Description & Uses:

The edible, sought-after piece of this plant is the root. The wild ginger rhizome is commonly used to make tea, used as a flavouring agent, or as a ginger substitute. Flowers appear in May and can also be used as a flavouring agent. Native American tribes used wild ginger as a seasoning or to treat colds and fevers. European settlers used the root as a ginger substitute.

Cautions:

Can be mildly toxic if consumed in excess amounts (4.5 pounds worth, to be exact). Leaves may cause some skin irritation, wear gloves.

Image of yellow Dandelions.

Dandelion | Taraxacum officinale

Try: Deep fried dandelion blossoms or dandelion salad with Ontario blue cheese, pecans and maple vinaigrette !

Harvest Time:

Spring-Summer

Location:

Hillsides, grassy areas, forest floor, backyards, roadsides across Ontario.

Identification:

Can grow to 5 -45cm in height, with a long taproot and a rubbery stem containing a milky white liquid inside. Grows a bright yellow flower at the top of the stalk.

Flavour:

Dandelion leaves taste earthy and bitter - it’s similar to endive or radicchio. The earlier they’re picked, the less bitter they will be.

General Description & Uses:

Leaves can be eaten fresh in salads (including the flowers), cooked into soups and stews, or dried and used to make tea (young leaves are better as older leaves become bitter over time). When roasted in the oven for several hours, the roots develop a coffee/cocoa-like flavour, and when ground up it’s good for making tea or using in baking. Stems can be boiled and used as a substitute for pasta.

Dandelion is thought to decrease blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. The leaves of dandelion plants grown in shady areas are less bitter than the leaves of plants grown in sunny areas. You can dry or freeze dandelions to preserve them for later use.

Cautions:

Avoid eating dandelions from lawns or urban areas where pesticides and pollutants may have been used. Avoid dandelions if you have a sensitivity to latex as the milky liquid in the stem contains natural latex.

Image of Common Evening Primrose plant with yellow flowers.

Common Evening-Primrose | Oenothera biennis

Try: making your next au gratin with evening primrose and other Ontario root vegetables.

Harvest Time:

Summer

Location:

Tends to appear on disturbed or waste land where there is sun, thin soil, and good drainage, and along roadsides across Ontario.

Identification:

Grows to about 0.5-1.5m in height with a hairy stem. The leaves are slightly toothed at margins and attached directly to the stem and has a leafy spike of large yellow flowers at the top of the plant.

Flavour:

The roots of this plant are edible and said to resemble those of the salsify plant, both in its appearance and their parsnip-like taste. Young shoots have a peppery flavour and should be used sparingly.

General Description & Uses:

The roots, which are similar in taste and texture to parsnips, can be eaten raw or boiled for two hours (changing out the water several times lessens the peppery flavour). Cooked roots can be fried, pickled, roasted, and served as a side dish, added to soups and stews or candied in syrup, Young leaves, flower buds, and green pods can all be boiled like other leafy greens (be sure to change the water several times), and can used in salads. Native to North and South America, Evening Primrose was brought over to Britain and Germany by early colonists who learned of its uses from the Native Americans who used the whole plant in poultices to help heal bruises and wounds.

Cautions:

Avoid harvesting from lawns or urban areas where pesticides and pollutants may be present.

Images of red clover plants.

Red Clover | Trifolium pratense

Try: adding red clover and garlic to your plain Ontario cream cheese!

Harvest Time:

Spring-Summer

Location:

Fields, pastures, roadsides, backyards across Ontario.

Identification:

Grows to about 5-40cm in height with hairy stems. Has the classic clover leaf with three leaflets, and light green V-shaped mark on each of the leaves. The flower is usually round and red/pink in colour.

Flavour:

Floral and bean-like

General Description & Uses:

The flowers can be eaten raw in salads, made into a detoxifying tea, or can be lightly battered and deep-fried. Clover is thought to reduce bad cholesterol and plaque that causes heart disease. The leaves and flowers can be dried and stored for later use. This incredible flower is a wonderful source of several nutrients and dietary fibre.

