Amber Westfall: Urban Homesteader, Educator and Founder of the Wild Garden
"I don't think of trees as important, I think of them as essential! They are as vital as our breath. They are our breath. I can think of little else as necessary to our global health as trees."
Photos: The Wild Garden
Q.1. From your perspective why are trees important?
I don't think of trees as important, I think of them as essential! They are as vital as our breath. They are our breath. I can think of little else as necessary to our global health as trees.
Q.2. Can you tell us about The Wild Garden and how it came to pass?
The Wild Garden grew out my love and passion for wild foods and healing plants and my desire to share that love and passion with others. My hope is to craft a simple life for myself by providing people with local, organic and responsibly gathered wild foods and herbs. At the same time, The Wild Garden invites people into co-creative relationships with our local landscape, in a way that fosters intimacy and understanding of the spaces we inhabit and encourages stewardship and regenerative care of those spaces.
Q.3. Where did your interest in wild foods come from?
As a child I remember my grandmother making elderflower fritters for my friends and me. Also, I loved the walks with my father in the fields and woods behind our house in the country, where he would show us how to eat milkweed white and suck the nectar from clover flowers.
As an adult in my early 30's I became interested in climate, resource and food issues and began gardening and eating a more local diet. Trying to eat locally in Ottawa in the winter at that time was more challenging than it is now. The first winter I ate a lot of carrots, cabbage, parsnips, beets and rutabagas! I soon learned that many wild and weedy plants that are also edible can be gathered early in the season before anything is available from the garden or farmers' fields. I could also keep gathering many plants at the end of the season, when frost sensitive crops have already succumbed to the cold. Wild foods quickly became a very pleasurable and empowering way to increase local variety, diversity and nutrition in my diet.
Q.4. In addition to tending The Wild Garden, you are a wildcrafter. What is wildcrafting and how did you learn your craft?
Wildcrafting and foraging are similar terms that refer to the gathering of uncultivated plants. Wildcrafting often specifically means gathering wild, uncultivated plants to be used for therapeutic, healing purposes, while foraging is mostly used in reference to gathering wild plants for food. As herbalist Howie Brounstein says, “Wildcrafting [and foraging] is stewardship.” To wildcraft is to be in relationship with the plants and the land. And as with any relationship, there comes responsibility and a set of ethics. A wildcrafter doesn't just extract another resource from the earth for their own personal gain. A wildcrafter is someone who tends to the wild and weedy spaces all around them, observing the health of an area, measuring the amount of diversity, witnessing changes over time and noticing what elements may be in or out of balance. From these observations a wildcrafter will not just gather plants in such a way that has the least impact on the environment, but they will strive to have a beneficial effect on the landscape, one that increases abundance and biodiversity. Removing invasive garlic mustard at the right time, from an area where it has gotten out of control, and turning it into a delicious garlic mustard pesto for a potluck is one example of ethical wildcrafting.
Q.5. Are there any trees native to the Ottawa area that people would be surprised to learn offer food or medicinal properties?
Our native basswoods and the European species we often call lindens (Tilia spp.) are one of my favourite food and medicine plants. The young, tender leaves in the early spring make a delicious salad green, and the flowers later in the season can be eaten straight off the tree, added to salads, or dried for a delicate floral tea that protects the heart, cools fevers and aids in insomnia and anxiety.
Most people are familiar with maple syrup, but people may not know that many species of maple flowers are edible. Most of our conifers provide loads of vitamin C and potent medicinal constituents for a variety of ailments. And spruce tips in the late spring are a forager's delicacy.
Q.6. One of your goals is “reconnecting people and plants”. What do you mean by this and why is it important?
Botanical researcher and forager Arthur Haines has written, "Foraging, wildcrafting medicine, and other such pursuits connect us to the wild world and create a bond, one that deepens with use. The critical need for preserving native plants and their habitats cannot be fully realized without interacting with them (i.e., viewing them from afar does not reveal their full value to people)."
I believe that a transformative experience takes place when people interact with plants at this level. This experience imparts a deeper understanding of the value of the ecosystems we inhabit and calls us all to be stewards and tenders of the wild.
Q.7. You recently partnered with Nature Connections to host a March Break Nature Camp for kids 7-12 years old. Do you find that children are naturally drawn to learning about wild plants?
All of the children I have had the pleasure of working with exhibit an innate fascination with nature and plants. I absolutely love encouraging this fascination and exploration with them. I have taught kids as young as 3 and 4 years old, who can now confidently walk around their yards picking and eating wood sorrel, violets and mallow. A young student once told me about how they helped a friend with an insect bite by teaching them how to make a spit poultice with plantain leaves.
Q.8. Have you noticed a (pardon the pun) growing interest in foraging? If so, what do you think accounts for this? If not, why not?
Foraging has definitely become trendy recently. I think this is in part due to the popularity of wild foods with many chefs, as well as the desire to access high quality, nutritious local food. Wild food also has a long history of use helping people get through hard times. Faced with financial instability in the markets, unpredictable changes in the climate and growing food insecurity, knowledge of wild foods can add a level of resiliency to our lives.
Q.9. For people who are new to foraging and wildcrafting, what is the most important thing for them to know and what can they do to start building their skills?
Some wild plants are toxic and a few are deadly. Having a 100% ID is absolutely essential before ingesting any plant. Use at least 3 different sources to determine your ID, and do not rely on apps or the internet for final confirmation. Start slow and small, by learning a few of the most common, abundant and non-toxic weedy plants like dandelions, violets, chickweed, burdock, nettle, lambsquarters and such. Going on a plant walk with someone who has first-hand experience gathering and eating wild foods on a regular basis is a great way to learn. Only gather wild plants once you have learned if they are native, non-native and/or invasive, what their reproductive patterns are or if they are an at-risk or endangered species. Take the time to learn their function and role in the ecosystem and what other organisms rely on them. The ethics of wildcrafting and foraging are nuanced and cannot be distilled down into a few simple rules. Spending time outdoors on a regular basis and observing the plants and trees is a wonderful way to become a good steward and tender of the wild and weedy spaces. Do not harvest on private property without permission, NCC land, conservation areas, provincial parks or contaminated areas.
Q.10. Do you have a favourite tree species? If so, which one and why?
This question is too hard to answer because I love so many trees! I can say that my current favourite is the Eastern cottonwood. Late winter and early spring is when I gather the cottonwood buds, thick and sticky with a sweet-scented resin. I infuse the buds into oil and make the most beautiful and healing salve with it that is excellent for sore muscles, achy joints, inflammation, cuts and bruises.