A short guide to some of the more common edible and medicinal plants found in Alberta, and North America.
Description: The arctic willow is a shrub that never exceeds more than 60 centimeters in height and grows in clumps that form dense mats on the tundra.
Habitat and Distribution: The arctic willow is common on tundras in North America. Europe, and Asia. You can also find it in some mountainous areas in temperate regions.
Edible Parts: You can collect the succulent, tender young shoots of the arctic willow in early spring. Strip off the outer bark of the new shoots and eat the inner portion raw. You can also peel and eat raw the young underground shoots of any of the various kinds of arctic willow. Young willow leaves are one of the richest sources of vitamin C, containing 7 to 10 times more than an orange.
Description: The arrowhead is an aquatic plant with arrow-shaped leaves and potatolike tubers in the mud.
Habitat and Distribution: Arrowhead is found worldwide in temperate zones and the tropics. It is found in moist to wet habitats.
Edible Parts: The rootstock is a rich source of high quality starch. Boil the rootstock and eat it as a vegetable.
Description: This plant is a common evergreen shrub with reddish, scaly bark and thick, leathery leaves 4 centimeters long and 1 centimeter wide. It has white flowers and bright red fruits.
Habitat and Distribution: This plant is found in arctic, subarctic, and temperate regions, most often in sandy or rocky soil.
Edible Parts: Its berries are edible raw or cooked. You can make a refreshing tea from its young leaves.
Description: These plants have prickly stems (canes) that grow upward, arching back toward the ground. They have alternate, usually compound leaves. Their fruits may be red, black, yellow, or orange.
Habitat and Distribution: These plants grow in open, sunny areas at the margin of woods, lakes, streams, and roads throughout temperate regions. There is also an arctic raspberry.
Edible Parts: The fruits and peeled young shoots are edible. Flavour varies greatly.
Other Uses: Use the leaves to make tea. To treat diarrhea, drink a tea made by brewing the dried root bark of the blackberry bush.
Description: These shrubs vary in size from 30 centimeters to 3.7 meters tall. All have alternate, simple leaves. Their fruits may be dark blue, black, or red and have many small seeds.
Habitat and Distribution: These plants prefer open, sunny areas. They are found throughout much of the north temperate regions and at higher elevations in Central America.
Edible Parts: Their fruits are edible raw.
Arctium minus & spp.
These large biennial herbs stand 1 - 2.5 m tall and have broad alternate leaves
with several flower heads. The leaves are ovate to oblong, even cordate and up
to 50 cm long. The flowers are tubular, pink or purplish. The seeds are borne in
Description: Cattails are grasslike plants with strap-shaped leaves 1 to 5 centimeters wide and growing up to 1.8 meters tall. The male flowers are borne in a dense mass above the female flowers. These last only a short time, leaving the female flowers that develop into the brown cattail. Pollen from the male flowers is often abundant and bright yellow.
Habitat and Distribution: Cattails are found throughout most of the world. Look for them in full sun areas at the margins of lakes, streams, canals, rivers, and brackish water.
Edible Parts: The young tender shoots are edible raw or cooked. The rhizome is often very tough but is a rich source of starch. Pound the rhizome to remove the starch and use as a flour. The pollen is also an exceptional source of starch. When the cattail is immature and still green, you can boil the female portion and eat it like corn on the cob.
Other Uses: The dried leaves are an excellent source of weaving material you can use to make floats and rafts. The cottony seeds make good pillow stuffing and insulation. The fluff makes excellent tinder. Dried cattails are effective insect repellents when burned.
Description: This plant grows up to 1.8 meters tall. It has leaves clustered at the base of the stem and some leaves on the stem. The base leaves resemble those of the dandelion. The flowers are sky blue and stay open only on sunny days. Chicory has a milky juice.
Habitat and Distribution: Look for chicory in old fields, waste areas, weedy lots, and along roads. It is a native of Europe and Asia, but is also found in Africa and most of North America where it grows as a weed.
Edible Parts: All parts are edible. Eat the young leaves as a salad or boil to eat as a vegetable. Cook the roots as a vegetable. For use as a coffee substitute, roast the roots until they are dark brown and then pulverize them.
Petasites spp. (a.k.a. Tussilago spp.)
Description: This plant has tiny leaves arranged alternately. Its stem creeps along the ground. Its fruits are red berries.
