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Reader Jeremy McCormick asks:
I was wondering where one might forage for wild food (not dumpster diving) in Toronto. Where could one find more info on foraging and learn where’s safe and what’s available?
You, fair reader, are in luck. As we approach what will hopefully be several solid months of glorious summertime weather, Toronto is about to be ripe for the picking (and, no, we don’t mean sneaking fries off the plates of unassuming patio-dwellers, as tempting as that may be).
We’re talking about grocery store staples—cherries, apples, plums, pears—and lesser-known fruits and greens, such as mulberries, serviceberries, and lamb’s quarters. All of this fresh and local produce can be found and enjoyed free of charge with little more than a walk through your Toronto neighbourhood, as long as you know what you’re looking for and follow a few basic rules.
And be patient. We’re still about a month out from some truly sweet finds.
One of your first clues that it’s time to get out and start picking will be the stained, purple sidewalks that signal mulberry season from late June to early July. These trees are plentiful across the city and often completely overlooked as a source of free and delicious snack food. So instead of tip-toeing around the squashed purple stuff on the ground to avoid ruining your new sandals, step right in and look up. The mulberry fruits tend to be dark purple, and they look and taste a bit like blackberries. However, they can also be difficult to harvest, warns Not Far From the Tree founder Laura Reinsborough. Because many of the mulberry trees in the city are quite tall, the fruits can be impossible to pick by hand. The trick: “Lay a tarp or blanket around the outside of the trunk, and gently shake the trunk. Doing anything vigorously could do damage to the roots,” Reinsborough says.
Another popular urban fruit is the serviceberry, which is also known as the Juneberry or Saskatoon berry. Like the mulberry tree, serviceberries are plentiful across the city and are ready to pick around mid-June. Unlike mulberries, they often grow on shrubs or small trees, making them easier to pick. “They’re planted everywhere, and so few people have any idea that they’re edible,” says Reinsborough, who notes they are often planted on City property and in parks. The berry is a small one—five to 15 millimetres in diameter—that turns from red to purple to almost black as it ripens, the taste increasingly sweeter as it matures, with a hint of almond flavour. Though she refuses to disclose the exact location (presumably to protect her own stash), there’s an area north of Dupont Street that Reinsborough claims is a serviceberry hotspot.
Both mulberries and serviceberries are safe to eat raw, and can also be baked, used in jams, and made into tea. They can also be frozen to be enjoyed year-round. And if you’re looking for the fruits that are perhaps more familiar—grapes, raspberries, apples, cherries—these can also be found throughout the city. But a word of warning: these trees and shrubs are most often found on private property, so make sure you get permission, or risk a potentially embarrassing trespassing charge.
Some urban foragers can keep close to home, if they have some green space of their own. Sarah Elton, author of Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians are Changing the Way We Eat, is an advocate of backyard foraging. For instance, her yard boasts a large black raspberry thicket. “The taste is out of this world. It’s like eating candy on a bush,” she says, noting there’s no comparison between her backyard berries and the store-bought variety.
Elton’s foraging isn’t limited to fruits. She’s steamed and buttered the lamb’s quarters she’s picked from her backyard; it’s a weed that grows everywhere in the city. Dandelions are another edible weed and a popular option for preparation is to make it into a tea.
Another beverage made possible by urban foraging is sumac-aide, made from the rich red or purple fruit. “They are tiny little spice berries, technically drupes,” explains Reinsborough. “[They tend to grow] in those strips of land where it’s not like a formally planted garden, but there are shrubs. Drive along highways along Ontario and you’ll see sumac along the side.”
The list of edible treats that grow within the city limits is extensive. Both Reinsborough and Elton suggest those interested in getting started in urban foraging pair up with someone who has some experience and can act as a sort of guide. Volunteering with an organization like Not Far From the Tree—which picks from fruit trees across the city and shares the bounty with participating homeowners, volunteers, and food banks—might be a place to start if you don’t know anyone familiar with foraging.
Another tip both women urge prospective foragers to keep in mind is to be considerate of what’s around you. There are a few plants you should steer clear of, like elderberries, which are safe to eat when cooked, but toxic when unripe and raw. As a general rule, when in doubt about a particular plant, opt not to eat it.
Also, be careful you’re not taking food away from animals who might depend on it, and make sure you are only picking fruit and other food that grows abundantly in the area. For example, Elton urges people from staying away from the wild leek, which she notes is a fragile species and illegal to pick in Quebec for commercial purposes. “It’s like eating a tiger,” she says.