By now, signs of spring are emerging almost everywhere on the West Coast. Frogs are chirping, birds are back from their winter migrations and new growth is bursting forth from plants and trees alike. Many people are also feeling this awakening with longer days and more energy. Now is a great time to be feeding our bodies wild and nutritious foods, to help shed the excess that we may be carrying from the winter and to welcome more energy into our bodies.
There are many exciting plants that we can use for food and medicine at this time of year. Some of them are things we may have never thought to use, but grow abundantly on the coast, like the new green tips on Douglas fir needles. These needles are really high in vitamin C and can be nibbled on as you walk by, or collected and dried to add a nice tangy flavour to teas when you are feeling a cold or flu coming on. Before grocery stores, fir tips were an important source of vitamin C for many people, after a winter without fresh foods.
Many of the spring foods are high in vitamin C, which helps boost the immune system, the anti-oxidants act as a de-rusting system in the body which combats early aging and infections. Young salmon berry shoots were once commonly eaten in the spring by coastal Indigenous people and are also high in vitamin C. If you cut them at the bottom of the bush and then peel them, you can eat them raw or, cut them up and steam or stir fry them to add a new spring vegetable to your diet. The beautiful pink flowers of the salmon berry are also edible, they taste like a sunny spring day might! Just don’t eat them all, or there will no berries later.
Common cow parsnip is another much unused spring vegetable. Not to be confused with giant cow parsnip, which can cause uncomfortable skin eruptions, the tender new shoots of common cow parsnip can be peeled and used like celery, tasting quite similar. The roots of cow parsnip have many medicinal qualities, and has been used for tooth aches, to aid in the regrowth of nerves after damage and as a gentle analgesic. Be sure to carefully ID cow parsnip, as it could be confused with poison or water hemlock.
Alder trees are almost ubiquitous on the west coast in damp areas or places that have been logged or old road ways. As the sap begins to flow in early spring, the tree sends its energy outward to its tips. These tips can be used in the spring as a lymph tonic, thus supporting the immune system and cleansing the blood. The inner bark is astringent and can be used as a wash for cuts, scrapes, bruises, and to tonify tissues. The catkins that hang down like little decorations in spring can be eaten, and although they are a little mealy, they are really high in protein.
Spring is a time for flowers, and though they are often showy, some go unnoticed. Big leaf maple trees have a wonderful, often over looked, show of flowers that bees love. The flowers are a delicious snack plucked right from the tree, or they can be steam or stir fried into food, giving it an uplifting, slightly flowery taste. These flowers are also high in vitamin C and are helpful in creating an anti-histamine response, perfect for spring time allergies! Related to the sugar maples of the east that we get maple syrup from, big leaf maples have a sugar content in their sap as well. Tapping big leaf maples for their syrup is becoming popular these days, and aside from making delicious syrup, the sap water is high in manganese, zinc and many other trace minerals.
Spring on the coast wouldn’t be complete without the sweet, bees-wax like smell of the black cotton wood trees that grow along river banks. Before the trees leaf out, they make sticky, resinous buds that smell like you might want to eat them. These buds make amazing medicine, either in the form of oils, salves or tinctures. Topically, Balm of Gilead, is warming, brings blood to the surface of the skin, reducing inflammation and swelling. This can be helpful for reducing pain from arthritis, sports injuries, and sprains and bruises. Internally, the tincture can be helpful for colds, coughs and flus, by coating the mucus membranes in the sinuses, throat and lungs.
This season is abound with amazing medicine and food (what’s the difference anyway?!). It is a great time of year to learn more plants in your neighbourhood that can add to you and your families health!