Jonathan Forbes is the founder of Forbes Wild Foods, of Maple Valley, Ontario, near Creemore. He sells 80 different wild food products, 20 of them from Ontario.
“I had foraged as a kid, and 10 years ago I realized that people didn’t know what I was talking about when I mentioned beechnuts or chokecherries. Since all of southern Ontario is being consumed by development, I also realized that sometimes it’s necessary to create an economic value for land. Otherwise, it’s considered waste or vacant.
I was always interested in the Aboriginal diet. They had 35 different kinds of beans, 14 varieties of corn just in southern Ontario. We make maple syrup, but the Iroquois used to make syrup from the sap of butternut, hickory, black walnut, sweet birch and black birch trees. Disease eradicated a lot of Aboriginal culture, and the information got displaced.
Last fall I took pawpaws, a kidney-shaped fruit the size of an apple that grows in Ontario, to the Dufferin Grove organic market, and not one person knew what they were. People say all the time, “I had no idea milkweed pods could taste good.” All that knowledge is disappearing unless we wake up.
“Foraging” is an odd word. It doesn’t describe the close connection to the land you have to have. You need to play a stewardship role to all these plants or they’ll all be gone. You also need lists of fruits, vegetables, nuts and roots to know which ones you can’t harvest at will. Ox-eye daisies carpet the whole country – I make capers out of them – so there’s no way you could make a dent in them. The same with cattails.
Some naturalists are horrified about people being unleashed on what remains of our urban natural areas, like locals taking watercress from Toronto ravines. You have to look at the individual plants: chokecherries you can pick until the cows come home, but wild leeks have a 10-year cycle, so you can only pick 2 to 5 per cent of a patch. With fiddleheads, you never want to take more than two or three fronds from a plant.
People need to check out organizations like the Federation of Ontario Naturalists and the Mycological Society of Toronto to learn stewardship.’’