City diner

Streets and parks are a buffet table for urban forager Jen Stotland.

>J<>en Stotland plucks a loose, lovely light purple petal from a bed in the Public Gardens. "Mallow," she says, placing it quickly in my open palm.

Eat it?


The whole thing?

Just pop it in your mouth. You can eat the leaf too.

I do.

"It's a little bit slimy," she says. "It's really high in vitamin C."

Stotland is an urban forager. And I'll answer your next question before you even ask: it's not dumpster diving; it's harvesting wild-growing edible plants in the city.

"What I do is I look for things and I eat them," she says. "And if I take a weed out of someone's bed that is by the roadside, I don't think they are going to be too upset."

Stotland picks Japanese knotweed in the spring and steams it (looks like asparagus; tastes like artichoke). She also snacks on goutweed (kind of celery-ish).

Gardeners with those invaders would no doubt welcome Stotland for a snack. (Actually, I'm not joking: she's no weirdo. She owns a landscaping business and is married to a computer programmer.)

On our walk from the base of the Citadel, through the sample-abundant Public Gardens and Camp Hill Cemetery (thank you, Effie M. Salter, for the dock I ate from your grave) I gulped a salad of treats---juniper, mustards, rose petals, violets. I also came away with enough knowledge that later I snarfed bites of wood sorrel at Gorsebrook Park, feeling only slightly nervous.

The whole trip was an exercise in eliminating typical North American food fears---from worrying about whether dogs had peed on the chickweed I was enjoying outside Citadel High (Stotland: "there's so much rain in this city, the plants get washed off." Then a pause. "Unless the dog is sick...meh...") to wondering whether I wasn't just going to drop dead from eating some poisonous berry.

I didn't. And Stotland, 28, hasn't yet.

Her mom taught her to forage as a kid.

"Most people hear from their parents or guardians that all plants are poisonous and that you should stay away from them. That's an easy thing to say to a child---if you see a berry, don't eat it. But that's a real shame."

Stotland wrote a zine---available at The Grainery---called Eat Yer Weeds!. She'll do workshops if people contact her (

She calls urban foraging "empowering" and says "it lets you get to know a place."

And right at the moment I'm thinking, holy crackers, I am so totally set for the collapse of the economy, me and my little handfuls of chickweed and these delicious petunia petals from the hanging baskets at the Public Gardens, Stotland says, "I used to think it would help our food security, or that it would help people with certain food deficiencies. But these [foods] are not very high-calorie."

She's right. I suspect I burned more calories on the walk than I foraged for food. Still, Stotland says, "I think people would respect nature a little more if they knew the properties of what's around them."

Speaking of properties, what about the pollutants in roadside foods? Not, like, dog pee, but deposits in the soil from years of everyday zooming cars?

"You would do better to not forage in the city, but I accept that as a risk to take part in an enjoyable hobby," she says. "You can tell---if a plot looks really barren and there are gum wrappers. I mean, I have standards."

Obvious off-road forage spots are Point Pleasant Park, Needham Park and the Mount Saint Vincent campus. "City gardens," Stotland says, "when they don't mulch, are really good for pigweed." (It's also called lambs quarters, tastes like spinach, and is one of the highest-known plant sources of calcium.)

Generally, Stotland suggests foraging a couple of metres back from the road if possible and avoiding mown areas.

Also, watch out for places there is an abundance of wild berries. It might have once been a dump. And! Bodies used to be preserved with arsenic, so forage in cemeteries lightly.

Other rules? Never take too much. Never take a rare plant.

Vis-à-vis accidental poisoning, Stotland says, "Halifax isn't the jungle. We have maybe 15 to 20 really toxic poisonous plants that will kill you. And once you learn those---Virginia creeper, tansy, common buttercup--- you can basically experiment."

"If you poison yourself," says Stotland, "you can't blame anyone but yourself."

I'll take that line too.

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