Foraging in the Southern Okanagan
At the inception of the human race, there was no fast food, no grocery stores and certainly no chocolate cupcakes. We were a group of mammals subsisting on the wild, procuring our food sources by hunting and foraging. As agriculture and animal domestication evolved through the ages, the scraping life of the hunter gatherer gave way to a vastly more predictable and accessible way to live. Few in our current society have had exposure to surviving on what can be found; a small percentage of us are adept at farming but most are only comfortable foraging in the grocery store aisles. Thankfully for the adventuresome, figuratively and literally returning to one’s roots is surprisingly very easy, especially when you’re surrounded by the wild bounty of the Okanagan Valley and you have an expert guide to take you.
This past April at the Slow Food Conference in Osoyoos, I was fortunate enough to spend a day with local foraging specialist Larry Moran. A professional in his trade, Moran discovered his passion while mushroom picking with his dad at a young age, spurring his travels to many global destinations sourcing for local plants and species of wild mushrooms. He settled his own family in Oliver a few years ago.
According to Moran, the foraging strategies he employs can be very diverse, due mainly to the countless Okanagan microclimates and the seasonally short availability of some local delicacies. Moran makes his living sourcing wild plants, fruit, vegetables, tubers, seeds and nuts, herbs, leaves and flowers, along with the all-important wild mushroom, all of which he sells to upscale restaurant chefs or at coastal farmers’ markets (depending on the scarcity, wild mushrooms can command exceedingly high prices). What he doesn’t sell, he eats. The array of organics ensures a balanced diet and good health, and can sometimes be used as healing and preventative medicine.
Moran and his partner Rebecca Walker guided a group of us through specific (secret) spots around Oliver. My goal of the day was to find and harvest the first wild asparagus of the season, as well as the elusive Morel mushroom.
Moran first warns us about the four most common hazards to avoid while foraging in the Okanagan Valley. The hazards will vary depending on the terrain, but it’s always a good idea to be aware regardless of the location.
1) Poison Ivy – a poisonous plant that grows wild all throughout North America. It can cause severe itching and irritation, and can result in rashes that last for days. It’s best to Google a picture of it so you know exactly what to avoid; the distinctive leaves are the best identifier.
2) Cactus – in the South Okanagan Valley there are species of edible cactus, but it is mostly a walking hazard because of the obvious stinging spines.
3) Rattlesnakes – are abundant and venomous. These small to medium sized snakes are not aggressive or out to get you, but they will strike if threatened (or stepped on). Always listen for the telltale rattle – if you hear it simply walk in another direction.
4) Ticks – vectors of many diseases such as Lyme disease, they also carry external parasites. Be thorough in checking your clothes and hairline (back of neck) after walking through any forested area.
Warnings heeded, our first stop is along the Black Sage Road. Rebecca quickly pointed out some of the local edible fauna. There were Mustard Greens, also known as Indian mustard, which is dark green and great for fresh salad; Lamb’s Quarter, a subtly herbaceous leafy plant; and Stinging Nettle which, despite its name, is lovely sautéed in butter or made into hearty soup. Neither Morels nor asparagus at this spot.
The next destination was a case of ‘the good and the bad’ in one spot. Walking along an idyllic river, Moran points out the dreaded Poison Ivy plant (hundreds of them actually), and barely visible on the forest floor among them is a Spring Morel, but it is dry and past its prime. We were told a local chef was there picking few days ago. Morels 2 – Van 0.
The third foraging spot… a swamp! We found some Cat’s Tail, commonly found in the Northern Hemisphere. We’ve all seen them, but who knew you could eat them! Their rhizomes (base of the stalk) are edible and the grains can be ground into starch. Across from the swamp was a small, flowing brook of fresh water, there we found some young Watercress (which we later cooked and pureed into our smoothies). Along the way to our next stop we found some wild asparagus just off Hwy 97, we were told that the key to spot wild asparagus is to look for their dried branches and red berries from the previous year. Unfortunately the first wild asparagus I’ve ever seen was picked already – the tips were missing – but I peeled the cane and it tasted just as good!
Our last stop was an orchard, a friend of Moran’s. Lying there was a bed of Purple Dead Nettles, happily growing next to some apple trees. Dead Nettles are a herbaceous flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, and the tops and leaves are edible, enjoyable in salads or finely chopped in sauces. Yet, no Morels. Shut out, 4 – 0.
Later in the afternoon Larry and Rebecca invited us to their home for dinner. When we arrived we had already given up hope of finding Morel mushrooms today, so Rebecca soaked some dried ones from previous year and started preparing dinner for us. Larry took us on a tour around the orchard he lives in while we sipped on beers and chatted about life. It was en route that we saw something sticking out from the ground underneath an apricot tree. We found our first Morel mushroom of the day! This blonde beauty was the size of my hand, approximately 6 inches long and 3 inches wide, pretty substantial for a Spring Morel. Our vigor renewed, we spent the next hour harvesting all we could find, winning two and a half pounds of fresh Morels for dinner!
Rebecca made us some delicious pizzas; the first one was prepared with chicken marinated in tarragon, pesto made with stinging nettles, heart nuts (foraged from Covert Farms) and wild asparagus. The second pizza was made with homemade tomato sauce, bison sausage, dead nettles, mustard greens, cats tail and of course, Morels. Rebecca served the pizza with a fresh green salad made from watercress, dead nettles, and chic weeds. The entire experience reinforced the reasons why I moved to the Okanagan Valley, and why I’m not willing to leave.
Foraging is a great way to eat healthy and diminish your carbon footprint, but you also need to have a good understand of the environment before you go picking and eating your findings. For the first time going on a foraging trip, I recommend to have a local forager or expert naturalist to guide you. And if you can’t find one around your area, make sure you do some research before you go out there! Go prepared with paper or plastic bags, cardboard boxes for delicate flowers and berries, gloves, scissors or pruning shears, and suitable clothing. Even in the warm summer you’ll want long sleeves and pants for Ivy protection. Bring a camera and notebook to record your findings and aid in your research.
As for food safety, try to avoid areas that are close to farms that use pesticides or herbicides, and only go to sites that you have a good understanding of.
As for respect to others, please get permission from landowners before entering their property. The last thing you want is an angry farmer or dog chasing you, and it’s always easier to ask for permission than to beg for forgiveness.
To avoid insects or parasites being brought into your home, I would recommend washing your findings outdoor and storing them in a cooler, and only bring them in as you need.
Larry and Rebecca will be hosting tours and classes on foraging this summer in the Okanagan. Get out there, and see what’s been hiding in plain sight.
Larry Moran - email@example.com