Eating straight from nature

Woman holds a bouquet of wild plants.

When Jackie McMillan looks at an overgrown yard or trail, what she sees for the most part isn’t weeds. She sees food.

McMillan, an environment and resource studies alumna (BES '94), has worked for years in the environmental and human health fields. She is on the autism spectrum and says wild foods help her function better.

She started discovering the connection between wild food and her health when she spent a month at a wilderness camp at the age of 11.

“I went from brain fog most of the time, moods that were absolutely crazy … pain in my joints, in my muscles, in my gut, in my head – to gradual mood stability, greater and greater capacity to learn and remember things; pain dropped. I realized it didn’t have to hurt to digest food.”

Wild food, she says, is three to 20 times denser in nutrients than even organic food, because the plants we grow as food have been bred for qualities such as sugar content, flavour, and size, not nutritional value.

Ninety-five per cent of plants are edible, though they may not necessarily be tasty, says McMillan. However, that means five per cent of plants are toxic – and one per cent are deadly. So she recommends getting a good field guide such as a Peterson field guide to poisonous plants.

“If you start by learning the toxic plants, everything else is edible,” she says. “So then it’s just a matter of sampling, going around and having little tastes, finding out what you can eat and what you like.”

Many plants considered weeds – dandelions, garlic mustard, Queen Anne’s lace, burdock, even thistles – are edible and tasty, says McMillan. Thistles are members of the artichoke family and the root tastes like artichokes.

However, “when you start with wild foods, start slowly,” she advises. Most wild foods “are on the edge between being a food and being a medicine.” Some cause detoxing effects – which can mean diarrhea or vomiting. “So have a leaf here, have a leaf there, see how you tolerate it, and the next time, have a couple more leaves.”

McMillan tells people to be careful of where wild food grows. Railway corridors, for instance, have a history of being sprayed with pesticides, and the plants that grow there are likely to have bioaccumulated toxins. “If eaten at all, they should be eaten in medicinal instead of food quantities,” she says.

She also advises people to start with hardy invasive species instead of native plants. “If you don't know when and how to harvest native plants,” she says, “it's easy to destroy an ecosystem.”

McMillan is also a consultant on using nature's gifts to help children with autism. Her website is thrivewithautism.ca.