Beneath the Gardiner Expressway is probably the last place you would expect to find a bounty of delicious herbs. But that’s where the Gao family discovered a plant that they’d been picking for years in their native China: broom-grass.
Darwin would most certainly approve.
Zhengqi and Huipin Gao recently immigrated to Canada to live with their daughter, Yali, a research scientist at a nano-biotechnology company. They hadn’t seen any broom-grass in Toronto when they arrived here earlier in the year—likely a result of the manicuring of most Toronto parks. But then Yali’s mom spotted it growing on a large tract of land under the Gardiner, right next to Fort York. The Gaos have a theory on how this useful plant ended up underneath one of the city’s main traffic arteries: “It might be they have transported the soil from somewhere else just for the construction, and it contained the seeds,” says Yali, translating for Zhengqi and Huipin.
From the highway to the table.
Zhengqi and Huipin normally steam their broom-grass, and then use it as a filling for Chinese steamed buns with pork and soy sauce. Yali says that the versatile plant can basically be cooked any way you can think of. “It doesn’t have a strong flavour,” she says, comparing it to baby spinach. “It’s sweet in a very plain way.” Broom-grass, which was originally harvested by the poor in China as a cheap source of nutrition, has become a specialty food there. It’s particularly useful for people who need to introduce more roughage into their diet.
More than just food.
Broom-grass isn’t just a great-tasting steamed-bun stuffing, either. As the name suggests, the plant can actually be used as a broom. In the fall, when the plant has grown to about four feet tall and is no longer edible, the grass can be harvested a second time, then pruned into a fan shape, dried, and mounted on a bamboo pole.
Picking herbs and grasses in an urban setting is second nature to the Gaos, who did it for years in China. In addition to broom-grass, they also pick wild dandelions, a plant known for its medicinal benefits. Yali laughs at paying top dollar at health-food stores for some of the herbs her family picks for free. “Lots of people from China who are my parents’ age would know [where to find them],” she says. “It’s very common to pick wild grasses.”
Other edible wild plants in Toronto
Basswood trees: The leaves can be used for salads in spring and early summer.
Dandelions: The petals are full of vitamin C and the leaves are good for salads.
Garlic mustard: An invasive plant, but one whose leaves can add a garlicky flavour to salads.
Milkweed: Both the flower buds and the pods are edible, if you can get past the Alien vibe of the latter.