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My least favourite questions. . .

Is it edible? Is it good for anything?  As PEI transitions out of winter and into spring, these are two of the most common questions I’ll get for the next few months.  I love that interest in foraging is growing and that more people want to learn about the plants around them.  I also love answering questions about nature. But these two are my least-favourites, especially when they’re the first ones asked.  


Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) on PEI.

Foraging isn’t just about knowing how to use wild plants. It may seem counterintuitive, but that’s about the last thing I think about when I come across a new find.  Let’s use this lovely Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) to explore a few of the more important things to know.

 

What is it?  It may seem obvious, but the first step is knowing what the plant is, and scientific names are important. Common names vary from region to region, and even in a local area the same name can be used for different species. Take this Coltsfoot, for example: that common name is also used for an entirely different plant – Petasites frigidus.  On PEI, Eastern Larch (Larix laricina) is commonly called Juniper which is also the name of shrub with edible berries (Juniperus communis).  If you are researching how to use a plant, using the scientific name is especially important to ensure you are getting the correct information.

 

Why is it that? “Plant blindness” is a term used to describe most peoples’ inability to notice wild plants around them or to distinguish different plants from each other.  You might think this Coltsfoot looks a lot like Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), but it’s actually very different. Learning why this is Coltsfoot is more helpful than just trying to remember the name. For example, Coltsfoot has a round clump of florets surrounded by a circle of petals. That middle is comprised of disk flowers, and the petals are ray flowers; Dandelions only have ray flowers. Unlike Dandelions, Coltsfoot flowers appear before the leaves and this plant lacks the milky juice of Dandelions. Once you ask ‘why’, you start to see these are very different plants.

 

What’s its status? Foragers stick to common species and know there’s far less conservation concern when collecting non-native plants as compared to native ones. This Coltsfoot (T. farfara) is common and non-native on PEI (though its namesake [P. frigidus] is uncommon and native).  I’ve had people ask where to find Groundnut (Apios americana) or Ginseng (Panax trifolius) on PEI, but these are rare native plants that shouldn’t be foraged here. You can find the status of plants and animals in the Maritimes from the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre (accdc.com).

 

What’s its role? Some of PEI’s edible and medicinal plants play important roles in their habitats. For example, Sea Rocket (Cakile edentula) is delicious, but also helps to build sand dunes. All parts of the Cat-tail (Typha latifolia) are edible, but this plant is ecologically important in wetlands.  Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are popular as fiddleheads, but also help prevent soil erosion along streambanks. Understanding ecological roles can help foragers make better decisions about how, when, where, and how much to forage.


Are there any risks? Too often, I see people assuming that anything ‘natural’ is safe. This is simply not true. Coltsfoot, for example, has a long history of being used to treat respiratory illness, and modern medical research supports that.  However, it also contains compounds called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs for short) that can cause liver damage.  Yellow Wood-sorrel (Oxalis dillenii) is one of my favourite wild greens but is high in oxalic acid and so should be avoided by those with kidney issues.  St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, but also interferes with certain prescription drugs. And not all wild plants agree with everyone.

 

Over the spring, summer, and fall, I’ll be profiling some of PEI’s most interesting and beautiful plants including edible and medicinal species. I encourage you to go beyond just learning how these plants can be used, and use this as a path to explore and reconnect with PEI untamed!

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