How to forage for wild edible plants in Canberra

Natasha Rudra
Susan Hutchinson
Susan Hutchinson Photo: Jamila Toderas

We've been in the Jerrabomberra Wetlands for less than a minute before Susan Hutchinson spots something to eat. 

"Look! Wild fennel," she says. It's a bush as tall as we are, pressing up against the fence on the side of the road - clouds and clouds of feathery green fronds. Hutchinson picks a small bunch and hands it over. "Try it." The fennel is zesty and rich - full of a lemony, aniseed flavour that fills the mouth. There's something inexplicably yet tangibly clean about the taste.

She pulls out a little knife and starts to gather big handfuls of the delicate, springy herb, throwing them into a basket. She will turn this wild plant into a fresh, rich pesto - chopping the fennel roughly and throwing it into a blender with lemon juice and grated lemon zest, some olive oil, crushed garlic, salt and macadamia nuts. Spread on toast, it makes for a light lunch. Or stirred through pasta for dinner on a balmy spring evening.

Susan Hutchinson is an urban forager. Where you and I could walk for hours in the woodlands without noticing anything other than general greenery, she can spot dozens of different herbs, vegetables and fruit that she can turn into a nutritious, fresh meal. She can find food growing abundantly and unnoticed on the side of a suburban street. She can walk into a forest and pick three different edible plants within a few steps of each other.

Hutchinson will host an urban foraging walk on Saturday, November 21, with the Canberra Environment Centre. She'll teach her guests how to spot and collect a variety of herbs, from that zesty wild fennel to hawthornes and rosehips from wild rose bushes. There'll even be recipes to help you turn what you gather into a meal. 

Inside the Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Hutchinson takes a few steps and finds another edible gem. "Eat this and tell me what you think it tastes like," she says, passing over a tiny yellow flower with curling petals. "It's a wild brassica - doesn't it taste like a llittle broccoli flower?" she asks. (Throw these into a potato salad, mixing them in with the hot potatoes to steam.) It's a bit more peppery than broccoli, though. "Really?" she pulls a flower for herself and eats it. "Oh yes, that's more peppery than it should be." This is, she says, because the wild plants are a lot more diverse. They'll taste different from one patch of ground to another, according to the soil, the sunshine or something else. It's the ultimate in terroir.

Hutchinson's foraging kit consists of her grandfather's hat, which is about 50 years old, to keep the sun off her face; a small basket to hold her wild harvest; a copy of a guide to Australian edible wild plants; and her little cuttings knife. She suffers from chronic fatigue and neurological problems and carries a walking stick to help her when she becomes tired, but strides through the woodlands with ease, darting off to inspect promising plants. 

She grew up in the Dandenongs and is a Melbourne girl. She moved to Canberra to do a post grad degree in international relations at the Australian National University. And taught herself to find wild food. "I started foraging with the rosehips and the hawthorne, then the wild fennel," she says. "Every couple of months I would teach myself to spot a new herb or plant."

So how does she ensure everything she picks and eats is safe?  "I won't eat anything until I can positively identify it which is pretty much the first rule," she says. Hutchinson researches each new plant extensively. She will pick a test handful - not to eat but to look at and show to other people. She takes a lot of pictures of the weed on her phone to send to other foragers. And she'll learn how to identify the vegetable - comparing her specimen to photos posted online or in her trusty guide to Australian edible wild plants. What is the shape of the leaf? What's the exact colour of the buds?

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A lot of it comes down to noticing details, like a detective on the hunt. Hutchinson stoops to a patch of club-shaped little green leaves on the ground. They look exactly like the wood sorrel she just picked - except they're not. This is clover (which you can still eat). She pulls out a couple of tender sorrel leaves and compares them to the clover. "Look closely - they've got a really tiny fur on them and the clover won't," she says. There are other clues to be found in the location of the clover patch. "The wood sorrel grows in shady places where clover will grow in full sun." 

It's quiet in the woods. Every now and then a cyclist zips past on the paved path that runs from Dairy Flat near Fyshwick to Kingston. Hutchinson is leaning over to point out another fresh specimen of edible plants when we look up and see a big kangaroo staring at us over a ridge. "Oh hello boy," she says softly. The roo is perfectly still, watching cautiously as she picks up her basket. Behind us on the river, white-feathered pelicans stretch and flex their wings, splashing down on the dark, rippling water. The kangaroo looks towards them, distracted. 

In quick succession, Hutchinson finds more and more edible things among the trees. A huge bush of wild roses, dotted thickly with buds, will be a rich source of rosehips which start out tasting like tropical fruit ("they don't taste or smell anything like roses") and by the end of the season will be sweet and floral, ready for jellies. A cluster of sheep sorrel is bursting with a juicy tartness like a crisp green apple. 

Many of us have forgotten what it's like to eat food that's this fresh - where the taste of the herb or vegetable is so strong and clean and alive, and the tender leaves are still warm from the sun. Many of us have never had the chance to experience it. Hutchinson says modern farming means we've selectively propagated food that's convenient for commerce rather than good for us nutritionally.

"A lot of herbs and vegetables that we eat now or would buy from a supermarket have essentially been cultivated from these wild things that we have here. But they've been cultivated for purposes other than nutritional value," she says. "They've been cultivated for the size of the crop, for how prolific they are. We want things that have big leaves, that transport well, that aren't labour intensive." Wild foods, she says, are vastly superior to supermarket veg - they're more nourishing, with more vitamins and minerals.  

There's also something special about the act of foraging. Being able to stroll down a street and pick out edible plants on the roadside is a gift. Slowing down to really look at each plant, training yourself to notice individual details to identify a wild herb. "It's amazing because we'd just walk past [these plants] unknowingly but that's what so beautiful about it, because it gives you a new perspective, a new appreciation for the world around you."

Susan Hutchinson's Urban Foraging Walk is on Saturday, November 21, at 10am. $20. See ecoaction.com.au