Cautions:

Only consume the leaves and flowers in moderation, they may cause bloating. Do not eat clover if you’re pregnant or nursing as it can affect the hormonal balance of the body.

Image of Garlic Mustard plants with small white flowers.

Garlic Mustard | Alliaria petiolata

Try: adding a few young garlic mustard leaves to your house-made pesto.

Harvest Time:

Spring-Early Summer

Location:

Open forests, along trails, backyards, roadsides, creek-sides across Ontario

Identification:

First-year plants produce a rosette of dark green, kidney-shaped leaves with scalloped edges. Second-year plants produce white, four-petal flowers in May and grow a stem 0.3-1.2 metres high with triangular, alternate, sharply toothed leaves. Lower leaves are broad, kidney-shaped and up to 10cm across. Upper leaves are triangular and 5-10cm across, narrowing towards the tip.

Flavour:

Slight garlic flavour, mild bitterness.

General Description & Uses:

Garlic mustard is an invasive herb native to Europe. It was brought to North America in the early 1800s for use as an edible herb. Since its arrival in North America, it has escaped into the wild and is now one of Ontario’s most aggressive forest invaders. Luckily, Garlic mustard is quite delicious and people are encouraged to forage and use it.The flowers, leaves, roots and seeds are edible; however, when hot weather arrives, the leaves take on a bitter taste and are better cooked. The leaves are a great addition to pesto recipes and the flowers can be chopped and tossed into salads. The root can be eaten from spring to fall and has a pungent, horseradish flavour, especially when mixed with white vinegar.

Cautions:

Just like spinach and almonds, garlic mustard contains small amounts of cyanide, so be sure to eat it in moderation. Avoid eating if you suffer from kidney disease or concerns.

Cluster of Black Trumpet Mushrooms

Black Trumpet | Craterellus cornucopioides

Try : using black trumpet mushrooms in your risotto.

Harvest Time:

Summer-Fall

Location: 

Hardwood forests, near streams, mossy areas, areas with lots of deadfall, along trails across Ontario.

Identification:

This mushroom has a distinct funnel or trumpet-shape to it and can grow to be black, grey, or brown in colour. The top edges of the mushroom are rolled outwards. Black trumpets have an unusual feature to them, they do not have gills. Instead, the underpart of their caps are smooth or just a bit wrinkled.

Flavour:

Rich, nutty, smoky flavour.

General Description & Uses:

The Black Trumpet mushroom is a distinctly trumpet-shaped member of the chanterelle family. Known as the "poor man's truffle," black trumpets have a rich, smoky aroma. Black trumpets have one of the most potent flavours of all wild mushrooms, especially when they’re fresh. They are perfect if you want to enhance, soups, sauces, butters, salads, and pastas. They are also very easy to preserve if you have a bountiful harvest, just remember to rehydrate them in warm water when needed. There are no poisonous look-a-likes, making this a great mushroom for beginners to identify, but they're not always easy to find. Their dark colour and shape make them look like little black holes on the forest floor.

Cautions:

Can be sometimes confused with Urnula craterium, the devil's urn. Luckily, the devil's urn is not poisonous, they just have an unappetizing flavour. They have a more cup-like appearance when fruiting in the spring (black trumpets fruit in the summer and fall).

Lamb’s Quarters | Chenopodium album

Try: adding a few lamb’s quarters leaves to any yogurt smoothie or bowl!

Harvest Time:

Summer

Location:

Forest clearings, gardens, near rivers and streams, fields, waste places, and disturbed soils across Ontario.

Identification:

Grows to 3-5ft and is a branching annual with a grooved stem which is often tinged with red, particularly at the node, or the leaf joint. The leaves have alternate, triangle- to diamond-shaped leaves that are coarsely toothed or shallowly lobed. The leaves have a whitish-grey powdery coating, which is especially noticeable on emerging young leaves.

