When we moved to our home in Canada's subarctic boreal forest, I didn't know much about foraging for medicinal plants and food.
First, I knew nothing about harvesting, preserving, or preparing northern plants and berries. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the challenges of regular gardening in a harsh environment.
As a result, I overlooked the great opportunity right on our doorstep.
While I was busy trying to grow squash in six weeks of 24-hour sunlight, I overlooked the wild herbs and medicinal plants around us.
Like the wild mint we use in our homemade goat milk soaps for sinus relief.
Then I began researching permaculture design principles. And once I opened my eyes, I found an abundance of shoots, herbs, leaves, berries, and flowers -free for the taking.
Since I homeschool our two youngest children, I realized I could use foraging as a teaching tool. And it was also a great learning opportunity for me.
Here are just some of the wild greenery we've started collecting while foraging for medicinal plants and food on the land around our home.
Foraging for Medicinal Plants and Foods
Do you live in the city? If so, you might want to check out this post on how to get started with urban foraging. And if you're a parent, read these tips on foraging with kids and foraging to teach.
Spruce tips are a major multi-functional natural remedy for many ailments. Plus, they're tasty.
We see bright green spruce tips on the ends of spruce tree branches by mid-June.
As our off grid home is in a clearing on a lake and surrounded by a forest of somewhat-stunted black spruce trees, it's easy to forage them.
We often see spring spruce tips with a brownish round end too.
Spring spruce tips are good for the skin and can be added to a soothing salve or cream. And they're antimicrobial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory.
So they're suitable for first aid needs like cuts, scrapes, etc.
Dried or fresh, spruce tips can be boiled up to make a tea that helps with congestion.
Spring spruce tips are also a healthy addition to spring salad recipes. Loaded with vitamin C, add them fresh to a mixed green salad.
Or soak them in oil for a spruce-infused salad dressing. Either way, spruce tips are flavourful.
Spruce tip jelly adds an unusual tasty flair to venison, red meat, or poultry. And then there's spruce tip beer - which we've yet to try. Maybe next year.
No article about northern foraging for medicinal plants is complete without mentioning Labrador Tea. Because it's part of the rhododendron family, it may look similar to plants you see further south.
Also known as Trapper's Tea or Hudson Bay Tea, the Labrador Tea around our cabin is a shrub with rubbery leaves.
They start out dark green in the spring and get small white flowers in early summer.
By late summer, the leaves turn a burnt orange.
It literally blankets one corner of our land.
Labrador Tea leaves have a robust and not-unpleasant aroma.
Because of its analgesic and antibiotic properties, it's foraged for its use as a pain reliever and to fight infections.
And recently, I came across an advertisement listing Labrador Tea as an "exclusive ingredient" in a high-end cosmetics line of anti-aging skincare products.
Like many other foraged greens, Labrador Tea can be dangerous if ingested in large quantities.
I grew up in Ontario and often saw chamomile growing in sidewalk cracks and along driveways. And I didn't expect it to grow wild in the crevices of the bedrock around our property.
The wild chamomile of the Northwest Territories looks and smells just like the chamomile down south.
Also known as Pineappleweed, it's ready for harvest in early spring and makes a delicious (and popular) herbal tea.
These bright and cheerful wild roses brighten our laneway and add some color to the rocks and trees that surround us.
We can collect pretty rosebuds, petals, and leaves in the spring and early summer. They're edible, medicinal, and cosmetic. So they're gathered for many uses, including:
- face cream
- facial tonic (with apple cider vinegar)
- bath oils
The late summer and early autumn months mean it's time to forage wild rosehips from the bushes. These are the fruit of the rose bush.
Wild Black Currants
These northern black currants grow on the rocks leading to the lake behind our house. They grow wild across North America.
In our area, we're busy foraging for medicinal plants and leaves in the spring (May and early June) and then right through until September. Yet spring is when we gather wild blackcurrant leaves -- before the berries appear.
The fruit doesn't show up until late August or early September. Wild black currants can be eaten cooked, raw, or made into syrup, tea, jam, jelly, and juice.
Fireweed blankets the land all around us with these gorgeous deep pink and purple fireweed flowers.
Also known as Willowherb, Fireweed is the Yukon Territory's official flower, though it also grows across the Northwest Territories.
And in Alaska, we've seen it in northern parts of British Columbia and Alberta, too, because it grows in the wake of forest fires and brush fires.
Fireweed has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and antiseptic qualities. It's also a gentle laxative. In addition, spring shoots can be prepared and eaten. They taste a little like asparagus.
Probably one of the easiest wild berries to spot and forage, wild cranberries are a Northern favorite. Berries are sweetest after the first frost, which may happen as early as the end of August.
Cranberries dot our property and fence lines on either side of the property and along the laneway to our home.
There are numerous great cranberry-picking spots along our lake.
And they're popular with the local residents, bear and human alike.
The wild northern cranberries in the Yellowknife area are much smaller and tastier than the ones I've bought in the supermarket.
Cranberries offer multiple health benefits - they're antioxidants and antiseptic too. Cranberry juice has long been a popular home remedy for urinary tract infections.
Plus, the berries are just plain delicious in cooking and baking. We also make cranberry bread, cranberry sauce, cranberry syrup, and cranberry relish.
This year we might try dehydrating them to add to our pemmican recipe.
What's in your backyard? Foraging for medicinal plants and food can happen no matter where you live.
If you're new to foraging, use your smartphone to take pictures of any interesting shrubs, plants, flowers and berries.
Compare your pics to a good foraging guide for your area.
Whatever you do, though, don't eat anything you've foraged until you verify that it's safe for human consumption.
horizons!, I'm trying cleavers not cleaners!
Wow! Your wild plant finds are so different from mine in Connecticut. In spring I harvest dandelions, garlic mustard, plantain and violets for my salads. This year I'm trying cleaners and giving chickweed another try. Thanks for expanding my plant horizons!!
Thank you for sharing your knowledge on these plants. I'm having my 16 year-old daughter research foraging. This was a very interesting article.
Nope, not at all like grapes, in my opinion,lol! Although they are pretty sour - well, the ones I've tried are.
I would love to live in a more wooded area like where I grew up. Taking treks on the land would be so fulfilling! I was very intrigued by what you found. We don't have some of these this far south.
Loved this article.. I knew about some but learned some new things as well..
Very interesting! I never would have thought you could use spruce tips for anything but maybe yummy-smelling potpourri. It's funny how much like grapevines the wild black currants look, do they taste anything like grapes? And the fireweed is just gorgeous, wish we had that here!
I cannot imagine having my first fall frost as early as the end of August, I think I'd find that depressing! If I lived where you do, I'd have to have a way to keep a greenhouse going, I don't think I'd survive the winters otherwise!
Sarita, I am in awe! What a great blog and a complete inspiration to someone who gave up her veggie garden because it was so unrewarding, but foraging for medicinal plants, that's always seemed like a gamechanger to me. I think I have lifestyle envy! Great blog, thank you 🙂