Foraging & the Alberta Ecology – By Julie Walker
Julie is a naturalist, and has been a hiking guide and outdoor educator since 1987. She brings an ecological perspective to the idea of wild food foraging. Understanding the habitats and eco-regions of Alberta so we can adapt our idea of sustaining nature is key to her teachings.
Alberta contains within it a variety of eco-regions, each one has different soils, tree types, flowers, shrubs and therefore, edible and medicinal plants. For example, Southern Alberta has the Prairie Grasslands, the Foothills, Aspen Parkland and the Rocky Mountains.
Across the province, there are many different users of Alberta’s wild lands. The logging industry, cattle grazing industry, Tourism and Recreation, hunting and fishing, and even Oil and Gas. Each have their own unique demands on the land and leave a different footprint on the land. The provincial government and Alberta Parks manage the land with land use zones and land use policies.
There are the forestry management zones, agricultural zones, provincial recreation areas, provincial parks, wildland parks, provincial grazing leases and public land use zones. Each area may have one, or more, designated uses.
As far as foragers are concerned, the areas where harvesting is allowed, with a permit, is the public land use zones and Crown land. The other users in the same Public land use zones are: commercial logging, commercial cattle grazing, Oil and Gas, fishing, hunting, ATV use and random camping.
Each of these activities intensely uses the landscape, dramatically changing and fragmenting it during each use. As foragers, we become the ecological eyes of the forest floor. The flowering plants, herbs, roots, shrubs and seeds are a foragers dream and we are the few people who are interested in them
No other industry pays as much attention to the flowering plants of the forest floor as foraging does. One of the by-products of these industries you will notice in the forest, is the spread of non-native species. The most common and easily spread non-native is Smooth Brome grass, brought here to feed cattle in the late 1800’s. This grass chokes out most of the flowering plants that make up the understory of each eco-region. Many of these flowering plants are the edible and medicinal species of the Aspen Parkland, Foothills and Rocky Mountain forest areas that we know and love.
I feel tha foraging has a place with these industries. The wild plants are a source of sustainable, climate-adapted natural foods that contain many of the nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy. As we learn more about them and how well they tolerate harvesting, how they work within the plant communities in which they grow and how we ensure a balance is maintained with the wildlife that depend on these plants, we have a real opportunity to bring the value of the forest floor to the forefront. An example of this is a teaching about sage that I received from a Cree woman; “Never take all the tall plants, always take a variety of plant sizes, so you leave older and younger plants in the community.”
Historically, the European value of the forest floor was primarily seen by flower lovers, explorers and medicine foragers. All First Nations people had a deep knowledge as part of their lifelong learning. The wild food concept is growing in Alberta and our role as knowledge keepers of healthy eco-systems is an important one. Learning about the eco-region in which we live is key to understanding the health of that area.
The Blackfoot, the Cree and many other First Nations cultures are re-claiming that knowledge and bringing these teachings back, as well as teaching people in the urban world. Together, we can play a role in the understanding and preservation of the intact eco-regions of Alberta and build on their value as part of our local food culture. I invite you to join me and the many other wild food educators, who are on this journey.
Thank you and enjoy re-weaving yourself into the web of nature!
Interested in learning more about foraging in Alberta? Check out the Alberta Foraging Network.