Habitat and Distribution: It only grows in open, sunny, wet areas in the colder regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
Edible Parts: The berries are very tart when eaten raw. Cook in a small amount of water and add sugar, if available, to make a jelly.
Other Uses: Cranberries may act as a diuretic. They are useful for treating urinary tract infections.
Description: This is a dwarf evergreen shrub with short needlelike leaves. It has small, shiny, black berries that remain on the bush throughout the winter.
Habitat and Distribution: Look for this plant in tundra throughout arctic regions of North America and Eurasia.
Edible Parts: The fruits are edible fresh or can be dried for later use.
Description: Dandelion leaves have a jagged edge, grow close to the ground, and are seldom more than 20 centimeters long. Its flowers are bright yellow. There are several dandelion species.
Habitat and Distribution: Dandelions grow in open, sunny locations throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Edible Parts: All parts are edible. Eat the leaves raw or cooked. Boil the roots as a vegetable. Roots roasted and ground are a good coffee substitute. Dandelions are high in vitamins A and C and in calcium.
Other Uses: Use the white juice in the flower stems as glue.
Description: This plant has unspotted, tawny blossoms that open for 1 day only. It has long, swordlike, green basal leaves. Its root is a mass of swollen and elongated tubers.
Habitat and Distribution: Daylilies are found worldwide in Tropic and Temperate Zones. They are grown as a vegetable in the Orient and as an ornamental plant elsewhere.
Edible Parts: The young green leaves are edible raw or cooked. Tubers are also edible raw or cooked. You can eat its flowers raw, but they taste better cooked. You can also fry the flowers for storage. Eating too many of the raw flowers may cause diarrhea.
Description: This plant grows up to 1.8 meters tall. It has large, showy, pink flowers and lance-shaped leaves. Its relative, the dwarf fireweed (Epilobium latifolium), grows 30 to 60 centimeters tall.
Habitat and Distribution: Tall fireweed is found in open woods, on hillsides, on stream banks, and near seashores in arctic regions. It is especially abundant in burned-over areas. Dwarf fireweed is found along streams, sandbars, and lakeshores and on alpine and arctic slopes.
Edible Parts: The leaves, stems, and flowers are edible in the spring but become tough in summer. You can split open the stems of old plants and eat the pith raw.
Description: Junipers, sometimes called cedars, are trees or shrubs with very small, scalelike leaves densely crowded around the branches. Each leaf is less than 1.2 centimeters long. All species have a distinct aroma resembling the well-known cedar. The berrylike cones are usually blue and covered with a whitish wax.
Habitat and Distribution: Look for junipers in open, dry, sunny areas throughout North America and northern Europe. Some species are found in southeastern Europe, across Asia to Japan, and in the mountains of North Africa.
Edible Parts: The berries and twigs are edible. Eat the berries raw or roast the seeds to use as a coffee substitute. Use dried and crushed berries as a seasoning for meat. Gather young twigs to make a tea.
CAUTION Many plants may be called cedars but are not related to junipers and may be harmful. Always look for the berrylike structures, needle leaves, and resinous, fragrant sap to be sure the plant you have is a juniper.
Description: There are two species of lotus: one has yellow flowers and the other pink flowers. The flowers are large and showy. The leaves, which may float on or rise above the surface of the water, often reach 1.5 meters in radius. The fruit has a distinctive flattened shape and contains up to 20 hard seeds.
Habitat and Distribution: The yellow-flowered lotus is native to North America. The pink-flowered species, which is widespread in the Orient, is planted in many other areas of the world. Lotuses are found in quiet fresh water.
Edible Parts: All parts of the plant are edible raw or cooked. The underwater parts contain large quantities of starch. Dig the fleshy portions from the mud and bake or boil them. Boil the young leaves and eat them as a vegetable. The seeds have a pleasant flavor and are nutritious. Eat them raw, or parch and grind them into flour.
Description: These plants grow several feet high. They have small, inconspicuous flowers. Fine, hairlike bristles cover the stems, leafstalks, and undersides of leaves. The bristles cause a stinging sensation when they touch the skin.
Habitat and Distribution: Nettles prefer moist areas along streams or at the margins of forests. They are found throughout North America, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern Europe.
Edible Parts: Young shoots and leaves are edible. Boiling the plant for 10 to 15 minutes destroys the stinging element of the bristles. This plant is very nutritious.
Other Uses: Mature stems have a fibrous layer that you can divide into individual fibers and use to weave string or twine.
