Edible wild plants

Whistler Naturalists

Ever wonder if you’d be able to ward off hunger while in the wilderness with only wild plants to eat? As promised here are some plants, that once you are comfortable identifying, can be enjoyed in the bush.

The most commonly eaten plant foods along trails around Whistler are the abundance of berries that start to ripen by late May and early June. Probably the most recognizable bushes to all those who have stopped to snack during a hike are blueberry and huckleberry bushes. Although their common names can vary and make things a bit confusing, they both belong to the same genus Vaccinium . Alaskan ( V. alaskaense ) and oval-leaved blueberries ( V. ovalifolium ) look very much alike and their berries are similar in colour to the blueberries most commonly bought at the store.

Another species of berry that grows on similar looking bushes but are much darker, almost purplish, are known as black huckleberries ( V. membranaceum ). A good way to tell you’re eating black huckleberries as opposed to blueberries is that they are generally much sweeter (one of my personal favourites).

Red huckleberry ( V. parvifolium ) bushes are similar looking although their leaves are smaller and have distinctive bright green square stems. Their red berries are smaller than the other Vaccinium species just described (with a bit more tang) but definitely worth the effort to pick.

We have include some other tasty berries in the Raspberry clan ( Rubus genus). These berries have a similar shape to the common raspberry and include: salmonberry ( R. spectabilis ), which have red or yellow mature berries; trailing blackberry ( R. ursinus ) and black raspberry ( R. leucodermis ), both of which are black and whose bushes have prickles; and thimbleberry ( R. parviflorus ), which is a red berry that when picked, may remind you of removing a tiny hat that tends to fall apart a bit in your fingers. Additionally, thimbleberry flowers are white, its leaves are maple looking and it has no thorns.

We also have: black gooseberry ( Ribes lacustre ), clusters of dark purple berries on bushes with golden prickles; woodland strawberry ( Fragaria vesca ) a smaller version of the ones we pick in Pemberton; Saskatoon berry ( Amelanchier alnifolia ), bushes look rather like small trees and berries are dull-red at first, becoming purple to nearly black and looking like miniature apples; and highbush-cranberry ( Viburnum edule ), berries are red or orange and in clusters of 2-5 and are one of the few berries available all winter.

There are even plants to eat other than fruit! A plant whose common name gives a hint about its edibility is Siberian miner’s-lettuce ( Claytonia sibirica ). It is a small annual, 10-40 cm tall, and has white to pink flowers with five petals. Leaves on the flower stalk are opposite and attached directly to the stem and many leaves with long stalks come up from the base of the plant. It is a tasty salad green and is common on the lower trails to Cheakamus and Garibaldi lakes.

Skunk cabbage ( Lysichiton americanum ) and sword fern ( Polystichum munitum ) both have edible rhizomes (horizontal underground stems) that can be eaten after being cooked. Hard to mistake, skunk cabbage has huge lettuce looking leaves, a yellow flower and is found in wet areas. Sword ferns are evergreen and grow up to 1.5 m tall. One way to distinguish it from other ferns is that each leaflet has a small lobe pointing forward at the bottom that looks like the hilt of a sword.

If you’d like to learn more about plants in the forest come and join us for a nature walk with Ethnobotonist Nancy Turner. She is the main contributor of Native uses of plants to one of the foremost plant guides, Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Pojar, Mackinnon). She will lead a walk to Cheakamus Lake and focus on traditional uses of plants along the way. The walk is Saturday, Aug. 23 starting at 9 a.m. and going to about 1:30 p.m. Meet at municipal hall, where carpools will be arranged. The tour will be by donation to the Whistler Naturalist Society. 

For more information, contact Kristina Swerhun at, or Veronica Sommerville at or 604-935-8323.


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