When my partner and I were packing our bags to move from our home country Switzerland to the remote wilderness of the Canadian Yukon, a colleague of mine offered me a dried bundle of sage and thyme as a farewell gift, saying that the aboriginal peoples used those herbs for ceremonial purposes. Little did I know back then how much of a relationship I was going to have with those and many other herbs later on.
Now, almost five years into our new venture, we have established ourselves and our small business, the Tagish Wilderness Lodge. It took us a while, but eventually we realised that getting your way when living in the bush is not always going to happen. You have to continuously adapt, learn how to plan with the weather instead of against it, and learn how to live with the nature that surrounds you. Only by adhering to those principles and appreciating your surroundings you are able to eventually thoroughly enjoy the life in one of the last unspoilt wilderness areas of the world.
Part of adapting to life in nature is also appreciating everything this boreal landscape has to offer. And it is indeed quite a bounty, considering that the growing season north of the 60th parallel only lasts from May to early October. There are evergreen conifers such as white spruce, lodgepole pine and balsamic fur, as well as shrubs like the very versatile labrador tea. There is wild sage facing the elements on the wind-beaten sandy hillsides, wild chives growing on the pebble beaches along the lake shore and wild roses that send their sweet smell through the boreal forest in the spring (which is in June). Some people even say that exactly because of the short growing season, these plants and herbs are much more powerful and contain more of the ‘good stuff’ they are known for, compared to their cousins growing in more temperate climates.
My initiation to boreal herbs started with a book; The Boreal Herbal, by Beverley Gray. Once I started reading, I became fascinated by the variety of plants and their uses, both modern and traditional. I started being more attentive to what’s under my feet when walking through the forest and observed the changing of the season and with it the emerging and fading of the different plants. I started picking some of the herbs and using them fresh for my cooking. It had to be simple and straightforward, since my day not only consists of cooking and foraging, but also of housekeeping, guest relations and some office work. Here are some of my favourite candidates:
- Wild sage – Excellent on pieces red or game meat, with whole branches (fresh or dried) put into the pan or right on the meat while grilling. Contrary to garden sage, wild sage has tiny leaves growing from the stems, similar to rosemary, just a lot shorter. The leaves can be added as a seasoning to stews, or fried crispy in butter and poured over a serving of ricotta-cheese ravioli – to die for!
- Labrador tea –Part of the Rhododendron family, this plant grows as an evergreen shrub in moist, mossy environments, up to about three feet high (about one metre). Its leaves contain a lot of vitamin C and have a smoky-spicy flavour that adds a nice nuance to grilled fresh lake trout, salad dressings or even shortbread cookies. I prefer it as a simple infusion from a pinch of dried leaves on a cold winter night, to boost up my vitamin intake when fresh fruit is scarce.
- Wild roses/rosehips – To be honest, I’m not usually much of a jelly-syrup-and-jam-making person. Many people make jelly out of the wild rose leaf petals and no doubt it tastes fabulous. I just think adding a tonne of sugar and pectin to a natural ingredient, just to make it become spreadable, defies its purpose of being beneficial for your health. But, admittedly, I am a big fan of rosehip jam. The dark red fruits are best picked after the first frost and are sweet by nature and very rich in vitamin C. Containing natural pectin, you don’t have to add anything to make the jam become firm; just ensure the water to fruit paste ratio is well monitored. Yes, I do add sugar to it but you can sweeten the deal with honey, a natural sweetener, or orange or grapefruit juice.
A passionate outdoors person and ambitious about tourism and marketing, Sarah combined professional and leisure interests into one when she and her partner bought the Tagish Wilderness Lodge in the Canadian Yukon. There, Sarah takes her guests out for nature interpretive walks, sharing her passion and extensive knowledge about the boreal plants and wildlife.