Description: Pine trees are easily recognized by their needle like leaves grouped in bundles. Each bundle may contain one to five needles, the number varying among species. The tree's odour and sticky sap provide a simple way to distinguish pines from similar looking trees with needle like leaves.
Habitat and Distribution: Pines prefer open, sunny areas. They are found throughout North America, Central America, much of the Caribbean region, North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and some places in Asia.
Edible Parts: The seeds of all species are edible. You can collect the young male cones, which grow only in the spring, as a survival food. Boil or bake the young cones. The bark of young twigs is edible. Peel off the bark of thin twigs. You can chew the juicy inner bark; it is rich in sugar and vitamins. Eat the seeds raw or cooked. Green pine needle tea is high in vitamin C.
Other Uses : Use the resin to waterproof articles. Also use it as glue. Collect the resin from the tree. If there is not enough resin on the tree, cut a notch in the bark so more sap will seep out. Put the resin in a container and heat it. The hot resin is your glue. Use it as is or add a small amount of ash dust to strengthen it. Use it immediately. You can use hardened pine resin as an emergency dental filling.
It can be used as a treatment for diarrhea, stomachaches, flatulence, as a mild relaxant, and for colds and menstrual problems. Externally it can be used for itching and sores.
Plantain, broad and
Description: The broad leaf plantain has leaves over 2.5 centimeters across that grow close to the ground. The flowers are on a spike that rises from the middle of the cluster of leaves. The narrow leaf plantain has leaves up to 12 centimeters long and 2.5 centimeters wide, covered with hairs. The leaves form a rosette. The flowers are small and inconspicuous.
Habitat and Distribution: Look for these plants in lawns and along roads in the North Temperate Zone. This plant is a common weed throughout much of the world.
Edible Parts: The young tender leaves are edible raw. Older leaves should be cooked. Seeds are edible raw or roasted.
Other Uses: To relieve pain from wounds and sores, wash and soak the entire plant for a short time and apply it to the injured area. To treat diarrhea, drink tea made from 28 grams (1 ounce) of the plant leaves boiled in 0.5 liter of water. The seeds and seed husks act as laxatives.
Prickly pear cactus
Description: This cactus has flat, padlike stems that are green. Many round, furry dots that contain sharp-pointed hairs cover these stems.
Habitat and Distribution: This cactus is found in arid and semiarid regions and in dry, sandy areas of wetter regions throughout most of the United States and Central and South America. Some species are planted in arid and semiarid regions of other parts of the world.
Edible Parts: All parts of the plant are edible. Peel the fruits and eat them fresh or crush them to prepare a refreshing drink. Avoid the tiny, pointed hairs. Roast the seeds and grind them to a flour.
Other Uses: The pad is a good source of water. Peel it carefully to remove all sharp hairs before putting it in your mouth. You can also use the pads to promote healing. Split them and apply the pulp to wounds.
Description: This plant grows close to the ground. It is seldom more than a few centimeters tall. Its stems and leaves are fleshy and often tinged with red. It has paddleshaped leaves, 2.5 centimeter or less long, clustered at the tips of the stems. Its flowers are yellow or pink. Its seeds are tiny and black.
Habitat and Distribution: It grows in full sun in cultivated fields, field margins, and other weedy areas throughout the world.
Edible Parts: All parts are edible. Wash and boil the plants for a tasty vegetable or eat them raw. Use the seeds as a flour substitute or eat them raw.
Description: Reindeer moss is a low-growing plant only a few centimeters tall. It does not flower but does produce bright red reproductive structures.
Habitat and Distribution: Look for this lichen in open, dry areas. It is very common in much of North America.
Edible Parts: The entire plant is edible but has a crunchy, brittle texture. Soak the plant in water with some wood ashes to remove the bitterness, then dry, crush, and add it to milk or to other food.
Description: This plant forms large patches with curling edges. The top of the plant is usually black. The underside is lighter in color.
Habitat and Distribution: Look on rocks and boulders for this plant. It is common throughout North America.
Edible Parts: The entire plant is edible. Scrape it off the rock and wash it to remove grit. The plant may be dry and crunchy; soak it in water until it becomes soft. Rock tripes may contain large quantities of bitter substances; soaking or boiling them in several changes of water will remove the bitterness.
CAUTION :There are some reports of poisoning from rock tripe
Description: These plants are seldom more than 30 centimeters tall. They have alternate leaves, often with arrowlike bases, very small flowers, and frequently reddish stems.
