Finding food on the freeway

Foraging is not something reserved for hardcore, live-off-the-land, know-how-to-skin-a-deer kind of people. Have you ever been out walking and noticed a wild apple tree or a patch of black raspberries and picked a few? Congratulations, you’re a forager.

While taking a walk one day in June, I stumbled upon a mulberry tree. I picked a bag of them, and so began my summer experiment of foraging.

Every morning I commuted by bike through part of the Ontario Greenbelt on the Hamilton Escarpment, which gave me ample opportunity to check out both forest and city for potential treats.

If you know where to look, most cities are absolutely dripping in food, mostly in the form of fruit trees. Whether growing wild in wooded areas, perched on the borders of parks or hidden in backyards, there is food to be found everywhere.

Backyard trees are some of the most lucrative. I’ve seen heavily laden trees with their branches bent to the ground by the amount of fruit on them.

I knocked on a few doors, and their owners were happy to let me help myself.
Although there were many delicious results from forgotten plantings, all were overshadowed by the gnarled, 70-year-old cherry tree that my family discovered.

The wild black raspberries all along the back of the Chedoke golf course and the mulberries pretending to be part of a hedge row were not to be underestimated either.

The results of all this? My apartment is packed full of food and my roommates think I’m crazy. It looks like someone is preparing for the end of the world and decided to store everything in the living room.

I’ve been canning, freezing and dehydrating all summer, and now I am finally forced to cope with the sheer quantity of food I’ve managed to accumulate.

There is a shelf full of canned plums in the bookcase. A box of canned miniature and regular Bartlett pears in my wardrobe. My canned peaches are safely stored away in my closet, and the box of Bosc pears is ripening on my porch.

The plum, peach and pear jam are … somewhere. I’ve got jars of dried mint, lemon balm and bee balm for tea, plus a stash of dried oregano.

My cat’s been high all summer off the patch of catnip I found. And my freezer is full of peaches, mulberries, wild blueberries, huckleberries, black raspberries and red currants.

Not to mention the container of grapes I’ll have to deal with soon.

Foraging for food, it seems, actually works. And that’s just the stuff I’ve managed to store.

There are also the wild carrots I sampled (the young roots of the Queen Anne’s Lace wildflower), the chokecherries and Himalayan blackberries I discovered in Muskoka and the apples I munched on while biking.

Foraging, if you oversimplify it, is about getting something for nothing. It leads to an awareness of the world; an alertness that means every moment outside is filled with possibility.

Fruit trees are easy to spot because many of them cover the ground beneath them with clues. If you want to get started, there’s a pear tree down University Avenue dropping its fruit right now.

Why forage? It’s fun, challenging, delicious and ethical. The only child labour that went into this stuff was that of my younger siblings. Did I mention it’s free?

Although it seems like I’ve got a lot stored up, this will only last the winter. I’m looking forward to spring already. The invasive garlic mustard makes a great pesto if harvested early. And I’ll be taking the secret of the asparagus patch along the 403 to my grave.

Rules for foraging

  1. Identify before you eat: While some things are delicious, others are deadly. The nightshade family (the deadly kind) has the most yummy-looking red berries.

  2. Respect private property: Ask permission before helping yourself to fruit trees. Conservation authorities and provincial parks also have rules. Know them.

  3. Don’t hurt the environment supplying your food: While many fruit trees and bushes will actually grow better if the fruit is harvested, many herbs rely on their seeds to start the new generation. Don’t ever take all of the plants, or your foraging area is dead for the next year.

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