Urban foraging: the wild chew yonder

Edible and medicinal plants can be found growing around metro area

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Most people would look at a backyard filled with weeds and see a problem. Kate Armstrong sees a feast.

Armstrong is an urban forager — someone versed in wild edible and medicinal plants of the urban environment. She leads nature walks and seminars that teach people a new way to look at the plants in their midst.

“People are astonished when they find out how much food is all around us,” Armstrong said. “Nature isn’t here to hurt us, it’s here to give us everything we need.”

Indeed, in the course of a short stroll through a Lakewood back yard, Armstrong pointed out dozens of plants growing in sidewalk cracks or along fences with uses ranging from salad greens to treating a toothache.

There are very few toxic plants in our region, Armstrong said. Most plants are technically edible, it’s just that most don’t taste very good.

For novice foragers, though, Armstrong recommends a few highly common — and highly tasty — plants that abound throughout the Denver area.

There’s purslane, a low-growing weed with thick leaves and meaty stems, which can be eaten raw in a salad, fried in stir-fry, used as a soup thickener, or pickled.

Also abundant is mallow, a round-leafed weed that also makes a good snack when eaten raw, but also provides chewy seedpods that Armstrong calls “cheeses.” The stems can be roasted and eaten like pretzel sticks, she said, and the bigger leaves can be used as mini-serving trays for hors d’oeuvres.

Lamb’s quarter grows in moist, disturbed soil, and produces leaves with a mild, lettuce-like taste. A single lamb’s quarter plant can provide months of salad greens by snipping off tender young leaves, Armstrong said.

Dandelion greens are best eaten raw, Armstrong said, and are excellent for detoxing the body.

Even bindweed, the bane of so many gardeners and lawn lovers, produces tiny white flowers with a delicate, floral taste that make an elegant garnish in a salad, Armstrong said.

Only a couple plants common in our region are poisonous, Armstrong said. One is hemlock, which grows in moist soil and produces spindly, wispy leaves that are hard to tell apart from carrot tops. The other is death camas, which looks similar to wild onion or wild garlic, but doesn’t have their characteristic savory odor.

A more common problem, Armstrong said, is herbicides and pesticides. Urban foragers should try to ensure that the place they’re gathering from hasn’t been sprayed to keep weeds and bugs down, she said. That’s easy in your own back yard, but when foraging along roadsides or other wilder places, a key is to watch out for areas with monocultures — where only one type of plant is abundant. That’s often a sign that sprays are in use.

The safest bet, Armstrong said, is to let your own yard go wild, which will also help it become a haven for pollinators and other wildlife.

“This can be a really fun hobby, and a great way to reconnect with nature,” Armstrong said. “And, who knows? If push comes to shove, it’s knowledge that could come in handy.”

Hit the trails

Beyond the back yard, Colorado provides all sorts of edible goodies, said Blake Burger, a horticulturist with the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Spruce tree tips are high in vitamin C, Burger said, and make a tasty tea, or an addition to herb butters or marinades for fish and chicken.

Currant berries are plentiful in the region, Burger said, and make delicious syrups and jams.

Rose hips, the pink or red seedpods left behind after the flower dies, are also high in vitamin C and make a distinctive sour, floral tea.

It’s important to harvest wild edibles ethically and consciously, Burger said. As a rule of thumb, try not to gather more than 10% from a single plant, or from a patch of plants.

Interest in wild edible plants is growing, Burger said. He leads the Denver Botanic Gardens’ new herbalism certificate program, which covers how to use a variety of wild and cultivated plants for health and medicine.

Burger, like Armstrong, is tied into the flourishing community of urban foragers in the Denver area. There’s a lot of activity in the subculture these days, Burger said, with classes around the metro area filling up quickly.

“I think people are starting to experience a shift in their vision, and are realizing natural is the way to go,” Burger said. “We’re starting to move past our diets of overly processed foods. It’s empowering to feed yourself or heal yourself from things in your landscape. These are things our ancestors knew, and they still work today.”

Do it right

While Burger and Armstrong said the best place to forage is on land you or someone you know owns, so you can be sure of herbicide use, it’s possible to forage in other environs.

There’s no specific rule against gathering wild edibles in most of the parks in the South Suburban Parks and Recreation District, said Skot Latona, who manages South Platte Park in Littleton. It’s against the rules to gather in South Platte Park itself, though.

While gathering a few berries or leaves isn’t going to get you busted, Latona said, “the behavior would be judged on observed damage to park property. Don’t go digging up roots, disturbing soil or removing entire species.”

Wild edibles are everywhere in South Suburban properties, said Victoria Sutton, an interpreter at South Platte Park, including wild asparagus, chokecherries and wild plums.

But, she said, consider your impact on your fellow animals when you forage, Sutton said.

“It’s fun to take a nibble here and there, but those plants can be a matter of life and death for wildlife in our area,” Sutton said. “Don’t go hauling basketfuls of material out of parks.”

Even for those not hitting the trails, there should be lots to munch on this year in back yards alone, Burger said.

“It was a wet spring, and plants are delayed in their growth, but strong” Burger said. “If you’re going to get into urban foraging, this is a good year for it.”

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