Where the wild things grow

How to forage free meals in your BoCo 'hood' all year long

Goldan currant. Credit: Erica Davis

After a wet spring, some locals see only one thing in their neighborhood: More weeds. These invaders spring up overnight in backyards and cracks in driveways. The hard-to-kill nuisances need to be dug up or sprayed with Roundup. 

When Brigitte Mars walks suburban and city streets, she sees deliciousness. The “weeds” she collects are made into nettles potato soup, lilac ice cream and dandelion stem “noodles” tossed with garlic and olive oil. 

To the folks horrified at the thought of eating a weed, Mars asks: “What’s more local than making a salad from things that were still growing wild in your own backyard an hour ago?”

For 40 years, the Boulder-based herbalist and author of Dandelion Medicine: Forage, Feast and Nourish Yourself has shared her knowledge of native plants and remedies on KGNU and led wild food walks and classes. She’s hardly the only Coloradan noshing on found food.

“My uncle was interested in foraging, and he had that book Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons,” says Erica Davis, owner of Fairplay-based Wild Food Girl. “He would take me outdoors, and we would taste things and talk about them.” 

Today, Davis offers wild food forays and online classes in identifying local plants and mushrooms. She and Mars shared their top tips for foraging with Boulder Weekly.

Dandelion Medicine: Forage, Feast and Nourish Yourself

Look before you eat or pick

Whether you want to forage in the high country for fungi and pinon nuts or find greens growing near your home, foraging can be a scary proposition for newcomers. There are natural worries about what and where to pick and whether the plants are safe to taste, according to Mars and Davis.

There are many cultivated and wild plants growing in Colorado that can cause gastric distress and worse, so identification is crucial.

“Knowing how to identify plants keeps you from crawling through the poison ivy patch for the delicious morels that are often growing in there,” Davis says.  

“Poisonings can happen, but the people who poison themselves with wild plants and mushrooms are generally people who have not made an effort to identify what they’re putting in their mouth.” 

To make sure you know what you are picking, snap images and use an app like PictureThis, touted by its makers as 95% accurate. Always double check with a guidebook. Davis recommends Mountain States Foraging by Brianna Wiles for beginners. 

With mushrooms, going out with an experienced forager is advised. 

Purslane. Credit: Erica Davis

Where to harvest 

“Where you forage is critical,” Mars says. “You have to know the environment you’re eating out of and any chemicals it has been exposed to.” 

 The first place to look for edible plants is in your own backyard. “You’ll be surprised what is growing in your yard, your neighbors’ yards and in neighborhood alleys,” Mars says. 

Foraging is sustainable because most of the species are widespread and non-native plants, according to Davis.

“The first choice for foraging is private land with permission,” she says. “A lot of edible wild foods grow in [ecologically] disturbed locations, like a garden or around walkways.” 

Snagging a wild snack gets more complicated everywhere else in Colorado. Foraging regulations vary depending on the management agency. According to Davis, most state parks, national parks and forests and many open spaces do not allow foraging without limited permits.

“In many U.S. Forest Service jurisdictions, you are allowed to forage an incidental amount,” Davis says. “It’s designed for backpackers who want to pick things and add to their meals.” 

Naturally, people do sample as they walk through the many outdoor spaces. 

“If you’re in a park you won’t get a ticket for eating a plum or a berry,” Mars says, “but if a ranger saw you harvesting with a basket, they might think about it.”

For conservation’s sake, “you never want to take more than 10% of a plant in an area,” Mars says. “And you leave the root in the ground. You want to leave the biggest, tallest plants so its genetics can continue.”

When it comes to places to avoid, Mars says “you don’t want to collect anything within 50 feet of a busy road” because of the exhaust and runoff. Another area to watch out for due to pollution of a different sort: “You have to be cautious in people’s yards if there are dogs around.” 

Gregg Davis Lamb’s quarter. Credit: Gregg Davis

The tastiest invasive species 

The clear foraging favorite for June and beyond is lamb’s quarter, a form of wild spinach that proliferates around Boulder County. 

“It really amazes me that people will rip it out,” Mars says. “Then they go buy spinach that has been shipped from another state. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve made lamb’s quarters spanakopita and lasagna.

“We’re probably not going to buy lettuce again until November.” 

Davis likes her lamb’s quarter briefly boiled and drained to remove some of the bitterness. 

“For a salad green, I like purslane, a succulent that looks like a mini jade plant,” she says. “It’s very high in Omega-3s. Tumble mustard greens and pennycress are also great raw.” 

Sweet fruits always attract foraging folks, beasts and birds. “Wild currants, gooseberries and chokecherries all grow on shrubs,” Davis says.

Culinary Calendar: Wild Food & Fungi 

Brigitte Mars: Boulder herbalist leads classes and walks including a June 15 Urban Herb Walk in Boulder. brigittemars.com 

Wild Food Girl: Erica Davis offers in-person forays and online classes in identifying Colorado wild foods. wildfoodgirl.com

Eagle Mushroom & Wild Food Festival, August 9-11, Eagle. Nationally known wild food experts, forays, classes and a fungi feast. eaglemushroomfest.com

Words to Chew On: The virtues of weeds

“It is seldom the rare, exotic and beautiful plant that proves the most interesting; more often it is some common, familiar and despised weed that is discovered to have undreamed-of virtues.” — Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus

John Lehndorff grew up stalking wild blueberries in the Massachusetts woods. Comments: [email protected] 


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