Wild plants you can eat in Canada
By: Callum Denault
Published on: September 15th, 2023
Canada has a rich ecosystem, one which has comfortably fed people here for thousands of years before farming was brought to this land. In fact, many Canadians still live off the land, hunting, foraging, and farming their own food wherever they can.
Whether you want to pick wild plants to connect with nature, find some cool new ingredients for cooking, or simply to save on grocery money, this list is for you. Some edible plants are actually very common, you may have walked past them several times without realizing, or thrown them away when mowing your lawn and not realizing the “weeds” you discarded could actually be made into a tasty dish.
As a general rule of thumb, all plants you pick out in the wild should at the least be washed before eating—if not, cooked as well—due to how dirty they can get in natural environments.
These flowers are often seen as little more than annoying weeds in North America, where they are extremely common and tend to ruin gardens. However, dandelions are also a nutritious food source, being filled with vitamins and nutrients, antioxidants, and can potentially help people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol. The entire plant is edible and there are several recipes for cooking it; dandelion greens are known for their bitter, earthy flavour that is popular in salads.
The roots can be roasted into dandelion coffee, a caffeine-free and milder tasting alternative to normal coffee. If you want to make dandelion coffee, it is recommended you pick plants that are older by choosing them from large clusters of dandelions. Younger plants still make for good coffee but their roots are more bitter tasting. You should also pick the roots in early spring before the plants have started to grow leaves and flowers, because at that point all their nutrients are stored in the roots, making for a more nutritious drink.
This close relative of chamomile often grows in broken soil, such as in dirt roads, driveways, cracked sidewalk tiles, and other similar locations. It can be identified from other plants by its distinctive pineapple-like smell and flavour, which it gives off as soon as its buds are crushed.
It can be eaten by itself, dried, or cooked. Pineapple weed makes for a popular herbal tea, similar to chamomile.
This is another plant that makes for good herbal tea, with its distinctive red clusters of berries being boiled down into a hot drink, or otherwise being used to make sauces, a tart syrup, or dried into spice. However, you should take some precautions when trying to prepare sumac.
First, you will want to soak the berries to release some of their acid. The resulting liquid can be used as a drink, but you need to filter it first—using either a sieve or a coffee strainer—to remove the irritating little hairs the plant comes with.
It is also important to learn how to distinguish staghorn sumac from poison sumac, which is a similar looking plant. Poison sumac tends to grow in wet areas, and are rarer outside of swamps. Staghorn sumac tends to have toothed edges to its leaves, which come with nine to 31 leaflets, while poison sumac has smooth-edged leaves that at most have only 13 leaflets. Staghorn sumac has little hairs on its twigs, while poison sumac has smooth twigs, so you can tell them apart even in winter when they have no leaves.
Cattails grow in water, and are named for their stalks which end in distinctive soft, brown fuzzy tips. Several parts of this plant are edible, including the tips which are known as catkins. The roots can be cooked by themselves or used to make flour, and are harvested by removing the smaller, branching roots to get at the big one.
During the spring—when the catkins are green and hidden within leaves—you can pull them off and eat them after cooking, similar to corn on the cob. After these catkins have turned brown, they can no longer be eaten in this way, but they are still very useful. Brown catkins can be harvested, which gives you a lot of their pollen that can be used to make a high-protein alternative to flour.
Young cattails are edible, but you should be careful to avoid mistaking them for iris plants, which look similar when young, but are toxic when eaten. Look around the young cattails to see which plants matured, so you are sure what you are picking are actually cattails and not a lookalike. Also make sure you harvest cattails from clean water, because these plants filter out toxic waste, including pesticides.
This herb is invasive in Canada, having been brought from its native territory of Asia, Africa, and Europe as an edible herb. The Ontario government recommends people not spread the plant and get rid of it wherever they can, because garlic mustard outgrows native flora and is not a useful food source for Canadian animals. However, this does not stop you from eating garlic mustard if you find it, as long as you are not helping it choke out local ecosystems.
Garlic mustard can be found in city parks, as well as alongside roads, streams, or in wilderness areas. It can be identified by its kidney-shaped basil-like leaves, which leave a distinctive garlic smell when crushed. Garlic mustard looks similar to non-edible plants—like stinging nettle—so make sure you are certain you have picked the right plant before eating it.
While it can be eaten raw, every part of garlic mustard except for its stem has a bitter taste, which means it is better used when cooked into something, such a sauce, salad, or dip.
These trees are known for their small, sour fruits, which are different from the big and sweet apples you usually find in grocery stores. However, just like other apples, they are edible as long as you avoid eating the seeds or core. A crab apple is ripe when you can squish it with your hand, its seeds are brown instead of white or green, and it has a sour taste that is not overwhelming.
It is best used when cooked, and there are several recipes that you can make with crab apples, including apple butter, applesauce, pies, fruit leather, jams, and more.