Flowers, berries, even nuisance plants, a source of summer food

UAlberta horticulturist gives tips about edible plants, growing wild food.

Everybody loves a garden full of veggies-but have you checked your flowerpots, too? Or the back alley, for that matter?

Summer brings a bounty of edible plants-domestic and wild-that may not be on your radar, but make for healthy eating.

"There are thousands of plants to grow and thousands of things to eat," said Justine Jenkins-Crumb, a horticulturist at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden.

More than ever, people are interested in connecting with their food and non-traditional edible plants play a role in that, she said.

"It's been a couple of generations since the idea of a traditional food garden has gone by the wayside, so there's a fantastic resurgence in the need for food security and resilience."

Tips to keep in mind

As a teacher of the U of A's Master Gardener Program each year, Jenkins-Crumb always gets questions about wild food-how to collect it, how to grow it.

Edible wild plants are as nutritious as their domestic cousins but, she cautioned, if you don't know whether a plant is safe to eat, don't risk it.

And if you want to try growing something out of the ordinary, don't give up.

"Often I'll hear from people who tried and it didn't work out. If you don't have a lot of experience, grow one thing really well; find the one food you can't live without. If you have to have basil, grow your own basil."

Be realistic about what the plant can do, she added. Seed packets and garden centres are good sources of information.

"We have a short growing season here, so pick a shorter-season plant." Start small and build your know-how slowly, she advised.

Along with what can be foraged in the wild, there's also backyard bounty people may not realize is plate-worthy. And for those who don't garden but want a taste, places like the U of A's Green and Gold Garden, which opened July 4, grow edible flowers like nasturtiums, pansies and pot marigolds, as well as other tasty goodies like zucchini (and their blossoms), chive flowers and arugula plants that produce flowers.

Wherever their tastebuds lead them, people should enjoy the experience of discovering new foods, said Jenkins-Crumb.

Here are a few plants to try:

Wild plants

Dandelions: This yellow-topped weed grows everywhere, often to our dismay, but makes for good eating. The root can be roasted, the flowers make wine, and the leaves (after washing), are great in a salad. Soak the plant overnight in cold water and then cook it to take out the bitterness.

Rosehips: This seed pod of the rosebush can be used to flavour tea or made into a syrup that once was used as a tonic to stave off scurvy. Rose petals can also be used in a salad.

Stinging nettles: This gangly green plant burns when you touch it, so use gloves to handle it. New shoots are edible, so collect the tips, blanch them in boiling water and use in soups, stir frys and smoothies.

Wild strawberries: Dubbed the "king of fruit" by Jenkins-Crumb, these gem-like, flavourful bright red berries are tinier than their store counterparts and are best enjoyed raw. They grow on the edges of meadows in the wild, but this low-growing specimen can also be planted much like a lawn over a widespread area.

Saskatoon berries: Native to the Edmonton area, these purplish-blue berries are tasty both fresh and baked. Try a handful on top of cereal, baked into muffins and pies, or mixed into pancakes.

Mushrooms: While there are wild mushrooms that are safe to eat, Jenkins-Crumb warns people to forage only if there's an expert along to tell the difference. "You can become seriously ill if you eat the wrong kind," she said. Even the Morel mushroom, one of the more popular types, has a lookalike imposter that isn't safe to eat. Events like the U of A Botanic Garden's upcoming Wild Mushroom Exposition offer an education in how to tell the difference.

Domestic plants

Pot marigold: This daisy-like, bright orange or yellow flower has a sweet taste when tossed fresh into a salad. Often used to colour cheese, it's also good for keeping skin soft when infused into oil.

Nasturtium: This bright orange, yellow or red blossom has flat leaves that resemble lily pads. The entire flower, including its seeds, add a pungent, peppery kick when served fresh in sandwiches and salads.

Violas: This tiny purple flower is as adorable as it is yummy. "The Victorians believed violas were the kind of plant that made you feel better just by looking at them," said Jenkins-Crumb. The blossom was infused in water and often prescribed as a tonic. Today, they make beautiful cake decorations and when eaten fresh, have a mild sweet to greens flavour.

Pansies: This sunny-faced cousin to the viola is a nice garnish for salads, desserts or in soups and when steeped, makes a fragrant cup of hot or cold tea. It has a fresh, grassy flavour.

Daylily blossoms: Use caution when identifying what lilies are safe to eat. Several varieties, such as the Easter Lily, are toxic and can be fatal to humans and pets. Edible daylilies have yellow or orange blossoms that last for one day, and the blooms have a peppery taste.

Squash blossoms: When squash season arrives and you've got a garden full of zucchini, harvest the dainty yellow flowers, too. Battered and cooked, they make delicious fritters, can be stuffed with cheese and baked or cooked into pasta sauce.