If you seek to better understand urban foraging, in all its intricacies, Metis herbalist and educator Lori Snyder can show you the path.
But when it comes to urban foraging, what exactly is on the menu? Think: wild plants and weeds growing in the city or suburbs that you could easily come across while out for a stroll.
“We need to be mindful of creating foraging corridors in our cities,” Snyder explains. “How can we be put all this really fantastic food and medicine in our backyards, back alleys, schoolyards and on the edges of parks? We could be growing tons of food that would also benefit insects, birds and other creatures. You have to reconsider what is in your garden that you didn’t realize you could eat, like dandelions and horsetail — stuff we think of as weeds, but our ancestors ate.”
While Snyder points out that there are some potent plants that could do major damage if you’re unfamiliar with them, the majority of the edible and medicinal ones can be found in city parks and right outside our front doors — and each comes with its own unique flavour and texture that we should teach ourselves to acclimate to.
“We’re all about sweetness and the sugar and why is that?,” she muses. “It’s probably because we’re not cultivating enough sweetness in our life. Very gently I remind people that sugar is a colonized food — it actually has a horrible history involving slavery. So here we are eating this part of history that is really very dark. So now I educate my palate about different flavours that aren’t so common in our diet, but were common in our diet once because they’re the wild foods our ancestors ate.”
We recently chatted with Snyder about her urban foraging journey, the meaning of food sovereignty and the one woman who influenced her life’s work.
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Tell us about the path that led to your journey as an herbalist and educator.
I was born and raised in Squamish, just outside of Vancouver. Where my parents built their house was the beginning of a housing development and behind our home was an incredible forest. We had all kinds of wild animals coming into our yard – like bears and stags. Our next door neighbours who bought the lot beside us were Danish and Irish. My sense of Mrs. [Maude] Bruun, because she was from Ireland, was that she didn’t know the plants that were growing here on this continent. What she would do is walk us kids up through the back trails and introduce us to the cottonwood tree, the salmonberry, the miner’s lettuce, the birch tree — all the incredible species and diversity of plants that grow in this part of the world.
When I do teachings I’m always sharing more pathways for people to discover. [The documentary] My Octopus Teacher shows us that the world around us is always in service of teaching us how to be as two-leggeds. What I’m seeing is that we have moved away from our true way of being on the planet. So I’m really grateful for Mrs. Bruun for imprinting that introduction. Once we start to learn to identify plants and other creatures, we get more curious and want to learn more about them. Once I get to know who they are [the plants], then it’s about ‘can I eat you or use you for medicine?’ Although I don’t like that word ‘use’ — it’s more ‘how can I get in relationship with you so that I can honour the gifts you bring.’
In Indigenous cultures, we didn’t have anything written — it was all oral. It was about using all of our senses so that we understood the world. I didn’t grow up knowing about my Metis history and ancestry. We could ask our own selves, how have I been colonized away from this deep relationship my ancestors have carried since the beginning of time? We’re talking about urban foraging — the reason that is starting to happen [more often now] is because we’re getting more curious [about the land we live on]. It’s either ego-centric or eco-centric. That’s what we’ve been – we’ve been so self-absorbed and distracted by entertainment that we haven’t even noticed someone has been cutting down the forest behind us.
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What are some common cross-Canada plants that are edible and/or medicinal that many of us aren’t even aware of?
Stinging Nettles [pictured above] are an amazing plant. They are hard to find in Vancouver because we get rid of it — because people think it stings and it’s a weed. But when you take the time to learn about her you realize she’s a superfood. It’s got tons of vitamins and minerals — and it’s so delicious when you cook her, it’s unbelievable. You can get fibres made with her, you can harvest the seeds and it’s considered an adaptogen. It’s also great for the prostate gland and inflammation – and this is just a snapshot of what she can do. The other piece that is so important is that she’s a host plant for five different species of butterfly here in this region. When we don’t [take the time to] understand the native plants, we destroy their habitat. [Stinging nettle] tastes earthy and woodsy. It’s such a unique flavour.
Saskatoon/Serviceberry we can find across the country. [They resemble blueberries and are both sweet and nutty like almonds in flavour. They’re also high in fibre, protein and antioxidants.]
Strawberries – oh my goodness, what an incredible medicine they are! They help regulate our menstruation — they’re good for cramping. What are us women taking? We’re taking pharmaceuticals which can be hugely detrimental to our health and can have side effects, but can also stay in the body because so many of them are fat-based. Plants are water-soluble, so they move through the body.
Purslane is [a green, leafy vegetable] like a succulent and it’s crunchy. It’s so good for the brain and, of course, there are a ton of vitamins and minerals.
Oxeye Daisy — her leaf is out of this world [delicious] and indescribable. To be able to add her to your salads [or desserts] would be amazing. The weeds outside our door just offer so much.
Rosehips — now here’s a plant people could be looking for right now all across the continent. [pictured above] They’re abundant, go harvest them. They are beautiful and high in vitamin C, iron and zinc. There’s your coffee right there — a nice stimulus that is good for the heart and good for the muscles and repairing collagen. And she taste beautiful as tea, syrup, jelly or jam.
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Can you speak to food sovereignty and its link to injustice in the food system?
Food sovereignty appears to me to be political in its design. When you kill off all the buffalo or chop down the forest you impact Indigenous communities’ ability to feed themselves. We are not children asking for handouts. We are strong, capable people who can feed ourselves as we have done prior to the arrival of a new order. We see this tactic again and again all over the planet. All people need to take back their responsibility in their relationship to the land which feeds and nourishes us. We might consider growing our own foods, sharing the bounty, saving the seeds, teaching our children this ancient art of growing food. Not only do we grow food, but we grow a living ecosystem around us that feeds all life. Let’s deal ourselves back into the web of life and drastically reduce our food footprint by transporting food all over the planet. We can do this — take the power back and have sovereignty again for all nations all over the planet.
I don’t want anyone having power over me. I want my autonomy. I want sovereignty in how I’m eating, I want sovereignty in the choices I make. I don’t want to be a consumer, I want to be a citizen. We are consuming because we think we’re not enough. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Let’s wake up, my friends.
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What is the biggest takeaway you hope people have from your work?
We’ve been colonized away from nature and for us to really cultivate our reverence and gratitude and know that we’re just part of the web, I have this responsibility. I’ve had people tell me they look at the plants everywhere they walk now… that they’re seeing the world differently now… and of course it sets them on a culinary exploration. It opens you up to all these amazing possibilities.
Want to learn more about plants and urban foraging? Lori Snyder recommends:
The book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The braiding of sweetgrass involves three strands — scientific knowledge, Indigenous ways of knowing and plant wisdom. [Kimmerer] refers to the plants and animals as our older brothers and sisters which, to me, makes complete sense because they were here before we ever arrived. If we look at Indigenous ways of knowing, so much of that comes from the land and the animals.
There’s also a beautiful book called The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival by Katrina Blair. Wild weeds are essential for our human survival. I take so much [knowledge] from others that are sharing this important way of being.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo of Lori Snyder courtesy of Belinda White at Apple Star Photo; plant photos courtesy of Getty Images
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