Wild Edibles: Sweet Fern

Perhaps after a few days in the woods you’re getting a little tired of the Peppermint Tea that you packed for your canoe trip and are looking for some variety, or you just like to sample from what nature has to offer.  One of my personal favorite beverages (herbal infusions) in the wild is steeped Sweet Fern leaves.   This time of year is best as the leaves have already dried on the plant so the flavour, when steeped, comes out immediately, and they are easy to harvest.

Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a deciduous shrub with fern-like leaves that reaches about 2-3 feet high (the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Plants describes it as 3-5 ft tall although I have personally never seen it grow that tall in my region).  It grows best in dry soil so you will tend to find it growing right along side blueberries and service berries.  The autumn is the best time to harvest Sweet Fern as the leaves have dried on the plant and are easily picked.  Just grasp the stem gently and drag your grip up the stem pulling the leaves off.  You can have enough leaves for several pots in a matter of seconds.  Stuff the leaves into a zip-lock bag and take it back to camp.

For a quick look at how easy these leaves are to collect have a look at my very short youtube video.

Preparation is easy.  Bring a pot of water to a boil and remove from heat.  Place a handful of dried leaves into the water and allow to steep for 3-4 minutes and serve.  I generally pour using the pot lid as a strainer, either that or you can just pick the leaves out of your teeth later (it’s camping, no one’s looking).

Yes, earlier in the season you can harvest the green leaves.  While camping I might dry the green leaves briefly over the fire so that the flavour is more potent once steeped, but you can use the green leaves fresh as well.

Here are two great resources to bring on your hikes to help you with plant identification:
•    Forest Plants of Central Ontario; Lone Pine Publishing
•    Peterson Field Guides – Edible Wild Plants, Eastern/Central North America

As with any wild plant:

  • harvest/consume only those that you can identify positively
  • when in doubt ask an expert in the area
  • Learn to distinguish from any similar poisonous plant (if applicable)
  • Sample sparingly at first to gauge individual sensitivities/allergies
  • Understand which parts of which plants may be consumed as many edible plants have toxic parts/structures
  • Harvest only when/where abundant
  • Do not harvest plants that are endangered or in need of protection

Happy trails!

Canoeing in the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park

The Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park (KHPP) is a relatively new provincial park, home to 108 back-country camp sites and spread out over nearly 38000 hectares!  All sites are accessible by canoe.  It’s only about 90min from Toronto so we decided it was time to check it out. We planned an easy route for our first visit, packed up our rental car and hit the road, okay first we stopped at Starbucks, but then we hit the road!

The rocky shores of Long Lake in the Kawarthas

We entered the park via the Long Lake access point.  From there, our canoe route took us along Long Lake for about 4km, past a dozen or more cottages and, after about an hour or so of spectacular views of the Canadian shield, to the Buzzard Lake portage.  This portage is 340m and with no real hills, is a relatively easy one, as portages go.  I love hiking.  I love canoeing.  Call me crazy but I don’t love hiking with an 80lbs rental canoe on my head with the yoke mounted several inches from where it ought to be.  Long story short, rent wisely!  And that means renting from a reputable outfitter.  We chose the convenient option and had a miserable portage.  So do NOT rent from Long Lake Lodge unless you’re just doing a portage-free trip…  If you’re going to rent, pick up your canoe on your way to the park with a quick stop in Peterborough at Wild Rock Outfitters or in Lakefield at Adventure Outfitters.  We have rented from Wild Rock before and may try them again.  Adventure Outfitters in Lakefield appears to be the cheapest option but I’ve never used their services.  Of course there’s always Mountain Equipment Co-op in Toronto.  MEC has great weekend rental deals, but I’d forgotten that they rent equipment until just a moment ago.  If you know of another spot to rent in the area, or care to comment on an outfitter, please post it in the comments section.

We could see our site, #420, from the end of the portage so we only had a few minutes before it was time to unpack again. Our site had a picnic table, 4 tent pads, a fire ring with a grill and, about 50ft into the woods, a privy box.  This is 4-star back-country camping!  With day time highs expected near 28C and overnight temperatures dropping to 14C we picked a site facing east to take advantage of the rising sun.  This also positioned us to be shaded from the hot afternoon sun so it worked out really well.

If you’re going to spend some time swimming, you might as well have a destination.  From our site there was a small island to swim to that was only about 100ft away so we made regular visits to it during our stay.

The sunrise on Buzzard Lake from site 420

We would start each morning with a coffee by the campfire before heading out in the canoe for a tour before breakfast.  There was much to explore.  I have a short video on youtube highlighting the morning view:

crooked action shot 🙂

Take your camera, take your time and you’re bound to see some wildlife.  We saw a number of beavers, lots of loons and, among other things, this turtle about to go for a swim after we got too close.

One morning we did get down to Vixen Lake.  The portage is just 207m.  It had started to rain so we just walked the trail to check out the view of Vixen before paddling back to camp, where we discovered that it only takes about 40min to get from one end of Buzzard to the other if you’re hungry, getting wet and going in a straight line 🙂

Booking a site in the KHPP is easy now that they’ve added a new online reservation option.  You can see where each site is on the map and if it will be available during your intended stay:  https://reservations.ontarioparks.com/KawarthaHighlands?Map

The map will look a little something like this:

You can click on a site, get a full description and browse a few photos to help you decide.  So, plan your route carefully, choose your site wisely, rent wisely and you too will be a Happy Camper!  🙂