Flavour:

Earthy flavour similar to chard or spinach.

General Description & Uses:

The leaves, shoots, seeds, and flowers are edible. Lamb’s quarter can be eaten in modest amounts in salads or added to smoothies and juices. Steaming this edible weed is one method of cooking, or it can be added to soups, and sautés. Drying it is another way to add this nutritious plant to your meals throughout the winter or you can blanch and freeze the leaves.

Cautions:

Saponins in the seeds, also found in quinoa and legumes, can irritate your stomach if you eat too much, so take it easy. Raw leaves should be eaten in small amounts as they contain a small amount of oxalic acid that is elminated during the cooking process.

Image of Jerusalem Artichoke plant with yellow flower buds.

Jerusalem Artichoke (Sunchokes) | Helianthus tuberosus

Try: Chef Joseph Shawana’s Creamed Sunchokes recipe!

Harvest Time:

Spring - Fall

Location:

Moist meadows and valleys in Southern Ontario.

Identification:

Jerusalem artichoke, also known as a Sunchoke, is a perennial plant that reproduces by seed and by fleshy rhizomes (underground stems) which bear small, potato-like tubers. The stems are stout, 1-3 metres in height, and become woody over time. The leaves are simple, rough-hairy, oval to lance shaped, with coarsely toothed edges. The flower heads are bright yellow and resemble a sunflower, but are smaller and produced at the ends of stems and axillary branches.

Flavour:

Jerusalem artichoke taste slightly nutty and savoury - like a cross between an artichoke heart and a potato.

General Description & Uses:

Unlike regular potatoes, Jerusalem artichoke tubers are not affected by freezing and thawing. You can leave them in the ground and get them whenever you want, as long as the ground isn’t too frozen. If you decide to put them in your freezer, make sure that they are not washed and still have some dirt on them, this prevents them from getting mushy. If you store them for long periods of time, they will become sweeter, and produce more fructose while inulin levels drop. Similar to other tubers such as potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes are best cooked, however unlike potatoes they can also be eaten raw in salads or smoothies. Sliced thin, Sunchokes can have a crispness to them that is similar to radish. Boiling the tubers can result in something mushy so roasting is a better method of cooking as it helps add depth to the flavour by caramelizing some of the natural sugars it produces. If sliced thin they can also be made into Sunchoke chips. Jerusalem artichokes - or Sunchokes, were a very important food to first nations peoples and was among some of the first foods to be picked up by Europeans and brought back to Europe. Because these tubers are so hardy and are available practically all year round, first nations peoples would forage for them close to the end of winter as their food reserves would run low.

Cautions:

These tubers are high in inulin, a type of carbohydrate that causes gas and bloating. It's most likely to have this side effect when served raw, so go easy the first few times you serve  it in a salad or smoothie. The amount of inulin varies from sunchoke to sunchoke, and each person's sensitivity varies as well. Therefore, it won't affect everyone the same way.

Thinking of hitting the forest trail?


Do your research and forage with confidence and respect.


Foraging is a fun and educational way to supplement your diet with natural ingredients. Before hitting the trails, get informed and make sure you forage with the ecosystem in mind and take only what you can use.

 

  • Unless authorized, foraging is not permitted in provincial parks.

 

  • When foraging for edible plants and fungi, always make sure you have permission if you are foraging in parks or on private property.

 

  • Avoid foraging in areas where there may be pesticide use or a nearby waste area. Many plants have the ability to absorb nutrients and toxins from the soil, so make sure the environment is clean and natural.

 

  • Depending on the plant species, be sure to leave root systems and bulbs in the ground to ensure they will grow back the following year and, if they have produced seeds, leave some behind.

 

  • Forage with care and respect for the ecosystem and be sure the species you harvest are not protected or restricted from harvesting.

 

 

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