Habitat and Distribution: Look for these plants in old fields and other disturbed areas in North America and Europe.
Edible Parts: The plants are edible raw or cooked.
CAUTION :These plants contain oxalic acid that can be damaging if too many plants are eaten raw. Cooking seems to destroy the chemical.
Spatterdock or yellow
Description: This plant has leaves up to 60 centimeters long with a triangular notch at the base. The shape of the leaves is somewhat variable. The plant's yellow flowers are 2.5 centimeter across and develop into bottle-shaped fruits. The fruits are green when ripe.
Habitat and Distribution: These plants grow throughout most of North America. They are found in quiet, fresh, shallow water (never deeper than 1.8 meters).
Edible Parts: All parts of the plant are edible. The fruits contain several dark brown seeds you can parch or roast and then grind into flour. The large rootstock contains starch. Dig it out of the mud, peel off the outside, and boil the flesh. Sometimes the rootstock contains large quantities of a very bitter compound. Boiling in several changes of water may remove the bitterness.
Description: Strawberry is a small plant with a three-leaved growth pattern. It has small, white flowers usually produced during the spring. Its fruit is red and fleshy.
Habitat and Distribution: Strawberries are found in the North Temperate Zone and also in the high mountains of the southern Western Hemisphere. Strawberries prefer open, sunny areas. They are commonly planted.
Edible Parts: The fruit is edible fresh, cooked, or dried. Strawberries are a good source of vitamin C. You can also eat the plant's leaves or dry them and make a tea with them.
Description: These plants have large, triangular leaves that float on the water's surface, large, fragrant flowers that are usually white, or red, and thick, fleshy rhizomes that grow in the mud.
Habitat and Distribution: Water lilies are found throughout much of the temperate and subtropical regions.
Edible Parts: The flowers, seeds, and rhizomes are edible raw or cooked. To prepare rhizomes for eating, peel off the corky rind. Eat raw, or slice thinly, allow to dry, and then grind into flour. Dry, parch, and grind the seeds into flour.
Other Uses: Use the liquid resulting from boiling the thickened root in water as a medicine for diarrhea and as a gargle for sore throats.
dock and wild sorrel
Description: Wild dock is a stout plant with most of its leaves at the base of its stem that is commonly 15 to 30 centimeters brig. The plants usually develop from a strong, fleshy, carrotlike taproot. Its flowers are usually very small, growing in green to purplish plumelike clusters. Wild sorrel similar to the wild dock but smaller. Many of the basal leaves are arrow-shaped but smaller than those of the dock and contain a sour juice.
Habitat and Distribution: These plants can be found in almost all climatic zones of the world, in areas of high as well as low rainfall. Many kinds are found as weeds in fields, along roadsides, and in waste places.
Edible Parts: Because of tender nature of the foliage, the sorrel and the dock are useful plants, especially in desert areas. You can eat their succulent leaves fresh or slightly cooked. To take away the strong taste, change the water once or twice during cooking. This latter tip is a useful hint in preparing many kinds of wild greens.
Wild onion and garlic
Description: Allium cernuum is an example of the many species of wild onions and garlics, all easily recognized by their distinctive odor.
Habitat and Distribution: Wild onions and garlics are found in open, sunny areas throughout the temperate regions. Cultivated varieties are found anywhere in the world.
Edible Parts: The bulbs and young leaves are edible raw or cooked. Use in soup or to flavor meat.
CAUTION There are several plants with onion like bulbs that are extremely poisonous. Be certain that the plant you are using is a true onion or garlic. Do not eat bulbs with no onion smell.
Description: This shrub grows 60 centimeters to 2.5 meters high. It has alternate leaves and sharp prickles. Its flowers may be red, pink, or yellow. Its fruit, called rose hip, stays on the shrub year-round.
Habitat and Distribution: Look for wild roses in dry fields and open woods throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Edible Parts: The flowers and buds are edible raw or boiled. In an emergency, you can peel and eat the young shoots. You can boil fresh, young leaves in water to make a tea. After the flower petals fall, eat the rose hips; the pulp is highly nutritious and an excellent source of vitamin C. Crush or grind dried rose hips to make flour. CAUTION : Eat only the outer portion of the fruit as the seeds of some species are quite prickly and can cause internal distress.
THERE ARE MANY MORE EDIBLE AND MEDICINAL PLANTS TO BE FOUND IN ALBERTA. THE ABOVE IS A SMALL SELECTION.