As vegetation reanimates my neighbourhood each spring, I prepare for curious stares and familiar queries like “Isn’t that poisonous?”
Growing up in Winnipeg, I ate cherries, crab apples and plums that I scavenged from parks, churchyards and railway yards. Then one year, pesticide spraying came into vogue as a way to create the perfect lawn.
Thankfully, this is no longer the case in Toronto and more than 100 other Canadian cities protected by pesticide bylaws. For the first time this summer, fines (up to $5,000) will be handed out to laggards who persist in drenching our edible surroundings in a chemical haze.
This means I can grab a free, nutritious snack without an unwanted side order of toxins.
The city might not seem like the ideal place to forage. Most gardeners prize an ornamental monoculture.
And trees yielding nuts, fruit, berries or syrup regularly (often illegally) meet the chainsaw for the crime of making a mess of yards and vehicles.
A sure sign of berries are stains on the pavement. Just look up.
For saskatoons try Little Norway Park, St. George Street through U of T and the parking lot entrance in the Western Beaches.Crab apple trees ripe for the picking line Kew Gardens in the Beach. A couple of tinier versions appear along Gould Street through the Ryerson campus.
Even grass boulevards or cracks in the pavement can sprout edible weeds like lamb’s quarters, thistles and dandelions.Once you start eating wild, you may never be quite the same. Normal tasks like cutting the grass will appear strangely counterproductive.
Chewing on mulberries or chokecherries, I often look up to find squirrels or birds doing the same, reminding me that we share similar needs.
Foraging for food in the city: what to look for and what to avoid
A few pointers before you start snacking on the wild delights springing from our city’s concrete and neglected spaces.
• Thumbs-down to raspberry picking along the Don. All that vehicle exhaust produces a coating of grime, especially low to the ground.
• Stay away from brownfields or industrial sites where tasty saskatoon berries could contain traces of toxic heavy metals.
• I recommend rail yards, but with caution. Decades of using treated lumber and herbicide to keep vegetation off the tracks means you should keep a distance. Herbicides are also used on hydro corridors, and golf courses are exempt from the pesiticide ban.
• Do your research – and leave mushrooms to the experts. Some can upset your stomach and others are deadly.
• Anything on public property is fair game, including trees or bushes that hang over the sidewalk. While the public right-of-way normally extends a couple of metres beyond the sidewalk, I’ve been shooed away several times over the years by territorial residents.