When you look at a city park, you might see grass, flowers, shrubs, trees, and weeds. Aboriginal herbalist and educator Lori Snyder sees wild foods and medicines.
“Did you know your medicines are actually growing in your garden or outside your door?” Snyder, who identifies as Métis and has roots in five First Nations in central and eastern Canada, likes to say.
We’re sitting in Hinge Park at Vancouver’s former Olympic Village, where Snyder has agreed to show me some of the edible plants—both native and non-native—available throughout the city.
To my surprise, Snyder begins the tour under our park bench. She identifies a weedy-looking plant with small yellow flowers as wild lettuce.
Breaking off a dark leaf, she encourages me to try it. It’s bitter, but wouldn’t be out of place in one of those boxes of pre-washed spring mix found at the grocery store. Indeed, Snyder says she uses small amounts of the leaves in her salads. It’s good for insomnia, for one thing.
A metre away from the bench lies a common weed known as plantain or white man’s footprint. Every part of this ground-hugging plant, found “almost everywhere”, is usable. The leaves, which I spent a lot of time tearing up as a child, are chewed up and applied to bug bites.
“When you break this down with your saliva, it releases its enzyme to neutralize the poison in the bite,” Snyder says, adding that the leaves are also good in salads and tea.
Lo and behold, yarrow (for nosebleeds and menstruation) and nipplewort are also growing under the park bench. A oil made from the latter provides a soothing ointment to breastfeeding mothers.
Dandelion—not to be confused with the similar-looking false dandelion—is completely edible. In spring, Snyder waits until the flowers are abundant to harvest them, so as to not disturb the bees and other insects that rely on these plants. The leaves are great in green smoothies, and the flowers can be sun-cooked in olive oil in a jar covered with cheesecloth.
“Vitamin D is on the flower,” she says. “The leaves are great for the kidneys and full of potassium. Then the root, which goes down a metre, pulls up a lot of minerals—and that is really good for our liver. She’s just a beautiful, amazing plant that grows everywhere.”
Poking around the shrubs at the southeast corner of the park, Snyder points out Oregon grape, whose fruit looks somewhat like a blueberry and tastes slightly sweet.
“So you can eat these berries. They’re probably on the tart side,” she tells me. “Oh, that one was pretty good, eh?”
First Nations didn’t have a “super sweet” diet before colonization, so these berries would have been “gobbled up” back in the day, according to Snyder. They were also mixed with deer, bear, or oolichan grease and dried on skunk cabbage leaves. The roots offer medicine and dye, and the young leaves an appetite suppressant for times of hunger.
Gesturing toward a native rose, she notes the petals can be left in honey for four days, resulting in a rose-infused honey that “people go crazy” for. In the spring, the leaves are used for “cleaning the blood” and the flowers for cosmetics. Rose hips, the red or orange fruit of the plant, are picked in the fall.
“What’s amazing about rose hips is you can harvest any rose hip from any rose,” Snyder says. “If you want to infuse honey, it has to be a smelly one.”
Opening one up, she remarks: “Three rose hips are the equivalent to one orange. That’s how much Vitamin C is in it.”
She collects hips after the first frost or a lot of rain, and dehydrates the flesh for use in tea during colds. The seeds help fight parasites.
Echinacea, with its beautiful purple flowers, is also growing in the park. As is pineapple weed, which I remember hearing as a child could be used to make tea.
Apparently, that wasn’t just kids’ talk. This short flowering plant is also known as wild chamomile.
“She’s got a lovely smell,” Snyder says. “What you can do is you can take those little yellow heads or green heads—those are actually her flowers—and then dry them and put them in a little bag, and this will help with sleep. You can also take those little heads and put them in tea. So it’s very calming.”
According to Snyder, the flower heads can also be added to smoothies and baking.
“It’s a very versatile plant, and she likes super dry areas,” she says. “Like where there’s no moisture, she’ll just show up.”
There’s much more: Snyder draws my attention to California lilac, blacked-eyed Susan, evergreen blueberry, and male pine cones, which all have medicinal uses. Older men take pollen from the cones for virility.
Earlier on, Snyder—who grew up in Squamish—acknowledges our presence in the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. She says it’s important for her to honour the plants before harvesting and she only takes what her family needs.
Snyder gives workshops on wild foods and medicines to schools and organized groups, and is also available for garden consultations. Her next walkabout will take place on September 20 at Hastings Community Centre (registration is required).
She loves seeing the expressions on people’s faces when they realize plant foods and medicines are growing all around them.
“The key is to get comfortable, go on a walk, get to know the plants, do some research, meet people who are doing walks around plant medicines,” Snyder says.