Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Ever since Lisa’s mom showed me the chickweed and lamb’s quarters in my driveway, I have been walking the streets of Edmonton with a downward gaze, trying to identify sidewalk creepers and back-alley flowers.

I recently stooped over a new find. A short plant with fingerling leaves similar to anise or dill. Developing flower-heads promised a yellow bloom. I uprooted the plant and smelled the leaves, hoping for the licorice of anise. Instead I was completely overwhelmed by a thick, impossibly sweet and floral odour. It was a familiar smell, both from rural Ontario and Calgary. It was a smell I had often wondered about as a child.

I described the appearance and perfume of the plant to many an “elder.” My mother guessed sweetclover. Judy finally posited chamomile. Sure enough, a Google Images search returned pictures of plants with the same foliage, and flowers that looked just like daisies.

Now that I recognize the plant, I see it on almost every sidewalk, unkempt yard, and alleyway crack. Now, in the second week of July, most of the small plants in driveways have not flowered, but a few choice plants in yards and fields have blossomed into smiling yellow faces wreathed by white petals.

A city website says that scentless chamomile (Matricaria perforata) is a common weed in Edmonton, so I'm inclined to think that this is the variety I keep seeing (even though, as I said, the leaves have a very pronounced scent). The type usually used for tea is German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). I decided to test the tea-worthiness of our local problem-plant.

Most internet sources that I consulted said to use the flowers to make tea. A foraging compendium suggested the leaves. I tried both. The flower makes a passable tea for sure. The leaf brew has a distinct fennel aftertaste.

Part of our local-eating regime has been the denial of certain “exotic items”. These include, predictably, citrus fruit, wine, and chocolate, but the luxury whose absence has caused the most grief has been coffee.

I drink coffee for three reasons: the taste, the caffeine, and the ritual. A number of substitutes can stand in for any one of these traits, but few can replace all three. With chamomile, I thought I was getting closer with a hot drink that would give me a good-morning buzz. Lisa gently corrected me: chamomile is a relaxant, and the principle ingredient in “sleepy time” teas. So it’s the opposite of coffee. At least it will provide ritual: the slow sipping of a hot, floral drink. I’ll settle for that.

The whole experiment has me thinking more about foraging, generally: wondering if I would be able to safely identify edible mushrooms, or perhaps find some wild berry patches. Worth investigating, I think.


  1. 1. I should introduce you to my friend Tim -- he's a 'botonist' but has worked all over Alberta in the fields. He can identify most edible things anywhere. You two should go for a walk in the river valley! Whenever we do, he points out things here and there that you can eat!

    2. There's something like 'coffee' but comes in a powder form. It has no caffeine but taste and looks like it. (just has an entirely weird density). I can't remember the name of it now, but it's recommend to folks who have no bladder or bowel control and 'need' their coffee (for whatever reason) as a substitute! Chicory, I think it was.

  2. I can't believe I'm saying this, but:

    I would love to go on a walk in the river valley with your friend Tim.

    I'm serious. I spent several hours by the river this spring eating all kinds of plants because I thought they might be ramps or Labrador tea.

    I also have some questions for him about mountain ash berries and Rocky Mountain juniper berries (poisonous?)

  3. He's out in the field right now, but will do my best to introduce you too.

    I think Lisa knows him . . . .